The Mid-America Union Conference Executive Committee voted on Nov. 16, 2018, to place on its agenda for the MAUC Constituency Session in 2021 the topic of ordination without regard to gender. Therefore, on Sept. 12, 2021, delegates considered the topic of pastoral credentialing and voted 82 percent in favor of approving ordination for women pastors serving in conferences in Mid-America territory if a conference requests it.  

Because there is some misinformation and misunderstanding, this interview between OUTLOOK editor Brenda Dickerson and MAUC president Gary Thurber reviews the history, states facts, and takes an honest, in-depth look at this topic that has in the past been emotionally laden and divisive. 

OUTLOOK: When did MAUC start talking about ordaining women pastors?

Gary Thurber: The MAUC Executive Committee was the first union in the North American Division to vote regarding ordination without regard to gender during its March 8, 2012 meeting. The motion stated: “It is voted to support the ordination of women in the Mid-America Union” and it passed unanimously.

However, at that time, the union was not ready to move forward with the practice of ordaining women. Nine years later, on September 12, 2021, after having continued to only ordain male pastors and commission female pastors, delegates to the union’s regularly-called constituency session voted to recognize the right and responsibility of each local conference to recommend to the union the names their conference executive committee chooses for ordination.

Ordination Explained

What exactly is pastoral ordination? 

The General Conference Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) defines pastoral ordination this way:

“Ordination is a formal acknowledgment and authentication of one’s call to service ministry by God. Authentication should be understood as ratifying what only God can dispense. Ordination neither supersedes God’s call nor enhances it. Ordination affirms the genuineness of the call as having borne the proper fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work. God initiates the call and equips the recipient for enacting it. God’s person accepts the call. God’s people affirm the call.” 

How does the ordination process work for an Adventist pastor?

When an appropriate amount of time has gone by (normally around four years), a candidate’s name is taken to an ordination review committee set up by the conference to review the pastor’s ministry journey. When criteria is determined to have been met, the ordination review committee then recommends the pastor’s name to the conference executive committee, which then votes to send the name to the union executive committee for further review and a final official vote. If approved, an ordination service is scheduled for the pastor.

History of Adventist Ordination

Let’s look at our Adventist history. What did early church pioneers do? 

It is not refuted that women functioned as pastors in the early stages of our church, regardless of the titles they were given. Both men and women pastors and evangelists received ministerial credentials, including our church co-founder Ellen G. White.

Women served as leaders in local churches, as evangelists, and also held many leadership positions in the church until around 1920 when women leaders pretty much disappeared from leadership. To see a timeline of women in ministry and leadership in the Adventist Church, read this recent Adventist Review article.

Then what happened? 

Women in the role of pastors largely went away for a number of decades. According to church historians such as George Knight, around the beginning of the 20th century, the church began to experience unrest as a result of what was happening in society. Church leaders were fearful of the popular “women’s liberty” movement that aimed to allow women to vote, own property separately from their husbands, and work outside the home. So, after Ellen White’s death, they began to distance the church from the idea of equal rights for women by no longer granting ministerial credentials to female church workers and excluding women from leadership positions.

When did women pastors start to reappear in North America? 

In the 1970s we started seeing more women being called to pastoral positions. In the 1980s the world church affirmed women could occupy pastoral positions.

Some people refer to the GC Session vote in 2015 in San Antonio and ask why we’re still talking about women’s ordination when “it was voted down again.” 

While the GC has never voted a theology of ordination, in 1990 the GC delegates in session, in Indianapolis, voted “not to ordain women at this time” by over 90 percent. In 1995, at Utrecht in the Netherlands, GC delegates in session voted divisions could not decide to ordain women in their territory by 76 percent of the vote. In 2015 in San Antonio, GC delegates in session voted 58 percent not to support divisions deciding on women’s ordination for their territory. The issue of women’s ordination is dynamic and fluid in the Adventist Church. The fact that we continue to revisit this subject says that as a body we still have more to study and dialogue about moving forward.

Because this is not an issue of official doctrine of the church, as a policy it should be visited when necessary to make sure the policy is not hindering mission.

How does TOSC factor into all this? 

In 2010, the GC TOSC was created and tasked with gathering input from the 13 divisions of the World Church. TOSC spent over two years conducting Bible study and examining the materials sent from each division. In 2014, when the TOSC presented its findings to the GC Annual Council, the 106 committee members were divided fairly evenly into three groups representing three positions: 1) that the Bible forbids the ordination of women, 2) that there is no biblical mandate to forbid the ordination of women, and 3) that while there is a biblical principle of male leadership, the church should move ahead with the ordination of women to the gospel ministry where appropriate.

In a straw vote of the TOSC members, 62 voted either for position 2 or 3 while 32 voted for the first position. Thus roughly 2/3rds did not see a biblical roadblock to ordaining women.

Authority of the GC and Unions

What happened in 1903 regarding church structure? 

The unions were established as a buffer between local conferences and the GC. The GC and the divisions are united legal entities. However, the unions and the conferences are separate legal entities from the GC and each other, and as such have authority to vote their own constitutions and bylaws.

Have other policies been voted that didn’t work well in certain times and places and aren’t being followed by the majority today?

Yes. One example is term limits (tenure of office), which was voted during the GC Autumn Council held in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1931. According to the Adventist Review, this policy “died by neglect.” Today some conferences follow term limits and some do not. And there are other variances around the World Church.

What This Vote Means and Why it Matters 

Some members may be asking, Who really wanted this topic brought to the MAUC Constituency Session?

Please know not one female pastor in our territory requested that we discuss ordination. The request did not come from the North American Division, the union administration, or the conference presidents. It came primarily from two places: the male pastors who have witnessed their female counterparts calling, and lay members who have spoken up, wanting change. At their constituency meeting, in April 2021, the Central States Conference delegates voted in session by a margin of 83 percent to ask the union to consider ordaining their female pastors. In addition, the Kansas-Nebraska and Dakota conferences’ executive committees each voted to request women’s ordination be included in the 2021 MAUC Constituency Session agenda.

The MAUC Executive Committee voted to place this item on the agenda to determine the constituents’ support of equal credentialing of male and female pastors as a recognition of God’s calling in their lives, a desire to eliminate discrimination, and to advance mission in our territory.

Does every conference in our union need to ordain women now?

No. Local conference executive committees choose the names to bring to the MAUC executive committee and whether the individual is being recommended for ordination or commissioning. Unions vote whether to approve ordinations, but conferences, as the employer, grant the credentials. It will always be up to the local conference how they would like their female pastors to be credentialed.

But in doing this aren’t we ignoring the vote of the world church?

Our delegates don’t have the authority to change that vote. They do have the authority to vote a variance for our territory at a regularly called constituency meeting, which is what happened on Sept. 12, 2021.

What will happen with credentialing the women pastors who have already been commissioned?

The vote taken at the MAUC Session was that conferences have the authority to decide which credential to issue their female pastors. The female pastors must have gone through the rigor of the established ordination process.

Will this variance lead to other policy disagreements with the world church?

Not likely, since it would take another duly-called constituency session to vote a variance. To date, the other two unions in the North American Division (Columbia Union and Pacific Union) which have ordained women for nearly a decade have not varied from GC policy in other areas, and I don’t believe MAUC will be any different.