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On the fourth Sunday in our January series on women in ministry, we will spend time with Pastor Carrie Rodgers.
Confession: I am often lured in by cynicism. When life gets tricky, I can be easily convinced that a dose of cynicism might be an appropriate, cathartic remedy and that a seething analysis of a situation around me isn’t dangerous. It’s a safe sin for smart people, especially Calvinists well acquainted with total depravity.
But then while reading Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators by Elena Aguilar, I was convicted by Aguilar’s warning to be cautious of meeting difficulty — plenty of which exists in education right now — with contempt and negativity. “Cynicism is corrosive to the community,” she writes. “It not only hurts the cynic and those around them but kills possibility and collaboration. We have to find some other way to deal with our broken hearts.”
While still wrestling with whether my heart may be more broken than bitter, I was driving and listening to Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church when Rachel Held Evans reminded me: “Cynicism is a powerful anesthetic we use to numb ourselves to pain, but which also, by its nature, numbs us to truth and joy. Grief is healthy. Even anger can be healthy. But numbing ourselves with cynicism in an effort to avoid feeling those things is not.”
It’s no coincidence that the Holy Spirit picked the week I spent writing about Pastor Carrie Rodgers to tap me on the shoulder with several warnings about cynicism because Carrie is one of the least cynical people I know.
Carrie, who pastors and leads Alive in Grandville, a West Michigan church plant, is a liferaft friend to me. She’s the kind of person whose presence and encouragement tends to my broken heart and gently leads me away from cynicism, not with guilt or judgment, but with grace, love, and humor.
I asked Carrie how she, as a woman leading a new ministry during a pandemic, avoids becoming cynical when life gets hard. She laughed, as she often does, and began by admitting her struggles, assuring me there are days when she feels like giving up. “But I usually daydream for fifteen minutes of all the other jobs I could do, and realize I have no other skills,” she says. “I love people and I love what the local church can do when it’s at its best. And I remember my small tribe of people who have made a promise to be the real salt and light of a community.”
To Carrie, that means expecting and even walking deliberately into difficulty because her approach to ministry is built on the premise of focusing on the unchurched and de-churched in her community, the latter being the most common. Her aim is to be the kind of place that makes space for people cynical about faith, those who have been hurt by the church, and who are disturbed by the incongruity between what Jesus says and how Christians act.
Alive in Grandville, a campus of Alive Ministries, was planted in 2018, and is located inside a strip mall on a busy street better known for car dealerships and fast-food restaurants than places of worship. Carrie says the new church was first thought to threaten the traditional congregations in nearby neighborhoods, until she assured them she had no intention of trying to steal their members. “We’re not here to lure other church people from other churches,” she says, but instead, brought “boots on the ground, least of these, creative thinking.” Her congregation aims to be the kind of place that welcomes those who have felt unwelcome, taking people in and showing them that “a life with Christ is the best life there can be.”
Carrie, who grew up in a traditional Christian Reformed Church, reflects on her own evolution and remembers being 16-years-old when, just minutes from her church, Mary Hulst was the first American woman to be ordained by the CRC. At that time, Carrie never imagined herself as a pastor and wasn’t sure women’s ordination was biblical, especially as her own church didn’t allow women to serve as elders and deacons. “I was uncomfortable with it because of what was drilled into my head growing up,” she says, laughing as she realizes she’s standing safely at the bottom of what she once considered a “slippery slope.”
Though Carrie couldn’t yet imagine herself behind a pulpit, as a teenager she was a “theatre kid” who was first invited to participate in services by a childhood pastor who saw her come alive on stage. As a student at Unity Christian High School in Hudsonville, Michigan, Carrie remembers one of her first encounters with women in ministry was listening to Jolene DeHeer, a popular speaker on the local Christian school circuit, at her school’s chapel services. After chapel, Carrie says her teachers would say, “That’s going to be you.”
