Serving in the shadow of ‘maybe’ after 25 years
Reflecting on the last two and half decades of women ordained in the Christian Reformed Church
Twin nieces turned 25 the day I began writing this article. They were born in 1996, the very year when the synod of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) first approved women for ordination and gave congregations the option of calling women as Ministers of the Word. Born prematurely, those two tiny girls spent agonizing months in neonatal intensive care but have thrived since then, nurtured and nurturing with love. Can the same be said of women ordained in the CRC – and of the denomination they serve?
Waiting for the call
The CRC has ordained 200 women since 1996. Some have retired, left the denomination or let their ordination lapse. That leaves 177 active in ministry – about one woman for every six ordained men. The number of active clergy women has nearly doubled in the past decade, and they are serving in a multiplicity of ways. But those whose gifts call them to parish ministry say they’ve had a harder time than men to find a post, especially as lead pastor.
Perhaps it’s no surprise: Last year, 48 years after a synodical study committee concluded that excluding women from ecclesiastical office cannot be defended on biblical grounds, a quarter of CRC churches responding to a denominational survey said they would not hire a woman pastor and another third did not answer the question. Just 33 percent answered “yes.”
Lynette van de Hoef Meyers, who graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary this year, was among those searching for a post at time of writing. She recently preached at a church that welcomed her warmly, yet was restricting its pastoral search to male candidates. “I don’t understand the double standard, or the willingness to accept female ‘exhorter’ but not a full-time pastor,” she writes. “I wish we could move beyond our discomfort or the newness of it all, and embrace the beauty of how God speaks in and through women.”
To lead or not
Of the 177 women now active in ministry, 102 have found positions with churches. Fewer than half, or 41, are lead, sole or co-pastors; the remaining 61 fill roles such as worship coordination or children’s ministry. Roles that involve less preaching and leadership – less sense of authority, historically a danced-around concept where women in the CRC are concerned. Beth Fellinger is among the minority – lead pastor at Destination Church in St. Thomas, Ontario. She graduated from Eastern Seminary in 1981, when expectations for her future leaned to being “a good pastor’s wife or a children’s pastor.” Instead, she has led a church restart and three church plants, including Destination. “Being a lead pastor has been a gift that honored the dreams of my childhood,” she reflects. Like many ordained women, her journey includes experiences both ironic and hopeful. Including the older gentleman who approached after one of her sermons and said, “You preach like a man. I need to rethink what I believe. I think I can try.”
The other calls
Ordained CRC women who are not in parish ministry also serve in significant ways (see graph). Ordained in 2018, Sara DeMoor walks alongside students as CRC campus minister at the University of Guelph in Ontario. She resisted ordination for years, intent on pursuing law – and loathe to become a target in a denomination “where I feared I would have to continually defend my right to exist as a woman in ministry.” Then involvement in CRC campus ministry while attending the Institute for Christian Studies, coupled with immersion in an emerging leader program, redirected her life. “THIS was the vocation God had created me for,” she says.
“I don’t think I could have imagined what an asset my gender could have been in campus ministry,” DeMoor continues. “Students and faculty of both genders consider me a ‘safe’ person, initially due to my gender, and (whether this is justified or not) are more willing to talk to me about faith, doubt and traumatic life experiences than they are their church pastors in their home churches. I consider this a great honour and privilege – one that I carry with much care.”
Gifts in waiting
For ordained women working elsewhere when their gifts call them to lead a congregation, however, the yearning for a parish post is palpable. After graduating from Calvin Theological Seminary in 2010, Amanda Bakale waited four years before receiving a call to Community CRC in Kitchener, Ontario. “It was disheartening,” she says. “Deeply disheartening. I did wonderful things: got a Masters in counselling in psychotherapy, served as interim pastor, worked at World Renew in Burlington. But I had to wrestle ordination from the denomination.”
With no call in sight (and the search complicated by the fact that her husband already had a campus ministry post in Ontario), Bakale encouraged World Renew to recognize her work with young adults as pastoral ministry. With the support of her home church and classis, she was ordained. “It was both joyous and sad,” she recalls. “It wasn’t a church calling me; it was a denominational position.”
Reflecting on what she brings to Community CRC, Bakale recalls presiding at the communion table while pregnant with her second child. As she spoke the promise, “This is my body, broken for you,” she felt the baby kick. “It was deeply, deeply personal, not visible, but I felt that in my body and felt with my people and I loved it,” she says. “There’s just depth of complexity and beauty being in a woman’s body and nourishing my son that I think is good to bring to theological reflection.”
Clear call, strong commitment
A common thread among the women contributing to this series is a clear sense of calling. For some, it stretches back to childhood; for others, it arrives long after others see their gifts for ministry.
“God dramatically and unexpectedly plucked me right out of my context at the age of 39 – my kids were 3, 6 and 9 – and sent me to seminary,” writes Heather Stroobosscher. Later, in conversation, she describes how dropping in on a friend’s “Discerning Your Calling Conversation” led to a pondering that changed her life. When she shared her call with her pastor, his response was, “It’s about time.”
As a woman answering the call, Stroobosscher met challenges that caught her by surprise. Entering seminary meant leaving her home church in Michigan, a CRC that did not affirm women in office. One of her first positions put her in a congregation that did not support women’s ordination but, wanting to tap her gifts, hired her as Director of Equipping for Ministry. “It was a struggle for me; am I still a pastor?” she recalls. “But they put ‘Pastor Heather’ on my door. And they changed the rules so I could preach – but not lead.”
Most recently, Stroobosscher was hired to collaborate with another pastor but found her role increasingly shrunken and shadowed by power imbalance. She requested formal separation and is searching again for a call. “It was heartbreaking to separate, but it was really difficult and not sustainable to be woman in ministry under those circumstances,” she says. “And this is not unique to my church; it’s systemic in the denomination. My daughter Phoebe says, ‘You’re making strides for women in ministry. Every time you take a hit, it’s one less hit the woman behind you has to take. It makes me so proud, mom.’ But that’s not something I signed up for.”
It’s often assumed that, for women, family obligations make it difficult to move. But in some clergy families, it’s men making those sacrifices. “I’ve now uprooted my husband and family twice to countries where he couldn’t work,” writes Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink.
Heidi De Jonge’s husband, also an ordained minister, left jobs he loved twice so she could accept calls to parish ministry. He has also served as the family’s primary stay-at-home parent, she reports. “All this to say that sometimes in marriage, and in the denomination, sacrifices get made in order to further important movements.”
Yet Stroobosscher remains committed to her call. “Ministry has been so much more glorious and life-giving than I imagined it could or would be,” she writes. “I’ve worked as a waitress, a professor and an editor, all jobs I enjoyed. I’ve also been an enthusiastic church volunteer in many, many areas of ministry. But serving as a pastor in ministry feels like I’m finally doing what God has been preparing me all along to do, as though I’m living in my authentic skin.”
This article is one in a series informed in part by a survey of women ordained in the CRC, which is still open for responses.