Women in Ministry: Questions and Answers in the Exploration of a Calling
by Shannon Nicole Smythe
Wipf & Stock, April 2015, 114 pp.
Susan Sytsma Bratt wrote the following essay during her summer 2011 writing workshop at the Collegeville Institute, and it was recently published in the book, Women in Ministry: Questions and Answers in the Exploration of a Calling. Susan uses the metaphor of immigration to describe the denominational shift she made from the Christian Reformed Church to the Presbyterian Church USA over the issue of women in leadership.
“What are you still doing in this denomination?” I was sitting across from a pastor who was interviewing me for an internship at a church outside Chicago that was in my denomination. This was one of my final steps in the ordination process after completing my master of divinity degree only a month before.
“I don’t know anymore,” I replied. I noted that my childhood congregation, where I was baptized and raised, was not supportive of women in ministry, and yet they had nurtured me. Digging deeper, I shared my grief and righteous indignation over the fact that we were still discussing women’s ordination in 2006. I had already had to limit my options because not all churches were willing to take a female intern. Being male was still a requirement for ordination to be a minister of word and sacrament, and not many churches were willing to break the polity.
Yet as I continued reflecting on my journey I could not ignore that in spite of growing up in a congregation and denomination that did not affirm women’s ordination, I had been profoundly nurtured. I was baptized, had made a profession of faith (confirmed), and had been commissioned on two youth summer mission trips. The elders at my home church invited me to stand in the pulpit and “share” about my experience. They loved and affirmed me. “You speak so well. You should do journalism.” Ministers on those summer trips planted seeds. “Have you considered ministry?” they would ask. Professors at my alma mater and other mentors stood with me as I wrestled with the issue of my call and my gender.
I recalled that when it came time to attend seminary, instead of attending my denominational seminary, I broke rank and went to a seminary of a different denomination. How refreshing that was for me, not having to worry about proving myself or fighting to be heard. I had space to wrestle mightily with two calls: to the ministry of word and sacrament, and to my denomination and equality. I had decided to continue in the ordination process in my denomination, and to use my internship year to discern my next move. And then he asked that question.
He was right to ask me why I was sitting across from him. He could see that I no longer fit, that I did not have a place in my denomination anymore. He cut to the chase. Many women were waiting years to be called to serve a congregation. Several were ordained by exception to teach in schools or serve in the denominational ranks because there was no place for them anywhere else. He would be happy to mentor me.
At that watershed moment, it became clear to me: I could stay and wrestle and wait for the men of the denomination to advocate more strongly for women. Or, I could leave. Our denominational governing body, comprised of all male delegates, would discuss women in ministry 50 women’s ordination yet again in 2007. That conversation had been going on for almost twenty years, and women still did not have a place at the table. I knew if I stayed I could not be patient and I would grow bitter.
And yet, these were my people. The denomination was a home for my maternal and paternal grandparents who immigrated from Germany and the Netherlands. The denomination cradled them, and helped them make their way in a strange land.
“They are not your people,” my grandma would say to me as I contemplated denominational immigration. My own grandma knew the pain of saying goodbye, the grief of starting over, the sadness of living apart from those she held dear. She and my grandfather immigrated from Germany to Holland, Michigan in 1952. Yet, she chose to leave, to risk, and to start over in the United States at the age of twenty-five.
At the age of twenty-five, I too decided to pay the cost of passage and immigrate to a different denomination. I saw another land that contained opportunity and the promise for me to have full citizenship regardless of my gender.
Much like my immigrant grandparents who made a new home in North America, I have made a home among my new denomination. It is not the land of milk and honey. It is an imperfect denomination filled with imperfect people. Yet here I am able to minister and fully use my voice and the gifts God has given me.
My new denomination needs me, needs the gifts that my former denomination gave me: biblical literacy, theological depth, and confessional formation. I go back and visit the “old country” sometimes. I remember where I came from, what formed me, what carried me here to this new land where I have full citizenship.
Used with permission from Wipf and Stock Publishers, www.wipfandstock.com.