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The hostile ‘big tent’

Why ordained women say they’re considering leaving the CRC.

“It’s really hard to keep loving a denomination that doesn’t love you back. Honestly, it’s getting harder and harder to stay.”

That’s one of many sobering responses to a Christian Courier survey of ordained women in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) a quarter century after the denomination opened that office to women. Of the 20 who responded, all but those who recently joined the CRC said they have seriously pondered leaving the denomination.

In this, the fourth in a series of articles taking stock in this milestone year, we explore the reasons why. “Creating Space” (August 9) celebrated the unique gifts and godly fruit women in leadership bring to the church. Given all they contribute, why are ordained women finding it hard to stay in the CRC?

Allowed but not cherished

All too often, the experiences these women describe remind me of round pegs being pounded into square holes. They speak of unchallenged sexism, discrimination, bullying and disrespect. Insights unheard until amplified by a man. Antiquated parental leave impacting both mothers and fathers in ministry. Lack of pension, benefit or insurance coverage for part-time clergy, the majority of whom are women. Gender-specific forms and language that write them out of the picture. Pastoral retreats geared for men, with spousal programs for women. The dance of deliberating with colleagues who believe their very participation is a sin.

Rebecca Bokma, a third-year seminary student at Calvin, recalls being excited to attend the last pre-pandemic in-person Synod in 2019. But then a male delegate stood up and read a statement objecting to the seating of women delegates. “That was really hard,” she says. “Someone was blatantly saying ‘You should not be here.’”

Others also highlight that synodical statement as unconscionable. “If it were directed to any other demographic or people group, we would be horrified by the statement’s lack of Christian charity and immediately work to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” one pastor observed. “Instead, for women, we have institutionalized the practice.”

“I’m grateful for the strides we have made in this denomination in terms of celebrating and welcoming women’s gifts in the church, but we still have so far to go,” observed a respondent who asked to remain anonymous. “Many churches think we are finished with the issue of women in ministry. But we have yet to move from a posture of allowing women to serve to a posture of celebrating and cherishing the unique gifts and experiences women bring.”

Living with either/or

As an intern, Deb Koster watched a CRC congregation pull out of a ministry that served pancakes to a homeless population due to her involvement. “It is difficult to live within a denomination with two opinions when one opinion is that you are sinning by following the calling that God has placed on your life,” she observes. “The big tent is a hostile environment. I become very guarded at denominational events, not knowing who actually approves of my presence. Conferences through the Presbyterian church, which is filled with women clergy, are much more welcoming.”

Karen Wilk experienced that same contrast. Hired by Edmonton’s West End CRC in a pastoral role in 1986, at first she was the lone woman around many leadership tables. When she “expounded” (as one synodical study committee encouraged), some parishioners stayed home and others left the sanctuary. Then she became part of The River launch and leadership team, where people new to the faith had no idea women in office was an issue. “I experienced shared leadership and appreciated how much richer and broader our understanding and perspectives are when there were female voices at the table,” she says.

“I just saw how healthy and good that was.”

Elaine May, CRC Women’s Leadership Developer, cautions that women in other denominations whose ecclesiastical offices are unreservedly open to women describe barriers and micro-aggression very similar to those experienced in the CRC. “I don’t know that moving beyond two positions is going to change anything for us,” she says.

By holding that both perspectives on women in office honour scripture, Synod sought to preserve a united church, May tells me, on the phone from Grand Rapids. “But we’ve allowed for conscientious objection, which means I’m right and you’re wrong. If anything needs to go, I think it’s the ability to conscientiously object when the denomination has said both sides honour scripture.”

For now, May counsels women in ministry to stand firm in their call. “If you’re in a classis that doesn’t seat women delegates, you can still show up, ask questions, serve on committees, use your gifts. That’s how minds are changed.”

Several ordained women recount times when minds and hearts have changed as their presence moved from novel to normal. Karen Wilk recalls being treated to lunch by two elders at Edmonton’s West End CRC who initially voted against hiring her but shifted their stance after walking alongside. “For lots of people it’s something they can’t let go of because it’s part of their faith understanding,” she says. “Once they actually experience a woman in ministry, a lot of that fear dissipates.”

Litmus test

a woman standing outside in academic robes
Jennifer Burnett graduating with her Doctor of Ministry from Portland Seminary over Zoom (Jennifer Burnett).

For some, the question of leaving has moved to the foreground due to fear over responses to the Human Sexuality Report coming to Synod in 2022. (See articles in the April & May issues of CC). They fear decisions made there will further split the church. Further exclude our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. Further take the focus off Jesus and his invitation to come home and belong. Further dilute the denomination’s witness to the power of Jesus Christ to re-create and redeem.

“I worry about the leaning toward clear lines,” writes Jennifer Burnett, lead pastor at The Well in Kelowna, B.C. “As pastors we need the space and trust of our denomination to minister well to the people in front of us, recognizing incredible diversity there.”

Heidi De Jonge, who pastors Westside Fellowship CRC in Kingston, Ontario, echoes that perspective. “I have come to peace with the fact that I may need to change vocations or denominations,” she writes. “This is sad, but true. The CRC is where I grew up, it’s where I am networked, and I am passionate about the Reformed and reforming way our denomination has looked at the Bible and the world. It remains to be seen if we, as a denomination, will continue to do that.”

What holds this talent here

Until now, joy in their particular work or congregation has kept these women in the CRC, coupled with love of their reformed heritage and loyalty to those who have shaped and mentored them. Chaplain Elizabeth Guillaume-Koene stays not only because starting over in another denomination seems too daunting, but because she knows disagreement exists elsewhere as well. “We cannot always keep running away from it,” she says. “Jesus has come to break down walls of hostility and I need to believe that, and I want to live that out in my calling.”
Lesli van Milligen graduated from Fuller seminary in 1989 and has been the “first” in many situations since. “I’ve ‘fought’ hard to stay in the CRC because I believe it has much to offer the Church, but I fear we have lost our ability to be curious, creative and always reforming,” she writes. “I stay because I hope to be an encouraging and catalyzing presence.”

a group of women standing outside
Delegates to Synod 2015 Dordt, Iowa. From left to right Rev. Kathy Smith, Rev. Heather Stroobosscher, Rev. Willemenia Zwart, Rev. Rita Klein-Geltink, Rev. Mary Stegink (Heather Stroosbosscher)

This article appeared in print with an accompanying sidebar “Advice to women considering the call”. You can read it on p. 14 of our PDF version of the September print issue.

Earlier articles in this series include Serving in the shadow of ‘maybe’ after 25 years, An Alberta journey, and Creating space.

  • Cheryl is an Edmonton-based freelance writer who worships at Fellowship Christian Reformed Church.

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One Comment

  1. Christ appreciates you, other women office holders, women and children and who knows who else.
    I sure do. Do not forsake us therefore.

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