Annette Denholm made her mark in the churches where she and her husband Barry served, and later was the third female President of the Baptist Union of New Zealand (on Assembly Council, ex-officio on all Baptist boards).

Annette was born and raised in Auckland, attending St Cuthbert’s College. When she was 13, Annette’s parents swapped denominations and attended Mount Albert Baptist church (when Cliff Reay was the pastor). While disconcerting for her, she soon after committed herself to Christ. 

Annette became a registered nurse in 1962, but only five months later, got married to a minister, Barry Denholm, and gave up her nursing career. She accepted the prevalent view of the time that minister’s wives should not be employed. She felt confident that God had a plan for her life, and liked people, so felt it was a good fit to be a minister’s wife. In that role, she worked with her husband at Baptist churches in Ashburton, Avondale, Northcote, Oxford Terrace (Christchurch) and Murrays Bay (later Windsor Park on Auckland’s North Shore). The couple had a daughter, Sandi, and a son, Kevin.

Ashburton

When Barry and Annette moved to Ashburton, Annette was surprised by people’s expectations of the minister’s wife. They had been there four days when they discovered they were to host the visiting missionary (they did not even have a spare bed), and hold the missionary meeting at their lounge. That meeting was the biggest turnout ever as people wanted to see their new pastor and his wife. During a prayer, a cuckoo clock wedding present got stuck on 9.00 p.m. calling ‘cuck’ cuck, cuck, cuck.’ The only way they could shut it up was to remove the chiming weight.

The town was so conservative at the time that the Bible Class girls were surprised (and delighted) to see Annette’s make-up and her trousers. They had never seen such a thing in the church.

The church treasurer personally brought Barry’s monthly cheque to the house, and sometimes it was delayed, becoming a stressful wait. Once he came five days late, and she knew it would take another two-three more days to clear the cheque. Annette commented, ‘Wonderful. We can eat again!’ He replied, ‘You’re joking of course?’ ‘No,’ Annette responded. That treasurer was never late again!

One time, Barry was preaching and mentioned that there were few working class people in the church. ‘One of these days,’ he said without thinking, ‘we’re going to have a congregation wearing a collar and tie and nothing else.’ Silence. It was not done to laugh in church. Only Annette and one friend burst out laughing. The rest of the congregation remained deadly silent.

Annette believes her training as a nurse proved to be brilliant training for a minister’s wife, and for leadership. She had learned to assess situations quickly and make decisions. She had learned how to gain the confidence of patients and their families, and could explain situations, work efficiently, teach skills and set boundaries. 

Her view of that time was that she was not a pastor but she was certainly part of the ministry team with her husband. She was not paid, but did not feel undervalued.

Auckland – Community Social Work and Te Ara Hou

By the early 1980’s the attitude that a minister’s wife shouldn’t take up work outside the church had changed. Avondale Baptist Church had social services providing vocational training for the unemployed under the government ACCESS scheme. Annette led a module teaching basic nursing skills, with the goal of employing people as nurse aids, home carers, or pointing to general nursing training. 

Baptist social services were highly respected in the provision of psychiatric care, and in 1991 a group at the Murrays Bay Baptist Church set up a Trust, Te Ara Hou, with Annette as manager. Te Ara Hou purchased a house where five psychiatric clients could live in the community. This pilot scheme was so successful that Waitemata health board authorities begged them for more. The initiative grew.[1]

Annette said about her involvement in social care, ‘It came from my parents. My mother was the one who helped in community. She was one of the early women to drive a car, and took people to hospital etc. I think I too had a God-given concern. I didn’t have to push myself. There was a love for God and for people, and it was a way to get church people involved in the community. We would see a need, visit a sick person, hear about someone else who needed help, and the work grew.’

Annette had a natural ability in leading. She helped set up commercial childcare in two churches. In several she enabled the church folk to settle refugees.

One woman came into Te Ara Hou from years in psychiatric hospital wards, accepted even after someone in Baptist Social Services said, ‘Don’t accept her. She is too difficult.’ She was. Annette found her totally institutionalised, highly anxious on any new task. She could not walk to the gate, could not even peel a potato. Annette and team patiently got her to do one more thing a day. Eventually she could manage in a joint flat. She was so proud of her changes—and so were the team!

‘I like people,’ Annette adds. ‘I quite like renegades, have an affinity for those who are different and difficult and who need somebody to encourage them. It has paid dividends for me. If you are friendly, you make friends. My life has been full of fabulous friendships – some have lasted a life-time. I find it easy to make a conversation. My kids are the same.’

These days daughter Sandi lives in Australia with husband and two children and Kevin is nearby in Mission Bay with two daughters still at home and one married. Both families with spouses follow Annette in caring for people in many different ways. 

