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Sesame Street Muppet Can Inspire Leaders

December 8, 2021
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Elmo, a furry, red stuffed animal and one of the stars of the long-running children’s program Sesame Street, sits on Cindy Bultema’s desk in her office at GEMS Girls Clubs in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Bultema serves as executive director of GEMS (Girls Everywhere Seeking the Savior), a club that is active in many Christian Reformed Church in North America congregations as well as in other churches and denominations around the world.

During a recent online Connect Coffee Break conference, Bultema served as a plenary speaker and told why Sesame Street and the muppet Elmo are close to her heart and have been an inspiration to her.

“Maybe you’re wondering what one person can do in our world today,” said Bultema, whose message aimed to inspire other women to step fearlessly into the roles God has provided for them in various ministry areas.

“Let me tell you about Joan Ganz Cooney, one of the founders of Sesame Street,” said Bultema.

With a background in educational television for adults, Cooney wondered – back in 1966 – if the same medium could provide a similar type of programming for children, said Bultema.

So Cooney joined with others to pursue this idea, and by the late 1960s, said Bultema, they had created the first installments of Sesame Street, featuring characters such as Big Bird, the Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo, a character with a falsetto voice who always talked about himself in the third person.

“When Sesame Street came out, the critics were ruthless,” said Bultema. “They didn’t like the title Sesame Street. They thought the Cookie Monster would make kids fat. They thought Oscar the Grouch was too mean. Researchers said you couldn’t teach kids through TV. But Joan persisted.”

And this was a main theme in Bultema’s talk – persistence — not giving up, even in the face of what may seem to be impossible. Cooney had grit and a vision; she believed kids would be eager to watch this show and to learn from it, said Bultema.

“By the end of the show’s first season the ratings were high, the song “Rubber Ducky” (sung by the character Ernie) was on the music charts, the show won the first of more than 150 Emmy awards, and Big Bird had made the cover of Time magazine,” said Bultema.

“By the time of the show’s 10th anniversary in 1979, nine million children were watching Sesame Street daily, and research showed it was having a positive educational impact on children. By its 40th anniversary in 2009, Sesame Street had gone global and was being watched in over 120 countries.”

What had seemed like a “mission impossible” became possible, said Bultema. 

Bultema then noted that some years ago, when she was in youth ministry at a church, she also had an Elmo doll on her desk. And one day a young girl, who was visiting from another country, came into her office, saw the muppet, and exclaimed: “Elmo!”

“That was when it hit me,” said Bultema. “If a young girl from another country can love Elmo, it could be possible for us to find ways to turn the world upside down for Jesus’ sake — and not just to love him but to follow him.”

But her Elmo story doesn’t stop there. After six years of serving that church as a youth director, Bultema became a stay-at-home mother, a role she cherished. But at the same time, she said, she began to wonder if God thought she wasn’t good enough to be a leader. Doubts took over, and Elmo went into storage somewhere in the family’s garage.

“Friends,” asked Bultema, “when was the last time you felt the same way? Maybe you are in a ministry role, and [then before long] you find yourself in a leadership role, and you wonder if you are up for the task.”

In today’s world, she added, things are fast-paced and getting more so — and “most days we can feel overwhelmed.” Or “perhaps you have different situations going on at church. There are heated arguments and tricky discussions, and you find yourself floundering,” she said.

“Or maybe your home life seems completely impossible. Between the pandemic, the pressures, the pitfalls, and problems, you find yourself saying, ‘God, this is too much. I can’t do this.”

Remember, though, said Bultema, “that the Bible is filled with men and women who were asked to take part in impossible situations, and yet these turned out to be faith building opportunities. Remember, God doesn’t leave anyone in an impossible situation. . . . God always knows what he is doing, even if it doesn’t make sense right now from your perspective.”

After a time of staying at home, and as her self-esteem returned, Bultema began blogging, writing books, and eventually speaking at Christian-sponsored events.

Still, she said, she felt like she should be doing more. Then in 2017, she had a strange dream in which, she said, God told her she would be the next director of GEMS.

When she awoke from that dream, as she recounted in an earlier story in CRC News, she wasn’t sure what to do. Since her daughters attended GEMS and she had spoken at some of their gatherings, she knew about the organization.

However, she didn’t know if they were looking for a new director. Then, after praying and talking to her husband, John, about it, said Bultema, she gave the organization a call. And she found out they were, in fact, looking for a new director.

GEMS was well into the search process for a new executive director when she contacted them, she said, asking if she might be considered to be a candidate. 

Bultema received an interview, and, a few weeks later, after praying about it frequently, she was offered the position – a testimony, she believes, that shows not only the ways in which the Lord acts but also the value of pursuing new opportunities for ministry. “I knew by reading the job description that it fit me perfectly,” she said.

In her presentation, Bultema also spoke about the apostle Paul, who faced many difficulties, including prison, shipwreck, and  beatings because of his calling to spread the good news of Jesus.

“Paul was faced with what looked like impossible situations,” she said. “But Paul was always in communion with God.”

Having led GEMS for nearly five years now, Bultema remains convinced that following your dream may entirely be God’s calling — which, she said, after prayer and discernment you ought to answer.

“If you are faced with a fork-in-the road decision, make a faith-filled choice. Pick your path based on your faith and not your fear. Choose courage over comfort and determination over defeat. Regardless of the situation, you have a choice.”

Referring again to Elmo, Bultema said her original muppet doll ended up being donated to a Goodwill store while she was staying at home. But now she has a new Elmo on her desk — to constantly remind her of the importance of persistence, as well as ongoing prayer.

“You may feel like you are the least likely leader. So look upward. Set your eyes on God instead of looking for a way out,” said Bultema. “God will equip you with everything you need to be a leader. God is with you, and in him you have everything you need to be a leader.”