Mary, Martha, and Phoebe: Leaders in the Church

Sue Kuipers, Bonny Mulder-Behnia, Cathy Vyn
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Mary was devoted to listening and learning at Jesus’ feet. Martha had a steadfast work ethic. And Phoebe was a shining leader in the early church.

When synod decided 25 years ago to allow women to be ordained to the offices of pastor and elder in the Christian Reformed Church, many wondered what the future would hold for the denomination.

Now there is a generation of ordained women who recount stories of living into their Spirit-led callings. And in complementarian churches, where people believe the Bible prescribes complementary but not equivalent roles for men and women and reserves ordained leadership in the church for men, women live into their gifts in different ways.

The Bible includes in its narrative many women who followed God’s call. Mary, Martha, and Phoebe are just three examples of women using their strengths to serve God. Mary was devoted to listening and learning at Jesus’ feet. Martha had a steadfast work ethic. And Phoebe was a shining leader in the early church. 

Here are the stories of three women working in Christian Reformed congregations whose leadership roles mirror those of Phoebe, Martha, and Mary.

Phoebe

Sue Kuipers did not grow up in the church. In high school, her shop teacher struck up a conversation with her while he helped her with a project. He invited her to visit Christ Community Church, the church he attended just a block away from the school in Hayward, Calif.

“Truthfully, I wasn’t that excited to go,” Kuipers said, “but I was the first and the only girl in the class, and I was pulling an A. I figured I didn't want to do anything to risk that A, and if that meant going to church for an hour, I would.” She found herself drawn to the warmth and acceptance of the congregation and was eventually baptized there. “I’ve been there ever since,” she said.

In July 2003, Kuipers became the director of youth and education at Christ’s Community. She also enrolled in the Sierra Leadership Network, a three-year program associated with the CRC. Kuipers liked that she could take what she was learning and apply it to her work with the church’s youth group. She completed the program in the summer of 2007 and was ordained as a ministry associate and commissioned pastor that fall.

The youth group at Christ’s Community focuses on community outreach. There’s an after-school program and a community drop-in program with a lesson time and worship service. “Everything is community-based,” Kuipers said.

Kuipers grew up in a military family, and in 1971 her father joined the Hayward Police Department. Three years later, he was killed in the line of duty. Since then, Kuipers has had a heart for police ministry. She has served as the Hayward Police Department’s chaplain for almost 10 years.

“We love her. She is one of our own,” said Delia Muniz, secretary for the Hayward Police Officers Association. “She’s an amazing lady with wonderful insight. She loves God and life.” Muniz, who often must come to work in the middle of the night, said she often sees Kuipers there too. “She’s one of the biggest supporters for everything we do.”

Firefighters and police don’t often talk about the trauma they encounter in their work, but Muniz said that when they see Kuipers roaming the halls with her calm and joyful demeanor, they know it’s OK to share their emotions. That’s when “it’s time to take a deep breath. Sue’s here,” Muniz said.

Kuipers also serves the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and the Bay Area Rapid Transit and San Leandro police departments.

Kuipers acknowledges the growing tension between police and civilians but says, “There is evil in the world, and we need people to stand in that gap.” That’s what drives her focus to take care of those who serve in law enforcement. “They get into this work because they care about their communities,” she said.

Though Phoebe is mentioned in just two verses in Romans, there are a few clues about the type of person she was. She’s described as a “benefactor of many people” in her role as deacon, a word stemming from the Greek diakonos, meaning “servant.”

Likewise, Kuipers said, “I see myself as Christ’s servant.” She was the first woman deacon at Christ’s Community in the early 1980s and one of the first ordained women in central California. In 2008, she was one of 26 female delegates at the first Christian Reformed synod that allowed women to serve. The atmosphere was tense, she said, because “you didn’t know who felt what.”

Still, because synod confirms all ministerial ordinations of the previous year, Kuipers was able to confirm her own ordination.

“I don’t want to step in an area where God doesn’t want me,” Kuipers said, “but it seems like he’s calling me here.”

Martha

Growing up, Bonny Mulder-Behnia always pretended to be a preacher during playtime.

“It just felt natural,” she said. Her father is a pastor, and she was inspired by watching him make a difference in people’s lives. Mulder-Behnia is now the executive pastor at Rosewood Church in Bellflower, Calif. “My father allowed me to do whatever I wanted,” she said. “I had no limitation except beyond my capabilities.”

That doesn’t mean the road was easy. Though preaching felt like a good fit, Mulder-Behnia had never seen a female pastor, so she studied journalism and public relations in college instead. Her calling to go to seminary was confirmed while she was working as a news officer for synod in 1992.

“I was part of the 10 years of the debate over women’s ordination,” she explained, and she had to report objectively whenever synod continued to deny ordination for women.

“I had a physical reaction to walking into an all-male, all-white group that was deciding whether or not women were permitted,” she said. Mulder-Behnia remembers one year when a delegate stood up and said, “I would not dare stand before God on Judgment Day if I were to vote yes.” Then another delegate said, “I would not dare stand before God on Judgment Day if I were to vote no.”

When synod at last voted to open the offices of elder and pastor to women, Mulder-Behnia said, “I went on a walk and was crying because I’d realized this is for me.”

But that was not the end of the struggle. When Mulder-Behnia began seminary, she was one of the only women taking classes, plus she continued working full time. “I worked doubly hard in order to excel,” Mulder-Behnia said. “I was representing all women, and I had to prove that we can do this.”

Though she faced difficulties, Mulder-Behnia also felt supported. One supporter was the Committee for Women in the CRC, which provided scholarships for women to go to seminary. When Mulder-Behnia graduated, Joan Flikkema and Dorothy Van Hamersveld, who led fundraising and promotion for the committee, were there. “They’re heroes,” Mulder-Behnia said.

