Ministry and Meditation: The Spiritual Journey of Marchiene Vroon Rienstra

by Debra Rienstra | October 31, 1991

This article is from a chapter in the book For Such A Time as This: Twenty-six Women of Vision and Faith Tell Their Stories, ed. Lillian Grissen. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991. Reprinted by permission.

Marchiene faced a painful choice. She could remain Christian Reformed and continue to fight for women's ordination – and be denied the opportunity to use her gifts. Or she could leave the denomination and follow her call elsewhere. After many weeks of prayer and struggle, she and her family concluded that her call was to be a woman in ministry.

As the ship on which she was a passenger glided into New York harbor just before dawn one cool summer morning in 1955, Marchiene Vroon knew that the lady of freedom, with torch thrust proudly into the sky, was welcoming her to her own country. Marchiene was fourteen years old. Up until this time, Pakistan had been home to her. Born in Rangoon, Burma, in 1941, while her parents were traveling to their first missionary post in India, Marchiene until now had seen the United States only once.

For Marchiene, life in the States – specifically, in Grand Rapids, Michigan – brought both homesickness and excitement. She missed the beautiful dark-skinned people in brightly colored saris; the smells of curry, fragrant flowers, and citrus trees; the camel bells chiming softly as she fell asleep each night. But she was also excited about all that was foreign to her here.

One thing surprised her immediately: everyone she met at school and church identified strongly with the Christian Reformed Church. She knew, of course, that the CRC was her parents' home denomination, but she had never met anyone else from this church before. With missionaries from many Christian denominations – Methodists, Church of the Brethren, Catholic, and others – Dr. Vroon had helped found the United Christian Hospital in Lahore. To Marchiene, her family and the other missionaries had simply been Christians in a sea of Muslims.

It was strange, she thought, that her new schoolmates in the States saw themselves as "Christian Reformed" rather than just as "Christian." But she managed, with a bit of struggle, to adjust to this and many other "strange" things in her not-quite-home-land.

Three years after she arrived in the States, Marchiene graduated from Grand Rapids Christian High School, and in 1958 she entered Calvin College in Grand Rapids. Her parents went to Nigeria; her father was one of the first doctors sent to Nigeria by the Christian Reformed Church. During those years, Marchiene struggled with what God might be calling her to do.

She had seen how the Gospel transformed people. Women missionaries were common to her, and the need for missionaries was so great. No one was concerned about the gender of those who brought relief. But she could see that in the Christian Reformed Church becoming a minister was not an option for women.

So she thought about teaching and hoped to major in Bible at Calvin, but a Bible major didn't exist. She settled for her second love – literature – and majored in speech as well. Her studies went well, but after two years at Calvin, Marchiene became restless, frustrated. She still had major questions about her future vocation and the Christian faith that remained unsettled. Was there really a loving God who cared for her personally and had a plan for her life? She prayed for guidance, for some kind of sign. Soon she received a call from Dr. Ralph Blocksma, her father's former colleague in Lahore.

"Marchiene, they could really use your help in Nigeria," he said. "Why don't you take a year off and go? Your way will be paid by the Henry Beets Missionary Society of LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church." Within weeks, Marchiene was on a plane to Lupwe – the mission station founded by Johanna Veenstra – for a year she was to spend teaching, traveling to mission stations, and working in an orphanage. As it turned out, Marchiene's parents were in Takum, a village located just four miles from Lupwe.

During her year in Nigeria, Marchiene discovered that God had sent her Dr. Blocksma's phone call for many reasons – some of which she hadn't suspected. One of these "reasons" was John Rienstra. A young Christian Reformed medical student, John had received a scholarship to study overseas. Through phone calls and letters, he had been matched up with Dr. Vroon. John arrived in Nigeria for the summer of 1960, and before he returned home, he and Marchiene had fallen in love.

