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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.

Header Photo by Joshua Reddekopp on Unsplash

Dana VanderLugt

Dana VanderLugt lives in West Michigan with her husband, three sons, and spoiled golden retriever. She has an MFA from Spalding University and works as a literacy consultant. Her novel, Enemies in the Orchard: A World War 2 Novel in Verse, releases in September 2023.  Her work has also been published in Longridge Review, Ruminate, and Relief: A Journal of Art & Faith. She can be found at www.danavanderlugt.com and on Twitter @danavanderlugt.

8 Comments

  • Kathryn VanRees says:

    I LOVE this piece, Dana! Soon after Laura arrived at Second CRC, I heard her preach. It filled my heart and mind with great joy. As a retired pastor/preacher it was delightful to watch/listen to one extremely and powerfully gifted. Blessings to Laura!

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    You have captured our Laura, although after today she will technically not be ‘ours’ anymore. As we send her off today, hearing God’s words, not hers, as she prays each week before preaching, she will go knowing that she will leave a part of her heart in GH just as she will leave with parts of so many of our hearts. We give thanks, as we have done every Sunday for the last four years, for her gift of unpacking God’s word with such intelligence, grace, and power. Thank you for profiling her so well as she takes another step on her journey!

  • Nancy VandenBerg says:

    This story of change is so encouraging! Obviously the Spirit is moving.
    I especially loved the way God used Laura to motivate the 4 year old girl to use her spiritual gifts wherever He leads, no matter her gender. Praise the Lord!

  • Bruce Buursma says:

    I was one of those interrupters during your interview with Laura on that sunny morning in Grand Haven. Laura is a gift to the church and has made an enduring and enlightening impact on our little town. Godspeed, Laura! And, thanks, Dana for another fine profile.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Laura’s ministry in writing for this blog has been, literally, a Godsend. I have never met her, but I look forward finally to hearing her preach sometime in the future in Kitchener.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    And the “uphill battle” is getting steeper in some places. My wife and her sister (my sister-in-law) are two RCA pastors who are no longer welcome to preach in the RCA congregation they grew up in. Sad for them, but tragic for the girls and young women who miss that example,, not to mention the boys and young men who miss that experience.

  • Cornelis Kors says:

    Thank you for highlighting these wonderfully gifted women Dana! Keep it up! Along with Daniel Meeter, I lament what is happening in some of our RCA circles.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Of course, Dana, beautifully written.
    As one outside the church I obviously don’t “get it” and hope for attention to be given to the destruction of God’s kingdom on earth rather to those such as Laura—and yourself—who so lovingly bring Jesus’s revolution to the service of “the least of these.”

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