As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
Brought up in a home with strong Christian values, I knew of the Heidelberg Catechism at a young age. Particularly treasured, even today, is the reality that as the Heidelberg says, “I am not my own but belong ...” The words of an old hymn often echo in my mind, “And he tells me I am his own." I knew to whom I belonged and I knew him to whom I belonged. But the experience of the deep, sweet richness of that truth is sometimes soured by the realities of life.
During those childhood days, my two brothers, one older, one younger, would taunt me with a sing-song, “Boys are better than girls.” After all, there were two of them and only one of me. I know they never meant to hurt, but they did. No matter how hard my mother tried to convince me that because there was only one of me, I was special, I believed my brothers.
At high school graduation, I was awarded a scholarship to the Reformed Bible College. I was honored, but the fit just was not there. In those days, RBC trained missionaries with a focus on foreign missions: I had no sense of a calling to those opportunities. Though I worried a lot about where God was leading, I turned down the scholarship. I trusted that in his wisdom, doors that needed to be opened would be opened in his good time.
Life happens, and soon I was married, had a busy family, and became an active adult member of the local church. My career as a church musician began when I was 14 years old and has continued to today when, at 88, I play the piano for worship services in the retirement home in which I live. Teaching Sunday school, leading Ladies Aid, directing Calvinettes (now GEMS), directing choirs, visiting nursing homes, conducting fundraisers, producing Christmas programs and Easter sunrise services, even scrubbing the candle wax off the narthex floor after a Christmas Eve candlelight service, I covered the gamut of what a woman might do in a church. I loved it, I flourished.
Finding a Place to Grow
Happy as I was, a pervasive sense of incompleteness haunted me. The issue of women in ministry was one of great contention in our denomination. In fact, at a time when an educational wing was being added to our church building, I was appointed to the decorating committee. In a congregational meeting in which the committee assignments were introduced, a voice from the back of the room spoke out loudly, “Get that woman off that committee.” Wow! I looked around and realized I was the only woman appointed. Could he have meant me? I didn't know the man personally, but really? A problem with a woman on a decorating team?
One day, while reading our denomination's monthly publication, I read a little one-paragraph blurb, boldly titled “PRAISE THE LORD!” It went on to tell of a young man with Down’s syndrome who had been installed as a deacon in one of our denomination's congregations. Having served as executive director for a home for the developmentally disabled, I was in complete agreement. But then came an “aha” moment. Could this really be? Because of the young man's maleness, he could serve, and I (and others) because of my femaleness could not?
Those thoughts caused a festering in my mind that would not end. Then, and all in God's timing I'm sure, a friend from years past called to tell me of a local seminary's M.R.E. program. My antennae immediately shot up. During years of raising children and 25 years after high school graduation, I had completed college. Now, at 52, was I capable of a master's degree? Could this be the answer to my discontent? I read somewhere that if you lack the courage to begin, you have already failed. Did I have that courage? But this certainly needed my husband's blessing. He was in full agreement: “Liz, if that's what makes you happy, go for it."
So I began my journey as a seminarian, fulfilling my insatiable thirst for learning, one of the highlights of my life experiences. The unlimited availability to learn, the helpful professors, the comradery of fellow students, the stimulation of my mind, the times of feasting on kingdom living are still precious to me.
But this joy-filled balloon has not always stayed aloft. It has been battered and bruised and even, at times, deflated. The responses from those who heard of my attendance at a seminary varied. Some shared my joy, many questioned why, and several considered that I must be crazy. Today I wonder at those responses. I had no plans or intentions of being ordained or of any position in leadership. My only aim was to be more qualified in serving in ministry. To this day I cannot give full expression to my joy in finishing my degree, as there are still those who consider me to be some crazy breed, a mixed-up human being. Though I am proud of my seminary degree, I am not quick to mention it; in fact, I tend not to.
