Twenty years ago this past August, First CRC of Toronto, Ont. ordained Ruth Hofman as the first female minister of the Word in the Christian Reformed Church. Hofman is now pastor at Friendship Community Church in Toronto.
As part of commemorating the 20th anniversary of this historic event, First CRC of Toronto has prepared a resource package for churches in Classis Toronto and across the CRC to celebrate this milestone.
CRC News joins in the celebration by presenting the stories of four women—Bailey Sarver, Laura de Jong, Cara DeHaan, and Sarah Schreiber—who talk about their various callings to ordained ministry.
Bailey Sarver remembers being told that there was no way she could become a Christian Reformed Church minister. Instead she was encouraged to marry a CRC minister and play the piano during services.
The fourth-year Calvin Theological Seminary student also recalls a church elder once telling her that he didn’t believe women should be ordained. He then told her that at least she would look good behind the pulpit.
Hearing those comments was painful to Sarver. At times, they even made her doubt her calling to be a minister. Fortunately Sarver also had positive, substantial encouragement in her life.
From her early years in grade school, she has loved serving in different ways in the church. Sarver says that mentors supported and encouraged her in those roles.
“I have had a passion for a long time for outreach ministry and have believed it is important to create community and space for a variety of people,” said Sarver.
She especially credits Good News Chapel, the congregation in Oskaloosa, Iowa, in which she grew up, for sparking her interest in and allowing her opportunities for ministry. She worked in many capacities as a church volunteer and was able to preach there a year or so ago.
Attracted by the idea of ministry, she studied theology at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.
After college, she worked for three years as an admissions counselor at Dordt. During that time, as she helped other students chart a path for their future, she thought seriously about her own future and finally decided to enroll at Calvin Theological Seminary.
“Once I made that decision, it all ended up falling into place, and I was provided for in ways I didn’t expect,” she said. “Even before I started at Calvin, though, I still wasn’t sure if this was what I should do. But once I got here, I never doubted my calling.”
Sarver plans to become a candidate for ministry in 2017 and is leaving her options open as to where and in which ministries
she might serve as an ordained pastor.
Laura de Jong
Laura de Jong felt a strong calling to become a CRC minister one day while she was studying Orthodox Judaism rituals in the library at Calvin College.
She had already had a sense that she wanted to continue on to seminary, but that day, as she did research for a paper on what the Reformed faith could learn from that branch of Judaism, a feeling she finds hard to describe came over her.
“As I was doing the work and thinking about worship, faith, and God, I just knew that this [becoming an ordained minister] was what I wanted to do,” said de Jong, who had grown up attending Jubilee Fellowship CRC in St. Catharines, Ont.
When her mother, Wendy, called her the next day, de Jong said, it confirmed her feeling. Wendy had just read an article on the topic of women’s roles in the church and had also had this sense that her daughter ought to study for the ministry.
De Jong says that her mother is a role model for her, having worked for 30 years as an administrative assistant at their church. Another role model has been her aunt, Cindy de Jong, who is now pastor of Lakeside Community CRC in Ludington, Mich.
But perhaps the most influential person in shaping her vocation—and how she hopes to act in ministry—has been her sister, Jovita, who has a disability.
“My sister so clearly embodies for me what it is to love openly,” said de Jong. “I’m just her sister, and she loves me unconditionally.”
When she graduates and becomes a candidate next year, de Jong hopes to find a position as a preaching pastor at a church.
Cara DeHaan came close to earning a doctorate in English literature before dropping out of graduate school and beginning the journey of studying for ordained ministry at Calvin Theological Seminary.
“Going to seminary has been a step of courage for me,” said DeHaan, a distance-learning student who lives in Waterloo, Ont.
For many years, she struggled with the idea of women being ordained. She grew up in an Ontario congregation that split over the issue. Many of her parents’ friends left the CRC to start a United Reformed Church congregation.
“I think I’ve always had the desire to learn more about and be involved in ministry,” DeHaan said. “Even so, I’ve had a huge fear of entering into controversy. I wasn’t sure what I thought about women being in positions of authority.”
When she and her husband started attending Waterloo CRC, however, she was able to see women preaching and was given the opportunity to serve as a deacon and elder. That gave her a better idea of her gifts and how she could use them.
Today, DeHaan is a stay-at-home mother of three children and is also in her third year of study in Calvin Seminary’s distance-learning program.
Given her education and background as a college teacher while working on her Ph.D., along with her service in her local church, DeHaan believes she will be in a good position to be a pastor, in whatever capacity that turns out to be.
“I’m not sure what will happen, but I will be equipped for whatever God has me do.”
Sarah Schreiber felt God nudging her from an early age to study to become a CRC minister—and eventually a seminary professor.
Schreiber grew up in Holland, Mich., and attended Park CRC.
“I grew up in a church in which the gifts of both men and women were appreciated,” said Schreiber, who teaches Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary. “Park Church has been so supportive of my call to ministry, and I have had the chance to preach there.”
She attended Calvin College and then went on to Calvin Seminary, where few women were taking classes at the time and only one woman, Mary VandenBerg, was a tenure-track teacher.
Today she is one of six women on the teaching staff at Calvin Seminary.
“That feels like a lot more than one,” said Schreiber, who is also an associate pastor at Grace CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich. “We meet together often and can be one another’s champions.”
Schreiber said she often has a chance to speak to women about the struggles they face as they work toward an M.Div. degree and look ahead to being ordained as ministers.
One issue they discuss is that it is hard for women to find senior pastor positions, since there are still congregations that oppose women in office and others are reluctant to hire women. Only about 3 percent of the pastors serving CRC congregations are women.
Another issue they talk about is the reality that the Bible is ambiguous on the topic of ordaining women. “While it is biblically defensible, it is not an easy, cut-and-dried issue,” Schreiber said.
She added that she and others also discuss the gratitude they feel for the women—and men—who blazed the trail leading to the ordination of women 20 years ago.
“Absolutely, we are grateful for those who have gone before us,” she said. “They made it so that women can answer the call to serve—and to serve in so many ways.”