By: Felipe Lemos, South American Division, and Marcos Paseggi, Adventist Review
The South American Division (SAD) of the Seventh-day Adventist Church voted to approve a policy document on July 8, 2021, that includes allowing women to serve as church elders across the eight-country SAD territory. The vote, taken during the SAD Executive Committee Mid-Year sessions in Brasilia, Brazil, affirmed the comprehensive document, which seeks to strengthen the role of the church elder.
Church leaders said that the context for ministry during the COVID-19 pandemic and post-pandemic has made it crucial to affirm the leadership and missionary role of church elders, including women. According to official statistics presented during the committee, 5,626 women are currently acting as group leaders across the SAD territory.
The July 8 vote took place after studies, discussions, and surveys were conducted by an ad hoc committee, which has been working on this topic since December 2020. During that time, the 19-member committee gathered data and surveyed 1,800 local church leaders in the region.
The Document Voted
The voted document presented two major actions, leaders reported. The first action seeks to implement initiatives “to strengthen the role of the elder and make it more relevant” to the current context. It includes initiatives to enhance the role of the elder as a spiritual leader. It also suggests ways of supporting and equipping church elders so they can better fulfill their role.
The document also suggests training and educating church elders on theological issues and better integrating the work of pastors and elders in discipleship. “The general focus will be on providing spiritual, emotional, and physical care to members,” leaders explained.
The second substantial change is the recommendation to affirm women’s participation in the local church leadership by recognizing what they are already doing. Part of that recognition is allowing pastors across the region to ordain women as elders.
The SAD has taken longer than most world divisions to allow for women’s leadership, as most regions of the Adventist Church have had women elders for years. In 1975, the North American Division voted to allow women to serve as church elders, and at the 1984 Annual Council, the General Conference extended that authorization to other divisions. That year, the SAD took note of the Annual Council vote about women in church leadership but never acted on it. In 1995, the SAD leadership held consultations with its union territories about the topic.
A Momentous Decision
SAD ministerial director Lucas Alves shared that even though thousands of women are church leaders and almost 54 percent of new members coming in are women, they are still a minority in local church boards. “In the last decade, more women have joined our church [than men]. And a call to service has been historically present in the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” he said.
A revamped role of the local church elder implies acknowledging their administrative duties, but above all, their spiritual and missional leadership, church leaders said. SAD church leaders emphasized the momentous nature of the vote.
“This is an extremely important moment for the South American Division because we are dealing with the leadership in the local church,” SAD vice-president Bruno Raso, who chaired the study committee, said. “Church elders have a pastoral role as they exercise a relevant and an active role in ministry to help the church grow by working together with the local pastor.”
Across the region, Adventist women who are church leaders shared what they think about the July 8 vote. “I think this is a big step forward for the church,” Rafaela Seidel, district coordinator of women’s ministries in Vitória, Espiritu Santo, Brazil, said. “Women have been present in preaching and strengthening the church since biblical times. They are now leaders in the labor market, and they manage their own homes and finances. We can see they are using those skills also in their local congregations.”
Alves said he also believes this is a positive development. “The result of expanding the role of women as church leaders will be stronger leadership and greater commitment to pastoring and mission,” he said. “I think it will contribute to a deeper experience in discipleship.”