Editor’s Note: This is the second of three articles in anticipation of the RCA General Synod in mid-October.
Throughout the summer I conducted a series of interviews with women ordained in the Reformed tradition. Each conversation was a gift, giving me hope and enlarging my understanding of what it looks like to be attentive to the urging of the Holy Spirit.
And yet, with each conversation, an underlying issue kept bubbling to the surface: “Are we really still talking about this? Can we be done talking about this now?” As I conducted interviews, the CRC prepared to mark the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women, and the vocabulary around the occasion was questioned— should we be celebrating, commemorating, or, as one person suggested to me, just plain embarrassed that it took until 1996 to ordain women?
At the same time that the CRC marks 25 years, many churches are leaving the RCA. While LGBTQ+ inclusion is often the presenting issue, many of these churches embrace complementarian theology and oppose the ordination of women.
The last interview I conducted took place on August 26, exactly 25 years and one day since the first ordination of a woman in the CRC.* Marchiene Rienstra welcomed me to sit with her on her back porch. Rienstra, the first woman to graduate from Calvin Theological Seminary, was not the first woman ordained in the CRC, though she struggled mightily to be so.
When Rienstra entered Calvin Seminary in September, 1972, the CRC was already wrestling with the issue of women’s ordination. In 1978, Rienstra, having completed her internship and preaching requirements through the Presbyterian church, submitted her file to the CRC candidacy committee. She was turned down. When she appealed and requested to speak at Synod about her desire to be ordained, she was also refused. After enduring years of criticism, hostility, and personal slander while fighting for a chance to be a full partner in the CRC, Marchiene left the denomination and followed her call in the Presbyterian Church, which was waiting with open and welcoming arms. Later, she would serve in the RCA and eventually in the CRC.
What follows is my interview with Rienstra. While I plan to highlight some of the other interviews and conversations I conducted this past summer in a series of blog posts on The Twelve, I believe this pioneer’s words deserve to stand on their own. Her stories and memories deserve to be told in her own words.
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When interviewing other ministers, I’ve asked them if they are sick of talking about the issue of ordination of women and if they wish this conversation could be over. What would you say to that?
(Laughing) Those of us at the forefront would have also liked to have stopped talking about it sooner. I think this conversation is a weary acknowledgement of how long it takes for movement in the church, how slow change comes. This is evidenced by all those people who come to me and say, “I used to think women couldn’t be ministers until I heard you preach.”
There must have been so many painful moments.
The most painful was being turned down by the CRC at Synod and not even being allowed to speak on the floor. And, in 1979, when I graduated from Calvin Seminary and sat through the entire ceremony without an acknowledgement that I was the first woman to graduate with an M.Div.
Tell me more about your ordination. Was the Presbyterian Church always there waiting?
I was able to get all ten of my required sermons while in seminary because of the invitation to preach at Presbyterian churches. They ordained me while the CRC was still debating. The Presbyterian Church was always very supportive. When I was going through the struggle to get ordained, they came to me and said, “When the CRC says no, just come to us.” And when I did, they made me the founding pastor of a new church.
Once I was ordained, I was still invited to speak at CRC church events. One Sunday night, I was invited to a CRC church for a Couples Club-type event. I went and did my shtick, and at the end of my talk, I opened up the floor for questions. There was standing room only, and in the back, I had been noticing a tall man whose body language clearly showed his agitation. He was the first to ask a question, and loudly said “Mrs. Rienstra–emphasizing Mrs., so I’d understand he’d never call me Reverend–if a Presbyterian church had not ordained you how much further down the ladder would you have been prepared to go?” The room filled with uncomfortable gasps and awkward silence, until I finally just laughed loudly. Everyone else began to laugh too, and then he slunk out of the building.
You were born in India as the child of missionaries. I’ve read that when you first came to live in America as a teenager, the CRC was strange to you. Have you always felt like an outsider?
I always felt like an outsider, not just in West Michigan or the CRC, but also in America. And yet, my time at Calvin Seminary was better than I expected. The professors treated me with dignity and respect. I was not shown any prejudice or condescension. I can’t remember anything that was even subtly denigrating. Even those who were against what I was doing acted like gentlemen. I expected worse, but didn’t get it.
Why do you think that is? Especially in light of how divisive our world feels now, why was your experience as good as it was?
