Women Leaders in a Year of Pandemic

Rev. Kelsi Jones

It’s been 25 years since the Christian Reformed Church in North America declared that all congregations in the denomination may allow women to serve in the office of minister, elder, deacon, or commissioned pastor. While this decision recognized that there are two different perspectives and convictions on this issue, both of which honor the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God, it opened the door for women who had long felt called to serve in these roles (see Acts of Synod 1995).

In March of this year, the number of women who have been ordained as either ministers of the Word or commissioned pastors in the CRC passed 200. Their journeys are part of a long history and legacy of women using their God-given gifts and callings in local and global missions. Below are glimpses of how three women serving God through the ministry of the CRC have affected their communities during the past year of pandemic. You can read more about the milestones of other courageous women who have helped to shape this journey at crcna.org/WomensLeadership.

Rev. Kelsi Jones

In October 2020, Rev. Kelsi Jones entered into ordained ministry by accepting a call to serve as Pastor of Preaching and Community Connections at two neighboring churches in the Chicago area.

Jacob’s Well Church is a young congregation redefining its mission as members seek to serve their community. Grace Community Church’s congregation is aging, with many members entering into retirement living centers and unable to attend church in person.

Jones describes leading these congregations during COVID as extremely challenging. “When I came on staff we were meeting online,” she said. “so while people could see my face every Sunday on our videos, I felt disconnected from the congregations.”

The complexity of ministry was heightened for Jones because she was the first solo female pastor at Jacob’s Well and the first Black pastor at both churches during a time when race issues have been politicized. Jones said she approached both congregations with a posture of humility and openness, recognizing that many in the church were thinking about race for the first time in their lives.

Persevering through some hard and painful discussions, Jones wanted to always keep Christ at the center. As a result, the churches have come together to read and discuss Jemar Tisby’s book How to Fight Racism with the goal of both learning and taking action to address racism in their churches, schools, and neighborhoods.

Jones leans on friends and colleagues in ministry as she navigates the challenges of being a new pastor in a new city during a pandemic. Rev. Michael Kooy, her co-pastor at Grace, has helped her process ministry challenges and brainstorm solutions.

Jones said the circumstances have led her and others in the community to adopt a culture of extending grace and embodying the fruit of the Spirit when plans change at the last minute. “We have had the ability to remember it’s not how good the music is, how clear the livestream feed is, if there is coffee after church or not, but that we gather to worship God,” she said. “We were able to come back to the heart of worship, and I hope and pray that focus remains.”

Rev. Mirtha Villafane

Rev. Mirtha M. Villafane serves as the senior pastor of Latin American CRC in Anaheim, Calif. She also serves on the executive team of the CRC’s Consejo Latino (Latin Council), communicating a unified vision and developing strategies for coaching and mobilizing new Hispanic pastors serving in or looking to affiliate with the CRC. Within Classis Greater Los Angeles, Villafane identifies, recruits, and trains multiethnic church planters as the Hispanic Developer and Local Mission Leader with Resonate Global Mission.

For years Villafane led her congregation through a reorganization process to address its steep decline in membership. Their efforts were bearing fruit, but then COVID hit.

The congregation comprises mostly Latino people who are first-generation immigrants. Many of these members experienced financial hardship during the pandemic. They turned to food pantries to feed their families and struggled to pay rent. Many members disconnected from the church and from worship services. Some members left completely. Others joined the congregation’s virtual gatherings. Now that in-person worship services have resumed, attendance has been very low. Many people attend through Facebook Live, but Latin American CRC needs to rebuild, both in the congregation and in the community.

“God in his sovereignty changed everything,” Villafane said. “We are still praying for God to help us clarify and implement our work. We are hopeful and are developing plans, goals, and activities for a summer of ministering to the community.”

This year has taught Villafane to value life—eternal life. Quarantine and social distancing have distanced church members from individuals who desperately need the hope of the gospel. Villafane wants her church to live with a gospel-oriented purpose, totally surrendering to the will of God.

“We cannot love our lives more than we really love Christ,” she said. “Without that understanding, we have nothing for those who have not yet experienced his love and grace.”

Rev. Christina Brinks Rea

Rev. Christina Brinks Rea is the pastor of the Church of the Savior CRC in South Bend, Ind., a congregation that had about 120 members before the pandemic.

When the world went into lockdown, Church of the Savior prioritized the safety of the most at-risk in the congregation. They adapted to worshiping outdoors with lawn chairs and blankets, and despite some awkwardness, Rea said the experiment turned out to be a lot of fun. The informal environment allowed children to feel welcome even without a nursery or children’s programs.

Rea highlighted how these unusual times made for lasting memories. A shade tree dropped black walnuts on unsuspecting people sitting underneath, for example, and one Sunday the communion goblet broke when the wind blew it over.

When the weather was no longer hospitable to outdoor worship, the church adapted once again as it learned to livestream. “It was extremely hard and exhausting at the beginning,” Rea said, “and not everyone was happy with how we chose to do things. I spent a lot of time worrying if we were including everybody, or if there were other things we should be doing. But that time has largely passed, and I have to say, on the whole my congregation was pretty wonderful. People were for the most part ready and eager to do what would keep their fellow congregants safe and healthy, even if it put them out a little bit, and most people were very understanding of our limitations during that time and encouraged the leadership of the church rather than criticizing it.”

Rea said praying with two other members of the congregation for an hour twice a week pulled her through this past year. Time typically spent visiting people was an invitation from God to enter more deeply into a life of prayer for the church.

“What could have been a break in activity actually turned out to be an incredibly fruitful time as we dug deep into prayer and into seeking the Holy Spirit’s leading,” she said. “It eventually led to a prayer training, which we are currently working through with a small group in our church.”

Rea hopes her congregation will take this lesson of “prayer, prayer, and more prayer” into the future. “We always need the Spirit’s leading, but much of the time we can rely on our own strength and expertise and do well enough,” she said. “But when the future was so opaque and unpredictable this last year, we were really forced to turn to prayer and the Holy Spirit in ways we could choose to do or not to do before. I would like us to remember, even when things feel a little more certain and less scary, that we are not in charge, but ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:15).

About the Authors

Rev. Elaine May serves the CRCNA in the role of women's leadership developer. She lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., where she attends Gold Ave CRC. She's a certified personal development coach pursuing her doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary in leadership development. crcna.org/womensleadership

Annie Mas-Smith

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