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Pastor’s Memoir Full of Rich Experiences

July 28, 2021

Carolyn Cammenga, a retired Christian Reformed pastor, began her life experiencing deep feelings of rejection.

Her birth mother was unmarried and had given the child to her parents to raise. And although Cammenga’s grandparents loved her, they had to give her up for adoption after a few years.

Those early experiences left a hole in Cammenga’s heart that nothing could fill until she was able to turn to God who, she said, has never pushed her away or turned his back on her.

In her new book titled What Others Reject, God Accepts: A Pastor's Journey toward Wholeness, Cammenga recounts her first attempts to connect with and welcome God into her young life.

Cammenga was part of a Methodist youth fellowship and in her early teens at the time she turned to God.

“It was about then that I began searching for a personal relationship with God,” she writes.

“I can remember building a simple altar in my room and spending time each day in prayer,” she writes. “I’m not sure why; I only know this was important for me. I was obviously searching for something or Someone.”

Even though her adoptive parents loved her, it took a long time — and with God’s help — to move beyond feelings of loss, sorrow, and confusion that were rooted in her early memories.

In the prologue to her book, Cammenga writes that she “not only began to trust Jesus” as her personal Savior but also allowed him to direct her life, “one step at a time, into full-time Christian service.”

Spunky, energetic and forever willing to try the next thing, Cammenga eventually realized that God had a plan for her life and that, as she began to trust him “year by year,” she writes, her fear of “rejection and failure began to dissipate.”

Part of her story includes serving for three years in the late 1990s as dean of women at Calvin Theological Seminary. This was when the first women ministers of the Word were being ordained in the CRC.

Having written her book mainly for her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, Cammenga said she eventually decided to publish the book with the Christian self-publisher Xulon Press Elite.

“In a creative writing class I was taking, the others told me I should publish the book,” she said. “I had never thought of that.”

In her memoir she describes herself as a headstrong girl and an equally single-minded woman who has exuberantly embraced the world and all it has to offer while under the watchful care of God.

In publicity for her new book, she said: “It is my hope that others, especially pastors, will find this book an encouragement and inspiration as they too meet the challenges of life and make their own personal journey toward emotional and spiritual wholeness.”

There are so many details and events in her book that they can’t all be mentioned here. But Cammenga, despite her early experiences of rejection, has been able to be a early leader in women’s ministry in the CRCNA, to be a teacher in Egypt, to serve many congregations (both Presbyterian and CRC), and to keep moving forward even after being disappointeded or hurt in one way or another by life’s challenges.

“When I’ve faced hard things, I’ve gotten through them as soon as possible so that I could go on with my life,” said Cammenga, who has retired five times from five different positions and now lives in a retirement community in Grand Rapids.

At the age of 85, she is still very active, with friends scattered across the United States and in places around the world. “I’ve come to see how the Lord can work with you through any situation,” she said.

Cammenga’s has not been a mundane life. She joined others in being evacuated from Egypt in 1956 during the war between Egypt, Israel, and France over the Suez Canal; she went on mission trips to various countries around the world; and she has been married three times, once to a man who eventually admitted that he was gay. After extensive marital therapy, she said, they were divorced.

Later, she married Bill Wharton, an architectural engineer from Fairbury, Ill. After he passed away, she eventually married Syd Cammenga in 2013, but became a widow again when he died in 2019. She has four children, 10 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

In her early years when she was in Egypt, she said, she fell in love with but didn’t marry a doctor in Egypt. She went to a community college to learn Arabic when she was working with a family from Iraq, and was once friends with Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking. In addition, she has preached in several pulpits once available only to men.

Written in a breezy fashion and yet with emotional depth, her book reads like a diary, recounting incidents large and small. Her prose carries the reader along, following the life of a woman who was able eventually to reconcile with the mother who had given her up.

Rich in detail, this is the story of a pastor who served as a hospital chaplain, worked as a children’s minister, and led as a senior pastor. She helped to grow churches and was there when a church had to shut its doors.

With an interest in other faiths, Cammenga has also visited mosques and other places of worship, she said.

She has also loved singing with the Grand Rapids Symphonic Choir, she said, and has played the piano most of her life.

“After over sixty years of ministry in missions, Christian education, and as a pastor, I have learned the importance of establishing and keeping priorities,” she writes.

“My first priority has always been the Lord: Trusting in him, leaning on him, accepting guidance and forgiveness from him, growing daily in my relationship with him.”

First ordained in the Presbyterian Church, she became a minister of the Word in the CRC in 2007 when she was ordained at Plymouth Heights CRC, where she served in a variety of positions.

Over the years, from her time in seminary in the 1970s until now, she said, she has always been a behind-the-scenes supporter of and advocate for women in the CRCNA, which this year is marking the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women ministers in the CRC.

“My journey as a female pastor has been one of great joy, both personally and professionally,” she said.

“I have treasured my times of fellowship with both male and female clergy. I have appreciated the solid theological foundation of the CRC and am very grateful for having had the opportunity to serve, especially at Plymouth Heights.”