On June 7th, 2022, at the 61st General Conference Session in St. Louis, Ella Simmons received a standing ovation after announcing her retirement. Hers is a name that deserves recognition. As the first female general vice president of the Adventist World Church, and the recipient of the Association of Adventist Women’s Woman of the Year award in 2010, the historic accomplishment of her election cannot be ignored.
It is fitting that after 17 years of service, Simmons’ term ends where it began. In 2005, she entered the floor of the stadium with trepidation, convinced that her nomination would be met with negative feedback. This is what caused her to laugh when the then General Conference president, Jan Paulsen, first shared his intentions to put her name forth for nomination. Her laughter wasn’t out of disbelief that she would do well within the role, but at the sheer improbability that a woman, let alone a woman of color, would ever be nominated as General Vice President. Pushback for her election felt inevitable, and it is with this belief that Simmons entered the floor for the business meeting in 2005 and caused her husband, Nord, to sit the meeting out. However, God’s will prevailed. One yellow card, then another, then another, then hundreds more, rose to elect Ella Simmons as the first female general vice president of the world church.
Simmons is no stranger to leadership roles. Her passion for education has uniquely equipped her in her 17-year term. She had previously served as the Vice President for Academic Affairs at Oakwood University, and later was the provost and Vice President for Academic Administration at La Sierra University. Her time as an educator prepared her for her vice presidency. Simmons has found that those around her appreciate her inclination to teach as she leads, and to allow those under her leadership to grow and develop as individuals.
“Being an educator, I also have a tendency to want to understand people, want to hear what they're saying, but also to understand the meaning behind it and the foundation behind it. Because as a teacher, to either preschool children, which I’ve done, or postgraduate level students, which I've done, you still need to understand the person.” This foundational belief that taking the time to understand people on a relational level, as well as her ability to understand administrative processes and provide necessary correction, have been a unifying drive in her approach to her leadership.
As an advocate against classism, racism, nationalism, casteism, and sexism, Simmons has been a model vice president in ensuring the Adventist mission addresses social issues in a Christ centered way. Her term has been used to glorify God and improve the church on a global scale.
The ability to be Christ-centered in times of conflict began at a young age. Though Simmons grew up in a safe mixed neighborhood, the unrest caused by the civil rights movement was prevalent and caused fear for her parents as she would walk to school everyday. Later in high school, the Vietnam War raged overseas, with ripple effects occurring stateside. Yet through it all, she abided within God’s goodness.
Indeed, Simmons is known for keeping a prayerful center to all her decisions, relying on God for her next steps and all her choices. It has allowed her to be discerning in her decisions as General Vice President. Her ability to navigate Adventist issues with intelligence and grace shows the aptitude of someone raised in Adventism. However, Simmons grew up in a Baptist household, experiencing what she calls a “providential” introduction to Adventism in her early teens through a evanglistic meeting happening in her neighborhood. What she heard there answered many questions that had come to the surface in her own study, like why Baptists don't observe the Saturday sabbath when the seventh-day sabbath observance was so clear within scriptures.
This introduction to Adventism however was merely one of many building blocks for the foundation of her Christianity. Though many have been shining examples in her life, there are a few that have had the deepest impact on her introduction to Christ, one of which being her great-grandmother.
“She was not a church worker, she was not even a typical grandmother who was there every time the church doors opened, but we spent lots of time together… and just naturally, sometimes without even the bible open…she taught me how to be Christ-like in everything. It was through her that I developed a keen sense of perception when it came to people, and part of that was her imparting to me the Christ in her.”
Simmons also recognizes a Sabbath School teacher in her teen years who taught her how to be a Christ-centered, professional woman, and a family friend who would care for young Simmons and her brothers to ensure that they would make it to church while her parents were at work.
This league of women who inspired her, prayed over her, guided her formative years, and modeled Christian womanhood in professional and private spheres, and had, as she states, a “foundational, profound affect on my life who helped me to see beyond that which is tangible and concrete in reality, but to know that God is in control of all of it.”
So at the end of 17 years of service, does Simmons believe that she accomplished all she had hoped? In her words, “Absolutely not.” She acknowledges that in order to be a believer in Christ, high aspirations are necessary when going about His work, however a disciples' work is never done. One point that she wishes she could have moved farther is the acknowledgement of God calling women to leadership.
“God really does call women to all kinds of ministry: ministry in the home, ministry in the community, ministry in the local church, but also ministry in the conference, ministry in the union, ministry in division and in the General Conference. He calls women to give quiet bible studies sometimes to other women to those who are in cultures that cannot interact with men, to be their friend, but God also calls them to be evangelists or any ministry that He choses.”
It is this understanding that God’s call is the final authority that led every decision in Simmons' life.
In the end, Simmons believes it was by divine ordination that she should end her term in the exact same stadium where she was elected. Coronavirus meant the scheduled General Conference Session had to be postponed twice, moving from its original location, Indianapolis. When Session was finally able to happen, a new location had to be found. St. Louis opened its doors, stipulating that their only available dates were in the first week of June, the exact dates the committee had selected for the GC Session. Simmons had planned to retire in 2020, but decided to stay on to support her colleagues. When the St. Louis location opened up, she found it a fitting end to her time.
When asked about what legacy she’s hoping to leave, Ella Simmons states, “A legacy of an open door and open mind in Jesus.” It is the belief that we must not be lost in the bigger picture or our own ideals, but remember we are all children of God. Her final encouragement is “Never give up, never give in. If God has put a specific ministry mission in your heart, and called you into it, you know that, one, He has prepared you to do it and two, He will take you through it. No matter what reality of the day seems to be, know there is always a greater reality.” She implores the young people to keep hope, and continue moving the church forward. “Above all,'' she says, “never stop loving, never stop hurting out of compassion, Jesus always experienced pain and if we don’t we are not His… There is a sense of urgency to be poured out.”
Ella Simmons is an exceptional woman of God who has dedicated her life, both professionally and personally, to emulating the goodness of her LORD and Savior.