John returned to Wayne State Medical School in Detroit, Michigan, for his last year of study, and Marchiene remained in Africa until the following summer. Long months of prolific letter-writing passed. The two married in March 1962 and moved to Grand Rapids, where John would serve his residency.

After finishing her degree at Calvin, Marchiene considered enrolling at Calvin Theological Seminary, adjacent to the college, to study theology. A professor there explained that one should go to seminary only if one wanted to be ordained – and of course, Marchiene couldn't be ordained! Subsequently she accepted an offer from Calvin College to teach English part-time. She put the thought of theology out of her mind – at least for a while.

Marchiene and John's first child, Jonathan, came along in 1964. Eighteen months later, Ron arrived. At this juncture Marchiene quit teaching and concentrated on caring for her two sons. John, then in residency at Butterworth Hospital, had opted to defer his armed services requirement until he had finished that part of his training. In 1966, when he had completed his residency, he enlisted in the Air Force, and the family moved to Goldsboro, North Carolina. Their third child, Janelle, was born on the Air Force base in 1968.

At this point Marchiene was too busy to worry about education, theological or otherwise. Raising her family was exactly what she wanted to do; she was exactly where she belonged – at least for now. Still, something was missing. Something. What was it? Could it, perhaps, be a call to ministry?

Even as a little girl, her mother said, Marchiene couldn't wait to go to church. Already then Marchiene had insisted that someday she would be a minister. Was it still possible? she wondered.

Meaningful opportunities reawakened these buried thoughts. The Air Force chaplain on the base asked Marchiene and John to lead Bible study and outreach programs of ministry. Marchiene became president of the Protestant women's group; John led a Bible class. As the annual Layman's Sunday approached, the chaplain asked if Marchiene and the president of the Protestant men's group would lead the worship service and each preach a short sermon. Marchiene agreed. After the service, the general's wife, a Methodist, complimented her. "Marchiene, you should be a minister. For once my teenage boys listened in church!"

"You're very kind," Marchiene replied, ''but of course I couldn't,"

''Why not?"

"Because I'm a woman."

''What does that have to do with it?"

"Well, look around. Do you see any women chaplains here?"

"Oh, the Air Force just hasn't gotten around to it. We Methodists have ordained women for years. There's no reason why you shouldn't be a minister. You have the gifts. You've got to use them."

A few weeks later the local Methodist church called and asked Marchiene to preach. "1 was scared, but also very excited," Marchiene recalls. 'This was a real church. I felt nervous as I began to speak, but I soon felt very much at home in the pulpit. As if this were right, somehow. My old dreams just leaped back into life."

Marchiene had a lot to think about when she returned to Grand Rapids in 1969. Soon after that, Rachel was born, and John accepted an offer to go into practice in Grand Rapids.

Because of their mission experience, John and Marchiene soon got on the "Sunday evening circuit," speaking to various church groups and showing slides about missions. On one occasion, Marchiene's mother was scheduled to speak to the Ladies' Missionary Union at an annual even held that year at Calvin Christian Reformed Church. At the last minute, Mrs. Vroon became ill. She asked Marchiene to step in, and Marchiene agreed. Afterward she received many requests to speak at Lenten luncheons, Bible study groups, and other fellowship events. Many men and women began to encourage Marchiene to consider becoming a minister.

Meanwhile, several of the Rienstras' friends from their church, LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, and others were experimenting with a new kind of worship service. They held Sunday evening worship services designed to give young people – especially those confused in their spiritual lives – a vital, more intimate worship experience. Encouraged by the interest and participation of people of all ages, the group decided to launch a new congregation, which later became Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church. Marchiene helped plan and lead worship services and helped wrestle with the problems of the infant congregation.

All her experiences seemed to her to point in one direction. She struggled to find some other way. But the call – as she began to think it might really be – would not go away.

