Adventist Women Question
GC President on Sensitive Issues
Jan Paulsen discusses abuse, AIDS, poverty, and leadership
with women in three continents via a live satellite event.
BY SANDRA BLACKMER, news editor of Adventist Review
n a “history-making event,” Adventist world church president Jan Paulsen spoke with women in Britain, South Africa, and the United States on December 14 via a live Hope Channel satellite program from the church’s headquarters in Silver Springs, Maryland. Addressing issues of concern to women—poverty, HIV and AIDS, abuse, and the lack of female leadership in the church—Paulsen said one impetus for the program was his visits to many churches throughout the world: “Whichever church I walk into on the Sabbath I find that the majority of the people present are women, and women are important members of our spiritual community.” He added, “I want to hear the concerns that you have, the things you feel strongly about in our church, and for you to have an opportunity to talk to the church globally, because you’re not just talking to me.”
|TALKING WITH WOMEN: GC president Jan Paulsen discusses issues of concern with women in three continents. [Reger Smith]]
Leading with the issue of poverty, described by participants as an everyday reality in the United States and most other regions of the world, the financial plight of the growing number of women who are single parents was emphasized. “I see our churches doing very little on a daily basis [to help them],” one woman said. “A participant from London, England, also raised the question of the church’s role in aiding those who may be illegal immigrants, who, she said, are arriving in large numbers in the United Kingdom.
“The church has to be a ministry community, whatever the situation. You don’t first ask all the details about a person’s background before you care for them,” Paulsen said. “You minister to them because they are human beings in need. . . . The church must first and foremost be a community through which Christ extends salvation and recovery and healing and support.”
HIV and AIDS
Several of the women participants shared their passion for the crucial role the Adventist Church should play in meeting the needs of the estimated 40 million people worldwide who are living with HIV and AIDS.
“This is a very big issue, particularly on the African continent, which affects our church as much as it affects the community in general,” Paulsen said. “On a very limited scale we can deal with the medical issues involved, but that has to be tied to [the hospitals]. We [also] teach the community what they need to know about lifestyles, and values that they need to accept and adopt, in order to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.”
He added that the church “has a very solemn responsibility to be a haven of rescue and recovery” for those living with HIV and AIDS, including “people in our own churches who may carry the virus. . . . The church must acknowledge the human value of everyone, whatever their disease and whatever their unfortunate circumstances.”
Paulsen explained that Adventist churches in Africa are being trained to serve as “healing centers” to offer support, encouragement, and care. He also noted that the church has established an office in Johannesburg, South Africa, “specifically to address the challenges of HIV and AIDS”—the General Conference HIV-AIDS International Ministry, headed by Oscar and Eugenia Giordano.
He said that church members also need to ask themselves, “What do you plan to do in your country and in your part of the world?” because many issues must be resolved locally.
“We can all agree that abuse is wrong, but simply saying it is wrong doesn’t begin to solve the issue, does it?” program host Liliana Henao asked the president.
|“WHAT’S ON YOUR MIND?”: The first-ever “Time to Talk” with women event was uplinked from the church world headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. [Reger Smith]
Paulsen agreed, but added, “It is important, though, that we say it. It is very important that the church speaks very clearly that we do not condone abuse—that we find it reprehensible and absolutely evil for somebody to abuse somebody else.”
A psychologist from Cape Town declared that in Africa “a lot of abuse is happening in the church, particularly with pastors’ wives. What I have discovered is that these women feel trapped because they can’t talk about it. They feel embarrassed because this is not supposed to be happening in their homes. What is the world church doing . . . to alleviate this problem in the church?”
Paulsen said the global church must make a clear statement that it abhors abuse, but that the local conferences and churches “must address the realities of life in your church.” He added that the church “must not offer protection even to men in our own employ—ministers—abusing the trust that is placed in them by abusing their own wives and children.” This is the responsibility of the church at each church level, he said.
Discussing the theology of “forgiving and forgetting,” Paulsen stated that “the worst thing that can happen is for the church to side with the abuser and fail to give the support and comfort and strength and help to the one who is being abused. Just simply to say ‘forgive and get on with life’ will drive that person into a much deeper emotional problem.”
He later added that the church at the global level thoroughly checks the background of employees whom they move from one world region to another. “We don’t move people who we know carry with them baggage of some sort that has disqualified them [from serving] in one part of the world. We don’t just move them from one part of the world to another,” he reiterated. Regarding the moving of employees at local church levels, Paulsen noted that the world headquarters is “not set up to monitor this. What does your conference do? Does your conference move a pastor from one church to another because some sort of unacceptable behavior is being experienced in that church?” he asked. “If a pastor has disqualified himself from service in that particular church, I suspect he has disqualified himself from ministry. Fire him.”
Making the church a safe place where women can be open about abuse and receive help was underscored. Paulsen added, however, that charges being leveled must be substantiated so “destructive rumors are not started.”
Women in Leadership
Women’s ordination triggered much animated discussion during the program, with Paulsen emphasizing the need to “move together as a church on this matter.” The proposal to ordain women as pastors was voted down in both the 1990 and 1995 General Conference sessions. He acknowledged that extending ministerial ordination to women has been a “difficult issue,” and that “cultural values and differences play a large role.”
|ASKING THE TOUGH QUESTIONS: Women from Britain, South Africa, and the United States were involved in the program. [Reger Smith]
Noting that women make up 70 percent of the church membership, one woman asked, “What is your plan to change the paradigm in regards to the [gender] imbalance we find in leadership, particularly in our local church?”
Paulsen reminded the audience of the election of Ella Simmons in 2005 as the first female vice president of the Adventist Church, as well as the election of women to other key roles in global church leadership. “I hope we are sending a signal to the church elsewhere at local levels,” he said. “Please look at the many professional women of great competence that you have in your areas. Use them.”
Women expressed concern that the current church structure hinders the empowerment of women, and that young women are not being encouraged as they should be to fill leadership roles.
Paulsen acknowledged that the ordained ministry is the largest group of individuals “from which we draw leaders; so this is a disadvantage,” but added, “I want to encourage you to be stronger about making yourself available and becoming a spokesperson for [these issues]. The Lord has gifted women with many, many skills, and it’s important that they be allowed to grow into the life of the church.”
“As far as the local congregation is concerned, you have many choices regarding the selection of your own leadership,” Paulsen said. “You also have power in the selection of delegates that go to the constituency session of the conference you are a part of. You have a voice here—you can make choices that can impact [the church].”
After the program concluded, several of the women participants commented that “A Time to Talk” was a good start to what they hope will be more open dialogue with church leadership. One person suggested that similar events should be held on local conference and union levels.