By Sue Sprang

SYNOD – Featured: Pastor Julie Schneider-Thomas, Zion, Comstock Park, and Hope, Rockford; Pastor Nicole (Nikki) Smith, Lutheran Church of the Savior, Kalamazoo; Pastor Betsy Kamphuis, St. Paul, Greenville, and interim, Settlement, Gowen; Pastor Julie Bailey, Ascension, Saginaw; Pastor Kjersten Sullivan, Trinity, Battle Creek; Pastor Christina (Chrisy) Bright, New Life, Spruce; Pastor Ruth Overdier, Trinity, Manton; Pastor Joan Oleson, Saron Evangelical, St. Joseph; Pastor Jane Mountain, Harbor of Grace, Muskegon; Pastor Megan Crouch, Trinity, Midland, in partnership with St. Timothy, Midland; Pastor Karen Niemeyer, Trinity, Grand Rapids; Pastor Jessica Rivera-Walker, Good Shepherd, Holland; Pastor Rebecca Ebb-Speese, Zion, Woodland; Pastor Jennifer Michel, St. Peter, Battle Creek

QUESTION: When did you suspect and/or know that you were called to ordained ministry?

KAMPHUIS: “I felt call to ministry in college. At the time I was Christian Reformed and attending Calvin College (now Calvin University), 1978-1982.  I majored in religion, minored in English literature, Greek and philosophy.  

“However, the CRC did not allow women to be ordained.  I was not willing to leave that denomination; so I did not pursue the call to ordination. Instead, I went to the University of Chicago Divinity School for a time. I battled with cancer (and won). Bob [spouse] and I had two wonderful children.  Life was full.

“In 1995 my husband and I joined the ELCA while living in Maryland.  By 1996 I was entranced into the ELCA candidacy process and Gettysburg Theological Seminary.  I was ordained here, in the N/W Lower Michigan Synod on January 2, 2000.”

BRIGHT: “I had suspected for a while in college after my dream of being a pediatrician was ended by my desire to avoid any more college level physics, chemistry, and math, but it wasn’t until after my father died in 1996 that the idea started to really crystalize. “It was sort of like God constantly tapping me on my shoulder going, ‘Um, Chrisy, I am going to keep tapping on your shoulder until you pursue this.’  

“After my dad died, church felt like the only place where the world would return to some sort of normalcy, or that the world would return to its axis. I talked to my pastor and he looked at me and literally said ‘It’s about time you figured that out.’ Looking back I can see all sorts of gentle God nudges, but hindsight is 20/20 and all that…”

MOUNTAIN: “I had other careers before, so I consider my call to ordained ministry to be a surprise. I first began hearing this call when my church asked me to chair their call committee. I kept thinking, ‘I’d like to do this.’

“There followed a time when God spoke to me over and over about becoming a pastor. I began to tell others – my husband, the pastor who became our pastor as a result of the work of our call committee, my good friend who is Jewish, and other close friends. All encouraged me to follow this path. I entered seminary when I was 63.”

MICHAEL: “For many years I served as a lay leader in the church. Much of that work was with Women of the ELCA. My role on the Churchwide Board for WELCA presented me with many opportunities to speak in front of large gatherings. During that time, it was common for women to come up to me and ask if I had ever thought about being a pastor. I would laugh and thank them for their encouragement, but no I couldn’t even fathom how I might even begin a journey like that.

“Then in 2009, while I was living in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, I had the opportunity to serve as a Synodically Authorized Minister of Word and Sacrament. For about six months, I served as the ‘pastor’ to this small faith community where every week I planned worship, preached, and presided.  That is when my internal sense of call was developed to match up with all those years of external call from the women I encountered.

“Still I couldn’t think of how I would ever get there. That’s when the Holy Spirit stepped in.  After years of debating internally, I decided to apply for candidacy. My mother asked me, ‘How are you going to pay for seminary?’  I told her I had no idea, but I had to just put in my paperwork and if I didn’t have the money, I wouldn’t go. 

“The day that I received my positive entrance decision from my synod candidacy committee was also the same day that I learned that I had been selected to receive the ELCA Fund for Leaders scholarship, which covered all of my tuition and fees for seminary.  What seemed impossible to me became possible. That was when I knew this was God’s call for me to become ordained and serve the church.”

RIVERA-WALKER: “When I was confirmed, about 14 years old.”

