“We don’t look at the women”


There are more women than men in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ) as members, as volunteers, and in attendance on Sundays. In fact there are more women than men in most aspects of the church, and in most work of the church. However, in formal positions of leadership men have consistently remained the majority. One of the most striking examples of this is in the most senior governance role, the moderator of the general assembly. From 105 moderators since 1901 just four of them have been women.

The moderator position provides a useful framework to investigate the role of gender, both in the individual experiences of these four former moderators, and in the wider systems of PCANZ.  If PCANZ seeks to be a church led by its people, nominating and supporting women for formal leadership positions should be a matter of priority.

At first glance the governance structure of PCANZ does not limit women from reaching senior positions. The leadership of the Presbyterian Church is formed by an executive body at regional level (Presbytery) and national level (General Assembly or GA). Ministers and lay people can be elected to serve on this executive. Names are put forward for election by church councils on behalf of parishes, from these names the Presbytery makes a nomination. The National Office coordinates a second round of responses from church councils, who vote in preferential order for those who have emerged as top candidates. The elected candidate serves for two years as spokesperson, chair for GA, and ceremonial leader of the church.

The leader is often said as to have come “from the people” and to have received “the call from God”. It is a system which has long been defended as allowing the most suitable person for this most senior role to be elected.  Although both women and men are eligible and the system in theory operates irrespective of gender, in reality just 3.9% of moderators have been women. This is an average one every 10 years since Joan Anderson in 1979. Despite the seemingly nondiscriminatory framework there is a clear pattern of under-representation of women. One way we can hear more of women’s voice in the church is through its history. To correct this pattern it is necessary to recognize the contributions women have made in the past in this role, and seek out and support women who have the skills and a call to this role in the future. 

Who are they?

The four women who have been moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.(Left to right) Mrs Joan Anderson (1979); Very Rev. Marg Schrader (1995); Very Rev. Pamela Tankersley (2006); Very Rev. Margaret Reid Martin (1987).
The four women who have been moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.(Left to right) Mrs Joan Anderson (1979); Very Rev. Marg Schrader (1995); Very Rev. Pamela Tankersley (2006); Very Rev. Margaret Reid Martin (1987).

The names of those four former moderators are: Mrs Joan Anderson (1979), Very Rev. Margaret Reid Martin (1987), Very Rev Margaret Schrader (1995), and Very Rev. Pamela Tankersley (2006). There is no single narrative of their terms as moderator. For each of them their gender shaped their experiences differently.

Joan Anderson (1979)

Joan Anderson’s nomination was a historic moment in the Presbyterian Church for two reasons, she was the first woman to hold the role and only the fourth lay person. Joan served the church for many years as a passionate champion of ecumenism and the role of lay people.

Joan was born in Auckland and moved to Dunedin at a young age. Her mother placed importance on the church and education which “shadowed” Joan’s life well. Joan said her mother left with her a love of the bible and encouraged her to always ask questions. She completed a Bachelor of Arts, Diploma of Education and Masters Degree.

Her time in the Student Christian Movement (SCM) was a really important part of her personal faith development. In SCM there was a feeling that members learnt and grew together as people, Joan said “it never occurred to me that I was a woman”. This was a contrast from the church, where separate organizations for women existed and governance of the church was not a part of that. However, this did not bother Joan much, she thought of it as secure, comfortable even.

Later Joan’s marriage was another reminder of the different roles the church allowed. Joan’s husband and “partner in every sense” Howard served as an elder. Eldership for women was cautiously offered primarily to single women. It was seen as inappropriate for married women to be elders, as parishes did not wish to have couples serving on their council. Although it did not stay this way for long, Joan saw the church change when women were permitted to be ordained and therefore eligible for GA. Women finally had a voice in the governance court of the church and once they started to attend the difference could be seen “immediately”.

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Although she was not ordained Joan remained very active in her local parish and, influenced by Methodist and Anglican traditions in her upbringing, had a deep commitment to ecumenism. Joan took this commitment with her when in 1975 she travelled to Narobi to represent New Zealand at the World Council of Churches. Joan served as the Convener of the Ecumenical Affairs from 1972-74, a time when the Church Union movement was gaining momentum in New Zealand. 

