The Reformed Church of America has been ordaining women for more than three decades now, but as Lisa Vander Wal learned, clearing the way for progressive action doesn’t necessarily guarantee anyone a job.
“It seemed apparent to me that in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to be a senior pastor in a church, which was exactly what I felt called to be,” said Vander Wal, who took over that post at Lisha’s Kill Reformed Church at 2131 Central Ave. in Schenectady in January of 2008.
“That area was still a difficult place for a woman to find a ministry. Fortunately, my husband was willing to say that his job will take a back seat to my ministry, and we were able to come East, where the churches are generally more progressive.”
Vander Wal accepted the senior post at the Canajoharie Reformed Church, her first job after finishing seminary, and remained there for 10 years before moving to Lisha’s Kill.
“I had a wonderful experience in Canajoharie, and I felt very loved there by the people and I loved them,” she said. “It was a slightly smaller church than Lisha’s Kill, and while it was difficult to leave, I just felt called to come here. It’s always hard to move, but the people here have been very embracing. They were a very open congregation, and they are also very mission-minded, and those were two things I really appreciated.”
She grew up in a small town called Lynden, Wash., just a few miles south of the Canadian border. Her mother was a school teacher, her father a carpenter, and getting a good education was of paramount importance in her family.
“I was the youngest of four siblings, all of them very talented academically, so I always felt that need to keep up with my older siblings,” she said. “My parents were devout Christians, and my mother taught in the Christian school that was associated with our denomination.”
Vander Wal grew up as a member of the Christian Reformed Church of North America, a denomination that broke away from the Reformed Church of America during the middle of the 19th century. While the CRC did begin ordaining women in 1995, it is still generally considered more conservative than the RCA.
“I felt called to be a minister at a young age, but it wasn’t something you did as a young girl,” said Vander Wal. “I was raised in a very conservative area and women didn’t become ministers. So I graduated with a degree in social work and felt I could channel my healing nature toward that line of work.”
After going to the University of Michigan, she got a job, got married and began raising a family. Eventually, the call she felt to do something a little more than just volunteer at her church moved her to take the plunge. She began taking classes at the Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“I was a bit of an anomaly at Calvin because it prepares one to be a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and they just weren’t as accepting as the RCA,” she said. “The RCA’s seminary was in Holland, Michigan, but I was commuting, and driving to Grand Rapids was a lot easier than driving to Holland. When I was done there, I had to jump through a few more hoops to be ordained as an RCA minister, but I feel like I was extremely well-prepared when I left Calvin. It was a very good experience.”
But it wasn’t without some obstacles.
“One of my professors asked me, ‘How can you justify being here and being a woman?’ ” remembered Vander Wal. “I said that if the Bible really said I shouldn’t be a minister, then I wouldn’t be here. But I believe those Scriptures that seem to say women shouldn’t be ministers were written in a different culture and different time, and I felt that my calling had been affirmed. I felt if I hadn’t gone to seminary, I would have been being disobedient to God.”
When she did finally become an ordained minister, Vander Wal never felt like she was breaking any new barriers.
“I wasn’t trying to prove a point, and I wasn’t beating any drums about being a woman or a feminist,” she said. “All I was doing was being obedient to God.”
These days, she still refuses to get political in the pulpit, although she’ll often pray for God to give guidance to our governmental leaders, whether they are Republican or Democrat.
“One of my strengths as a minister is that I feel like I’m a bridge builder,” she said. “I don’t like to come down hard on either side of any political issue because as soon as you do that, you drive a wedge between people. I don’t feel as if that’s my role and it’s certainly not my personality. I feel that regardless of where you are politically, you’re still called to be Christ-like and that’s what I try to make people understand. I remind people about grace and how we are here so that we can show love toward other people.”
And while there may be many issues dividing various churches and their membership, Vander Wal isn’t about to get too caught up in all the details.
“I come from a very conservative background but I consider myself now a moderate,” she said. “There are many divisive issues in the church today, and I can have a debate with myself for three hours over some of them, like homosexuality and abortion. You can always find particular Scriptures to prove your point, but you have to look at the breadth of the Scriptures as a whole, and I don’t think how someone feels about a certain issue should be a litmus test of orthodoxy. What you have to remember is love and grace, and you extend that to anyone regardless of where they’re coming from politically.”
Life at home
Vander Wal lives with her husband, Dave, in the parsonage provided by the church, and when she isn’t working as a minister, she’s reading or enjoying time in the Adirondacks.
“I’m a voracious reader, and we have a book club here that meets once a month and we read a variety of different books,” she said. “We also own a home in Wells and we love going into the Adirondacks. We try to escape up there as much as we can.”
She and her husband have two grown children, Dave and Leslie. Her daughter has cerebral palsy and lives in a group home in Canajoharie.
“My daughter was about 6 months old when she started having seizures and it was apparent she was profoundly mentally impaired,” said Vander Wal. “Being raised in a family where academic excellence was such a focus, my daughter’s handicaps were a real growing point for me personally. We have to realize that in God’s eyes we are all fundamentally less than perfect. We all have issues and difficulties. We’re all strugglers on a journey, and it’s important to view other people with compassion.”
That compassion manifests itself in a strong outreach program at Lisha’s Kill.
“We’re always looking for ways to engage the community and to find new mission work,” said Vander Wal. “We support many global missions as well as local ones. This congregation isn’t just focused on its survival. It’s focused on our mission work and our spiritual growth, and those two things I’m both passionate about.”