Woman of the month is a column provided by Baptist Women New Zealand. More articles, resources and event information can be found at women.baptist.nz

Bev ran youth work in the 1970s and 1980s and became the Baptist Youth Ministries’ National, Director, creating a lively and highly effective sector.                      

I interviewed Bev at the Piha retreat centre she runs from her A-frame home on the coast: facing the waves with little chalets for retreatants half-hidden in the foliage. Bev’s working life fell into three sections: Commerce teacher, Youth leader, and Women’s retreat leader. We’ll look at each, after introducing her background.

Early Development

Bev was born in Mt Eden in 1941 to parents Bert and Lena Holt. Bert had risen from office boy to manager in a large dairy company in Auckland. Later he ran a North Shore Farmers’ cooperative. Bev, the second child of four, was plagued with asthma, perhaps due to the stress in the home from her father’s strict discipline. She saw her older brother beaten, caned, ridiculed. She knew she was next, but she often had an asthma attack before that happened. Her father’s discipline was violent and her mother was unhappily caught in it – for in those days there was no leaving, and no money to leave.

Bev found her happiest experience of family among Christians, when she came as a child to Avondale Baptist Church—a child who was welcomed, loved and who stayed. She remembers the people. ‘I got a glimpse at Avondale Baptist of what the kingdom was about. It was life-giving for me. Years later when I went into Christian service my whole thing was, “Let’s build churches that are loving, caring families so people feel accepted.”’

While she was learning piano, Avondale Baptist gave Bev a task—to be the pianist for Sunday School. The same job was offered when she got to Bible Class. She was nervous of the opportunities but felt trusted. She attended Avondale College, taking a commerce course. The shorthand, typing and bookkeeping from her course served her well, but at the time she was better at English, science and geography.

When the family moved to the North Shore, Avondale Baptist passed on to Lloyd Kitchen of Murrays Bay Baptist knowledge of the senior teen who had moved near their church. Lloyd got his son David to take Bev to Bible Class every Sunday, as her Mum and Dad were not interested. This Christian care impressed Bev, and she longed for church and the safety that it offered emotionally and spiritually.

Through her Bible class years, even though Bev left school at 15, Bev often invited girls into her home on Sundays so they could hang out till evening church. ‘I gained an inkling of teenage life,’ she says. ‘What church kids experienced—their belief that adults were scary at home and at school.’

Teaching and Early Ministry

After school, Bev worked for three years in downtown Auckland at the Sunday School Union office and then for the Religious Film Society. She then applied for teacher training, secretly, perhaps sensing her parents would be against this. Her mother had voiced her concern that Bev was not clever enough to teach, but Bev was growing beyond the condemning opinion. When an interview request came as a telegram, her mother found out and all hell broke loose!

Even though Bev felt fearful, for she had always, up till then obeyed, she disobeyed her parents and persisted. The upshot was that Bev became a teacher of Commercial subjects, working her Probationary year at Takapuna Grammar.

‘I knew I was in my right element,’ Bev recalls. ‘I blossomed. My school Head of Department encouraged me. The asthma eased back and stopped. I relaxed in the thought, “Ah. I’m home.”’ She coached girls’ basketball, Saturday sport and felt she was having a great time. She gained understanding and insight into how teenagers thought and acted. This job unexpectedly ended, because the school wanted to increase science subjects – so decreased commercial teachers. Bev then spent four years teaching at Whangarei Girls’ High, where she lived in and supervised a classic style dorm with rules and uniforms.

Bev loved the teaching but felt God was calling her to apply to Bible College. Initially, she thought: ‘I can’t, I like teaching, and anyway I’m not bright enough,’ – the words of her mother echoing in her own thoughts. Repressing her lingering self-doubt she filled out the application. It took willingness to trust God and the advice of supportive women.

With the acceptance to study came more family pressure. Bev’s mother was ashamed her daughter was so religious. But to everyone’s surprise, Bev became head Prefect and Dux at the Bible college in her second year, 1967. She already knew how to care for others and kept doing it with a mothering instinct, even though she had received little from her own mother. ‘I have a God who cares supremely, and guides me where I need to be,’ she says now. ‘I learned to trust. Still do, now in my 80s.’

Scripture Union

The next step was four years with Scripture Union (then called Crusaders), travelling around encouraging school groups and their leaders, and providing an exciting camping programme. Bev developed a keen sense of sisterhood which has remained a strength.

But what disrupted this state was what Bev experienced after she had a car accident. She found that men made decisions about her, with no discussion. There was something ‘not right’ about it. She was in the middle of preparing the whole programme of Summer camps when the leadership abruptly told her she was sick and needed to leave as soon she was done organising the programme. This was her first awareness of a patriarchal control that she came to believe was crippling Christianity. She had seen it harm other women, and was determined that she would do what was required to prevent it harming her. Bev acted promptly, getting two people on side to talk properly with her. The decision got reversed.

In considering the situation, she blamed the system more than the people, for the system did not then encourage equality between women and men.