OLESON: “Actually, when I finished my work as a Christian education director three years after college, I pondered the thought – only to set it aside for another 13 years or so. That is when I began working on the development of a new church start and realized the call was truly there and I could ignore it no longer.”

BAILEY:  “I think I had some inkling as a child, playing church and Sunday school with my dolls. I remember a conversation in high school with my parents, but I had never seen a pastor who was a woman, and didn’t get much support. It was later, after working as a nurse for 13 years, that I reviewed old diaries where I had written about my thoughts of being a pastor. I was active in my home congregation in teaching, worship leaders, youth and council–so got great support from my congregation.”

SCHNEIDER-THOMAS: “I first felt a call to ministry in confirmation class in 7-8th grade. Because I was in a different town (Mackinaw City) than where my church was (Cheboygan), I couldn’t make it to the after school classes.  In essence, I did an independent study with Pr. Bob Riedel.  I loved those conversations we had about God and Jesus – and I felt that just maybe Jesus was telling me that I should be a pastor.”

NIEMEYER: “In 2008, at the age of 66, as I was facing retirement from my lay position of Congregational Life Director at Trinity Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids, one of the options I was considering was going to seminary. However, I thought I was probably too old to do so. But then I read an article in The Lutheran that caught my attention. The article was about Louisa Groce, who was the pastor of a New Jersey church, where she had served for the past nine years. As I read the article, I thought, ‘Well, if she could do it, so can I.’”

SULLIVAN: “On a road trip back from a Lutheran Campus Ministry event my freshman year of college… I was trying to understand the historic episcopate (because I was that kind of a dork) and I asked the pastor if the historic episcopate meant I couldn’t become a pastor because I wasn’t genetically related to Peter. Instead of answering my questions, she replied with excitement ‘You want to be a pastor?’ I backpedaled, no, I just wanted to be annoyed about genealogy and theology, but I could never get the idea out of my head.”

CROUCH: “My family would tell you that I was a pastor from my childhood when I asked all the hard unexpected questions during the children’s sermon (something I enjoy kids doing to me now as a bit of karmic payback). But I didn’t start thinking seriously about it until I served as a youth representative on an internship committee for a wonderful young female pastor. I had seen a woman preach before, and thought ‘that’s cool, but I’m not that put together… God can’t want me… however working with this young woman training to be a pastor I learned that pastors are people… wonderful imperfect people just like me…’ and suddenly the barriers to ministry seemed to start fading away. Suddenly I began to wonder if this was something I could do… It still took years to discern my call, but I will never forget talking to her and realizing that if she could make this journey, I could too.”

SMITH: “I began to suspect I was being called to ordained ministry after having lunch with a friend at seminary, where I was attending for a Christian Education type degree, who told me she thought I should consider ordained ministry for my gifts. After that I called the pastor of my home congregation to say I was thinking of switching my tract to MDiv and he expressed they had already had my paperwork approving the transfer ready for a while and were just waiting for me to discern my calling.”

EBB-SPEESE: “I first felt a call to ordained ministry as a small child. I watched my dad lead worship and wanted to do the same. I am told that I played church with my stuffed animals when I was very young and I do remember trying to play church with my friends when I was in early elementary school. I would make my friends sit on the front steps and I would preach to them. That kind of play did not last very long as the other kids did not enjoy that!

“Of course, the option of being a pastor was not there when I was a child. In high school, I began talking to staff at the Bible Camp I attended and later was a Counselor-in-Training, about becoming a pastor. I was told over and over that the Bible did not say that girls could be pastors. When I brought it up to my parents, though, I don’t think they were opposed to the idea, they just didn’t know it was an option and was told I should marry a pastor and seek a non-ordained type of church career. I decided that I would go into youth ministry. 

“When I got to college in 1975, my advisor told me that yes, I could become a pastor! He really encouraged me to follow that call. But it took a while to get all of the voices out of my head that told me that I could not be a pastor. I did go to seminary after college, but initially in the MA program for youth ministry. While in seminary, I was finally able to realize my calling.”

OVERDIER: “When my and my husband’s youngest son (fourth child) finished high school and applied for entrance to colleges, I decided it was time for me also to continue my dream of further education. I entered Harvard Divinity School in the hope of finding answers to theological questions that had always intrigued me.   During my years there I realized that answers lead to more questions…and that I felt then a Call to parish ministry.  Unexpected, but such a blessing it has been and still is.”