March 2, 2006

Days of Decision

On July 3, 2005, delegates to the fifty-eighth General Conference session of the world church elected Ella Smith Simmons as the first female vice president of the General Conference in the church’s 142-year history. She spoke recently with Adventist Review associate editor Bill Knott about that historic decision.


KNOTT: Tell me about that day when you began to understand the momentous event you would be involved in at the General Conference session.


SIMMONS: I became aware that my name might be placed in nomination only shortly before going to the GC session in mid-June. I was in St. Louis because for the past five years I’ve been a member of the General Conference Executive Committee. I was a delegate; I was there doing my job, not for any other purpose.

My husband and I had recently made a decision to slow down a bit, return to our roots in Louisville, and get more involved in our local congregation and community. He’s already retired, and I thought, Well, I’ve been going full speed with my career for so many years. I need to find a way to slow down. We took some time just to reflect on our lives, and to reconnect with family and friends.

When I heard of the possibility that my name might come up, my response was, “Of course, I’ll do whatever the Lord says to do.” But I have to say--and this is more of a confession--while I did not laugh in my heart or openly as Sarah did, I doubted. I certainly didn’t expect it to happen.


KNOTT: So you went to St. Louis with no real expectation of being elected to this role?


SIMMONS: I really had none. I attended the session meetings faithfully--used my yellow card to vote on items with the other delegates. At the session my husband and I began talking casually about the possibility. We agreed that it would be a good thing for the church if the discussion about women in leadership could get started, and that if I could be instrumental in that way, that would be a major contribution to the church.

By Sabbath I got word that my name would be placed before the Nominating Committee. That was the day my husband--who had so much wanted me to slow down--turned to me and said, “You know, if this should come, you have to do it, because it would surely be from the Lord. And if you do not, you can never speak out against injustice ever again.” That was the defining moment in this whole experience. Something gripped my heart, and I said, “You’re right.” For years I had been telling young people, “Don’t drop out. Stay in the system, and work for appropriate change.” My words just flooded back over me that day.


KNOTT: What did you think would happen when the matter came to the session floor?


SIMMONS: The next day while I was sitting in the delegate section I was told that my name was coming out of the Nominating Committee. I thought, Lord, what are You doing? This is really going to create discussion! I started working on myself, telling myself that whatever painful or ugly things might be said in the discussion, I would not take them personally. “It’s not about you,” I kept rehearsing to myself. “These are just the pains of change. We need this conversation so that we know who we are as a people, and so that we can grow as God wants us to grow.”

I was taken to the back of the platform and told to sit there: someone evidently had more faith than I did. When my name was put in nomination, I just exhaled and waited for the barrage of painful words. But the next thing I knew, the motion was seconded; there was a call for “question on the motion”; and I saw the yellow cards going up all over the stadium.

We didn’t have an hour-long debate on gender equity, or women’s rights, or God’s plans and rules for church leadership. It was as if the hands of God just waved over that crowd. I was just the tool, the instrument. God was doing something there for His people, and it was truly humbling to be part of it.