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Labors of Conscience

By April 8, 2013 14 Comments

A few weeks ago, the day after Pope Francis’ election, actually, a chaplain colleague and I greeted a troop of Girl Scouts in the children’s hospital chapel; they wanted to do a service project and decided it would be a smart idea to come and tour the hospital first to find out how best to direct their efforts. (No, if you’re wondering, they did not have cookies with them. But if they did, Samoas would be my first choice. Just saying.) 

“Hey, I was a Girl Scout too!” my colleague said, “so Girl Scouts can grow up to be pastors and chaplains too!” We proceeded to show them around the chapel and answer their eager questions. Behind the gaggle of girls was a ring of women; their moms and leaders, I suppose.  After they departed, I wondered if their moms and leaders would be facing some awkward questions about whether Girl Scouts really can grow up to be in ministry. Chances are good that a number of them are part of churches that don’t ordain women– Catholics, most Baptists, lots of evangelical and independent churches, the Church of Christ (plenteous here in the “buckle” of the Bible Belt). Maybe my colleague and I inadvertently set them up for some cognitive dissonance. Oh well, it’s bound to happen at some point, just as it’s often happened for most of us women who have ended up in some sort of ministry capacity–deacon, elder, minister, et cetera. (How many of us who are former Calvinettes knew women pastors when we were young girls?).

Just over nine months ago, the RCA’s 2012 General Synod delegates voted in favor of removing the three conscience clauses that have been in the RCA’s Book of Church Order since 1980. The RCA began ordaining women to the offices of elder, deacon, and minister of Word and Sacrament in 1979, and the conscience clauses were created to ensure that those who disagreed with such ordinations would neither be compelled to participate nor be allowed to obstruct the proceedings. Originally intended as a measure to maintain unity, they have been used and misused in various ways. I’m sure there are some who have been relieved to have a form of “constitutional backup” when they’ve felt led to act on their convictions that only men ought to be ordained. However, there are also plenty who have experienced the clauses as roadblocks–a 2012 survey conducted by the RCA’s Commission for Women found that a quarter of ordained RCA women felt the conscience clauses had been used inappropriately to obstruct the ordination process.

Last summer’s vote was an affirmation that the clauses have run their functional course, that it’s time to retire them in order to live more fully into the reality that the RCA is a denomination that ordains women. To remove them, however, 2/3 of our classes, or 30 classes, need to approve of the change to the Book of Church Order. Many women in the RCA have been watching very, very closely as the process unfolds, and have been sharing stories about conversations they’re hearing at classis meetings. Some of these discussions, unfortunately, seem to be returning to the matter of whether women should be ordained in the RCA — as though this wasn’t firmly established back in 1979-1980 when I was in diapers.

The results aren’t official yet, but as of last week it looks as though 30 classes will indeed affirm the removal of the clauses. It’s been a much tighter margin than many of us hoped for, though. In a handful of classes, the outcome came down to one or two votes. I don’t claim to speak for all RCA women, but I feel like this past nine months has been marked by nearly equal amounts of affirmation and trepidation.

Some discussions take on the tone of, “if we remove the conscience clauses, will there be a place for me in the RCA?,” a concern expressed by those who continue to believe women shouldn’t be ordained. I guess I can empathize with the opinions of those brothers and sisters (mostly brothers) who are worried about the RCA being a Place Where You Don’t Know Whether Your Voice Will be Heard or Even Welcome. The best I can offer is to say that I would be happy to put you in touch with a lot of women who have managed to navigate that territory with patience and grace, and who could offer some wise advice about how to dwell there.

The outcome of the votes doesn’t create or take away current ministry positions, of course, nor does it automatically generate the kind of support, mentoring, and open doors that are needed. I am encouraged by the voices of women in the RCA who support each other and celebrate together. I also long for the men in the RCA who support women in ministry to be as vocal in their support as those who are opposed are vocal in their opposition. 

Nine months from now we celebrate Christmas; Catholics mark this with the Feast of the Annunciation, typically on March 25, nine months to the day before Christmas. On years like this one where March 25 falls during Holy Week, the Annunciation gets moved back til after Easter. This year it’s observed today, April 8. Mary’s gestational calendar waits for the Paschal mystery, so to speak. She who ponders, and waits, and accommodates.

