Story by Oksana Wetmore
Over the past five years, the number of women in pastoral ministry within the Columbia Union Conference has grown to 40. Meet six women pastors who reflect on their call to ministry, as well as their challenges, successes and blessings.
Mentored for Ministry
Growing up in a dual pastors’ family, Heather Crews was no stranger to a pastor’s lifestyle. As a 9-year-old heading from one church service to another, she recalls being a strong-willed pastor’s kid, grabbing at every chance to delve into challenging Bible discussions with her father. “It was a joy to travel with my dad on the open road between Bible studies,” she says.
By age 11, she boldly told her parents that she was no longer going to attend the junior Sabbath School class. Her motivation? The teacher didn’t follow through on a reward for the daily lesson study, a task she had accomplished. Her parents gave her two choices: attend Sabbath School or get a job. She opted to help teach a kindergarten class.
Crews’ desire to teach others about God never dissipated, and through the mentorship of her parents, who often pointed out new angles to consider when she faced challenges, she was able to find her own path. “The [Seventh-day] Adventist Church became more deeply ‘my’ church as I invested and served,” Crews says. Her childhood experiences in ministry and parents’ mentorship were the “bedrock that became more concrete as I accepted my own call to gospel ministry.”
However, following through on that call wasn’t easy. The Adventist college she attended wouldn’t allow women to study theology, which forced her to transfer. After graduating, she interned with a pastor who said, “Don’t allow that woman to step foot on that platform.” Still, she persisted.
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After 18 years in ministry, Crews, who has a doctorate in ministry, says she is proud to lead Potomac Conference’s Courthouse Road church near Richmond, Va., and work in a conference that “celebrates our successes.”
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Obedient to the Call
Marleena Debrough, pastor of Allegheny East Conference’s Prentis Park church in Portsmouth, Va., thought she was destined to be a physical therapist, until one day she felt God ordering her steps.
In 2002 at her graduation from physical therapy school, Debrough gave the class speech. The speech was such a success that many encouraged her to either become a politician or a preacher. She had no desire to become either at the time, but the idea resurfaced after many elders at her church also encouraged her to pursue ministry. Now she sees this struggle as a positive. “I am strengthened in my ministry by knowing that my resistance [to becoming a pastor], and then finally consenting, has paid off,” she says.
Her encouragement to other women who want to get involved in ministry is to be obedient to the call of God. “It is an honor to serve the Lord in any capacity,” Debrough says. “Knowing that God has called us, when He could have called anyone else, is a privilege.”
Obedience to the call also means a strong evangelism focus. “Evangelism has become our culture,” she explains. This culture “takes prayer meeting to the streets,” offers youth prayer meetings to nurture younger generations and has established a five-tier ministry in which all parts of the team—including disciple-builders and leaders—are welcoming and nurturing.
M. Alexandria Harter
Coming Full Circle
I didn’t have any desire to be in pastoral ministry,” admits M. Alexandria Harter. “I always wanted to teach.” That changed in 2005 when she was called to be the pastor for young adults at the Azure Hills (Calif.) church, a 2,100-member congregation.
Through her work and focus on the Sabbath School program with her own two children, Gisela and Niko, she began to realize that her attention was shifting to Children’s Ministries. Harter’s passion for working with families and children led her to Ohio Conference’s Kettering church, where she currently serves as the associate pastor for Children and Family Ministries.
There she made several changes and improvements, adding a bell choir, string orchestra, live nativity and Easter program; enhancing Vacation Bible School; and starting a day camp that involved families within the community. Harter advises other women who aspire to be leaders to strive to be teachable. “Don’t be the person that always thinks, ‘I know it, I got it, and I don’t need anyone else’s help,’” she says.
After nearly 12 years in pastoral ministry, her passion to teach has almost come full circle. She hopes to write several books with families in mind, including a book inspired by her father, whom she says speaks with a heavy Argentinian accent. Titled, Let Me Splain You Dis, the book will share a daughter’s take of her father’s love and the things that helped her to become who she is today. Harter also wants to write curriculum for Sabbath School that focuses on intergenerational and collective worship.
Prepared for This Moment
With five generations of Seventh-day Adventists before her, Shirlene McClendon was not new to the idea of ministering to members of a church or community. However, the idea of serving as an official pastor never entered her mind until three years ago, when she and her husband, Bill, accepted the call to co-pastor Chesapeake Conference’s Ellicott City (Md.) church.
