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How a Canadian PH.D. Student Became a Missionary to Denton, Texas

by Sharon Browning | March 05, 2000

By Sheryl Ronald Farinha Co-pastor, Christ Community Church (Interviewed and edited by Sharon Browning)

Editor’s note: I first met Sheryl about 3 years ago. She is the co-pastor of Christ Community Church. My father, Richard New, is the “other” co-pastor. I asked Sheryl to tell her story because I think it is one of hope, joy, and perseverance.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a small town in rural Canada. Russell has about 2000 people, one school and everything fits within one square mile. My parents moved there when I was 3 and I lived there until I went to university at 17. My father taught physics and chemistry and was the principal of the school.

What denomination did you attend and when did you begin realize that men and women were not treated the same as far as it relates to church function?

I was raised Plymouth Brethren. They are a small denomination that began in Plymouth, England and have churches throughout the US and Canada. Both of my parents’ families are well-known in this denomination and have been active in church life for several generations in Canada and Great Britain. Men and women in the branch of the Brethren that I grew up in have different, well-defined roles. There are no clergy and each local church is very autonomous. Each local body is governed by a group of male elders which usually act in this role for life. The Authorized version [King James Version] is uniformly interpreted by all churches and there is a fairly cohesive set of rules and lifestyle options that "we follow”. I learned to read at 2 1/2 and by 3 I understood that (1) women are silent during church services (I could read 1 Timothy myself and my Grandpa told me what it “meant”); (2) teaching children in Sunday school and at women’s meetings are okay, singing is okay; (3) women wear head coverings (same learning process as above); (4) my father required complete and total obedience from my mother and all four of us children. (He had scripture to back him up on this. My mother believes that she should obey not only his specific commands, but what she believes he would want us to do.); (5) I had specific career options which were to get married and stay at home with children, become a teacher or a nurse.

Although women didn’t speak aloud in the services, by 3 or 4 I knew that I was going to an eternal hell unless I got “saved” and that I was responsible for my own salvation. I started very early to try to understand these requirements since I was the only one who could “believe” for me. So while the roles were different there was actually a lot of spiritual equality in the sense that each individual is responsible to God for their own spiritual life, a devotional life, and for evangelism.

You grew up in a somewhat famous “science” family. Can you tell us about that?

As stated, I was expected to be a teacher or a nurse, until I got married. Case in point: My mother got a scholarship for the highest high school marks in the state, quickly proceeded to get a joint degree in English and French literature and then happily became a teacher. My grandmother told me often that I was too smart to “catch a man” that I should start acting more feminine and less brainy (those being the same thing). My uncles and cousins are all in the Brethren and very well educated, and I was definitely expected to get a college education. My first big rebellious step was to enroll in science, and to insist that I would never be either a teacher or a nurse. I was influenced very much by my father’s first cousin who is an M.D., a world class AIDS researcher and who was Dean of Medicine at the university where I completed my undergraduate. He felt differently than the other Brethren about women and careers and encouraged me to continue. My father decided to stop paying for my undergraduate and my mother, in the only time in family memory that she disobeyed my Dad, went to work full time for two years and gave her paycheck to me.

I was also greatly influenced by my single missionary aunts and cousins. These women (since they are nurses and only teaching to “third-worlders”), are supported by the Brethren to do missionary work. The four of them (two returning on furlough from Zambia, two from South America) taught me a completely different theology, a wider worldview. I realized that there were definitely other ways to look at passages from scripture and that perhaps there actually were believers outside the Brethren fold.

I know that you had a painful first marriage, can you share that experience with us?

I married a guy I met at university when I was 21. This was against my parent’s wishes since he was not from the Brethren. He was beautiful, well-educated, and nine years older than me. We moved far from my family, to his hometown, and I began working in research. He was very physically and verbally abusive, and I became afraid for my safety. Since I only had complete obedience as an option in our relationship, I never thought about separation or divorce. Fortunately, my family doctor was able to recognize something was wrong and got me to a counselor. After three years we separated, and, with no support from anyone except my therapist, I divorced him after six years of marriage. I had attended a huge Baptist church during my Masters, having been asked to leave the Brethren upon my separation from my husband. I got real care there, and a woman associate pastor encouraged me to continue with my thoughts and pursuit of a different theology. Because I knew no other way, and felt a responsibility to minister wherever I was, I continued to lead committees and teach Sunday School in the North American Baptist system. The total organization really appealed to me, and was very different from the Brethren.