Jim Janknegt, “Mystery #1 – Annunciation”
I like this depiction of the Annunciation by Catholic artist Jim Janknegt; somehow all of Gabriel’s doves and flowers just feel so invitational and generative, whereas most paintings of this scene tend to evoke more of a feeling of “you will bear Jesus, because God said so.” Today, we consider the risky and unprecedented events that resulted when an ordinary woman responded to God’s call by assenting — no, asserting — “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your Word” (Luke 1:37). Her conscience aligned with what was being brought forth in her; it moved from being an abstract sense of agreement and quickly became an embodied reality. May all of us who seek to bear forth a word from the Lord, men and women alike, be nurtured and sustained in the journey of discipleship.



  • Allan Janssen says:

    Actually, the RCA began ordaining to the offices of elder and deacon in 1972 and ordained the first woman as minister in 1970. It was the 1979 synod that ruled that the BCO did not prohibit the ordination of women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    I dunno … the flowers are not nearly enough to mitigate the seriously creepy face (and hands, and overall presence) of that angel! 🙂

  • /s says:

    "…it moved from being an abstract sense of agreement and quickly became an embodied reality. "
    Wow. Would we had more of that in our churches!

  • Daniel James Meeter says:

    Gold: "The best I can offer is to say that I would be happy to put you in touch with a lot of women who have managed to navigate that territory with patience and grace, and who could offer some wise advice about how to dwell there."

  • Angela says:

    I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a male friend when a woman was being considered for pastor of our church. He said he wouldn't feel comfortable going to a member of the opposite sex for counsel. I was flabbergasted and responded "but what have women being doing all these years and we've managed". It's all in the perspective I guess.

  • Jessica Bratt says:

    Enjoying the feedback and comments, all! Thanks.

    Allan–thanks for that clarification; I ought to have worded that more clearly. Yes, I recall now…Joyce Stedge and others were much earlier than 1979… the 1979 decision was more focused around whether "persons" included "women," no?

    Lynn–fair enough, there is still a lot of "overshadowing" going on in the painting!

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    Geek historian here. Joyce Stedge was ordained in 1973, after Synod President Harry DeBruyn ruled that persons did indeed mean men and women. But the BCO change kept going back to the classes for the next few years in spite of this. By 1978 some classes had grown weary of the repeated failures (often by very close votes). They said that because the BCO said persons, and because Synod had approved a paper in the late 1950s that said there was no biblical reason not to ordain women, that they were going to ordain women. Brooklyn ordained Valerie De Marinis and Bergen ordained L'anni Hill-Alto. Synod dealt with the complaints against these actions in 1979. My book with all these details and more is at the printer now! (with apologies for shameless plug …)

  • Paul Janssen says:

    Angela, there is a tendency, I think, for those who are in a "norm" group to be blissfully unaware of what puts them there. So many males in ministry would not be conscious of the sexual dynamics of a woman coming to them for counseling. They would see their sexual identity as neutral, but not see the same for a woman. Strange, and I'm not excusing or supporting it, but I think it's real. (It's analogous to white folks seeing race in others, but not in their own whiteness.).

    Lynn, wasn't Phyllis Steenhoek Palsma in that first "class" of women whose ordinations were called into question?

  • jan says:

    Yes, Daniel, and Jessica, that line is gold.

  • Allan Janssen says:

    Yes, Joyce was ordained in '73. It's important, though, to recall that women were ordained as elders and deacons as well. The ruling in '79 did have to do with the interpretation of "persons." But the argument was that the BCO already included women as persons. Lynn, you left of Joyce de Velder. Because the Synod of Albany ruled that her ordination was invalid, that allowed us in Albany to take the initiative in bringing the complaint to General Synod. To join the "book row," that's the last chapter of the book I wrote a number of years ago on the history of the Classis of Albany, Gathered at Albany

  • Jeff Munroe says:

    I think that angel looks like Leonard Nimoy. Also – for the historical discussion, I have heard the first overture to General Synod about the ordination of women was made in 1920, which would have coincided with the suffrage movement. Can anyone tell me if that is correct?

  • Jessica Bratt says:

    Jeff– according to Ed Mulder's "Full Participation a Long Time in Coming!" ( the first overtures regarding women as elders and deacons (specifically, to remove the word "male" from the description of those offices) were made in 1918. See his mention in that same section about the Nat'l Women's Suffrage Association's request in 1900, too…

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    Paul … I checked with Phyllis and she was ordained in Nov. 1979, so after it was "legal."
    Al, I was thinking that Joyce de Velder was not ordained right away because somebody in the classis complained about ordaining her and the regional synod upheld the complaint and refused to ordain her. Others then appealed asking that she be allowed ordination. But you are the church order guru and I may not be remembering that correctly!!!

  • Kristen Livingston says:

    I always appreciate your tone and helpful framing. Thank you for writing this.

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