Where We Are 25 Years After Ordaining Women as Pastors

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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.

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Community Builder

I'm am grateful for the ministry, scholarship and preaching of the women I have had the honor to serve with and learn from.

Participant

Thank you Jonathan. 

Community Builder

The fact that this is even an article tells you far we have come in women's ordination.  It is appalling that it wasn't until 2020 that the question was asked "Does your church allow women to serve in the office of commissioned pastor and minister of the Word?"  made even worse by the fact that over half the churches who responded didn't even bother answering that question.  I was born and raised in the CRC but question raising my daughter in this same environment where she is welcomed to be a Sunday school teacher and preach to the next generation but not welcomed by many in the denomination to preach to the adults.  I am thankful to be part of a church that has female elders and deacons but it still stings that when looking for a new person for a leadership role to be told that our church isn't ready for a female to be in that role.  

Participant

I hear you Hilda. You are not alone in your pain and discouragement. This anniversary is giving us an opportunity to learn and grow in our understanding. Change began in 1970 by simply asking a question. Perhaps the question posed to churches through the Yearbook survey will do the same. Thanks for your comment. 

I grew up in a classis that accepted the ordination of women and encouraged women's participation in all offices of the church; In '97 my husband and I were the first couple married in the CRC by a woman-- by our good friend and my pastor, Dr. Mary Hulst.

Upon my marriage, I moved to a classis that did not accept women's ordination or participation in all offices of the church.  What was not a question to me became later a long journey of trying to patiently understand others' perspectives. I have had to work very hard to humbly accept these circumstances, wait with discernment and try hard not to pass judgement-- all along asking questions of myself and my church family.  God has been good to me, and He has surrounded me with men and women who have provided me with a sense of calling in my church; but, I can truly say this has been very difficult for me.  The journey has been marked by a lot of pain but also blessing.   I have been repeatedly blessed by women who have shared their wisdom and lives with me.  I can only give a shout out to those I love -- they have shaped my understanding of God and His redemptive power and lovingly taught me along the way-- may God enrich you in your work. And may God preserve and bless women in their respective callings, in the church and beyond.

 

Participant

Thank you Jill! Thank you for staying connected to people who don't share your perspective, for continuing to ask questions, and for sharing your experience of being blessed by the ministry of women.

Participant

     The author asks the question "how far have we come in women’s ordination?"  As we approach another watershed moment in the CRC pertaining to whether or not the Church will fulfill her obligation in regards disciplining officebearers who are living unrepentantly sinful lifestyles, perhaps the better question to ask is "how far have we gone since women's ordination?"

     For those of us who continue to lament this decision 25 years later, please understand that our convictions are not driven by our "context" as the author suggests. Nor is it driven by misogyny, a quest to maintain patriarchy or any other egregious motivations as is often assumed.

     Rather, our conviction is driven by a deep desire to remain faithful to scripture as interpreted by solid exegesis and a commitment to orthodox hermeneutical methods that have stood the test of time for nearly 2,000 years - that is until the doctrines borne out of this commitment came into conflict with the 'enlightened' ideas of the late 20th century.  

    I really do not desire to enter into an online feud with anybody or rain on your parade, I just tire of seeing people who still value orthodox hermeneutics continually being portrayed as a "wall" that needs to be broken through.  

I appreciate your comments. We who hold this position have also experienced derision and scorning. I was a delegate to Synod when the offices were opened to women. Once the decision passed we who hold the traditional position were subject to an extensive time of mockery and derision for resisting the change. The memory of this mockery still hurts. It wasn't a time of Godly acceptance of a differing position by those who should have been brothers in the Lord.

Participant

Harold, I'm sorry for the mockery you experienced and for the pain it continues to cause. Without a doubt there has been pain inflicted by brothers and sisters on both sides of this issue. We have a lot to learn about the unity Jesus desires for us. May the Holy Spirit empower us to live into these words are from Jesus's prayer in John 17, "I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (verses 20-21). Bless you Harold.

Participant

Chad, For the sake of unity, Synod 1995 decided to recognize that there are two different perspectives and convictions both of which honor the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God on the issue of whether women are allowed to serve in the office of elder, minister, and evangelist/commissioned pastor. There's no argument that unity is messy, but unity broken when either perspective claims their position is the right and only interpretation of Scripture. I appreciate and share your love for the Word of God, that we have in common.

Breathtaking, that the author would invoke I Timothy chapter five while at the same time calling for a celebration of the CRCNA's quarter-century of disregard for the indicative and imperative elder qualifications, and prohibitions which are detailed in I Timothy chapters two and three.  A few days ago I replied to this thread with one of those very passages.  I did so using the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, the most accurate Greek translation of the New Testament available today.  The moderator deleted the plain presentation of Holy Writ.  Someone actually undertook the mechanics of deleting God's Word from the online discussion. 

The essay appeals to "felt" experience while retelling family anecdotes of "proudly" approving the visible church's parallel with secular feminism "which all began in 1970".  The response to loving, pastoral rebuke in the comment thread, appeals not to Scripture, but to a council of men whose narrow majority plunged the denomination into decline, and now even apostasy, in some quarters.

Nonetheless, elders in this denomination continue to patiently do the work that they are called to do, in accordance with the instructions from Jesus in Moses, the Prophets, the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Epistles.  That work, the work of making disciples of Jesus, requires great humility, because we too are sinners, yet we must patiently and lovingly do the work, the work of calling those who claim a confession of faith in Christ, to turn from the rebellion and usurpation of authority which is the defining characteristic of all sin.

Where are we 25 years after ordaining women as pastors?  

Isn't it obvious?

These words hit home for me: "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.'”

Thank you to each and every person who has followed the guidance of the Spirit even when defiant leadership placed more bricks on the wall.

Community Builder

Thanks for writing this and giving us a glimpse into your journey, Elaine. I am so grateful for all the women who have heard the call to ordained ministry and stayed in the CRC to be obedient to that call, even though it's been difficult. I pray that you will continue to hear the affirmation of your choice from CRC members, as well as the confirmation from God that you have been faithful. I'm also so glad that you are lifting up this torch for women and girls in the CRC. I'm convinced that God needs all of his servants - both men and women - to be involved in building the kingdom today, and that includes all of the service and ordained branches of the church. 

Participant

 

Thank-you Elaine for your thoughtful article and journey along with the opportunity to share some thoughts on the subject.

Rev. Willemina Zwart, ordained close to 18 years ago has been my wife and pastor for over 13 years. God's calling on her life is more than obvious. She has served as an associate and lead pastor in Canada. The churches she has served continue to bless her on her way fulfilling her calling as Minister of the Word. Her skillful and passionate preaching afford the breadth and depth that the scriptures require. Her love of people and concern for their growth in Christ is equal or greater than any pastor I have met or served with. Her patience in leadership in a yet stringent, patriarchal culture is astonishing and humbling to observe. Her skill in observing and developing spiritual gifts in others strengthens the body of Christ where she serves. The men who have allowed her to be their pastor have grown significantly in Christ. Any church in the CRCNA would be fortunate to have her as lead pastor. I do not say this lightly or with braggadocio in mind, but as a thoughtful observer.

Kelly Sibthorpe

Participant

Thank you Kelly! Your testimony to your wife's calling and gifting makes my heart sing. Willemina's ordination service is the one I reference in the article. My mom (Ellen Van Til) was so excited to witness her ordination at Talbot Street in London. I hope you and Willemina will join us at the Inspire 2022 pre-conference celebrating women's ordination and the men and women who support us and make it possible (more details will be forthcoming).

Participant

Elaine,

That's so cool!

I didn't know you were referencing Willemina's ordination!

-Kelly