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Last week as we began a new year and a series of Sunday stories of women in ministry, I shared the story of Rev. Dr. Mary Hulst. The second woman, the first American, to be ordained in the Christian Reformed Church, Pastor Mary’s experience speaks to the importance of being lifted up by a community attentive enough to name and give voice to God’s call, as well as the willingness to walk beside each other through the inevitable discomfort that comes from following that call.
This week I’m sharing another story of a female pastor, born a generation later, Rev. Laura deJong, with whom you may already be familiar with from her writing on this blog. Today Laura is preaching her final sermon as pastor of her first church and preparing to return to her home country of Canada later this week to lead a new congregation.
Several months ago, Pastor Laura and I shared breakfast on a sunny morning (the kind of day we daydream about on this snowy, January day) on a sidewalk patio near Lake Michigan, a few blocks from her church, Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven. Like dining with a celebrity, our conversation was sprinkled with quiet interruptions as several people stopped to wave hello or swing by our table to say good morning. The love and admiration for Laura in her community were clear.
Looking back on her call to Second Reformed five years ago, Laura is well aware it was a “big deal” to have been a 26-year-old woman, hired straight out of seminary to serve an affluent, 140-year-old congregation where two-thirds of the members are over the age of 65. “They were really pleased with themselves,” Laura laughs as she recalls her experience as the first woman called to a congregation that is home to female members who have grown accepting — and even excited — about Laura’s role, though many would never consider serving as a female deacon or elder themselves.
Laura, who grew up at Jubilee Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, was raised inside a different context with a different view of women in ministry. “As a young girl I don’t remember ever questioning,” she said, “I never knew a reality where women couldn’t be pastors.” Laura grew up watching women lead, including her mother, and didn’t realize that ordaining women in ministry was even a controversial issue until she arrived as an undergraduate student at Calvin College.
“It’s very encouraging, if you’re one of those pioneers, to see the progress,” said, Marchiene Rienstra, the first female graduate of Calvin Seminary who was turned down by the CRC for ordination, but welcomed by the Presbyterian church and later the RCA. Laura’s experience, vastly different than Marchiene’s and Mary Hulst’s, is an answer to their prayers. In my interviews with them, both women, who felt the sting of opposition to their ordination, expressed joy in seeing a growing number of female pastors lead and thrive. “We’re not doing this work for ourselves, but everyone coming after us,” commented Marchiene. Laura, like many others, is a direct beneficiary of that work, evidenced by her deep gratitude for Mary’s mentorship throughout college and seminary.
Though her experience has been refreshingly different from those a generation before, Laura would not make the leap to argue that we need to be finished talking about the issue of women in ministry. “I realize there are two stories,” she says. “I can celebrate that the path to ministry has been easier for me, while still recognizing that is not the story of others. I acknowledge that for others it has been an uphill battle.” Laura expresses sorrow and frustration not just due to the challenges of the women who went before her, but fellow female ministers who continue to fight for respect or even their place at the pulpit, as we read in Ellen Balk’s honest reflection last week.
Sitting across the table from Laura, it is impossible to miss the unmistakable passion and shift in energy when she transitions from talking about the issue of women in ministry to sharing her passion for her job. “I don’t have a bone to pick,” she says, “I think others are trying to interpret scripture as faithfully as they can. I respect that, even while I disagree.” Her story speaks to the tricky terrain of simultaneously wishing to honor and pay tribute to the women whose shoulders today’s female pastors stand on, while also disengaging from a battle they wish was long over. “I don’t want to do ministry as a woman; I just want to do ministry,” she says, naming the burden and weight of one’s gender being used as a qualifier.
When asked about a favorite part of being a pastor, Laura doesn’t hesitate: “preaching.” She smiles broadly when describing the moment an image lands on her congregation and she feels the room shift, feels God blessing and using her work. She approaches the task of crafting a sermon with playfulness, curiosity, and an appreciation for the power of story.
While passionate about delivering sermons, Laura acknowledges the assumption that as a woman she would prefer, or be more gifted, at pastoral care than preaching. Though her love for her congregants is evident, she confesses that pastoral care is “not what gets (her) up in the morning.”
With the incredible number of skill sets expected of a preacher, female pastors are often automatically cast into a co-pastor or “helpmate” role. Laura, who is dating another minister, is already processing what doing ministry in tandem could look like, and is well aware of the gender assumptions that might be placed — intentionally or not — upon her. “There’s a lot of options for couples ministering together, but people may need help seeing them,” she said.
Laura’s impact as a spiritual leader can be seen not only by watching her lead her congregation but also through the image of a multi-generation family at her church. The youngest member of the family, a four-year-old girl loves to play “Pastor Laura.” This young girl stands confidently, smiling as she imitates her young pastor praying, reading scripture, and leading worship. And the grandparents of that little girl watch, beaming at their granddaughter with widening hearts.
Like Laura, this little girl knows no different. She knows no world where her gender determines her ability to use her spiritual gifts. She knows no world where she wouldn’t be given room to stand on a pulpit and boldly declare God’s love.