North American Division Retreat Connects Women Clergy in Ministry

Event explores connections to the past, present, and future of ministerial service.

Christelle Agboka, North American Division, and Adventist Review
North American Division Retreat Connects Women Clergy in Ministry
At the NAD’s Women’s Clergy Retreat, held in Gaithersburg, Maryland, the praise team, led by Lola Moore Johnston, senior pastor of Restoration Praise Center, highlighted the event’s theme, “Connected: Together in Ministry.” [Photo: Glendon Hines, North American Division]

On the last day of the 2023 North American Division (NAD) Women’s Clergy Retreat, attendees held hands and sang with gusto the theme song, “I Need You to Survive.” Approximately 200 of the division’s 350 women clergy serving as pastors, chaplains, administrators, professors, and departmental leaders had converged in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in October for a time of refreshing, equipping, and connection.

Themed “Connected: Together in Ministry,” the retreat emphasized connection to the past, to one another, and to the Word through inspirational messages, uplifting worship, breakout sessions, community service, and a 24-hour prayer room that included group prayer sessions. Held during Clergy Appreciation Month, the retreat also recognized God’s call on these women’s lives.

“I began pastoring in 1980, and when we had a women’s clergy conference, there were typically [a few] tables of women. But you are a host [of women],” Esther R. Knott, NAD associate ministerial director, said to the attendees. “And God cares so much for you.”

The event also served as a bittersweet goodbye for Heather Crews, then-associate director of the NAD’s ministerial association and chair of the NAD women’s clergy advisory, who planned the retreat with help from a committee composed of NAD leaders and representatives from every union. Crews is now serving as the first female associate director of the North American Division Evangelism Institute. Reflecting on the event, Crews said, “It was designed to be a place where we could be in a room surrounded by other women clergy in each of our positions and focus on the One who called us. And I think we met our goal.”

Connected to the Past

On day one, Michael Campbell, director of NAD Archives, Statistics, and Research offered a historical perspective on women’s contributions to the Seventh-day Adventist Church in a message titled “I Got My Commission from Jesus.” He shared that despite constraints, including the cult of domesticity, fundamentalism, and unequal pay, women served faithfully as evangelists and pastors, writers and editors, social reformers, pioneer missionaries, physicians, educators, and more.

A standout story was that of Minnie Day Sype, who began ministry when her neighbors asked her to share about Jesus. Eventually, she raised several churches, drawing the attention of her local conference, which then began to give her a paycheck. When facing criticism from a male pastor, she asserted, “I got my commission from Jesus Himself.”

“God calls women, and He wants to use the women in this room,” Campbell concluded.

Campbell was among the many NAD leaders, men and women, who showed their support by presenting or participating. “I felt supported on so many levels,” said Cathy Ward, lay pastor at College View Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry student.

Connected to One Another

The retreat underscored that women clergy do not need to tackle their challenges alone. A stronger community emerged as women clergy exchanged stories, ministry ideas, scriptural guidance, tears, hugs, and prayers with new and old friends.

“There is power in gathering with people who understand your journey,” Ivan Williams, former NAD Ministerial Association director, stressed in his opening remarks. He also encouraged the women, “We see you. God sees you. And may you see each other as you serve Him faithfully.”

Jillian Lutes, associate pastor for youth of West Covina Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church in California, who has been attending these retreats since the inaugural event in 2012, stated, “It’s been a rich time. I’ve been impressed by the resilience of the older generation that came before me. I’ve also been deeply impressed by the perseverance of those working in less supportive conferences [than mine].”

Breakouts offered more opportunities to grow together. Several sessions highlighted wellness, including one featuring individual and group reflection, another on movement, group counseling with a licensed professional counselor, and sessions on conflict resolution and setting boundaries. Other bonding moments included an open mic/games night and creating care packages with personal items and love notes for a women’s shelter, led by Joanne Cortes, pastor of the Beltsville Seventh-day Adventist Church, D.C. Campus, and her team.

In addition to the breakouts, coaching offered by Karen Cress, president of Culture Shift, helped equip attendees to serve one another as coaches — one of Crews’ primary goals while serving women clergy across the division.

Attendees such as Tammie Lindsey, associate pastor of Berean Seventh-day Adventist Church, who entered pastoral ministry a decade ago after answering God’s call while working as a lawyer, appreciated these efforts to offer tools and support to women clergy. “Pastoring is very lonely, especially for women. As women, no matter our cultural background, we understand suffering and marginalization and still doing what God has called us to do. Coming here reminds you, I’m doing what God asked. I’m where I’m supposed to be. And God is working and moving.”

Connected to the Word

Elizabeth Talbot, speaker/director for the Jesus 101 Biblical Institute and a pastor, was one of two speakers delving deeply into being connected to God’s Word as the source of calling and strength to carry out that calling. She presented four distinctive portraits of Jesus in the gospels: Matthew — His power, represented by His resurrection; Mark — His redemption and the fact that He calls us by name; Luke — His plan of salvation for all; and John — the reality that Jesus is God. Among Talbot’s many “juicy” revelations from the gospel was, “When He was raised from the dead, the angel not only rolled away the stone but [also] sat on it, showing full authority.” Ultimately, she wanted to illustrate that the multi-faceted Jesus “fulfills every need.”

G. Alexander Bryant, NAD president, began the concluding message at the retreat by sharing, “I just wanted to say on behalf of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, thank you for your ministry. We have a debt of gratitude for your service.” He offered his endorsement on behalf of NAD leadership and apologized for the extra burdens women carry in ministry. He then delivered a powerful retelling of the resurrection story, focusing on Mary and the women going to the tomb Sunday morning to anoint Jesus’ body. Initially, Mary thought the body had been stolen and reported it to Peter and John, who came to inspect, then retreated to the upper room. She stayed behind, weeping, and was approached first by two angels, then Jesus, who inquired, “Woman, why weepest thou?” (John 20:15, KJV).

Mary did not recognize Jesus until He called her name. Then, she responded joyfully, “Rabboni!” (“Master”). Bryant underscored that Mary was the only witness to Jesus’ resurrection before He went to heaven. “There’s no happenstance with God. He wanted Mary to break the news. Not John. Not James. Not Bartholomew. Not Thomas. He was sending a message that her ministry mattered. God cared for Mary’s ministry. And God cares for your ministry.” He added that, like Mary, we often get so caught up in the “accoutrements of ministry” that we fail to connect with God, and he urged participants to keep their focus upward. “God has called you, my sisters, to ministry, maybe swimming upstream, but if you’ve got God’s endorsement, that’s all you need.”

The original version of this story was posted on the North American Division news site.

Christelle Agboka, North American Division, and Adventist Review