On the 5th Sunday in our January series on women in ministry, our final profile focuses on Stephanie Schuitema.
My husband and I are participating in a training offered by a local non-profit, Love Your Neighbor, an organization whose mission is to equip and empower the local church to serve its community. The class is called Serving with Dignity and its basic premise is this: What if, in order to give mercy, we need to learn how to receive it first? During our first session we considered the parable of the Good Samaritan and how when most of us read this story, we immediately cast ourselves in the role of the hero. But, what if we were to realize we are actually the ones lying half-dead on the side of the road? The ones in need of help and mercy?
I’ve come to wonder if some who resist the idea of women in ministry aren’t just weighed down by an alternative understanding of scripture, but also because they struggle, whether due to societal gender stereotypes or upbringing, with the act of receiving, of being ministered to, especially when that ministering is being done by a woman. I wonder if they were half-dead on the side of the road, or perhaps just spun into the ditch during a winter storm, if they’d expect a woman to be the one to show up and pull them out, to guide them to safety.
Stephanie Schuitema and I grew up in the same small, rural congregation. Though neither of us recalls ever seeing or hearing women preach, we share the affirmation that our faith was formed by women — by Sunday School and catechism teachers who taught us about Jesus, by our Calvinette counselors who quietly and consistently mentored us.
Looking back, Stephanie remembers the subversive, quiet example of women teachers and leaders, most who would never argue about their role or what was spoken from the pulpit, some who may not have even realized the scope of their influence. Women who may not have even realized what Stephanie calls the “thin line between perception and reality.”
I remember hearing how Stephanie, who is a handful of years older than me, enrolled in seminary after college, and my awareness that she was the first woman from my church ever to do so. Stephanie says that after finishing her undergraduate degree, she knew she saw herself going into a career as a social worker or therapist, but she wanted the understanding and the insight that comes from attending seminary. She also attributes the influence of her mom who, as Stephanie grew up, repeatedly posed the question: “What would God say about that?” Stephanie laughs as she looks back, “Maybe it was her attempt at making me feel guilty, but it made me wonder, it made me want to find out more about God.”
In seminary, Stephanie says she loved her classes in Hebrew and the Old Testament. She also enjoyed the preaching classes much more than she expected. “I was surprised by that. I just kind of fell into it — the process of reading the text in the original language and the way it impacts what is being said. I think everyone should have the opportunity to go to seminary. It opens up so much,” she says.
Today Stephanie, just as she once imagined, works as a licensed therapist in Valparaiso, Indiana. She is married to a pastor, a man she met in seminary and has three sons. Though she has never been ordained, she admits there was a time in her life when she wanted a call. “But I never wanted to co-pastor,” she says.
“One thing I don’t think I fully understood until we were inside a church was that being a pastor takes up your whole life, the whole life of your family. It was really hard to even think about Chad and I each having our own church.” She recounts that at that time, twenty years ago, co-pastoring was the main example she had of women being welcomed into a church. And though many of them entered ministry as co-pastors, if they began to have children, it was usually the wife who stepped down. She does not make judgments about others in that situation but acknowledges it has simply been the reality and the most common example held up.
Before her work as a therapist, Stephanie also served as a volunteer chaplain at hospitals, homeless advocacy groups, and even an animal shelter. And she says she really enjoyed her time being home with her kids, focused on the role of being a mother.
I remember well the Sunday morning about 13 years ago when Stephanie came back to our home church to stand behind the pulpit and deliver a sermon. I was thrilled to have her there, the emotion welling up in me as I saw another woman, someone who, like me, had grown and been nurtured inside this congregation, standing to preach and teach. I also remember that after her convicting sermon made me cry, my heart beat out of my chest as I sat in a committee meeting later that week to hear a man from the congregation question the role of women in ministry, in the presence of Stephanie’s father. “It’s just hard to listen to a woman speak,” he said, dismissing the idea of our church ever calling a woman and complaining that women show too much emotion to be preachers.
“The Bible is full of emotion,” Stephanie says as we discussed the pain of the comment, and how neither of us has ever heard anyone complain about a male preacher’s emotion. Stephanie attributes some of this thinking to regional culture, what she called the “RCA’s dry Dutch thing.” She also recalls a similar, upsetting moment during her oral senior exam in seminary. Given a question about how the church could make a bigger impact, Stephanie answered with something like: “If we actually have the joy of the Lord it should make a difference. We would look and live differently.” She explains how she was trying to make a point about the impact of truly internalizing and living into one’s faith, but remembers the sting of it being dismissed as some kind of “naive, dumb girl comment.”
Reflecting on the challenges she faced, Stephanie says, “I probably had fewer than ten people who have looked me in the face and said ‘women don’t belong in ministry.’ It’s often been more of a quiet, subtle opposition.” Though looking back now, she does question a bit of her early naivete, not about the joy of the Lord, but about the reality of the obstacles she faced in seminary. She remembers that every semester she was required to get a certain number of preaching gigs, and while her male classmates were invited to big churches, she was preaching in campgrounds. She also said that while her internships were mainly in nonprofits or children’s ministry, the men around her were serving as interns to lead preachers.
But she also recalls kindness and encouragement throughout her experience, mainly “women sprinkled along the way who reached out, welcomed me with their eyes, eyes that said, ‘I know what you’re going through.’” She recounts one of the first times she came back to our home church as a seminary student and was greeted by Fanny, a pillar of the community who never married or had children, but left a long legacy as both a Sunday School teacher and in her first-grade classroom at the local elementary school. Stephanie laughs as she remembers Fanny grabbing her by the arm, like she might have done if she was a misbehaving child, and whispering passionately, “Good for you! Good for you!”
Stephanie never asked, but always assumed her grandparents were not in favor of her enrollment in seminary, but after her grandpa died, she learned he was upset — not about that path she took, but that she was never ordained. “He didn’t think it was fair that just because I did not have a church formally call me, I wasn’t ordained.” Though Stephanie recognizes her grandpa did not totally comprehend the process of ordination, his defensiveness is affirming.
Though she had the support of her family, she also recounts how difficult Classis meetings were in the late 90s. Attending those meetings, she says, where women were allowed, but not yet welcomed, felt like “getting kicked in the face.” A couple of men were kind, but not overtly. They might send a note or quietly whisper a bit of encouragement or an apology afterward, but they wouldn’t stand and speak on her behalf inside the crowd.
When recounting the off-handed comments or backhanded compliments she’s received, Stephanie attempts understanding. “There might be some men who mean what they’re saying, but many may never have given thought beyond ‘this is the way we do it. This is the way we’ve always done it.’ But if I asked them, ‘Who taught you about Jesus?’ They’d probably say it was their mom. It’s a matter of never pushing or learning to look further.”
Looking further is exactly what Stephanie did by enrolling in Seminary, desiring to approach her faith as a learner, to be open to new and larger understandings. “It’s being willing to look at God as more than just what you thought God was,” she says, “More than just a male version of what you think. It’s that some don’t ever want to see the more of it, the more of God.”
I also wonder if it’s also a failure to receive our help, like one half-head on the side of the road, from someone whom we might not expect. And I wonder if when we consider ourselves as someone other than the hero of the story, but instead the receivers of mercy, if we might visualize that this grace and love, this God-in-the-flesh salvation, could be delivered not just by a Good Samaritan man, but a Good Samaritan woman, too.