McClendon spent much of her early career as an elementary school teacher after studying music in college. Once she recognized that ministering to children was her God-given gift, she knew it would complement her husband’s focus on adults. “Our passion together is the mission of God’s church,” she says. When the opportunity came to lead the Children’s Ministries program at Ellicott City, she knew she was the right person for the job. “All the things that I have done in my life, including Adventurers, Pathfinders, music and teaching, have opened a whole world in pastoral ministry,” she says. “It is everything that my heart wants to do.”
She quickly saw the needs of the church and created KIDZFEST—a fun-filled, activity-driven special Sabbath for children ages 4-12. What started as a small program with five kids, grew to be a favorite, with attendance blooming to
McClendon, alongside her husband, also actively works to mentor and train members through leadership retreats, church growth practicums and Chesapeake’s Restore conferences, which highlight strategies that help revive churches. After three years, it’s already made a difference at Ellicott City. The church has grown by more than 200 members, and nearly 70 percent of those members are actively involved in church.
When asked how she mentors and motivates others to be involved in ministry, she adds, “You have to take people at whatever point they are, figure out their skills and talents, support them and praise their successes.”
Lifted By a Few to Serve Many
Tacyana Nixon remembers the Sabbath she stood at the pulpit of her Princeton (N.J.) church and preached her heart out to the congregants, shortly after the 2015 vote on whether divisions could decide about women’s ordination. At the end of her sermon, she noticed several church elders, her husband and their 2-year-old daughter begin to approach the rostrum. She stood in awe as they laid hands on her and prayed over her ministry. “The people I serve saw the spirit working in me, and there was no difficulty that could overshadow the beauty of that moment,” she says.
Nearly four years ago, Nixon began her pastoral ministry in the New Jersey Conference at the age of 22, making her one of the youngest female lead pastors in the North American Division (NAD). Through the encouragement of her family, church and mentors like Esther Knott, associate director for the NAD Ministerial department, she was ready to face the challenge.
“Pastor Tacyana brings many pastoral gifts to her ministry. I’ve seen her exhibit courage, sensitivity toward others, unselfishness and deep devotion through study and preaching,” Knott says.
Nixon works to bridge the generational gap within her multicultural church and also opens her home to the Princeton students. “I have learned the importance of sitting around a table with students, getting to know them better and breaking bread together,” she says, or in their case, digging into haystacks.
Editor’s Note: At press time, Nixon had recently completed her service in New Jersey Conference and moved to Michigan with her husband, Michael, who recently began serving as vice president for diversity and inclusion at Andrews University.
Finding the Sweet Spot
After spending nearly 10 years as a pastor at Chesapeake Conference’s New Hope church in Fulton, Md., and now serving as the vice president for Mission Integration and Spiritual Care at Adventist HealthCare, headquartered in Gaithersburg, Md., Ann Roda can look back at her career and see that “this is a continuum of the goal that God has given me,” she says.
She started her ministry journey in Georgia-Cumberland Conference as a young pastor. During that time, women pastors were hardly recognized. Roda had to overcome the challenge of being the only female pastor in the room and not being clumped with the pastors’ wives. For her it was hard to find a role model and a community.
Despite the hardships, she believed that God called her for a reason. “There was a higher calling for me to open doors for women and to help congregations understand what ministry is like [for] a woman leader,” she says. “It is difficult when people are telling you that you are living a life of disobedience by being a female pastor, but you must face the skepticism.”
Fellow workers tested her skills and abilities, yet she had one constant supporter in her corner—her husband, Jose Hernandez, a chaplain. “He was 110 percent supportive of my pastoral ministry experience and did not allow for gender inequality to get in the way,” Roda says.
The challenges of being a female pastor have also come with rewards. To Roda, young kids showing that they want to serve Jesus and someday become pastors themselves is the greatest affirmation. She also believes that the most rewarding aspect of ministry is absolute surrender and dependence on God, something she learned after leaving a lucrative nursing career to enter the ministry. “What I love most about ministry is what I dislike the most about it as well,” she says. “It is difficult to let go. However, there is a sweet spot in surrendering.”
Alex Harter photo by John Rossi. Ann Roda photo by Brian Patrick Tagalog.