Bible College Board

Bev was asked soon after to be a representative on the Bible College Board. It was 40 men plus her. It could have been a valuable role, but she experienced it more as her being a ‘token’ woman. If she spoke, they let her speak and then turned and carried on as if she had not said a word. Bev recognized them as sincere men doing their best – but they could not ‘hear’ her, it was like her view was ‘nice’ but somehow did not count. It felt as if they were stuck in a system.

She managed one change. After going to the Chair, Arnold Turner, and asking for a second woman to join, this was granted. But even after this change, being heard was still difficult. Bev commented about this period and about Baptist work later, ‘you needed male supporters or you were not accepted, and you needed women supporters or you did not survive.’

Director of Baptist Youth Ministries

Lloyd Kitchen, Murrays Bay Baptist, invited Bev to be employed as youth pastor part-time, and she was salaried for several years. He and Hugh Nees sponsored Bev and supported her in her next role, when Bev took on the job of the Baptist Youth Ministries (BYM) Director in early 1970s.

This was a considerable achievement. But the director’s task was tough-going, especially initially. Some said, ‘I’ve been teaching Bible class for nine years—what does she think she can teach me?’ Ministers avoided meeting her and few gave her more than five minutes of pulpit time to speak. She made sure it was good. (Unwanted side effect—letters from despairing bachelors who had confirmation from God that she met all the requirements they needed in a wife!) But after three years Bev felt accepted, was gaining respect and had the backing of the General Secretary of the denomination.

The task needed a single person. There was constant travelling, and work in the evenings and weekends. Bev worked very hard, living from her car – which was also her office. Her work needed her to be nurturing and encouraging, to develop supportive structures, to allow personal expressions of faith—all done with humour.

‘In those days,’ she says, ‘kids thought anyone over 30 was over the hill, old and not to be trusted. That’s a nightmare for youth work.’ For the nurturing goal she located women in the churches who would keep an open home or ‘drop-in-space’ and develop nests to which young people would come. They could receive eats, beliefs and coffee – which was fast becoming the ‘in’ drink! The women warmed up, saying, ‘When I go to church now I’ll see them and get a smile or a wave across the Church.’ They reinforced Bev’s belief that ministry is about providing a loving, nurturing experience of God and the Church family.

She aimed for quick rapport because she would not be in any one place long. Things like giving out cards, bubble gum and tooth picks with the instruction, ‘Take the gum and make a sculpture of your faith …’. At one school the teacher pointed out ‘chewing gum is forbidden.’ Never mind. It had rapidly connected Bev to the kids and they could talk about their faith. She encouraged ministers to be nurturing, and promoted actions such as women getting the kids around to hang out after Sunday evening service.

Kid wrote to her from around the country. If kids wrote letters saying things like ‘I’m so unhappy I’m going to kill myself,’ Bev contacted a local leader. If they had a nurturing home or another family willing to hold them, she relaxed, because she believed that if kids are nurtured and held, they can go through the pains they face in life. She had learnt that herself in Avondale as a youngster.

For years Bev travelled and loved it, the life with the car and staying in other people’s homes. She felt she was herself being held, by families and women in the many places she visited around Aotearoa. She felt she had mothers all over New Zealand!

When Bev started work with BYM, its style was somewhat out of date and even camps were full of sermons. Bev worked hard to make camps FUN. She planned feasts at midnight. She had teens carrying three life-size crosses up a hill at Easter, singing ‘All you who pass by, … is it nothing to you that Jesus should die ….?’ She did so much at the youth level. Even shy kids did clowning and puppets, vignette dramas and dance. It was participation instead of preaching, doing instead of listening. ‘Bev,’ they would say when they met again, ‘God has been using us to speak to other young people.’ She was thrilled. It was reported at a Baptist Union Council meeting, ‘Gentlemen, our youth work has been saved’.

Young people were experiencing God for themselves. Competition and judgement were ‘out’. Acceptance and nurture were ‘in’. Leaders and young people began to see themselves as having value, talents and faith. Bev received a lot of love and appreciation and felt grateful. Ordinary ministers became guest speakers at youth gatherings of hundreds. Housewives became outstanding youth workers and pastors. Teenagers became musicians, song leaders and group leaders, or learned clowning, puppetry, drama and creative dance and shared their faith in hospitals, prisons, and even in small teams took their talents to surrounding countries.

Full musical productions, creative church worship services, and overseas mission trips became possible for youth groups whether they numbered 12 or 120. BYM Roadshows enabled hundreds of young people to develop gifts and leadership skills. Youth numbers grew. Enormous Easter camps or Pebblebrooks Youth Villages became brilliant opportunities for evangelism and practical Christianity like cooking their own meals or helping another group erect their tents. News of the success travelled. Asian Baptists asked Bev to share the fun and faith of a team in Thailand and Singapore. The ideas took off.

