Amanda Bakale can still picture the first time she saw a woman step up to the pulpit to preach, her long lavender skirt swishing in the silence of the sanctuary. “I remember the movement of her skirt,” Bakale recounts, years later. “Not a suit, but a beautiful, flowing skirt. And a body that looked like mine.”
Bakale was studying at Calvin Theological Seminary at the time; the pastor’s name and message have long since faded. But her very presence in that place affirmed Bakale’s call. “Every woman in ministry knows the answer to this question,” she muses: “When was the first time you saw a woman lead and said, ‘That’s for me’?”
Back in class at Calvin, a Barbara Brown Taylor video left Bakale saying, “That’s one of the best sermons I ever heard, and a lady did that.” Another affirmation: That can be me.
During four years of waiting for a parish, Bakale relied on the mentorship of Vicki Cok, an ordained woman who steadfastly affirmed her call. That relationship continues today – and Bakale is paying it forward, mentoring others in her wake. For ordained women in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), “me” is becoming “we.”
Amanda Bakale graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary in 2010, a decade and a half after the CRC ordained its first woman. By 2010, about 100 women had taken up the challenge. As the denomination marks the 25th anniversary of opening the office of clergy to women, that number has doubled. Those women bring insights and abilities to ministry (see ‘Metaphors for ministry’ at end of article) that have been missing or downplayed in the past. Equally important, women such as Bakale serve as role models for others seeking to discern how best to use their gifts.
“In the last 12 years, while here in Classis Huron and really imbedded in church leadership, I’ve seen the growing network of women ministers,” says Bakale, who pastors Community CRC in Kitchener, Ontario. “There’s been an explosion of mentoring between women.”
Bakale and the congregation’s interim pastor, Betsy DeVries, are mentoring Rebecca Bokma, a member who attends Calvin seminary from a distance. Bokma says her career choice is affirmed every week by the duo’s presence in the pulpit. “It’s so important for young women in ministry, and I think for girls growing up, to see themselves in that place of reverence and leadership,” she says.
Bokma salutes the earlier women who “cut away the brush and forged a path” through seminary, making it a friendlier place for her. When she does feel pushed aside because of her gender, she knows she can turn to Bakale for understanding and care. “We have this incredible bond,” Bokma says. “Hopefully someday a young girl asks me to be a mentor and goes off to seminary, and I can support her.”
Deb Koster grew up in a church where women could not vote in congregational meetings, let alone hold office or enter the pulpit. She worked as an RN and was almost 40 when she heard Ruth Boven preach in the Calvin Seminary chapel, depicting a mother as an essential timekeeper during her children’s preschool rush. “It was finally a sermon illustration from my own life experience!” she recalls. “What a delight to have an illustration that was not rooted in sports.”
Ruth Boven became Koster’s mentor through seminary, one of several women on campus she experienced as gifted models and spiritual leaders. Since graduating from Calvin Seminary in 2018, Koster has continued Family Fire, a ministry begun with her clergy husband in 2010. Besides producing marriage and family resources for the denomination, she runs an inn in Grand Rapids, Michigan and leads marriage retreats. It was while leading a retreat, in fact, that she recognized the call to ordination. “The Holy Spirit is persistent!” she says. “I hope that as more girls see women in the pulpit they will be encouraged to follow the calling to ministry that God places on their lives.”
Kathy Vana also grew up without seeing women as deacons, elders or pastors in her church. For her and other survey respondents, the behaviour and support of men in leadership roles became doubly important. Vana found inspiration in her pastor, Keith Mannes: “His gifts of creativity, pastoral care, love for people and the Lord created a hunger in me to pursue ministry more fully.”
Now it’s Vana’s turn to model that sort of ministry. The day after she graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary, her home church voted to allow women as pastors. Rehoboth Reformed Church, where she now serves as connections and engagement pastor, voted in its first female consistory member last fall. “I never raised the issue but rather just desired to love people well and let them come to their own place with women serving in ministry,” she says.