(Long pause) I think it was the ethics or values they all shared. The decency was remarkable. In the present climate, this might have been a different story. Also, I was a very good student and was told second-hand that professors were telling other students to emulate my writing. I was on trial, but I did well. This was a good thing not just for me, but also for the cause.
Tell me more about your experience with your professors.
Doctor Snapper was a favorite professor. We were very fond of each other, but even he took me aside and asked, “Why put yourself through this terrible fight when you could be a great Bible teacher at a Christian School?” He didn’t mean this negatively or have any ill will; he was just truly concerned about me.
Lester DeKoster was a Calvin professor and editor of The Banner. I ran into him at the CRC headquarters in the middle of the fight. He was one of the people against what I was doing and had written freely about it. We ran into each other in the hallway and a tiny smile spread across his face. He turned to me and said, “Oh, that Troublest is real,” a reference to 1 Kings 18:17. (“Then it happened, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said to him, ‘Is that you, O troubler of Israel?”) There was the acknowledgement that I was a troublemaker, but also the reference to the prophet Elijah, which still felt like respect.
Even though most students ignored me or were okay with having me around, and even though the professors treated me well, emotionally, I was forced to stuff so much. There was still so much pain: no acknowledgement of me at graduation, not being allowed to speak at Synod, having to finally seek out ordination in the Presbyterian church. Because of all this, it was five years after graduation before I could even walk into the seminary building.
I can’t imagine how much it was to carry. Every class, every interaction, every day must have required extra energy.
Another story: Professor of Pastoral Care, Mel Hugen, was a supporter of mine and gave a senior seminar lecture to my graduating class. This was in my sixth year of seminary, as I had gone to seminary part-time while also raising my kids. The topic of his lecture was something to the effect of “Things you should remember as a pastor.” In the lecture and in the handouts, he used all gender exclusive language. It was all “he, he, he.” I can’t describe the sting of this—after six years of attending seminary and all I had been through, to sit through that lecture and never hear myself in it. After I raged and cried to a friend, I went to him and talked about how this had hurt me. Struck with his own lack of consciousness, he called a special assembly of all the students to apologize publicly, acknowledge his mistakes, and say, “This should never happen again.”
That kind of public apology and promise to do better must have meant so much. I’ve talked to a friend who also went to seminary and told me about the poundings she took at Classis meetings, even while afterward, men would walk up to her and give her quiet affirmations or send her encouraging notes in private.
The faculty was notably not there at Synod. They did not speak up for me. And yet, I have grace for them. I understand that they had to weigh the cost of stepping up for a broadly unpopular cause.
I’m struck by your tone, how you can look back with sympathy and understanding, and not just point fingers. I find this so tricky. I struggle often with how to move ahead day by day, how to navigate and fight for change without being crushed by it.
In discussions, I move toward common ground. The first thing I ask when discussing women in ministry: Do you put more weight on Jesus’s words or Paul’s? You have to make a decision. Are you a Christian or a Paulist? And then, with the weight of the entire OT behind him, when Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, it was to love your neighbor as yourself. I ask, “Would you think it were love if you were in our (women’s) place?” And then “Do unto others…” I ditch all the red flags and divisive language and focus on common ground. We need to discuss at a very human level and appeal to our best selves. Fairness is a deeply rooted thing that God put in all of our hearts. Sometimes the most simple is the most profound.
What were your favorite parts of being a minister?
Preaching, but not lifted out from worship, because then it’s just public speaking. Preaching is the diamond in the ring. It must be set right and have a firm foundation. And I also loved talking and praying with people in small groups and one-on-one.”
After your time with the church plant, you did make your way back to the Reformed tradition when you were hired at Hope Church in Holland (RCA). Can you talk about that?
They were proud of being a pioneering church and hiring me. Though at both Hope Church and when I served later at Eastern Avenue CRC, I was given a private “talking to” by members that was something to the effect of, “Having a woman in the pulpit is enough change, tone it down a bit.” My attitude was always, “What if we actually did what the Bible says?” and it was too much for some. There was a feeling of, “We’re already giving you a chance, why can’t you just deliver nice, comforting sermons that don’t require so much of us?”
I talked with another friend who said something similar, who said that she felt celebrated and adored as a young, shiny female pastor, but also felt a warning to stay in her place and not to say too much or push too hard.