The first time she was nominated to be moderator she thought it was a joke. The following year it had “caught on” and her name was 2nd on the list. She described the year as “very daunting” but enormously enjoyable. Her term was not limited by her gender, instead “there was “no hang ups”, “I was not spared because I was a woman… and I appreciated that”. It was in smaller meeting settings she felt a greater difficulty. “Where there were only men, the female voice is easily drowned by the male…. there tended to be a bit more forceful”. Even when she was the only women in the room she had a few tricks up her sleeve to always “keep people laughing, one of God’s great gifts”.  As the first women to be moderator of PCANZ, in 1979 Joan had done her bit to “break the patterns of the past”, and the appreciation is visible in the boxes of thank you letters she received.

Margaret Reid Martin (1987)

Margaret Reid Martin was the first women to be ordained in word and sacrament as a minister in the Presbyterian church in 1965. Twenty-two years later she became the second woman to be moderator of the Presbyterian church. She was “one of the visionary figures” always looking forward. Her character is reflected well in the words of her mother “you’re stepping into deeper waters than I ever did”.

Margaret accepted a vocation call to teaching, in Wanganui Girls, as a field secretary for the Council of Christian Education and for 12 years serving as their General Secretary. When in 1955 General Assembly decided that women were to be admitted to eldership a thorough study was done into the topic of ordained ministry for women. In 1961 this was accepted in principle and in 1964 the regulations were finally passed. Margaret had studied at Knox College to become a deaconess. Men studying the same course were going forward to become ministers. Margaret “did not have a thought” that ordination would be next for her.

Margaret felt her call was sudden and unexpected and with encouragement from her mother, applied to be accepted as a candidate for ordained ministry. The ordination of women positioned PCANZ as a leading example to many religious and secular organizations which still restricted women’s leadership roles. As the first to be ordained it was Margaret’s picture on the front page in a “blaze of publicity”.

In 1975 she became the Moderator for Wellington Presbytery, and she accepted invitations to preach widely. She served as a consultant and researcher for church development in ministry and collaborated to publish reports such as “Values and belief in New Zealand” and “Finding the way: New Zealand Christians look forward”. Margaret recognized the importance of such research and advocated that it be supported by the national church.

As moderator in 1987 her chosen theme was “Choose life in all its fullness”. She reflected for the Association of Presbyterian Women “Women’s Stories Project” in 1995, a major task for the church would be to ensure women’s perspective “influenced both the style and the direction of decision making.” Looking to the future of the church she mused what a more equal partnership between women and men might look like, Margaret commented both women and men were needed in the church’s future as “full persons” and neither as any less.

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Marg Schrader (1995)

Marg Schrader’s relationship with the Presbyterian Church is an unconventional one. Marg has never been invested in the structure and procedures of the church. She grew up in Australia in a family where there was no religion. Her father and sister were teachers , her brother a thoracic surgeon. Marg became a teacher too. One summer she was called to something new, “my whole being said you are going to be a Methodist deaconess”. She was the only Deaconess in her class to be ordained at Melbourne town hall as her classmates were all engaged to be married. Marg worked as a school chaplain in Australia and traveling to a conference in New Zealand she met fellow chaplain and her future husband, Warren Schrader. They were married in 1966 and Marg moved to Christchurch, taking on Warren’s 7 children aged 2-13 They then had one of their own. Marg was a gifted counselor and later became the Director of Wellington Marriage Guidance, alongside her continued involvement in the church.

In 1979, while worshipping at Wadestown, another call came to Marg, “a deep sense that I needed to be ordained to ministry.” Wellington Presbytery were pleased to oblige and Warren and Marg shared the role at Wadestown parish as partners in ministry. They then  worked with Parish Development and Mission Department. Each brought something different to the table. In 1989 Warren died of leukemia, and Marg had to adjust to living without him.

After that Marg set up her home in Palmerston North with Sister Judith Anne O’Sullivan and Sister Yvonne Munro, as a house of prayer. They called it “The Still Point”.

