Decades before the first woman was ordained in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), groups of women (and some men) with a vision for the full expression of women’s gifts were at work, opening a path toward leadership. For me and other Edmonton women, that journey began in 1983 with informal house meetings and grew into workshops and retreats where we learned, laughed, cried, sang – and equipped ourselves for action.
As advocates, we did not stand alone. First, we had allies: spouses, friends and church leaders in and beyond Edmonton who amplified our message. Second, we were part of a larger Committee for Women in the CRC, a network formed in 1975, after synod declared the denomination was not ready to open church offices to women despite repeated study reports saying that the continued exclusion of women from ecclesiastical office could not be defended on biblical grounds. For two decades, the Grand Rapids-based CW-CRC served as an essential connector and clearinghouse for chapters such as ours, helping us support, encourage and train each other to become aware of and use our abilities to build up the body at home, in church and in society.
A few memorable highlights: In 1992, after synod took yet another step back from opening all church offices to women, our Edmonton chapter hosted a night of “cathar-sis.” That somewhat slapstick evening included an overture protesting the opening of the office of Sunday school teacher to men and an interrogation proving a short person unqualified for headship. The following year, we sent a bird with a broken wing to classis and then to synod. Created by potter Edith Sinnema, this “silent overture” spent the entire synod in the gallery amid a row of women, living evidence of that broken wing.
After being dormant for years, last fall we gathered to celebrate and reflect in anticipation of the 25th anniversary of women’s ordination. As Dolores Huizinga, who chaired the Edmonton chapter, said while recounting our history at that event, “We were there through the backward and forward dance of synod, and our conferences and our meetings helped us deal with it.”
Denise Posie, then the CRC’s director of Leadership Diversity, reminded us that the denomination’s dance is not over. Quoting Parker Palmer, she spoke of her role as “standing in the tragic gap,” a situation that is not as it should be but needs to be gently held. “But the beautiful thing about our God is he’s not going to leave us there.”
Three ordained women shared their stories that evening. Besides signaling how far we’ve come – and how much remains to be done – their journeys illustrate the range of connections between those earlier years of foundation building and today’s reality.
Karen Norris did not grow up in a Christian home and answered the call to ministry before realizing that her gender put her in the middle of CRC debates surrounding women in office. At Calvin Theological Seminary, she immersed herself in that tension by investigating the experiences of women as parish pastors elsewhere, a thesis project completed in nine months and turned in with a birth announcement. She braced herself for the sexism, tokenism, sidelining, isolation, lack of support and limited opportunities those pastors described.
Upon graduating, Norris searched in vain for a preaching post while filling in for absent preachers in numerous churches, including some that had never seen a woman in the pulpit before and working in a support position at West End CRC. Finally setting aside that hope, she became a chaplain at the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton, where opportunities to be a pastoral presence abound. “I so love being in a place where my internal calling and external calling could match up,” she said. “But that sorrow for me of not being in parish ministry is there. I’ve been thinking a lot about Edith’s bird. My wing had been broken; chaplaincy has healed that wing, but the break line is still there.”
Anne Vander Hoek grew up knowing all about women in office debates and the toll they took on real people: her own mother, Sini Den Otter, became the CRC’s first female chaplain, persisting despite her clinical pastoral educator’s constant critique and advice to go back to being a housewife. Appointed deacon-at-large for hospital ministry by Third CRC in Edmonton in 1989, Den Otter proved instrumental in soothing hearts and changing minds. “She was the trailblazer for me – a huge encouragement, really, for me to go into ministry,” Vander Hoek said.
Vander Hoek graduated from Newman Theological College in 2003. For three years she wondered what God wanted her to do with the M Div he’d directed her to attain. “I thought maybe a chaplain, but not in a hospital; every time I went into a hospital, I fainted. So I was not going to follow in my mother’s footsteps,” she said. Then she learned of a new church plant in Edmonton, to be led by Victor Ko, and that became her calling. In 2013, she took yet another step, undergoing a classical exam to become a commissioned pastor. She now serves part-time at mosaicHouse Church.
“I really received a lot of help and affirmation, unlike my mother,” Vander Hoek said, naming mentors like Cecil Van Niejenhuis, Roy Berkenbosch and Henry De Moor. “She faced opposition, but I was so affirmed and so encouraged and so welcomed into the classis and into the church. Just this past Saturday, two women pastors, Loretta Stadt and Hillary Smith, sat right here in these chairs and were examined and approved by classis. It’s just amazing how God has been at work through all these years.”
Michelle Kool, lead pastor at Covenant Christian Reformed Church, expressed wonder about how little she knew of the journey to ordination described throughout the evening, despite growing up in Edmonton and being active in the CRC all her life. “Honestly, I had no idea all of this went on,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been kind of living under a rock.”
As a young mother at Inglewood CRC, Kool moved through “the acceptable leadership roles for women,” free to do “all kinds of stuff with nobody watching.” Feeling a need to connect with and learn from other lay leaders in the absence of other training opportunities, she formed a regional network that caught the attention of denominational leaders who sent her to a Presbyterian event for church educators. Sitting for the first time as a peer alongside pastors, she realized she could have a voice at such tables.
Besides pastoring Covenant CRC, which she describes as “so welcoming and so affirming,” Kool represents Classis Alberta North at denominational tables, often among men who oppose women in office. She has learned to gauge the room before speaking. “If the table is open for everybody, then our voices are equal. If the table is not open for everybody, then I must find a way to make my voice heard.”
When discouraged, Kool thinks of the youngsters looking up at her as she fulfills her call. “Soon enough women in office will be a nonissue because they’ve grown up with it. I can tell you, that’s very affirming.”