Fifteen years after women were first allowed to serve as ministers of the Word and sacraments in the Christian Reformed Church, approximately 70 women have been ordained, many of whom serve in the CRC.
But equal opportunity for women in CRC ministry remains elusive.
Of the roughly 500 candidates declared eligible for the ministry since 1996, 87 percent are men. But when it comes to positions as a senior or solo pastor, 97 percent of men get those calls.
Women, on the other hand, are getting calls to staff positions and chaplaincy at a rate that far outstrips their presence on the candidacy list.
Churches call only 3 percent of female candidates to senior or solo pastor positions. Twenty-nine percent receive calls to staff positions such as youth pastors or family life pastors, and 34 percent receive calls to chaplaincy positions, mostly in the medical field. The rest are finding other ways to serve, including on the mission field or in the employ of the denomination.
But that’s when women can find a position. Of candidates needing an extension because they did not receive a call within one year of being declared a candidate, 31 percent are women, more than double the 13 percent they represent on the candidacy list.
Women Waiting Longer for Calls
The Banner surveyed female pastors and, with only one exception, respondents agreed that it takes substantially longer for women to receive calls than men. And when they do get a call, it may be to a position they weren’t seeking, rather than to a solo pastorate.
Indeed, fewer openings are available to women. In August 2011, the denomination’s Pastor-Church Relations office reported that 59 churches were actively seeking a new pastor. Of those, almost half (26) said they would consider only male candidates. The rest didn’t indicate whether they would consider a woman. None of the profiles specifically indicated a willingness to consider a woman.
Rev. Karen Norris served as pastor of congregational life and outreach for West End CRC in Edmonton, Alberta, until recently. “I observed most of my male classmates receiving calls before me,” she said. “I was encouraged to apply for chaplaincy positions and youth pastor positions, though I did not feel called to youth ministry. It was an incredibly discouraging time.”
Rev. Chelsey Harmon, associate pastor of Christ Community CRC in Nanaimo, British Columbia, said she found it difficult to find a church position. “In my experience, women are not receiving calls as readily as men, and women are compromising on the types of calls they will take,” she said.
Women who have been in the ministry longer recognize that the job search isn’t getting easier.
“I have taught amazing women who will be fantastic pastors,” said Rev. Mary Hulst, chaplain for Calvin College and assistant professor of homiletics at Calvin Theological Seminary. “It is heartbreaking to see them have to wait for calls.”
Rev. Thea Leunk, senior pastor of Eastern Avenue CRC, Grand Rapids, Mich., mentors female seminary graduates. “I know that they are often not interviewed for open positions and most often are only considered for associate pastor positions,” she said. “Many have to get creative in designing a call so they can be ordained.”
With so many women in part-time staff or chaplaincy positions, it is tempting to assume that they prefer those positions. And indeed, some do. Many women in chaplaincy are there because they view that as their calling. And many women who are caring for young families are happy to work part-time.
But in terms of making it a generalization regarding all women in ministry, “that’s bunk,” said Rev. Vicki Cok, pastor of Waterloo CRC, Ontario. “Women go to seminary to be ministers—just like men.”
The women who have received calls sooner rather than later after being declared candidates have often been older graduates, in their 40s and 50s. And those same women were more likely to receive a call to a solo pastor position.
Other women employed sooner were those married to fellow candidates or someone already in the ministry. They are part of a new wave of clergy couples.
While the women who are part of those clergy couples are happy to be working in ministry, it can be a double-edged sword.
One respondent said that once her husband graduated and they started considering team ministry, they found more churches willing to talk to them.
But another said she works basically as a volunteer, whereas her husband is employed. “It’s difficult because his career seems to take precedence,” she said. “The assumption is that I am BOGO [buy one, get one free].”
Follow Your Calling with Eyes Open
Despite the difficulties they face, most of the women surveyed said they are happy and fulfilled in their ministry. Some have found the kind of position they envisioned when they went to seminary. Others have been “surprised by God,” working in roles they hadn’t envisioned but where they have found fulfillment.
They also wouldn’t hesitate to encourage women to enter the ministry if that’s where God is calling them. But, they said, those women need to do so knowing there will be difficulties.
“I don’t think we should discourage women,” said one respondent. “Ultimately God opens doors that no one can shut.”
That said, “we need to not sugarcoat how well we are doing,” said Harmon. “There are too many candidates who are eligible who are not getting calls.”
Rev. Leanne Van Dyk graduated from seminary a decade before the CRC approved the ordination of women, so she left the denomination to find work. She was ordained in the Presbyterian Church and is now in the Reformed Church in America, where she is academic dean and professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich.
“I am concerned about the issue of young women receiving appropriate encouragement and affirmation but then hitting the wall of a resistant denomination,” she said. “It is a terrible affront not only to the women candidates but to the Holy Spirit.”
Rev. Erica Schemper also left the CRC to find work. She was, until recently, pastor for children and youth for Fox Valley Presbyterian Church in Geneva, Ill. She expresses concern about women who already have a church position. “I’ve heard stories of women in the CRC who know that if they leave the position they are in, they may not find another call,” she said. “Churches can potentially abuse this power they have over a woman pastor.”
Change Will Follow Experience
Asked if they foresee a change in the CRC any time soon, respondents’ answers ranged from those not expecting any change to those who hope for change to those who said there will be change, but it will come slowly.
However, they said, change will not come from arguing the issue, but rather from experience. “We have to change our perception of what a pastor looks like, sounds like, and even pastors like before those of us who are ‘unconventional’ are going to be able to thrive in our ministries,” said Harmon.
“I've discovered that most of the time, [attitudes] don't change from arguing. Instead, amazing changes in attitudes take place [with] some positive experience with a female pastor,” said Rev. Eleanor Rietkerk, senior pastor of Mill Creek (Wash.) Community CRC.
“Churches need to have women regularly come and preach, or hire a seminary student for the summer,” said Hulst. “The more we as a church see the gifts that God has given these people, the more eager we will be to hire them.”
Some look to the Presbyterian Church, both in the U.S. and Canada, for an idea of what the future holds for female clergy in the CRC. The PC(USA) opened ordination to women more than 50 years ago.
Schemper said, “One thing that makes a huge difference is that churches are now required by their presbyteries to consider both female and male applicants. Truthfully, it’s probably not policies that have changed people’s minds so much as the slow progress of time and exposure.”
In the meantime, women in CRC ministry will continue doing what God has called them to do and encouraging other women who are called to follow God’s leading.
As one said, “Women need to keep on doing the work faithfully. That is the best testimony.”