Editor’s Note: This is another in our occasional series of spiritual autobiographies exploring the question: How do we come to be the ones we are?
“Today while I was beseeching the Beloved to speak through me (since I couldn’t think of anything to say and had no idea how to begin to fulfill this particular vow of obedience), I had a vision that I will share with you now as a foundation we can build on.” — St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle
To quote a 16th-century Spanish mystic at the outset of this spiritual autobiography may seem “un-Reformed.” Perhaps it is, though, despite her geographic distance from John Calvin and the Protestant/Catholic distinction, Teresa of Avila was a leading reformer in her own right. I’m glad of it because she provides me and other women pursuing ministry with some helpful language.
Or, maybe not helpful, since in the quote above, Teresa interrupts herself with a string of self-berating comments that undermine her authority. When I first encountered Teresa’s words in a seminary class, I found her immensely frustrating. In the prologue to The Interior Castle (only three pages!), she constantly interjects statements like, “God has not blessed me with spiritual skillfulness”; “It is ridiculous, of course, to think that what I would say could be of use to anyone else”; or “I cannot see how the Beloved thinks I will pull this off.”
I thought these streams of self-abasement were overdone. Surely, Teresa couldn’t have struggled that much. She was, after all, a well-respected leader sought out for her wisdom and depth of connection with the Divine.
Maybe the traits that annoy us in others lurk in our hearts. Teresa has become a resonant saint for me recently as I’ve reflected on my journey to ministry. In some ways, as a 30-something woman—ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America, moderator of the RCA’s Commission on History, and privileged to form women and men for faithful Christian ministry through my work at Western Theological Seminary—it may seem that I’ve arrived at a place of confidence in church leadership at a relatively young age. The truth is the path to ministry for me has been wracked with self-doubt and fear, near-constant second-guessing of my gifts, and demure and hesitant comments in speech and writing that I employ to downplay my authority. This spiritual autobiography is an attempt to explore where that timidity comes from and to practice courage in fear. May the Beloved speak through me to spark courage in you as well.
I grew up in a small Midwestern town. After my baptism as an infant in the fellowship of Central Reformed Church, Sioux Center, Iowa, my grandparents broke away from that church to form an Evangelical Free church plant, where my parents soon followed. In late middle school, my family moved to another NW Iowa town where my parents both worked in the public school system. We ‘church-hopped’ for a season, and I spent time in youth groups and Sunday school classes at the local Baptist church, the Christian Reformed Church, and finally settled at the RCA church most of my friends attended. This exposure to different church communities at such a formative age piqued my theological curiosity; I wanted to learn everything I could about what my different church homes believed. For my first research paper as a high school freshman, I chose the topic “The Differences in the Evangelical Free Church in America and the Reformed Church in America regarding Baptism.” I interviewed my EV Free pastor back in Sioux Center and my new RCA pastor and came to the simple, if not theologically astute conclusion, that the difference was when you use the water (Alas, Jim Brownson had not yet published The Promise of Baptism, or I hope my pastor would have recommended it!).
Through high school, I continued to ask theological questions and to read the Bible with alacrity, filling notebooks with my own verse-by-verse commentary. I joined Bible studies, helped with Vacation Bible School, faithfully participated in worship even as my parents’ attendance grew sporadic, and the week after I met with the elders to request Profession of Faith, my pastor anonymously quoted portions of my written testimony in his Sunday sermon. Perhaps these seem the makings of a confident Christian leader with a clear path toward further theological study.
Perhaps it should have been so. As I looked to college and considered where to go and what vocation to pursue, there were no overt signs that I couldn’t study Bible or religion; no one said anything to me about whether women could serve Christ’s church in formal leadership. No one told me I couldn’t.
No one told me I could.
I don’t know if my pastor affirmed women in ministry personally, though I have a hunch he did not. Despite the RCA’s recognition since the 1970s of women in ordained leadership, it was and is still uncommon in the Midwest, especially in politically conservative areas like NW Iowa. “Conscience clauses” instated by General Synod in 1980 made it possible for ministers who did not affirm women’s ministry gifts to choose “not [to] participate in decisions or actions contrary to their consciences,” though they could not formally block women’s ordination if the classis so chose. The conscience clauses were still in effect when I was a high schooler and were only removed from the Book of Church Order in 2012. Of course, I did not know any of this. I had no idea that I was part of a denomination that had affirmed women’s gifts for ministry more than a decade before I was born.
I do not claim that the failure to recognize and name signs of my ministry call rests solely on my pastors and mentors who never mentioned the possibility of ministry leadership to me. It is possible, I suppose, that they saw those signs and chose to ignore them. I think, though, that the problem had more to do with a truncated theological imagination. My pastor, the church leadership, my mentors, and even myself—none of us saw a future of ordained church leadership for me because it wasn’t in the scope of our imaginations to do so.
