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The stained-glass ceiling: 100 ordained women in CRC ministry today

It’s been 20 years since the Christian Reformed church opened ordination to women while allowing individual congregations to interpret Scripture otherwise. What does that mean for women graduating from seminary? What has changed for clergywomen since 1996? Twenty years after the “women-in-office” debate, how well is the CRC using the gifts of all its members?

The stained-glass ceiling: 100 ordained women in CRC ministry today

This spring, 52 new candidates for Minister of the Word will graduate from Calvin Theological Seminary. They will be introduced at Synod and publicly affirmed in their calling by the Christian Reformed (CRC) denomination. Their names and faces will fill a few pages of the July Banner, to be eagerly scanned by search committees across North America. Thirteen of those graduates will be women. How many of the CRC’s 1,090 congregations will welcome them?

It’s been 20 years since the Christian Reformed church opened ordination to women while allowing individual congregations to interpret Scripture otherwise. What does that mean for women graduating from seminary? What has changed for clergywomen since 1996? Twenty years after the “women-in-office” debate, how well is the CRC using the gifts of all its members?

Let’s start with the good news. There are currently 97 women serving as Ministers of the Word in the CRC. Since 1996, 100 women have been ordained (three have left the denomination) – an average of five per year. Calvin Theological Seminary has four female professors. In response to a survey sent out by Christian Courier, many clergywomen in the CRC said that their experience has been positive. “If anything,” one said, “my small church in a small town seems sort of pleased that they have the one female pastor in town.”

Rev. Jaclyn Busch said “I have been so blessed to have served as a pastor in the CRC! While pastoring I went through three pregnancies and was blessed by my congregation in powerful ways.”
“I’ve received nothing but support and so much affirmation,” a team pastor said. “In many ways my presence in some churches (via pulpit supply) has actually been healing, because I inadvertently hear the stories of families that were torn apart over the issues in the 90s and I have the opportunity to be present to that. I’m perhaps an anomaly, but I’ve received warm welcomes, encouragement, enthusiasm and cheerleading the whole way so far.”

Rev. Chelsey Harmon, pastor of Christ Community CRC in Nanaimo, B.C., said “I’m not a woman pastor or a female pastor; I’m just their pastor. Though I do continue to be an oddity for visitors. I recently officiated a funeral for an older member who had strong connections with another church in the area. Even after preaching and leading the entire service, a woman asked me [afterwards], ‘So . . . are you the granddaughter?’”

Miles to go
Polite confusion is a small problem, however, compared to the barriers still facing women in ministry. With certain pulpits closed to them, clergywomen wait longer to receive calls than men. This may in turn make other churches reluctant to hire women, because they might not easily get called somewhere else when the time comes. Eighty-one percent of male pastors in the CRC are in parish ministry (serving within a church), compared to 46 percent of female pastors; the rest are in non-parish ministry such as staff and chaplaincies. There are hardly any women in top levels of leadership in the denomination. In a separate survey conducted last year, one recent seminary graduate described what it was like to study under professors who felt she shouldn’t be there.

Counting both active and retired ministers, the CRC has 2,488 men alongside those 100 ordained women.

Sometimes the stereotypes are almost funny. Once, at a pastors’ retreat to which spouses were also invited, the larger group split apart – pastors to study and spouses off for pedicures. One female pastor’s easygoing husband just laughed and settled in for a pedicure. But the framework of this event is indicative of a prevailing mindset that makes assumptions about gender and ministry.

When questioning a discrepancy between her salary and that of a male co-pastor’s, one woman was told “we never called you; you just wanted to get ordained so we let you.” In a similar vein, another pastor warns her peers to be alert to subtle injustices such as “lower compensation, offers of part-time work (with full-time hours!) and situations where your leadership is always ‘overseen’ by a male.”

Part of the hardship comes from not knowing what to expect, from always wondering if this person, this pulpit or this council is supportive of women in ministry. One pastor said that, when she was working toward ordination, some men wouldn’t join a committee if she was in it. “It was really hard to sit down and work with someone who doesn’t think I’m hearing God right now,” she said.

‘Continual exclusion’
By “officially adopting both open and closed theological stances,” Rev. Amanda Bakale wrote in her MA Advanced Research Project for Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, “women clergy . . . experience theological endorsement for their continual exclusion within the very institution they serve” (1). That’s the consequence of the decision made at Synod in 1996. And given how contentious the debate had been – it “drained our energies, divided us and led to totally unwarranted church splits,” as Rev. Ralph Koops said (The Canadian Story of the CRC) – maybe it was the best decision at the time. But perhaps the ruling needs to be revisited. Form a study committee to find out more about the experiences of women in ministry in the CRC now, as one respondent suggested. How can we do a better job supporting them? This is not, as one pastor pointed out, “about individual empowerment but the mission of the church. We want to serve!”

