I remember my mom sitting in our family room in Tennessee. If I close my eyes, I can still see her in the big leather chair, coffee cup in hand. My fourth and final child had just been born. Mom faithfully came to help out after the birth of each child and after every corporate move.
On this occasion she proudly told me about the ordination service of the first female pastor in the classis, before adding, “You really should consider completing your master’s degree.” Mom regularly updated me on the progress the CRC was making on its journey to welcome women into serving in the ecclesiastical offices.
On another occasion, with triumph in her voice, she announced, “The CRC is ordaining women in all offices!”
She sent me Professor John Cooper’s Women in Office which summarized reports to synod (yes the one with the purple title). And on one particular Sunday afternoon, she called to tell me the church confirmed her call to serve as elder.
Five years after the conversation in my Tennessee family room, as my youngest child was entering kindergarten, I enrolled at Calvin Theological Seminary to complete my master of divinity degree. Returning to Calvin felt like a homecoming. Yet as I listened to a graduating female student tell her story of not getting an interview after sending over 50 letters and resumes to vacant churches I thought that perhaps the CRC wasn’t as far along as Mom led me to believe.
25 years ago, synod opened to women the path to ordination in the offices of Minister of the Word, Commissioned Pastor, and Elder. The journey had been long and difficult for the CRCNA, fraught with deep convictions and emotions. In this milestone year, how far have we come in women’s ordination?
It all began in 1970 when synod granted the request “to examine the general Reformed practice of excluding women from the various ordained offices in the church.” No one could have predicted 26 years of studying, dialoguing, and debating to arrive at the decision of Synod 1996 to open all offices.
Currently the CRCNA has 172 women serving in the role of Minister of the Word and Commissioned Pastor. I’m grateful to each and every one of them for loving and leading God’s people in a denomination that can, at times, be less than enthusiastic, indifferent, or even defiant about their leadership. No one can deny that “the first person through the wall always gets bloody.”
For women who are the first to be ordained in their church, classis, or region, the wounds aren’t visible, but they do exist. While all pastors sacrificially give of themselves in service to Christ and his church, women do so knowing pastoral ministry continues to be a male-dominated calling.
Depending on where you are in the CRC, you may or may not agree with the above statements. Your context plays a significant role in how you would answer the question, “Where are we with regards to ordaining women in the CRCNA?” Allow me to share some statistics to put into perspective the landscape for women called to and serving in pastoral ministry. It’s not as clear as one would hope.
The year 2020 was the the first time the Yearbook survey asked, “Does your church allow women to serve in the office of commissioned pastor and minister of the Word?” The survey was completed by 945 churches, but over half of the churches chose not to answer the question. They did, however, answer the questions about elders and deacons–an indication that this continues to be an issue lacking a definitive answer for most councils. With most of our congregations under-represented in the response to this question, it’s impossible to accurately determine where the denomination is regarding women in the role of pastor or minister.
We do know that there are 172 ordained women in active ministry in the CRCNA. 38 percent are ordained in the Great Lakes region, 18 percent in Canada West as well as in the US West, 15 percent in Canada East, 7 percent in US East, and 3 percent in US Central.
Ordained women fill a variety of roles with 24 percent serving a congregation as the sole, lead, or co-pastor. 34 percent fill secondary pastoral roles such as associate, congregational life, discipleship, worship, children’s, or youth. Twenty percent of women clergy serve as chaplains, and the remaining 22 percent serve as campus minister, missionary, university or seminary professor, and denominational staff.
Due to the diversity of perspectives on the ordination of women in the CRCNA, I’ll leave the interpretation of these statistics to you. Regardless, this year in particular we recognize the women who have answered God’s call to serve the Christian Reformed Church in ordained ministry. In Timothy 5, the Apostle Paul encourages and affirms they are “worthy of double honor.”
I humbly ask that you join me in honoring and blessing the women who were first through the wall.