I wonder if we would have seen it if I were male.
I had never seen a woman up front on a Sunday morning in any other capacity than as a piano player or organist, as a singer in the choir, or on the occasional praise team. As I moved into my high school years, the most formative church leader in my life was my pastor’s wife, who hosted a Bible study for high school girls once a week in her home. She was so significant to me that, before heading to college, I confided in one of my close friends that I wondered if the ideal career choice for me would be “pastor’s wife.” This was the pinnacle I could see of a life of service to Christ’s church. The complication was that this vision necessitated not just the pursuit of my individual gifts and callings, but a change in marital status as well.
As it happened, at Northwestern College where I chose to major in Communications to pursue Christian nonprofit work (a more palatable ministry-adjacent calling), I met my future husband, Steven, Religion major extraordinaire, who had clearly understood from the age of 17 that God was calling him to pastoral ministry. Like me, Steven had been active in his youth group and Sunday School but, unlike me, had received regular affirmation of his ministry gifts.
I was besotted; I admired Steven’s care for God’s word and God’s people, his charisma and clear sense of God’s leading, and as we looked to a future together, I saw the doors opening. Here, in marriage to this man I deeply loved, I could also find a role in serving the Church—by supporting my husband. We visited Western Theological Seminary in 2011, both as prospective students, but the more I thought about it, the firmer I became in my conclusion that my role was to cheer Steven on (and maybe take piano lessons). I recall a frank conversation around this time with the admissions director at WTS. Sensing that I was being wishy-washy, he asked, “Katlyn, does your change of heart have something to do with fears about women in ministry?”
“N-No!” I stammered. “It’s just…seminary isn’t for me. I’m not cut out for it.” The truth is I was, and remain incredibly grateful for that time and for the future I could see working alongside my husband in ministry.
I just didn’t think I could hack it in seminary. I didn’t have the confidence that Steven and his other ministry friends had; I couldn’t imagine taking a preaching class, let alone standing up in front of a congregation to proclaim the word of the Lord! What would I have to say? Reflecting on that time and reading Teresa now, I could have spoken words she penned so long ago: “The truth is, the blessings are so abundant no one could understand them all, especially someone as dense as I am” (37).
Steven and I moved to Holland, Michigan in 2011 to embark on our life together, following wherever the Lord led. But, first, we had his schooling to pay for. I found a job working as the office manager at Fellowship Reformed Church, a large congregation with three full-time pastors—two of whom were women. Steven secured an internship at North Holland Reformed Church, a smaller yet vibrant congregation, which quickly became our church family. Here, despite bouts of homesickness and the uncertainty that comes with the transitory nature of relocating for education, we both thrived. I found meaning in my work, which combined my administrative and organizational skills with my heart for God’s people. The best days in the office were when the pastors were out at meetings and someone would call or stop by asking for prayer or pastoral care. I cherished the opportunity to pray with people, to encourage them, and sometimes to wrestle with tough theological questions. And, for the first time, I saw two women leading the church with strength and grace.
As I worked alongside them, I began to wonder: Could I do what they do? While the work I was already doing was life-giving, was there more? During this season, Fellowship was part of the Ridder Church Renewal process (now called Churches Learning Change) and was encouraging its leaders, including staff, to pay attention to the patterns in our lives that hold us back from transformation into Christ’s likeness. This is a much longer story; suffice it to say I took the work seriously. Through it, I became aware of a pattern that was already apparent in my young life—I will limit myself, only taking on those things I am sure I can do, because I am afraid that I will fail, that I will not be enough, and that I will lose love and respect. As Teresa puts it, “Since I’m such a sinner, my fall would be even more catastrophic…someone like me doesn’t need to make herself into anything special” (47).
Recognizing this tendency to limit myself, I prayed, asking God to show me places I’d been holding back. I prayed for the courage I knew I’d need to respond in faith. Teresa says, “Fear distorts knowledge of self…And so I say, my friends, let us set our eyes on Christ…then self-knowledge will not make us timid or cowardly” (48).
So, that’s it. I went to seminary, transformed in courage, living fully into the confidence that my Beloved was with me, and, in Him, I could not fail.
Maybe not. Throughout seminary, during the ordination process, and even today as I write these words, I continue to be afflicted with feelings of anxiety. I worry I won’t measure up, that I’ll make mistakes, and that, if I was really called to this, I would feel more confident.
It takes time to alter an imagination.
I’m trying. Perhaps that’s why I’ve come to admire Teresa. Despite her over-the-top self-criticism, and her worries that she didn’t have anything to offer, she wrote anyway. When she didn’t think she had the strength herself, she looked to her Beloved. In a truly Reformed move, she recognized that in understanding ourselves, we will see God, and “we will never know ourselves unless we seek to know God” (47).
 Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, trans. Mirabai Starr (New York: Riverhead Books, 2003), 35.