The sorry thing is that there are subtle and not-so-subtle expressions of those sad responses. The spring of my graduation, a young man from our church graduated from Calvin Seminary. He had been away from the local church for several years―his college years were spent at Dordt College in Iowa and his seminary years in Grand Rapids. He had accepted a call to a church out of state. Our church invited Bill to a special Sunday honoring him, as a son of the congregation, for his graduation from seminary. A special gift and a time of fellowship with coffee, punch, and a cake designed especially for the occasion marked the celebration. Though I had never missed a Sunday worship during my years at seminary and intended to continue my work within the congregation, my name did not make the list of graduates in the church's bulletin.
After my graduation, our church gave me the title of director of music and education. Our pastor seemed to have no problem with my work before my seminary attendance, but after graduation the situation changed. Never did he share (though I requested it) his expectations of me as a junior staff member. Never did he mention me or my work in his congregational prayer, though Bill's work was prayed for many times. Ironically, Bill returned one Sunday as a visiting preacher and remembered me and my work in the congregational prayer. Was that my own gasp I heard?
The Journey Continues
Later I was employed at two other churches as director of education in very satisfactory situations. Love abounded, and though I still looked as female as I ever did, no one seemed to notice. A position as an educational consultant at our denomination's publishing house was offered to me. It fit me well, and I served there many years with pleasure. There seemed to be no problem with having a female mind and body in that position.
Little irritations still appear. Showing up for a class offered to area churches (a discussion of the book Dining with the Devil), I found myself to be the only woman present. Upon gathering, the host declared, “Gentlemen, the ladies have a great breakfast prepared for us. Help yourself.” And he motioned to a well laid-out buffet. I slowly raised my hand and asked if I could eat too. I'm sure he had no negative intentions, might have thought I was kitchen help, but for me a sense of not belonging was generated. Oh God, am I too sensitive?
Becoming members of a newly planted church, a small outreach-oriented community of believers, was a feeling of fresh air for me. There the women in ministry was not an issue. Soon because of our small size we were electing women to the office of deacon and, later, elder as well.
As an elder, the question of attending our local classis meeting arose. Each church sends the pastor and elder delegate to the meetings. The male elders of our council are duly employed, so daytime attendance is difficult if not impossible for them. I was delegated to attend a meeting in January of 2009一the first female delegated to the local classis. Upon the call for acceptance of the roll call, one young pastor immediately stood and questioned my attendance and credentials. The presiding officer for the day responded that my credentials were in order and I was seated as a delegate. Promptly, the delegates from two churches got up and walked out. At the morning coffee break, I approached the young pastor who had questioned my credentials and because we were serving as the host church, extended my hand with a “welcome to church.” He shook my hand and murmured something that sounded like “It's nothing personal.” Oh, really? What's more personal than being male or female?
Though there were some friendly lions that day, it felt like I spent the day in the lion's den. In the afternoon, I managed enough gumption to volunteer for a committee assignment. I received no information regarding the committee's activities. Months later, I asked my pastor, if perhaps, the committee had never functioned. What was happening? He looked up his record and reported that the chair of that committee was the pastor who had questioned my attendance at classis in the first place. He had conveniently failed to notify me of the committee's activities.
Knowing Who I Am
However, affirmation of my work in God's kingdom comes in many ways. Strangely, of those I have chosen to share, two involve the male species. The first, a young father in his 40s, who as a middle schooler had been in my class on the introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism, approached me and said he wanted to thank me for an important aspect of his daily life. He said that when I taught the first question of the catechism to the class, I gave each of them a mirror for their school locker, reminding them each time they looked into it to remember those words, “I am not my own but belong body and soul to my Savior, Jesus Christ.” To this day, he never looks into a mirror without recalling those words.
Another affirmation came from a recent graduate of the Duke Divinity School, who chose to have my name listed in the program as someone to whom she wished to express gratitude for the part I played in her life and career development.
A third came more recently from a young, struggling babe in Christ. He wanted to talk with someone about his marriage that is falling apart. Yes, he has a church elder but said he felt much more comfortable talking with me. Though his load is heavy, I am blessed that God is using me to help him.
I can be a woman in ministry no matter what the obstacles. As my mother tried to teach me, I am special: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). He made only one of me, and for that I am responsible. The deep, rich sweetness of his truth is enough: “I am not my own ….”