Bev watched Kiwi and Asian youth meet and flourish in the excitement of working with God. As the work grew, Bev took groups to Australia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Peru, India, and the Philippines. The young people fired up the young people in other countries. In New Zealand Baptist Bible classes and youth groups grew rapidly. Acceptance and support replaced competition and teasing. It was a great era for youth ministry.

More new ideas surfaced in New Zealand outreach—teams of Christian young people worked alongside others in the orchards of Nelson, Alexandra and Roxburgh with a programme called ‘Apples’ and further south, ‘Apricots’. It was witness by life-style. So much was happening.

Bev’s last BYM team at their Youth Centre in the hills of Oratia, West Auckland.

Bev with a team of MOWBY’s i.e. Ministry of Works by Baptist Youth!

Then a really difficult and painful time ensued for Bev. She sought to help a young woman leader who she felt had been badly treated by an individual in youth ministry as the result of a sexual indiscretion, and then felt it was overlooked and ‘forgiven’ by the male hierarchy at the time. It felt like there were different expectations on male and female leadership, and that women were disempowered in this situation, including herself for speaking up.

Bev voiced further matters of abuse in an article (no names or church names) in the Baptist newspaper, but felt discredited and disempowered by those in authority at the time, and sensed as a result that she just had to ‘get on with things’ or her job could be under threat. She felt blamed and silenced to a significant degree, and felt that her 14 years of stalwart service were overlooked or forgotten. 

This sense of rejection had the effect of making Bev feel powerless and that God’s call on her life was being denied. The trauma triggered greater awareness of her own childhood abuse, experiences of other young people in BYM, and of women from Invercargill to Kaitaia grappling with the trauma of abuse and sexism. It was part of the reason Bev had never married, though she also believes singleness is a great lifestyle. 

Bewildered, life crumbling, Bev describes this time as a ‘spiritual hell’. She was required to give three years’ notice, but it felt so long and she felt so shattered. It was a time when New Zealanders were just coming to realise the abuse that happened in homes, and that sadly it included Christian homes. She noted that sexual abuse had been ‘the norm’ for thousands of years, but few in churches seemed to understand or be aware of it. The then Women’s Movement was revealing the pain of women feeling mistreated and they were leaving churches, including Baptist churches. Bev saw women’s powerlessness and it affected her hugely.

She recalled her mother’s pain—never able to get away to think. Bev says, ‘We women needed a different ministry and it wasn’t available. We needed the principles I used in Youth work of nurture, creativity, trust in self and in God, and mutual encouragement. Youth work had trained me for what God was leading me into next.’ 

These final years for Bev subsequently weren’t easy, and she felt a great deal of pain when her time with BYM came to an end after 16 years. As a later Baptist President said, ‘It was a dreadful way to finish. Bev should have been given a medal.’

Te Wahi Ora, Women’s Retreat, Piha

Gradually as Bev’s torn emotions healed, she found God leading her to set up a residential charitable trust, Te Wahi Ora, Place of Health, in Piha. Disillusioned women who left their church’s patriarchalism, sexual abuse and silencing beat a path to the door. She offered a place where women belonged while they moved into awareness of God with a new wholeness, willing to be alone and with God and aware of nature. She needed an environment that was healing, that was like her version of Youth Ministry, soft and strong, and where women could move from being with others to being alone in God’s presence. The home at Piha, the cheapest place she could find to buy in 1981, turned out ideal.

Bev trained as a Spiritual Director, and explored Psychotherapy, finding helpful the personality description tools, Enneagram, and Myers-Briggs. (She herself is an INFJ). She sees no place in Christianity for hierarchy or patriarchy. She commented that single women have an advantage in their spiritual growth: they can experiment without bringing ridicule on their male partners as wimps or traitors. She tries to learn from the singleness of Jesus. Her goal is to empower people to handle their needs themselves with God’s supporting presence.

Her approach now is getting others to run Te Wahi Ora, but Bev still ministers as a spiritual coach, vision holder, gardener and caretaker from her shore-side home. Immersed in the tasks of a retreat centre, she says, ‘I’ve had a great adventure following that beckoning finger of Jesus over the past decades. I’ve been given a chance to cotton on to what Jesus Christ was about, a chance to live like Jesus. And I wanted to give women the freedom to try it for themselves.’


Sources

Personal Interview 15/06/2022. (The writer has not attempted to express opposing views. She believes better protocol for equality and protection in such Christian organisations is now in place.)

Mary O’Brien & Clare Christie Single Women, affirming our spiritual Journeys, ed, Bergin & Garvey, Westport Connecticut, 1993.

Elaine Bolitho, ‘‘Director of Baptist Youth Ministries, 1972-89, and spiritual retreat director at Piha,’ in Meet the Baptists, post-war personalities and perspectives, Christian Research Association of New Zealand, Auckland, 1993.

Bev Holt, ‘It had to Happen: A Journey of Preparation for Being Church in the Tomorrow’, in Ree Bodde, ed, Keeping our Heads above Water, Women’s Resource Centre, Auckland, 1998.

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