Several women responding to CC’s survey rejoice in those pockets of the denomination – churches, classes, regions – where ordained women are flourishing, their status no longer questioned. Places where they feel mentored and supported by both women and men. For chaplain Erika Dekker, one such place is Sherman Street CRC, the calling church for several ordained women, including herself.
“This body has been intentional about using the gifts of all members, female and male, not according to their gender, but according to their giftedness,” Dekker reports. “Women in church office is not an ‘issue’ in my church home. It’s not even a ‘non-issue.’ Rather, women and men serving together is simply the way things are. And I believe that this is one step closer to living out God’s kingdom here on earth.”
Generosity of spirit
For Lynette van de Hoef Meyers, who graduated from Calvin this spring, Willemina Zwart became the source of encouragement and wisdom. The relationship began over dinner as van de Hoef Meyers pondered entering seminary and discovered how much Zwart loved her work, including the preaching. “She was one of very few women I had witnessed leading a church and I was captivated by her honesty, candour, enthusiasm and joy,” she recalls. “Willemina helped me to be able to see myself as a pastor.”
Like others who responded to the Christian Courier survey, van de Hoef Meyers treasures the “solidarity and creativity” of the ordained women she has met, whether in person or via a Facebook group of CRC female clergy. “The support and encouragement, the space to lament and share joys,” she writes, “It’s a beautiful thing to witness and in which to participate.”
Bakale, too, rejoices in that expanding circle of care among the CRC’s clergy women. “What does 25 years give us? It gives us 25 years of women doing this work,” she says.
“Even if you are theologically against it, you have to acknowledge the Spirit is at work: there is some good fruit happening through women’s leadership. That wasn’t possible 25 years ago. It was possible to argue about the theological groundings; it was possible to write an overture about it; it was possible to leave the church over it. What we have now is 25 years of richness of experience and stories. Of women seeing other women do the work.”
Metaphors for ministering
Gardener. Guide. Bridge. Midwife. Sheepdog. Shepherd. Innkeeper. Sojourner.
Sitting alongside. Walking with. Nurturing. Encouraging.
Those images, offered by ordained women as metaphors for their roles, describe leadership that invites rather than commands. Authority that opens doors. Ministering that actively meets people where they’re at. Ardean Brock, counseling chaplain at Holland Home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, puts it this way: “I see myself as a spiritual parent inviting people to come with me for a while to sit near to the heart of God.”
Several women see themselves as creators or holders of sacred space. “Space for conversation, space for God, space for safety and bravery, space for community,” in the words of Heidi De Jonge, who pastors Westside Fellowship CRC in Kingston, Ontario. Space that allows patients, family and staff to “fully be themselves in whatever they’re going through at the moment” and “experience God’s holy, healing presence and power,” says Erika Dekker, chaplain at Continuing Care Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Even before giving birth, Amanda Bakale saw herself as a midwife, aiding in the Spirit’s work. “I get to help in labour and bear witness to the new creation God is doing all the time,” she says. “That’s also what I do every week in the sermon. I wrestle with scripture, do the labour of it, and hopefully it speaks to God’s people. It’s active, but I’m not the main doer.”
Campus minister Sara DeMoor and her colleagues compare themselves to innkeepers who offer students a warm, hospitable community while realizing they are not at their final destination. “We feed these travelers – literally – and provide opportunities for refreshment, rest, and significant conversations.” She adds, “I also consider myself a fellow sojourner, walking alongside and getting into the stride of our students, encouraging and supporting them as they continue their race/journey.”
Elizabeth Guillaume-Koene, chaplain at Durham Christian Homes in Ontario, speaks of climbing a mountain, guiding travellers ascending other peaks. “It is not that I have everything figured out,” she says, but “from where I am on my mountain, I can see things on other people’s mountains that they may not be able to see. I companion with people in their journey.”