What is the saying? “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” (She laughs.) I love that.
Tell me about your family and how they felt about your fight for ordination.
John’s parents, my parents, my family — they were all very supportive. This made it do-able.
John’s dad was a minister and on the Board of Trustees at Calvin. I know my parents and John’s parents lost friends because they supported me. I’m grateful for their loyalty.
When I was in seminary, we took John’s parents to Europe to celebrate their 80th birthdays and 50th wedding anniversary. We went to Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. In Geneva, we visited Calvin’s church and John’s dad went up to stand in John Calvin’s pulpit and called me up next to him. He said to me, “You belong here, too.”
How did you deal with all the negativity? All the letters speaking out against you in The Banner, criticism from church leaders, and the mean-spirited letters that came to your home? How were not consumed by this?
It’s practically a Rienstra mantra: We do not care what people think. I did not know these people writing the letters and criticizing me, so why should I care what they think? The close shell of my family protected me. My mother always told me to let criticism roll like water off a duck’s back.
Although my immediate family was supportive, things were not so with our extended family. Uncle Cy was the oldest of my dad’s family of nine children. He was a traditionalist and didn’t agree with what I was doing. He was a pastor in Holland—the one who would dress up and deliver the Tulip Time sermon in Dutch at Pillar Church. When I would preach at Hope Church, I would occasionally see him sitting in the back row, but he’d always leave before the benediction because only a minister can give a benediction and he didn’t agree with me being a minister.
When he was dying, he requested to see me. I went to him and he said, “Your father was right and I needed to tell you that.” Since he was allowing me, I decided to minister to him. I asked him if anything was troubling him and he said, “I’m not sure I’m good enough. I’m not certain of my salvation.” I asked him if we could sing, “How firm a Foundation” together. (Marchiene begins to sing the hymn with tears in her eyes).
How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word
What more can He say than to you He has said
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
Fear not, I am with you, O be not dismayed
For I am Thy God, and will still give you aid
I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand
When through the deep waters I call you to go
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow
For I will be with you, your troubles to bless
And sanctify to you your deepest distress
When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be your supply
The flame shall not hurt you, I only design
Your dross to consume and the gold to refine
The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose
I will not, I will not desert to His foes
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.
Then, knowing it would be the last time I’d see him, I asked him, “Would you allow me to give you a benediction?” He said yes and I placed my hands on his head and recited: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”
About two weeks after his death, a friend of his visited me and brought me Cy’s 1939 Psalter Hymnal. He had left it to me.
God gives you these gifts, gifts you don’t expect. Gifts you don’t ask for.
What a powerful affirmation of your role as a pastor, of the transformation that can happen. And proof of how hard it is to disagree with someone once we move in a little closer.
It goes to show how people change in relationship.
What is it like, to see what women are doing now in the CRC while looking back and knowing what you went through?
As the decades go by, pioneers are forgotten. It’s important to acknowledge we stand on the shoulders of those who came before. And, it’s very encouraging, if you’re one of those pioneers, to see the progress. We’re not doing this work for ourselves, but for everyone coming after us.
I remember a conversation I had with another church leader about moving ahead, even when there isn’t consensus. He said to me, “We can’t always wait until we have a convoy.” If you break new ground, there will be those who will be upset and those who will be grateful.
I’d love to know if there were particular Bible verses you held close while you were in seminary and struggling to be ordained.
Yes, from the Old Testament, Isaiah 40:4: “Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places smooth.” And from the New Testament, II Timothy 1:7, For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”
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I am wary of the word “blessing” and use it very sparingly, but my time sitting across a table from Marchiene Rienstra that afternoon was exactly that—I knocked on her door with questions and expecting answers, and instead received nothing short of a blessing and a baptism. Count me as one who is grateful for her strong shoulders and the new Kingdom ground broken by her earnest obedience to her calling.
*The first woman ordained in the CRC was Ruth Hofman, at First CRC in Toronto, on August 25, 1996, and one month later, the Rev. Dr. Mary Hulst, at Eastern Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Source: Rienstra, Debra. “Ministry And Meditation: The Spiritual Journey Of Marchiene Vroon Rienstra”. In For such a time as this: Twenty-six women of vision and faith tell their stories. Eerdmans. 1991.