Mulder-Behnia has served Rosewood Church for nearly two decades, and her pastoral role is all-inclusive. She preaches, offers pastoral care, teaches, leads staff, coordinates administrative work, and oversees communication and marketing. Her responsibilities are one of the reasons she identifies with Martha.

“People always leave Martha in the kitchen, Mulder-Behnia said, “but she was a spiritual giant. She was the doer. She was a leader.” Like Martha, Mulder-Behnia is willing to serve but is a leader in her service.

“Martha knew the Scriptures, and she spoke confidently to Jesus,” Mulder-Behnia said. She attributes that confidence and Martha’s willingness to ask questions to Martha’s close relationship with Jesus.

Mulder-Behnia leads her church with that same combination of Scriptural knowledge, a close relationship with Christ, and a willingness to question.

“She is a franchise player,” said Rev. Dan Brink, who pastored with Mulder-Behnia until his retirement in February. “The thing about Bonny is she’s not only able to do ministry effectively, but she’s exceptional at recruiting, organizing, and training others to do ministry too.”

When she first arrived at Rosewood, Brink said, there was a glaring need to improve the children’s and youth ministry.

“Bonny breathed life into that ministry,” he said. “She shepherded the youth along even though she wasn’t a youth pastor.” Through Mulder-Behnia’s efforts, GEMS and Cadets have become a side door to the church.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that there are hundreds of people that come to church through the ministry that Bonny has done or catalyzed,” Brink said.

“I pretty much have my hands in everything,” Mulder-Behnia said. “When the moment calls, I will be the leader. Other times, I am the one behind the scenes.”

Mulder-Behnia said the church wants to reflect what the neighborhood is like, so part of its outreach includes integrating Spanish into worship services, Bible studies, and children’s and youth ministries instead of having separate programs. “We are figuring out how to be one family,” Mulder-Behnia said.

“This is where I fit. This is what I love,” she concluded. “My journey was a long and winding road. Even in those hard times, I feel confident that this is what God wants me to do, and this is where God wants me to be.”

Mary

Cathy Vyn begins every day with walking and praying. For well over a decade, she’s been memorizing Scripture, and those words guide her every morning on her walks before breakfast. “Those words are in my heart,” Vyn said. “They help me stay grounded and rooted.”

As she drives to work as an elementary school teacher’s aide, Vyn sings hymns. She’s written some favorites on cards and leaves them in her car so she can commit them to memory as she drives. “It is another thing I do to praise God in my everyday life,” she said.

Vyn is also an avid journaler. For 17 years, she’s documented what God has been teaching her and how she sees God at work in her life. Having struggled with low self-esteem due to her upbringing, Vyn has a strong desire to live a healthy and joyful life as well as to learn and grow. Journaling has helped Vyn see God with her in all things.

Because of these devotional practices, Vyn connects with Mary. As the Kids’ Hope director, Vyn said she depends on Jesus’ presence, encouragement, and convictions so she can do her ministry work with joy.

Many who read Mary’s story—Vyn included—ask, “What woman has time to just sit at Jesus’ feet?” Vyn responds simply, “Mary thought it was important, so I’m just going to make time for it.”

Vyn is a member of Sunrise CRC in Lafayette, Ind. The church is part of Classis Illiana, one of the three classes in the CRC that hold a complementarian view of gender roles.

Sunrise’s vision is to be passionately involved in its community, so in 2011, when a teacher at a local elementary school presented a need, the church thought establishing a chapter of Kids Hope USA would be a great fit. Kids Hope USA is a national program that brings together mentors from local churches with students from neighborhood schools.

Because of Vyn’s work in elementary classrooms, she understands that students’ emotional needs must be met before they can grow intellectually. So when Kids Hope was introduced, she immediately expressed interest in being a mentor. But she had no plans to become the director.

“I felt inadequate,” she said. But she also felt God calling her to the task. Her husband and some friends affirmed and supported her, so Vyn began training for the role.

She’s now been the program director for 11 years. Vyn still gets to mentor children, but she also trains and recruits volunteers, matches students with mentors, and supports those relationships throughout the school year.

“I take care of the administrative tasks and communicate verbally with the school teachers and staff,” Vyn said. She also makes church presentations and newsletters to keep the church informed and involved.

Vyn admits to feeling lonely and disappointed at times with all that leadership entails, but she said she keeps steady on her walk through consistently returning to God’s Word and laying her struggles at God’s feet.

“Every ministry needs a champion,” said Sunshine pastor Randy Bergsma. “Cathy has really been the champion in our church for Kids Hope. Not only does she faithfully find mentors for students, but she faithfully checks with the mentors to encourage and share additional resources and ideas. Her passion is a beautiful thing. More than all that, you can tell she really cares about the kids.” 

Romans 8:28 has been Vyn’s guiding verse for years, and she applies it to her work with Kids Hope USA. “It’s God’s work in me that brings his love to others,” she said. “I’m trusting God to carry out his plan for this ministry. This is not my ministry. God will carry it out in the way that he sees it needs to be done.”

And that might be how best to sum up how the Christian Reformed Church has chosen to sit with two views on ordaining women to church office—for those who hold that it is not allowed by Scripture and for those who hold that Scripture gives room for the ordained ministry of women, the denomination continues to try to maintain unity, trusting that God will carry out his ministry according to his will and good purpose.

About the Author

Callie Feyen is a writer living in Ann Arbor, Mich. She attends First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor. Callie writes news for The Banner and contributes to Coffee+Crumbs, and T.S. Poetry Press. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and is the author of The Teacher Diaries: Romeo and Juliet, and Twirl: My Life in Stories, Writing, & Clothes.

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