Barry encouraged Annette in her work. He was the first salaried leader of the Northern Baptist Association and his active career gave Annette some profile. Annette’s voice warms. ‘For 60 years Barry has been the most encouraging supportive loving person in my life. He’s an amazing father and grandfather and we all adore him.’

As a Woman Leader

In 1993, Annette was nominated and voted President of the Baptist Union. She thinks she was seen as a safe pair of hands, not likely to collapse if things went haywire. At that time, differences in views about the Charismatic Movement were a big issue. People saw Annette as willing to speak her mind and beliefs without flinching. 

In an interview at the time, Annette was asked if Barry would feel threatened. She replied, ‘No. Barry has always encouraged me to do as much as I want. We operate as a team. I’ve never felt in his shadow. I stand in my own sunshine!’ Is a woman at a disadvantage as President? ‘‘No, I believe there is an advantage. Women can bring to leadership toughness tempered with gentleness. However, we still have to put up with the awkward jokes, the throw away lines and the ‘token woman’ jibes. But I don’t buy into that mind-set. It’s a male problem- not mine.’ And why have Baptists been so slow to accept women leaders? ‘For some people it’s theological. They would say they had scriptural support for their position, though the arguments are not so strong. However, I believe it’s cultural. Women may expect to take second place and be slower to trust their abilities. But my parents raised me to lead and I am not afraid to do it.’ Are there enough women in leadership within the denomination? ‘Whether men like to acknowledge it or not, women have been the backbone of our denomination both in New Zealand and in our missionary work overseas. They lead, worship, teach, preach, run home groups and care groups, teach ESOL classes, staff ‘op’ shops, and immerse themselves in a variety of social services. Sadly, our churches have been slow to appoint some of these women to paid pastoral positions.’

At that time, the position of women in the church was only just starting to change, even though two previous Presidents had been Vivienne Boyd (Lower Hutt) and Bev Humphries (Nelson). The first morning tea when Annette was there she ‘went to the hatchway and started pouring tea and coffee. One worthy pronounced, “Oh my! I see our token woman is making our coffee.” I said nothing. But then at lunch I did not get up. Another finally served and I said, “your token woman can at last put her feet up.” I never heard another sexist comment!’

Annette reported that it was good serving the four years on Assembly Council. That the best things were being with people, having the opportunity to visit churches and spend time with ministers and their spouses, feeling the trust of people who told their stories. The saddest thing was when ministries failed and when pastors and leaders could not reconcile. There were times of frank discussion, moving times of prayer and working through difficulties together. Annette enjoyed the discussions and also the privilege of going on retreat weekends led by General Secretary Gerard Marks and joined by leaders of other denominations, including the Roman Catholics. Chairing Baptist Assembly gave Annette some trepidation, but Rev. Ian Brown was a helpful backup and guide.

Later Ministry, Art, Retirement

For years Annette joined friends Olwyn Dickson, Heather Marx and Lois Patrick to run ministers’ wives’ weekends.

In 1996 Barry and Annette moved to Kerikeri where they undertook an interim two-year ministry in the Kerikeri church while continuing to care for the churches in the Far North. At the same time, they used their property as a retreat sanctuary for people going through burn-out and stress.

Annette has always been interested in art. ‘I took art at school. I’ve always had a pencil in my hand. My grandmother was a painter and gave me an awareness of colours,’ she comments. ‘But I did not take to painting seriously until the semi-retirement of living in Kerikeri. A friend talked me into going to Mangonui to a night class taught by a Baptist elder. Later in Whangaparaoa I was in a group of painters. It was lovely and helped me hugely. We did some exhibitions of our work.’

Then daughter Sandi gave her mother a wonderfully insightful gift—a trip to a painting course in France. ‘It was fabulous,’ exclaims Annette. ‘It truly got me going. In that two weeks we did two paintings a day.’ Annette continues to paint and it serves as a delightful hobby as she faces the occasional health problems of senior years.

Annette and Barry, 2020

Since moving to Mission Bay, Annette and Barry have the pleasure of attending church with their son Kevin and his wife Nikki and three delightful granddaughters. Up until very recently they led a home group of people of mixed ages, experiences and ethnicities, new Christians and long-timers in the Christian faith. They loved the times in Bible study, discussion and prayer. A fortnightly women’s prayer group is another highlight for Annette these days. ‘The camaraderie, care and laughter feel so good for the soul,’ she says.

Even in her eighties Annette is encouraged with what God still wants to do through her life and she is grateful for his continuing strength to serve, saying, ‘Thanks be to God for his care, leading and provision through all my years.’

Sources

Personal interview with Beulah Wood (author) 7 July, 2022

NZ Baptist April 1989

NZ Baptist, Sept 1993 

[1] It has become ‘Equip’, a ministry of the Windsor Park Baptist Church with 80 staff and 350 clients.

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