Carrie doesn’t underestimate DeHeer’s influence upon her, citing DeHeer’s methods of bringing home a message with humor and self-deprecating stories, which Carrie says are her love language. DeHeer even became a pen pal, responding to Carrie’s letters each time she wrote. In what felt a bit like a full-circle moment, Carrie has stood in front of the same school chapel, ordained and delivering messages — though she is still waiting to be invited back after her last message on justice sparked a social media storm with parents and community members calling her scriptural understanding and authority into question.
Carrie’s upbringing has led her to think about building something different. “Looking back at the church I grew up in, we spent so much time building walls and fences,” she says, even though when she reads scripture, specifically the stories of Jesus, she is convicted by how Jesus was “always, always, always making more room for people.”
“We’re born into a river of sin,” Carrie says, “and the church should be on the water’s edge, making piers and bringing people into belonging, encouragement, comfort, and care. But instead, we’ve packed up, headed up the hill, and dug a moat around ourselves. We let the drawbridge down for people who are like us.” Carrie says the church needs to return to the river’s edge. “When I talk about what I want Alive in Grandville to be,” she says, “it’s pier ministry; it’s inconvenient, uncomfortable, and messy.”
Carrie’s ordination experience also reflects her understanding of God’s upside-down economy. While the ordination process within her Classis, a leadership board of the local churches, felt more celebratory than divisive, support from her own family varied. “My parents were both supportive,” she says, but her dad’s side of the family — non-religious people who attend church only for weddings and funerals — turned out in droves to celebrate and affirm her during her ordination service, while her mom’s church-going family members did not attend.
Carrie is well-postured to attend to the “least of these” because she doesn’t assign that meaning just to “them” but to all of us. She knows hurt, sees hurt, and understands that no one is immune to pain. And she understands that pulling up that drawbridge is often an unsuccessful attempt to limit and control that pain.
A few months ago, I sat with Carrie at a table of friends, a table safe enough for something close to cynicism, or maybe just broken hearts, to be shared without judgment. When one of those friends expressed being burnt out and exhausted by the church, Carrie empathized and said maybe it was okay to take a breather. But three days later, on Sunday morning, Carrie stood in front of her congregation and admitted her error. “I messed up this week,” she said, in a confession where you could almost hear Peter’s rooster crowing. “More than once this week, when talking to friends frustrated by church, ready to give up, I told them it was okay to leave for a while. To take some time off.” She smiled and admitted, “ I was wrong, I should have told them to stay, or to keep searching until they find the sort of place where they feel excited to do ministry, a place where they can welcome people in and to follow the example of Jesus.”
Later, while we were sitting around another table, a moment when she was no longer answering my questions for an interview, but ministering to her friend, she again confessed her change in thinking. “We get a chance to make the world we want,” she says. “If we push through the hard things, we get to contribute to the world we want and play a part in how the church will respond. Stay in and be a voice for change.”
Carrie, a self-described people-person and hugger, says she loves preaching, but the heart of her ministry is in pastoral care: the one-on-one conversations, the phone calls when the stuff’s hit the fan, celebrating people’s joy. Carrie firmly believes in the call to community. “We’re better together. We know we are. We’ve made the church more complicated than it needs to be.”
Yet in an image that perhaps best describes Carrie, and one that blends the very best parts of her past and her current mission is what she describes as the “very, very best part of her job”: infant, covenant baptism. This is the moment when Carrie, like the pastor she watched growing up, gets to participate in a “Simba moment.” After the baptismal vows are spoken and she’s poured water on a baby’s forehead, she loves to walk babies down the aisles of her church, kissing them, loving them, and showing them off to the members of her church. She proclaims, “This is our newest member and this baby belongs to God. We have a responsibility to love and care for this child, and to care for their parents.” Baptisms, that welcoming in, that giving and receiving of promises have always “gotten me,” Carrie says. “It’s so wonderfully brutal.”
That love, that refusal to turn her back on people, that insistence to love more like Jesus is what makes Carrie tick, that gets her up in the morning, and makes her a living antidote to the broken heart of cynicism.