Not too many people know that you quit your Ph.D. program 3/4’s of the way through to pursue your call to ministry. Tell us about this decision.

Now single, and determined to stay that way, I completed my Master’s in molecular genetics and applied to the Ph.D. program in another city (three states away from my ex, where hopefully he couldn’t find me). I loved science and grad school and began in earnest to become a molecular biologist. My two younger brothers happened to both be attending college there and one of them (at 19) was involved in starting a new church consistent with Brethren traditions but different than what we grew up with. He convinced me to “return” to the Brethren and I threw myself into church life. But my science life was most important – I had found a place of equality, even if it was a competitive, chauvinistic one. I was invited to speak at a conference in Italy and, during that time, got to know my future husband. When we “coincidentally” ended up in neighboring labs in Edmonton, I started to think that maybe my big plan to stay single wasn’t really working.

I could feel God calling me to something more, even as I ministered in female-appropriate places in the Brethren church. I was called a deacon and was a member of the church council, which implements the elders decisions and manages the day-to-day affairs of the church. So I learned a lot about church leadership. I began to occasionally pray out loud in the open times during the services and no one stopped me. They were very shocked but didn’t say anything. My fiancée supported me in my decision to teach the college students (about 20-30) and, after much discussion the elders realized they couldn’t really stop me there either, if the students kept asking for me to teach them. There was no anger or animosity, just shock and disbelief. We have truly remained friends. I realized then that the system was sort of breaking down and that I had to go somewhere else. I began to pray seriously that I would be shown what to do. I married my believing Catholic husband and dealt with my disapproving family. They decided to come to the wedding when the Brethren elders of my more open church decided to marry us. I was almost done with my degree and had published several papers and a textbook chapter when I realized that God was asking me to give this up in exchange for something better. Because I was now married, my family had less input into my life and I had the total support of my husband. He also saw that God was calling me to a life of more formal ministry. I finally gave in, which was a very painful thing for me. I was sure it looked to everyone as though I was just another graduate student leaving because I was unable to complete the program. I finally said to God that I would do whatever he asked, but that he had to show me a place to do it. I got a job managing a research lab and spent a lot of time thinking through my new and different theology – a layperson’s analysis of inerrancy, women’s roles, church government. I read a lot of church history. Mark and I began to pray for a faculty position for him. He got a job in Texas, and we moved here in 1995.

You and I often joke about you being a "missionary" to Denton from Canada. How did you come to visit and then co-pastor Christ Community Church in Denton, Texas?

After a couple of months of recovering from our move, we started to look for a church with no real understanding of Southern culture, various denominations, or what was available. Mark said he felt that we should go to “that little church at the corner of Bell and University.” I replied that we weren’t Baptist and continued to phone and interrogate polite pastors of several denominations. After a month at Denton Bible Church (we both became enraged simultaneously in one service and walked out), I was sitting on the sofa, 6 months pregnant and crying. Mark again suggested we try that little Baptist church. I said okay, but we didn’t know the name of it. I remember total discouragement as I flipped through the phone book. I told Mark that God wouldn’t send us all the way to Texas and then let us find a church in the phone book. I had really let my theological requirements cloud my listening to the Spirit and didn’t even listen to my husband’s strong input. Richard New preached and, as Mark and I listened, we both couldn’t believe that we hadn’t gone there in the first place. The sermon was excellent and was unbelievably close to our own views and thoughts. Richard and his wife asked us for lunch and he patiently answered all of my questions about church government and policy. I didn’t say anything about my call to ministry or my personal life. As Richard and Betty walked to the car, Betty asked him what he thought of us. Richard told her that I would be the first woman pastor of University Baptist Church. About a month after my son was born, I asked if Richard would visit me. I offered to do filing or whatever at the church and he said that God had much more in store for me. He then told me what had been revealed to him the first time we met. It ended up being so easy after all – God had really prepared a place for me to serve. Then my path was clear, and I began serving as associate pastor (and now co-pastor).

What are some books that have influenced your life’s direction and thought life?

I would recommend any books by Susan Hyatt, Craig Keener, Gordon Fee, or Eddie Hyatt for current, educated viewpoints regarding women in ministry. There are many other excellent books but these individuals have shaped my thought and empowered me as I have grown towards a role in church leadership.