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Marg has never been afraid of going off book. When asked to speak at Assembly in 1993 by John Evans she tore up her notes the morning of speaking. Instead of the address she had planned she spoke about the significance of the language used for God. She drew from her experience counseling survivors of sexual abuse and her training at Shalem for Spiritual direction . She made a lasting impression on those present. After the session people approached her and said it was her turn to be the next moderator, “my heart said  “Yes this is the time” as I recalled that as I watched Margaret Reid Martin break the bread at  her Assembly communion this voice I know so well said “ you will be doing this one day’  I said nothing to Warren or anyone else. I don’t think I even prayed about it but when this happened I knew it was God’s time for me”. Marg received 18 nominations and became the moderator in 1995. Her style reflected her vocation, as a moderator she was also a counselor and spiritual director. She focused on “how can we all open ourselves to God and listen at depth to those with different opinions, to learn from them, to sometimes be changed by them  so together we can  discern more clearly God’s way and be one body.” Then our words and our actions will speak clearly. The theme was “One Bread One Body’ Her unique approach was widely appreciated. People commented she was like a mother or midwife to the church. “I was trying to give people the sense that they can grow and they need to meet each other because we are all one in Christ.” She wrote a study for parishes on the gay issue and called many of the leaders to a week long retreat at The Home of Compassion where using a family therapy model we were all called to share our stories. How did we get to the place we are now? What is the bible saying to you about this? There were many tears as we shared our stories and listened at depth to the others.

Marg has done a significant amount of work on spirituality, sexuality and dreams. She has always used feminine stories to weave into her work and sees the potential in doing so. She is a highly regarded spiritual director.  Marg has been outspoken about the need for women in leadership roles in the church writing in April 2018 on Candour, “Time for another woman Moderator?” For Marg this is not a question of whether there are women with the skill and call within the church, there are many “we don’t seem to look at the women, we tend to bypass them and see only the men”.

Very Rev. Marg Schrader speaking at General Assembly in 1996.
Very Rev. Marg Schrader speaking at General Assembly in 1996.

Pamela Tankersley (2006)

Pamela Tankersley was moderator in 2006, she had grown up in the Presbyterian church, and during her training at Knox college that she felt she was called to serve the whole church – not just the parishes she might be called to. In 2018 Pamela’s significant contribution to the Presbyterian Church and her community was recognized when she received a New Zealand Order of Merit.

Pamela met her husband Roy in University through church music, which was a shared love of theirs. She quickly became familiar with the title “the organists wife”. Pamela worked for 15 years teaching science in high schools, later working with high needs students. Roy worked as a musician at St Andrews on the Terrace. It was there Pamela began to put together questions of justice with questions of faith. Protests movements of the 70s and 80s, including gay liberation, nuclear disarmament and the Springbok Tour, were “right on their doorstep” in Wellington and Pamela became very involved. This time was a “turning around of faith” which left her with a new radical theology, “as part of that I could hear God’s voice calling, saying I had the gifts and the skills and the passion.”  “The light went on in my head that going away to do theology for three years would actually be hugely fun”.

Having received the call to ministry, Pamela, Roy and their three kids “trotted off to Dunedin for 3 years at Knox”. For Pamela’s studies and ministry to take priority for this time was a cause of distress to those more comfortable with the traditional model of family life, “it was radical”. Despite her own family’s support Pamela still found the institution to be an adjustment, “I could not believe how male…the system was.” Pamela’s class of 1984-6 had 8 women of 15. These “stroppy women” were determined to open doors with feminist theology, “we were on fire”. These classmates remain leaders in church today. Pamela served as the President of the Theological Hall Student Union, this clarified that she was to be “a minister of the whole church”, although what that meant she wasn’t so sure.

Very Rev. Pamela Tankersley, Moderator of General Assembly in 2006.
Very Rev. Pamela Tankersley, Moderator of General Assembly in 2006.

