A better future
Our final article on women in CRC ministry examines hopeful next steps.
When the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) began allowing the ordination of women as clergy, Helen Reitsma anticipated positive change for the church she attends in Brantford, Ontario. Twenty-five years later, however, her congregation still has no women in office, let alone female clergy. Even so, she says, “a lot of stuff is really run by the women.”
Having served on boards that benefit from the combined insights of women and men, Reitsma aches to see the same for her worshipping family. Her lament is echoed in dozens of other CRC churches that have chosen not to elect women to office or call a woman pastor. Those laments stand alongside the pain of clergy women in the CRC whose passion for ministry is challenged and even snuffed out by what one ordained woman describes as “sexism, discrimination, bullying and disrespect” delivered “under the guise of a theological conviction that women are not permitted to be pastors.”
In a denomination that, 25 years ago, gave churches the option of choosing for or against women in office, what would it take to not only mark this milestone, but celebrate and build on it? In this, the final installment of a series reflecting on the experiences of the CRC’s clergy women, we ask how to bridge differences and move to a better place.
Learning to listen
If there’s a common hope among the ordained women who responded to Christian Courier’s survey, it’s this: that the members of the body we call the CRC will have ears to hear each other speak. “Our God is a big God who does marvelous and wonderful things, like creating the world, loving an unfaithful people and speaking through men and women,” Lynette van de Hoef Meyers says. “I wish we could stop fighting about this (both actively and passively) and just marvel together at how God works in such delightful ways and through such diversity.”
Imagine what we might learn from a denominational meeting dominated by such stories. Delegates hearing Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink’s story, for example, would learn that she decided to become ordained for work she was already doing as a University of Toronto campus pastor not out of a desire for power but to share her Old Testament knowledge more broadly, to recognize that her work is Spirit-led and “to be held accountable for my life, doctrine and ministry.”
Heather Stroobosscher’s story includes multiple instances when being a woman impacted her ministerial career. She’s not alone. “We need to wake up and see as a denomination what systems are we supporting that harm a portion of our leadership,” she says. “As a justice matter. As a compassion matter. How can we become aware? And can we go out of our way to support them?”
(Re)design for mutuality
As in many other organizations, renewing CRC structures and systems to support and protect women can benefit everyone, including those whose lives and careers deviate from what was once the norm. Redesigning governance meetings (including classis and synod) to prioritize listening over speaking, for example, would open the floor to the diversity of the body, enriching deliberations and informing decisions.
The women contributing to this series suggest other system changes with equally inclusive potential: Pensions and benefits for part-timers. Realistic leave policies for child and parent care. Improved checks and balances to address relationships that derail. Policies to curtail abuse of power. Clear mechanisms for dealing with harassment. Training that equips everyone involved to contribute to diverse leadership teams.
The denomination’s recent decision to require Abuse of Power training of all candidates for the ministry is a welcome step toward making ministry in this denomination a safer, healthier place for leaders – and for all. To be truly effective, ordained women observe, the training must be part of an ongoing conversation, coupled with wise and decisive action when abuse does occur.
Gender inclusive action
Bridging to a more mutual future takes concerted action, and not only by women, says CRC Women’s Leadership Developer Elaine May. “We need to call on the men who are allies and show this is not just a women’s issue; it is about the health and mission of the church. About men and women serving together as God intended.”
“We need more from our male colleagues,” another survey respondent echoes. “We need them to use their power and influence to open up greater spaces for women’s contributions and voices, to advocate for women’s concerns, and to call out sexism and discrimination when they see it.”
Pockets of the denomination where women in ministry are affirmed offer signs of hope on which to build. “I have received tremendous support, even by those who don’t agree,” one ordained woman muses. “Their support, words of encouragement and love have carried me through some really hard times and modeled a way of being in relationship with those with whom I disagree.”
That said, she believes repentance is prerequisite to bridging differences. “I’m not sure if the denomination can ever get to a point of fully embracing and welcoming women in leadership if there is not some reckoning of the past – how decisions, practices and postures have impacted women who felt called into ministry – and an intentional commitment to a different future.”
Room for all
Back in Brantford, Helen Reitsma rejoices as women in her family are elected to church office in other CRC churches even as she laments her own congregation’s refusal to follow suit. Yet when asked to name her hopes, she thinks first of ordained women struggling to find parish posts, especially as lead pastors. “I would like to see it be more equitable,” she says, adding: “It would be good to do it in a way that doesn’t antagonize people.”
May suggests learning from churches that have embraced women in office through a process of mutual discernment, perhaps facilitated by a trusted person from outside the congregation. Perhaps similar approaches would encourage congregations with vacant pulpits to consider calling women, she says.
Intentional and open-hearted hiring is key, others agree. That extends beyond women to people of colour, other minorities and anyone who thinks and is “different,” Chaplain Elizabeth Guillaume-Koene observes. “This may mean inviting others into roles the more privileged (including myself) would like.”
Jennifer Burnett, lead pastor at The Well in Kelowna, B.C., puts it this way: “We cannot faithfully be the body of Christ without all being welcome at the table.”
But perhaps it’s not a table at all, suggests Stroobosscher. Quoting Sarah Bessey in Jesus Feminist, she says, “Let’s just burn the table and enfold the people at the table and all sit around the campfire together. There is more room! There is more room! There is room for all of us!”
Marking a Milestone
Denominational plans to celebrate the 25th anniversary of women’s ordination in the CRC include a pre-conference banquet at Inspire 2022 in Chicago on Aug. 3, 2022, with Ruth Haley Barton as keynote speaker. “My vision is to fill the event with men and women who are grateful for the CRCNA welcoming the gifts of women in their churches,” says Women’s Leadership Developer Elaine May.
May’s office has also sent a commemorative pin to each of the denomination’s female clergy and is creating opportunities for women in leadership to connect and learn.
The anniversary of women’s ordination will also be commemorated at Synod 2022.
This article is the last in a series of five articles. Find the previous four here:
- Serving in the shadow of ‘maybe’ after 25 years
- The hostile ‘big tent’
- Creating space
- An Alberta journey
The featured art is by Carl Parker, an artist and author. Find more of his work here.
Attitudes of resistance like these are found in every work place. It looks particularly out of place in the Church. Fasten your seatbelt for more of the same until Jesus returns. Enjoy what you have here and there until then. The Church`s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.