The church’s president shares his views on women in ministry with Adventist World assistant editor Kimberly Luste Maran.
Maran: Many estimates suggest that 70 percent of the membership of the Seventh-dayAdventistChurch is female. Do you think the world church adequately acknowledges the contributions of women in its overall mission?
Paulsen: No, I don’t think so. The \work of women in our church is more extensive in some cultures and in some parts of our world than in others. It may surprise many, but in Africa, for example, there is a huge engagement of women in ministry. They run evangelistic series and are publicly engaged on a large scale—in community services, in the teaching profession, and in proclaiming the Word.
A women's ministry team in India operates a literacy class for other women. This is only one of the services Adventist women in India provide. Photo: GLOBAL MISSION
Would you say the traditional roles assigned to women have at times relegated them to bystander status? And if so, what would you see as a more egalitarian approach in church?
You know, none of us can step fully out of our culture. And it isn’t very helpful for me, from a Western perspective, to look at another culture and to prescribe how they should address these issues. In the church, everyone has to ask himself or herself, “How can I most faithfully serve God where I am? How can that best be expressed here?”
I accept there are some cultures in which women are not trusted with the same responsibilities as in other parts of the world. It’s a cultural issue, and it will also affect the church. But I think the church should be a mover—even in these places—to lift the value of women. The church can and should be at the forefront of encouraging society to trust women with greater responsibilities and leadership.
That leads me to the next question. Should the church consider some method to ensure that women are more proportionally represented in church structure and leadership in ministry?
I understand what you are asking, and I want to remind you that some of these processes are slow. As you know, at the 2005 General Conference session in St. Louis we brought three women into officer positions here at the General Conference. It was done deliberately, with the intention to make a statement. But at the same time we made sure that the ones who were brought in weren’t merely symbolic individuals. They are professionals who are every bit as competent as a male counterpart would be for the tasks they are entrusted with.
On the boards of our educational and health care institutions we have, generally speaking, a good representation of women. Where we are very short of female representation is on boards and committees of the church structures: the General Conference Executive Committee and the conference and division executive committees.
Improvement will come only if we are proactive. It’s not always easy to find available individuals—women who have had some experience in a leadership role in a decision-making forum of the church and who also have the time available to attend meetings. I have said many times to my colleagues in leadership around the world that we have to make a special effort. There are women, probably a considerable number of them, who are saying, “Look, I’m a professional person. I have my work, but I also want to do this. I’m prepared to make that personal sacrifice in order to be involved in a forum that makes key decisions for the church.” We need to be focused about finding these people. It’s not going to happen by itself.
At the Orion Seventh-day Adventist Church in Moscow, Russia, an 18-year old woman teaches Sabbath school. Photo: RAJMUND DABROWSKI
Your recent conversation with women—“Time to Talk”—which was broadcast on the Hope Channel, has prompted a number of responses from our readers. One reader from Nigeria, for example, is excited about the possibilities opening up in his church for women in ministry.
I’m delighted when I hear that mind-sets are changing and new opportunities are opening up for women. Many years ago while I was president of Newbold College, a woman—a staff member—preached at the college church. She preached a wonderful message. One of the men who shook my hand at the door as I went out, said, “How could you sit there and let her, as a woman, preach?”
This mind-set is changing in our church. Women are gifted and have capabilities that should flow into the various ministries of the church. Let us discover how the Spirit is leading them.
A second letter describes an experience that saddened our reader. He recounts a recent decision at his church in North America to exclude women from saying prayer during the worship service.
That is unacceptable. It does not reflect the view held by the wider church. You don’t have to be elected to a position to lead out, or to pray, or to announce the hymn, or to receive the offering. There is also no teaching of the church that should prevent a woman from being elected into a leadership role in the local church. In many churches, as you know, we have women who are elected elders. They do a wonderful job, and why should they not? This goes back many years. In the small church in north Norway where I grew up, 50 to 60 years ago, we had a woman as elder at the local church, and we had a woman as the only elder in the local church. It works. It works well.
What should the church be saying to its female members, particularly about the opportunities to serve in leadership roles, for which the Spirit has given women gifts?
The church should encourage women to make professional ch-oices that will lead them into some areas of service or ministry. I know the fullest kind of recognition to pastoral ministry—ordination—is a direction the church has said, on at least two different occasions when we have met together as a world body, “This is not the way we can go now.” But I would still encourage women to train for ministry. There is a wide spectrum of ministries open to women: in the local church pastorate, in evangelism, and in a variety of educational and institutional services.
In many cultures women are already employed to a considerable extent in local pastoral ministry. And when they are employed in this capacity, we don’t intend to differentiate in pay—they carry the responsibility of the church pastor and they are to be paid as the church pastor.
As a college teacher, 30 to 35 years ago, I was privileged to teach women who were preparing for the ministry. My own niece trained as a minister. She has a young family now and that, in some ways, impacts how she is able to function. But for several years she was the pastor of a local church. I have heard her preach and have been blessed by the wonderful way in which she communicates.
So I would say to women, get professional qualification, let the Spirit flow through you and your talents, energies, and creative initiatives, and let the church benefit from your calling and your skills.