First she was placed in Gisborne at St Andrews, then St Ninians Karori and St David’s Palmerston North. Pamela and Roy negotiated the compromises of two working parents, each their careers taking priority at different times. The move to Wellington was a chance for Roy to go back to making music.  Pamela’s ministry made an impression on Wellington as it wasn’t long before she was nominated as moderator of Presbytery, “they didn’t say can we, they just did, I suppose the seed was sown then.”

Pamela worked hard for the Assembly office in various ways. She gained quite a high profile as convener of the business committee, “my name came up three or four times before I was the top one”. The Presbytery share was not significant but parishes endorsed Pamela’s nomination with an overwhelming yes. “Presbytery at that stage was run by the clergy and…there was not many women clergy at the time”, but across parishes women knew Pamela well and she suspects it was their vote which put her in the role.

On General Assembly Pamela reflected “I think I had to be really strong.” In 2006 GA for Pamela was colored by divisive debates on sexuality, as it had been for Marg Schrader and Margaret Reid Martin. “It was about being compassionate but at the same time not leaving room for any of that horrible stuff to emerge.” The theme was being Christ centered and community facing and Pamela spent most of her time as moderator travelling to run workshops around the country on what it means to be community facing.

For Pamela a real highlight of her ministry was working with Millie Te Kaawa, as moderator of Te Aka Puaho. Together they worked towards “being able to recognize our partnership as a treaty partnership” and to progress the relationship between PCANZ and Te Aka Puaho. She felt there was a solidarity between them, “women, having been excluded understand inclusion of other people”.

Very Rev. Pamela Tankersley hands back land deeds at Te Maungapohatu Marae in Te Urewara.
Very Rev. Pamela Tankersley hands back land deeds at Te Maungapohatu Marae in Te Urewara.

Pamela returned to St David’s Palmerston North, believing a moderator should come out of and go back to church at grassroots level where possible. She then worked to revive the Global Mission of the church from the Assembly Office in Wellington for three years and spent 4 years, covering many miles on the Executive Council for World Mission, and eventually was elected Moderator of that body.

Very Rev. Pamela Tankersley on a trip to Bulaweo, Zimbabwe, with her work for the Council for World Mission.
Very Rev. Pamela Tankersley on a trip to Bulaweo, Zimbabwe, with her work for the Council for World Mission.


The leadership women have provided in this role has made a lasting impression on the church and has been widely appreciated in the last 40 years. However, there is still a challenge of understanding why the gender of the leader should matter. It is not to say women necessarily lead better than men, although there is significant testimony that they do lead differently. Unfortunately, the role of moderator is one example, which demonstrates that the gender does already matter in who is chosen to represent and lead the church. If it did not matter the representation of women would closer reflect their numbers in the church. To become a church where it does not matter, will require women in leadership positions of all kinds, including the roles which carry the most mana.

In an interview in 1995, on women’s place in the church Joan Anderson said “there’s a lot of hard work still to be done”. In 2018, 12 years since the last women as moderator this is still true. It is time to listen to women, and others who are on the fringes of these positions and processes for one reason or multiple. It is time to recognize many of these leaders are already in PCANZ. They may not always be the people who are being noticed, or nominated or celebrated, but that is not to say they do not exist. It is time to seek out and make space for these leaders and to put forward their names. To honor the ministry of Joan Anderson, Margaret Reid Martin, Marg Schrader, Pamela Tankersley and countless other women of PCANZ, it is time to end the days “we don’t look at the women”.  

One way we can hear more of women’s voice in the church is through its history. The Presbyterian Research Centre encourages those with material related to women and other marginalized groups in PCANZ to be in touch. It is an ambition of the archives to hold and share more diverse stories of our church history. To acquire this material is vital to preserve a richer and more accurate history of the church in future generations.

It has been a great pleasure to be an intern at the Presbyterian Archives this year in completion of the HUMS301 paper at Otago University.

This article has used sources from the archives including:

Personal collections of Joan Anderson, Margaret Reid Martin, Marg Schrader and Pamela Tankersley.

APW Women’s Stories Project Interviews (1995)

Marg Schrader and Pamela Tankersley Interviews with the author (May 2018)