While scanning the “low desert” of California’s southern region, one cannot help but look up to the surrounding mountains and hills that lay contrast to the spanning sky. It was the landscape of this region, more specifically Indian Wells, that inspired the theme for the 2018 North American Division Women Clergy Retreat.
"We visited four sites,” said Brenda Billingy, associate director of NAD Ministerial for women clergy, when speaking about potential locations for the retreat. “And the minute I got to this one, and I looked up at those mountains, the Lord said to me, ‘Now lift up your eyes, know that I am here. You need to direct those women to ‘Look up.’”
Approximately 200 pastors and chaplains participated in the “Look Up” event, which took place at the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells Resort and Spa, September 2-5. The retreat was designed to provide ample time for rejuvenation with inspirational messages, breakout sessions, community service, free sessions with a licensed counselor, a 24-hour prayer room, and even hand massages.
“I wanted the ladies to be able to rest,” said Billingy. “Ministry is brutal, so I wanted them to have a chance to [physically] regroup, feel energized again. Some are going right back to tough situations.
A Song of Praise and Ascents
The retreat was structured around Psalm 121, a song of ascents, which starts with the familiar passage, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord the Maker of heaven and earth.”(NIV).
“This is a song that would've been sung by Hebrew pilgrims as they were going back to Jerusalem, to that mountain top experience. They would've sung this [as they traveled],” said Raewyn Orlich,” senior pastor of Victorville Seventh-day Adventist Church in Victorville, California, during the final devotional thought of the retreat.
“This has been like Jerusalem. We've been singing this song, we’ve been feasting together in God's presence, and now we want to continue singing this song as we go back down the mountain,” said Orlich. “How do we keep looking up when we're heading back down to those tasks, to those places of service, to those places that can sometimes feel like a desert?”
The question was deeply felt throughout the room with audible sighs and murmurs. Orlich answered with one of God’s promises of unwavering support for individuals, not just ministries, programs, and services.
“God is a life-giver,” said Orlich. “I believe God is telling us [to remember] that, ‘I came that you may have life,’ and not just your church members, patients, or family members. ‘I came that you may have life.’
A Call to Obedience
Ann Roda, a keynote speaker at the retreat, is vice president of Adventist HealthCare for Mission Integration and Spiritual Care. Roda never saw herself in a ministerial role outside of the church’s walls. With more than two decades of experience as a congregational pastor, she knew she was where God wanted her to be. But then God called her out of the traditional pastoral setting into health care administration.
“It does no good to lift our eyes up to the mountains for help when you are not willing to see,” said Roda, as she reflected on the time she initially resisted leaving a pastoral role to her current position. “A call is not always a call to a place or to a position, rather, it is a call to obedience. And sometimes obedience means to just stand there and see the great things that God is going to do.”
Danielle Pilgrim, associate pastor of Berean Seventh-day Adventist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, said Roda’s message was one of the highlights during her time at the retreat.
“Her words really touched my heart and open my eyes,” said Pilgrim. “We think of ministry as just pastoral ministry or maybe chaplaincy, but ministry is way beyond that. Our impact is not just for the local church or just to be in that building; it's wide.”
Urgent Need for Mentoring
During a lunch session, the president and executive secretary of the North American Division, Dan Jackson and Alex Bryant, affirmed and acknowledged the steadily increasing demographic of women clergy in the church.
“I can’t help but say, ‘Praise God’ for the expansion, growth for this part of the ministerial team,” said Jackson. “I really dream for the day we'll have 1,000 female pastors in the NAD.” Currently, there are approximately 150 female pastors employed within the division.
The leaders also took questions from the attendees. This provided an opportunity for the women clergy to inquiry about a policy compliance document that will be discussed during next month’s Annual Council session in Battle Creek, Michigan. Annual Council is a yearly meeting of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s second highest governing body that is made up of leaders from the Church’s global territory. The document outlines ways the denomination’s leadership could address unions believed to be operating outside of Church policy. While not explicitly stated, one of the areas of which some NAD unions may be viewed out of compliance is with their ordination of female pastors.
The Q&A also gave participants the chance to ask Jackson and Bryant about opportunities for women in more pastoral and leadership roles throughout the division’s structure. Bryant highlighted a stunning statistic that half of the division’s approximately 4,000 pastors are eligible for retirement.
“We do not even have enough in the pipeline to replace that number of people. Maybe God is preparing a team, an army, to be prepared to step in the gap. We don't know what the Lord is up to, but we know He's up to something.”
Billingy echoed this in a later setting, “I feel for the women. We need to be even more intentional about mentoring, … And it's not that women are supposed to take over the church. We just need to be able to enlarge this conversation and this territory.”
“So, we're making room for growth, development, for other women to come in and experience the joy of being called by God and seeing the fulfillment of that calling. That's a joy that's unspeakable,” said Billingy.
Healing Through Community
The retreat also served as a family reunion of sorts. Former seminary classmates, and chaplains from various military branches and hospitals, shared aspirations and challenges, and prayed over each other throughout the four-day retreat.
"I didn’t realize how much I needed to be in the community of other female pastors, said Pilgrim. “It's been really refreshing to be in fellowship with them and to encourage one another. It's very needed.”
Julian Jones-Campbell, a pastor of the Greater New York Conference, attended the first NAD Women Clergy Retreat in 2016, which took place in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She said she’s inspired by what her colleagues have been able to do within the two years.
“Being here with my sisters, hearing their stories, seeing progress that has been made … to see them today and how they've grown and how things have gotten better, it's amazing to see that they're blooming where they’ve been planted,” said Jones-Campbell.
Lindsay Syeh, who pastors two small churches in the Miami area of Florida, is her conference’s only female pastor in the city. She says while she can always text her colleagues in different conferences, it’s not the same as meeting in person for a listening ear.
“I felt the presence of God here,” said Syeh. “The networking is beyond what you could imagine or think. It's just good to know that I'm not the only one with struggles.” Syeh mentioned one struggle, which resonated with colleagues, of people walking out of church in response to seeing a woman in the pulpit during the worship hour.
She said aside from General Conference Session, which brings together leaders, ministers, and tens of thousands of members from the Church’s 13 international territories every five years, there aren’t many opportunities for women clergy from the entire division to see each other.
“Hopefully we can get more of this, we need more days,” said Syeh.
The Value of Listening
One of the featured speakers for the “Look Up” retreat was Andrea Luxton, president of Andrews University. She used the concept of the desert as a simile for various life experiences, some where she felt safe, and at peace, and others where she felt loneliness and devastation. But she said in both the highs and the lows, it’s imperative that one learns how to listen for the voice of God.
“The busier we get, the multitude of challenges that are pressing on us, both personal and professional, the harder it is to still keep listening,” said Luxton.
“So, what [I wish for you] is the constantly deepening and growing conviction and awareness of God's leading in our lives and our ministry,” continued Luxton. “The capacity to find ways to be still and hear God's voice, even with all the stuff going on around us. The ability to hear God speaking may be through others, maybe in our darkest moments, and maybe in our silence. So, ‘look up’ and listen.
Visit NAD’s Flickr page to see photo coverage of the “Look Up” 2018 Women Clergy Retreat in Indian Wells, California.