Women’s Empowerment Key
to Church Culture Shift
Women now serve as local church elders in Southern Mexico
BY ANSEL OLIVER, Assistant Director for News, General Confernce of Seventh-day Adventists,
reporting from Juarez, Chiapas, Mexico
ender may keep an estimated 70 percent of the Seventh-day Adventist world church's membership out of certain church leadership positions, but here in Southern Mexico altering that tradition is transforming some congregations.
Though they're not ordained, many women serve as elders in their local church -- an act church leaders say wouldn't have been possible here a decade ago.
While the creation of Women's Ministries in some local Adventist churches has granted women the opportunity for leadership and self-development, church leaders say they've noticed other changes often accompany the addition of the new ministry.
"This church didn't used to be so friendly," says Rocio Perez, a member of the Juarez Central Adventist Church. "Members were detached and didn't seem to care for each other; but now they feel more connected. There's more care and concern."
A key factor is overcoming the prevalent shyness in the local culture. "It's been common in our churches for the adult women not to speak in public," says Marbella Ascencio, 38, one of three elders at the church. Women leaders address the issue at weekly regional prayer breakfasts, leading Bible studies of stories in which women played a role in church leadership.
CULTURAL ENHANCEMENT: Lupita Arenas, right, Women's Ministries director for the Adventist church in North Chiapas, says giving women leadership opportunities not only gives them self-confidence, but enhances the church culture as well. Her goal is to help women in the region, once marginalized, become aware of their importance in church life.
"We've seen a change," Ascencio says. "We now see a more dedicated group of women."
Sarepta Myranda Irish Henry originally launched Women’s Ministries at the Adventist world church’s headquarters in 1898. She died two years later and the department fizzled out. The world church revived the ministry in 1995. Church leaders in this part of Mexico say they began to notice its effects soon afterward.
Lupita Arenas, Women's Ministries director for the church in North Chiapas, says men in church now see women in a different way. "They are now aware that these [women] are able to lead and to teach," she says. "We have to accept that God has a purpose for us. What we're trying to do is make women aware of their importance and they're value and to exercise that leadership."
Arenas says the ministry also helps women enroll in literacy programs. The illiteracy rate is about 20 percent of the local population, even higher among women, she says.
Central Juarez Adventist Church member Nelly del Carmen Gomez, 53, says most women in the area are marginalized because many are required to work at home, making education impossible even if there's a school next door. "When I was six years old I was fully involved in work at my house," Gomez recalls. Now she encourages other women to take advantage of available education. "Getting a diploma is a way of affirming your self esteem and growing as a person."
Dulce Valdez is a living witness of what Women's Ministries is doing for Adventist churches. Originally from Sonora in Northwestern Mexico, she came to Chiapas to support her husband. "When they asked me to be a leader I was surprised," she says, recalling that she didn't have much experience.
Valdez now organizes 300 women every month for Women's Ministries.
"You're working even harder than your husband," Arenas, the regional Women's Ministries leader tells her.
-- additional reporting by Raul Lozano