Our survey asked pastors whether they saw the Christian Reformed Church overall to be a denomination that welcomes or resists female pastors. Half said “welcoming” and half said “resistant,” with this answer characterizing them all: “I have experienced both. My Classis has been very supportive, but there’s only one other woman ordained in the entire classis, so that’s not very ‘welcoming.’ Our denomination’s ecclesiastical emphasis on the local church means that each church can be completely unique in its reception of women.”

For two decades, ordained women have been leading within “a denomination that can’t make its mind up if [we] belong there or not.”

On the same team
Despite these issues, many female pastors wish that discussions (and surveys!) on the topic were no longer necessary. “I didn’t go into ministry to prove a point,” more than one woman emphasized (Survey of CRCNA women in ministry).

“This all just makes me so sad,” another pastor told me, “because we want the same thing: to bring people into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ! We’re on the same team! There’s so much wasted energy and emotion.”

If there’s one theme that came up again and again, it was this plea to churches: “Judge us by our gifts, talents, callings and passions, not by our gender.”

What advice would you give to a woman in seminary in 2016? CC asked.

“Don’t be surprised by resistance. You will find it in the friendliest and most supportive of churches and you will find it in yourself.”

“Resist the urge to be like the men,” said another. “Be good at who you are and what you do. Don’t fight. Instead, be gracious to other people and their differing points of view. Speak up when necessary, but not to prove a point or fight.”

As a pastor who graduated from seminary two years ago pointed out, “If you go looking for a battle, I suppose you can find one, but that’s not really why you’re in seminary.”  

Imagination and leadership
In the early 90s, Edith Sinnema of Fellowship CRC in Edmonton depicted a bird with a broken wing at Synod to illustrate how keeping women from ordination hurt the mission of the church. In her MA Advanced Research Project, Bakale focused on how women experience authority – “the ways in which they imaginatively understand who they are and what they do as pastors” – rather than focus on the old question of whether or not women should have authority. She did this by pulling out prevailing themes and metaphors from the stories of ordained women, in the hope that re-imagining how women think about ministry will open up more avenues for them to serve. At first, the common motifs were of the pastor as a shepherd, servant or coach. Within the familiar Body of Christ as a family of faith, spiritual mothers, sisters and daughters were considered.

Other pastors described themselves like Henri Nouwen’s “wounded healer,” or as a “conduit for the Holy Spirit.” Some women see authority in patterns of listening, caring for others and facilitating rather than taking charge. “The mother as pastor,” Bakale says, “is a metaphor of care and empowerment” (21).

In Christian Courier’s survey, three pastors listed Shiprah and Puah – the defiant midwives of Exodus 1 – among Scriptures’ most inspiring women. And it strikes me that this may be another worthwhile metaphor for ministry. The Christian Reformed Church in North America could use a few leaders with midwifery skills – caring, observant, patient, flexible and equipped for difficult transitions.

“Last May,” one minister said, “I preached on the five women in baby Moses’s life. All of them ignored Pharaoh to keep this baby boy safe, and the thing is – none of them knew they were saving MOSES, they just knew what Pharaoh said was wrong, and they weren’t afraid to follow God and do his will. So here’s to Shiprah and Puah, to Jocebed, Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter!”

“Because of their actions,” Rev. Harmon echoed, “the people of God multiplied and became strong. May I be one who does the right thing in God’s eyes, even if it goes against other people’s wishes or desires, and enables the people of God to multiply and become strong in the way of Christ.”

Research data was gathered from the following sources: interviews; Christian Courier’s survey; a survey of CRCNA women in ministry, conducted by Rev. Amanda Bakale and Rev. Shannon Jammal-Hollemans, 2015; and Rev. Amanda Bakale’s unpublished thesis “Clergywomen and Pastoral Authority,” Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, 2015.

About the Author
The stained-glass ceiling: 100 ordained women in CRC ministry today

Angela Reitsma Bick, Editor-in-chief

Angela Reitsma Bick began writing for Christian Courier in 2002 as a freelancer. After finishing an MA in English Lit from Queen’s University, she taught English at Redeemer University College as an Adjunct professor and served as Director of its Writing Centre for three years. She became Editor of Christian Courier in 2009, having learned English grammar in Moscow, research skills in grad school and everything else on the fly. Her vision is for Christian Courier to give body to a Reformed perspective by exploring what it means to follow Jesus today in our homes, churches and schools; in our neighbourhoods and across this country. She hopes that the shared stories of God at work in the world inspire each reader to participate in the ongoing task of renewing his creation. Angela lives in Newcastle, Ontario with her husband, Allan, and three young children