Adventist Review assistant editor Bonita Joyner Shields interviews Heather-Dawn Small, the General Conference Women’s Ministry director, about her work, the needs of women around the world, and an upcoming dialogue between Adventist women and Jan Paulsen, General Conference president.
BJS: What are your responsibilities as General Conference Women’s Ministries director?
HDS: My responsibilities are varied. One of my primary responsibilities is to encourage women, to motivate them, and to give them a vision of the future, and what it is that God wants to do through us. Another is to show them Jesus in the work that we do. Also to make sure that they have the resources they need to carry out their jobs as women’s ministries leaders, and as women in the church.
What are you giving them a vision to accomplish?
When the quinquennium started, I was strongly impressed that we needed a theme, and the women needed a vision with which to bring all their various ministries together. And the one that I believe that God has given us is linked to our General Conference theme, “Tell the World.” Our theme is “Touch a Heart, Tell the World.” It keeps us focused. We are combining ministry with evangelism so that every woman will be involved in the entire outreach ministry, as opposed to just those who preach. We are doing this using the six critical issues that we identified in women’s ministries since the department started: literacy, abuse, poverty, women’s workload, women’s health risks, and lack of leadership and leadership training, which includes mentoring.
How does your department impact women affected by any one of these six critical areas of need?
One thing we’ve done is to print a series of six brochures—one for each issue. We are trying to give women a global perspective of these problems. We want them to understand that these are not merely Third World problems; they’re world problems. And we have given the materials to the women’s ministries directors in such a way that they can change the text to reflect what is happening in their part of the world, so that the women become aware of these needs in their country, community, or village. If they then become aware of poverty in their area, for example, then that is what should guide them in their ministries.
Let’s focus on one critical issue: abuse. If I am a female church member and in an abusive situation, what is women’s ministries doing for me?
One of the things that we hope women’s ministries will do for you is to give you a safe place. Because of our Abuse Prevention Emphasis Day and all the material created for that day, we hope that women will know that this is an issue that women’s ministries, family ministries, and health ministries believe is important. We’ve taken the lid off it and, therefore, hope that it will give our sisters who are hurting the freedom to go to another sister in the church for help. I believe the important thing is to give our sisters the feeling and the knowledge that church can be a safe place for them. And that someone will listen to them.
Do you think that the world church administration is listening to the voices of women? If so, what are some ways that you see that in action? If not, what do you think can be done?
I have to say that having grown up in this church and having observed it over the years, I do believe that our church is listening to us now. As a young woman I didn’t think that I had a voice. I didn’t think that I had a right to open my mouth. But when I became a pastor’s wife, I realized that there were issues that women were being affected by that the pastor needed to know about. So I would keep my pastor husband informed. Then I realized that it wasn’t just in one little church, because as we went from one place to the next, similar problems arose.
When I got into women’s ministries back in 1996, it was affirming to me that women had a voice. This department is important because it gives women a voice at every level of the church structure. There are still parts of the world where women’s ministries at the conference and union level have no voice and no vote. Here at the General Conference I believe that women are being heard. Change takes time—and that can be frustrating. But when you consider the makeup of the church, and that the majority are women, we really should have a greater voice than we have now. But I’m glad for the voice we have now because it means that change has happened. And if change has happened, then that means it can continue to happen.
Pastor Jan Paulsen is planning to conduct a talk session with the women of the world church soon. He has titled this session “Time to Talk.” I like that name because it really is time to talk. Women will have the opportunity to ask him questions, as well as to hear the vision he has for us.
Pastor Paulsen has asked women’s ministries to help facilitate this event, although the Communication Department is spearheading it. It will be held here at the General Conference on December 14, 2006, at 2:00 in the afternoon. There will be two uplink sites: South Africa and England. We will have a group of eight women at each site. We are working toward having these groups comprise a good cross section of women.
We will be looking at four global issues that affect women: abuse, poverty, leadership opportunities and training, and health risks for women. The questions will not be given ahead of time, so this will be a true dialogue between Pastor Paulsen and the women of the church.
What is your desired outcome for “Time to Talk”?
Top of my list is change. I am hoping that after Pastor Paulsen hears the women of the church, and sees their faces, the impact will trickle down from him to those with whom he speaks—division presidents, union and conference personnel, etc. And wherever he goes, that what he has heard from the housewife, the young college student, the grandmother, the retired woman, the doctor, the woman who works in the pharmacy will be near the top of his agenda. And I am hoping he realizes that no matter what part of the world these women come from, no matter what their status in society, the issues are the same.
Do you see the value of women rising within the church?
Yes and no. It depends on what part of the world church you go to. I used to think that the reason women were not being placed more in leadership positions was dependent on culture. That view has been completely shattered. As I have traveled in the cultures where I least expect women to be in the position of pastors, for example, that’s where I’m finding them. And it’s in the countries where I expect to find them in leadership positions that I don’t find them.
My other concern is that women’s spiritual giftedness is still undervalued. And in many cases that doesn’t have to do with culture; it has to do with mind-set.
Centuries ago when babies were born, they were wrapped in swaddling cloth because they said that it would help to strengthen their legs. Thus, the babies were constricted. For many centuries women have been wrapped tightly in that same swaddling cloth. When I look at the mission of the church, and what God has called us as a church to do, and then I look at my sisters and what God has given them the ability to do and what they could do, it’s almost as though we are slowing down the Lord’s coming. It’s not as though no one is doing anything. If we could just remove the swaddling cloth entirely and change our mind-set, we’d be in heaven before you know it!
What issues top the agenda for the women of the Adventist Church? What challenges do they face? What is their vision for the church of tomorrow? Adventist women from many different walks of life will have the opportunity to put their comments and questions to world church president Pastor Jan Paulsen during “Time to Talk”—a one-hour, unscripted dialogue that will be broadcast live by the Hope Channel on December 14, 2006.