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Christian Reformed Women Study for a Job They May Not Get

c. 2007 Religion News Service GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. _ On a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon, Meg Jenista steps to the pulpit of Fuller Avenue Christian Reformed Church and confidently reads Jesus’ words from the Gospel of John. “I am the true vine, and my father is the gardener,” Jenista reads to about 65 worshippers at the […]

c. 2007 Religion News Service

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. _ On a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon, Meg Jenista steps to the pulpit of Fuller Avenue Christian Reformed Church and confidently reads Jesus’ words from the Gospel of John.

“I am the true vine, and my father is the gardener,” Jenista reads to about 65 worshippers at the 6 p.m. service. The church has a female pastor and reserves four sermons a year for female seminarians like Jenista. “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Then, concluding the Scripture passage with a warm smile, she tells them, “This is my command: Love each other.”

This is what Jenista, a student at Calvin Theological Seminary, loves and wants to do: preach the word of God in a Christian Reformed Church. But many in the CRC do not believe the Bible allows women to preach.

So Jenista, like the 20 other women studying for the ministry at Calvin Seminary, lives with the uncertainty and the rigorous preparation for a job that may or may not await her after graduating next spring.

“You dance with the one that brought you,” says Jenista, 28, who was raised in a different denomination that also did not allow female ministers. “The CRC brought me.”

“I also know God called me to dance. And if the CRC doesn’t want me, I can find another dance partner.”

Hers is the dilemma faced by many female students at the CRC seminary. They feel called to serve the Grand Rapids-based CRC but also know they may not get hired by any CRC churches.

Supporters of women’s ordination hope to vote down all restrictions against female clergy at next month’s CRC Synod. But even with barriers removed, women still would be at the mercy of churches willing to hire them.

Many female grads have switched to the Presbyterian Church (USA) or Reformed Church in America to land preaching jobs, says the Rev. Heidi De Jonge, pastor for discernment at Calvin Seminary.

“I’m concerned that those who do come here end up sometimes leaving the denomination,” says De Jonge, who was ordained in 2005. “And sometimes it’s our brightest and best who are going out to find work.”

Only two women will graduate with divinity degrees this year, down from six in 2005. And one of last year’s two graduates still has not found a church.

“That’s what the problem is,” De Jonge adds. “We’ve got all these women in seminary, and the majority of (regional church bodies) theoretically being ready for it, but we don’t have women actually preaching in churches.”

Rita Klein-Geltink keeps that in mind as she prepares to graduate on May 19. The Canadian native hopes to find a pastor’s post in the CRC but knows that could take awhile.

“I’m very grateful for the women and men who are working towards this,” Klein-Geltink says over coffee in the student lounge. “But for my circumstances, what happens at Synod is not going to make any difference at this point.”

Of about 10 churches she has contacted, only two are ready to hire a woman.

“In companies that are looking for a president, the picture they have in their mind is of a man,” she says. “That’s what we’re dealing with in churches as well. They have to see women in their pulpit and experience that God speaks through this person, too.”

Klein-Geltink knows the territory. Raised in the CRC, she served for a dozen years as an administrator at Redeemer College in Ontario. Sensing God calling her to ministry, she came to Grand Rapids two years ago to attend the seminary.

Despite watching the women-in-office battle since she was a girl, Klein-Geltink wants to stay in the CRC.

“It feels a little bit like your mother,” says Klein-Geltink, 47 and the married mother of four sons. “You just don’t abandon this tradition. This is home for me.”

She has felt mostly at home at the mostly male seminary, “aside from too many sports analogies,” she quips.

Most students and faculty have accepted and encouraged her, though she says it took them awhile to “make sure you’re not a radical feminist with a hidden agenda in your bag.”

Klein-Geltink insists her only agenda is to bring the joy of Christianity to people. She plans to attend the synod in June but hopes it “doesn’t get too nasty.”

“There’s a sense of it being rather incredible that in the year 2007 we’re still dealing with this,” she says. “Christ himself was so anti-establishment, yet our churches are so hesitant to step forward and do anything in a bold, exciting way.”

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Jenista was raised in what she calls a “fundagelical” church that did not encourage scholarly study or women’s ministry. After graduating from college and exploring Anglicanism in England, she found an unexpected church home at South Bend CRC in Indiana.

“I was embraced and loved by this church,” recalls Jenista, who worked with its youth group. “They nudged me out the door to seminary.”

When she arrived at Calvin Seminary three years ago, she was not sure she wanted to be a minister _ or whether, biblically speaking, she should be. She once opposed women’s ordination.

“When I have conversations with my colleagues who are against women in office, it’s like, `Oh yeah, I remember that argument!”’ she says with a smile.

Her experience at the seminary soon removed her doubts. But she cautions that female seminarians are far less likely to be invited to preach or serve in churches. Of 35 churches accepting seminary interns this summer, only five would take women, she says.

“It’s kind of like supporting nuclear power. You support it in theory but you don’t want it to be in your pulpit. We need to put our hiring where our theology is.”

(Charles Honey writes for The Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Mich.)

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Photos of Jenista and Klein-Getlink are available via https://religionnews.com