On July 4, 1996, just weeks after Synod 1996 decided that women could be candidates for ordination to the Ministry of the Word in the Christian Reformed Church, Rev. Ruth Hofman became the first woman in the history of the denomination to be examined by a classis (a regional group of churches). After delegates of Classis Toronto voted to approve her for ordination, Hofman re-entered the sanctuary to a standing ovation and sustained applause. This was a historic moment.
On August 25, 1996, Hofman was ordained at First CRC in Toronto. One month later, Rev. Mary Hulst was ordained at Eastern Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich. More women followed.
On the 20th anniversary of women’s ordination, The Banner invited some of the first women to be ordained to reflect on their journey.
During seminary, only one church offered Hulst an internship, only one offered her a summer assignment, and only one offered her a pastoral position after seminary. But Hulst took these open doors as God’s leading, and they are doors that eventually brought her to where she is today at age 46—chaplain at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. “My life in ministry has been so rich,” she said. “It’s really everything I hoped it would be when I graduated from seminary 21 years ago. I really love preaching the gospel, caring for people, and inviting others into discipleship. There is nothing better.”
Hulst continued, “I was the first woman ordained in the United States, and now we have 100 women ordained. So I think in some ways we’ve come very far in 20 years. But when I hear the challenges that very gifted women have in finding a job, I wonder.”
Hulst believes there are still biases around gender that can prevent a search committee from even interviewing a woman. What if she gets pregnant? Can she really work full-time if she has children? Congregations need to be willing to interview women, hire women, and promote women, she said. “Women who are willing to take the risk and go to seminary tend to be very gifted—as preachers, pastors, leaders, administrators. We ignore their gifts at our peril.”
Rev. Amanda Benckhuysen, 46, is associate professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary, also in Grand Rapids. She was ordained in 1998. “I remember there was so much joy about synod’s decision. I remember seeing the tears flow down the cheeks of those women who had been advocating for this for so long. I remember being filled with so much hope and love for the church and a deep desire to serve the church faithfully. And even though there were still significant restrictions on women’s participation in the church, I remember thinking that, at the time, this was enough”
Twenty years on, she noted many good things have happened. At least 42 classes have said yes to women in office. More and more churches are entertaining women as sole, senior, and associate pastors. Women serve in a wide array of settings and at almost every level of leadership in the denomination.
“Even so,” Benckhuysen continued, “our current denominational position on women in office is an incredibly challenging and at times incoherent one to live out, leaving women pursuing ministry or in ministry incredibly vulnerable. They find themselves in environments where they simply do not know whether the people in the room are ‘friendly’ to women’s ordination or not, will affirm them or not, will acknowledge them and their ordination or not. This creates an awkward power dynamic whereby every ecclesiastical situation needs to be carefully negotiated personally and professionally. Truthfully, women expend a tremendous amount of emotional energy simply trying to navigate the non-position the denomination has taken on this issue.”
Rev. Michelle Gritter, 47, graduated from seminary in 1996 and was ordained in 2000. She is currently a co-pastor with her husband of The Lantern, a church plant in Calgary, Alta. “God called me to the ministry,” she explained. “I still feel his call rumbling in my soul as clearly as it sounded 20 years ago.” Gritter addressed that same conundrum Benckhuysen raised. Clearly, there is still work to be done regarding gender equality in our denomination, she said. “In one way, Synod’s 1996 decision to emphasize the ecclesiastical decision of the local church made a professional life for ministers like me possible. The same decision, however, causes a strange mix of those who both approve and disapprove of my role when I go beyond the context of my own church and into places like classis meetings. Until just a few years ago, delegates regularly registered their disapproval of the presence of women delegates at our classis.”
She went on, “There are middle-school girls in our church right now who I baptized. I am grateful to think they have never known anything other than having a woman pastor. It doesn’t even cross their minds that being an elder or a pastor in their church isn’t a possibility. And yet, in the very same classis, there are many girls who have never heard the gospel preached through the person and voice of a woman pastor.”
Rev. Eleanor Rietkerk, 71 and now retired, was ordained in 1997 and pastored Mill Creek Community CRC in Washington for 16 years. “The uncertainty around women’s ordination in the CRC made it a continual walk of faith,” she said. “God’s call on my life was so strong and so clear that even in the challenging times, I never considered saying no to that call. The only thing I was unsure of was whether I would be able to stay in the CRC. I’m so grateful to God for the final decision in 1996 that made it possible for me and many other women to stay and serve. I’m also so grateful to God for all the good things in this journey that have far outweighed the challenging ones. My call is still so precious and amazing to me and even though I’ve been asked to share it over a hundred times, the tears still roll down my cheeks as I tell it and when I think of all the people that God has given me the privilege to love and serve and who have called me their pastor.”
Rietkerk, too, believes “we have come a long way in our denomination but it’s still difficult for women to become full-time pastors. Many churches say they are all for women in ministry, but they aren’t always so willing to take the next step of calling them.”
Hofman is currently a co-pastor with her husband Steve Vanhuizen, serving Friendship Community CRC in Toronto and working part-time in the CRC campus ministry at York University. She still expresses gratitude for those who went before her. “In seminary,” she said, “I was privileged to have others champion the ordination of women to all offices of the church while I concentrated on studies that really energized me. What was true for me was, I believe, true of other women students—our calling had been tested, was made sure by the testimony of the Spirit of God and was being affirmed by the church. Humble and deeply spiritual women were instruments of God’s purposes in furthering the kingdom at that time.”
“The same is true today,” she continued, “including the barriers that still remain for women seeking ordained ministry positions. I think women and men in the church and its training institutions will have to look at ministry with fresh eyes. More are needed in the marketplace, and ‘extending a call’ may mean ordaining women and men to their communities—neighborhood, apartment building, school, factory—in other words, to places where they have the most investment of time and passion to extend the love of Christ and to live out his gospel.”
These five pioneers offered some advice to women entering the ministry today. “The one piece of advice I have,” said Rietkerk, “is that arguing the issue of women in the ministry doesn’t usually result in changing anyone’s mind. What changes minds and hearts is simply doing and being who God has called us to be.”
Hofman echoed that. “I’ve found that being genuine and warm, respectful and outgoing—along with having a sense of calling and the validation of God's Spirit—did more to soften hearts toward women in ministry than any rationale or argument. Be godly.”
Gritter told of people who opposed women’s ordination whose opinions were changed after hearing her preach and the little girl who shyly approached her after a service and whispered, “ I want to do what you do someday.”
Hulst said, “This is the best job in the world. You have a front row seat to what God is up to in a church, on a college campus, in a hospital, in the lives of all the people you care for. My advice is to develop life-giving Sabbath practices. The work is never-ending and can easily become 24/7.”
Benckhuysen’s words of advice are like a benediction on the occasion of this 20th anniversary:
“Trust God’s calling on your life, and live into that calling whether the church affirms it or not. There are ministry opportunities all around us, and while it would be nice to live out our callings in cooperation with the church, at times our path in ministry may look more like that of Johanna Veenstra, whose response to the call of God and ministry was only later recognized by the church. Remember God is good and God is faithful. It is ours to be faithful to the gifts and calling God gave us in return.”