GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Meg Jenista hopes to become an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church and lead a congregation as its pastor, but she sometimes doubts she'll get an opportunity.
Even though the church's synod voted earlier this year to allow any CRC congregation to ordain women as ministers, elders, deacons or ministry associates, there's still opposition to having women lead in the conservative Protestant church.
'I'm still a bit skeptical,' says Jenista, 28, a Calvin Theological Seminary student who is completing her master of divinity degree.
'Just because the synod has decided that churches are open to women doesn't mean that individual churches are going to - I mean, the government could pass legislation for nuclear power in every state, but not every community in a state is going to be vying to have the power plant in their community, right?'
The church's synod, which consists of 188 representative delegates who meet each June, voted 112-70 this year to remove the word 'male' as a requirement for holding ecclesiastical office, a step that broadened women's opportunities to lead the church.
Since 1995, congregations and regional church bodies called 'classes' already had the option of ordaining women - and 26 of the 47 classes had exercised it before June. But the synod's vote made a statement endorsing female ordination across the denomination.
The issue is not completely closed. Some church members believe that the Bible says women should not preach. The King James Version of the New Testament, I Corinthians 14:34 says, in part: 'Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak.'
The Rev. Joel Nederhood, a CRC pastor in suburban Chicago, says he's among those who 'will continue to believe those biblical requirements involve a gender component, and it is impossible for us to surrender that idea.'
Supporters of women preaching and holding church office say related biblical references are subject to interpretation. When she entered the seminary, Jenista says she was torn about becoming ordained and leading a congregation, and credits the church and her professors with encouraging her.
'I want to serve this denomination and other people seem extremely enthusiastic about the fact that I'll find a job when I graduate,' she says. 'On the days when I'm really trusting God, I agree with them.'
The Christian Reformed Church was formed 150 years ago when some churches in southwestern Michigan seceded from what is now called the Reformed Church in America.
The CRC says it has about 300,000 members in 1,000 congregations throughout the United States and Canada. It owns and operates Calvin Theological Seminary and Calvin College, which share a campus in Grand Rapids. About 50 of the seminary's 300 students are women.
Some Protestant churches ordain women as ministers while others do not. The RCA's synod voted in 1979 to allow women to be ordained, while the Episcopal Church started permitting it three years earlier. The Presbyterian Church (USA) ordained its first woman in 1956. Some Baptist denominations have allowed it since the 1920s.
The Rev. Kathy Smith, the CRC seminary's director of continuing education, says she was 'delighted' by the synod's decision to broaden women's opportunities to become church leaders.
'I see doors opening gradually,' says Smith, who was ordained in 2001. Her congregation had earlier voted to allow female ministers.
'It's a slow process but I'm really quite encouraged,' she says.
The church has 19 female head pastors, including eight in Michigan, which has more than any other state or Canadian province, according to figures provided by the CRC.
The Rev. Thea Leunk, 53, a lifelong member of the church and a pastor since January 2006, received her undergraduate degree from Calvin College in 1976. She says it bothered her that, at the time, women were not allowed to enroll in the master of divinity program at the seminary.
Leunk is the pastor at the Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, where the Rev. Mary S. Hulst led the church for eight years and was the CRC's first female minister in the United States. Hulst joined the seminary's faculty last summer.
While Leunk's own congregation has warmly embraced her, she occasionally is asked to preach at other churches in the CRC. Although no members have so far walked out in protest, some have skipped her sermons, telling her it was nothing personal but instead a reflection of their religious beliefs.
'You just smile and say, 'Well, that's your decision and I honor that,' she says. 'I don't try and argue people into acceptance. You can't do that.'
More often, she encounters women who are ecstatic to see other women at the pulpit.
'What I usually experience is, instead, the joy that people have at having been there, at having seen that, at having experienced that, of 80-year-old women coming up to you at the end of the service in tears and saying, 'I never thought I'd live to see this day, and I'm just rejoicing that I was here to see this happen.'
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