In 1972 John and Marchiene went to Nigeria for three months. Away from the pressure of her daily life, she thought, prayed, reflected. ''1 finally became convinced that going to seminary was really and truly something God wanted me to do," Marchiene explains. ''What would be at the end of the road for me, I did not know. All I knew for sure was that I was supposed to go to seminary."

She entered Calvin Seminary in September 1972, the first and only woman enrolled in any seminary program there. Strange looks greeted her. On her first day a young man approached her in the coffee shop, and in a friendly voice he asked, ''Hi, whose wife are you?"

"Well, I'm John Rienstra's wife," she answered, ''but he's a doctor. He's not here at the seminary."

"Oh. Well, why are you here?" the man pursued, a little confused.

''To study."

"'Why do you want to do that?"

"Because I want to know more about the Bible and theology and Christianity."

The man looked at her as if to say, ''Well, I can't argue with that," and then aimed straight at the heart of the matter: ''What do you want to do when you get out?"

Marchiene looked at him in surprise. ''Whatever God leads me to do! My word, it's my first day!"

By this time the Christian Reformed Church had begun to wrestle with the issue of women holding church office. A committee appointed to study the issue reported to Synod 1973 that it had concluded that excluding women from church office could not be defended on biblical grounds. Many delegates to the synod were upset with this report, and the issue began to trouble the church. During the next several years, more committees were appointed to study the issue further.

Marchiene received many requests to speak and write about the issue. She studied the various aspects in earnest, researching both Greek and Hebrew texts, and reading the studies of many other researchers. "People quoted the classic texts about women being silent in the church, and I would think, 'But you don't believe that!' I saw women teaching at the Christian high school and in Sunday school. I saw women missionaries preach and teach and help establish churches – on their own or as missionaries' wives. I thought: If people really believe that, those verses should be obeyed literally; then none of this would be happening."

Meanwhile, tensions on the floor of the annual synods rose to fever pitch. Vehement letters began to appear in the CRC's weekly magazine, The Banner, and some of those letters aimed directly at Marchiene.

It was now the spring of 1978, and Marchiene believed even more strongly that God had called her to parish ministry. But she had a particularly formidable requirement to fulfill before she could graduate. To qualify for ordination, students had to preach ten sermons – a problem for Marchiene, since she was not allowed to preach in a Christian Reformed Church. Synod 1975 had declared that women could receive a degree from Calvin Seminary without fulfilling this requirement, but Marchiene refused to be an exception. Her problem was solved when nearby Presbyterian churches heard of her availability and invited her to preach – exactly ten times.

Providence had also helped Marchiene meet another difficult requirement earlier. Seminary students were also required to serve as interns during or after their senior year. Marchiene insisted she do this too. As of September 1, 1977, she had no internship. But on Labor Day Sunday she preached in a Presbyterian church, and a few days later the pastor of the church asked her if she would be interested in serving an internship there. Indeed she would.

"If those things hadn't fallen into my lap," Marchiene says, "1 don't know how I would have fulfilled all the requirements for ordination. It was as though God just opened the doors."

Presbyterians she knew encouraged her to seek ordination in their denomination. She considered this possibility. She had almost made up her mind when a some friends invited her to lunch. ''Marchiene, you can't just quietly sneak away," they pleaded. "You've got to take a stand and speak for all those who believe that the time has come for women to be full partners in the CRC."

Marchiene knew what she had to do. Her friends were right. Perhaps part of her call was to help prepare the way.

Accordingly, Marchiene submitted her file to the CRC candidacy committee. ''We all knew each other, and some were very supportive personally, but officially the couldn't support me," she recalls. ''No one said, 'Marchiene, don't do it. It's wrong.' Some encouraged me to try the process and see what would happen." She appealed to the Calvin Board of Trustees. When they turned her down, she appealed to the synod.

Certain friends, familiar with the workings of the synod, suggested that she request to be ordained as an exception; she might have a better chance of being accepted that way. Marchiene thought about it but decided against it. "1 didn't want to suggest that women had to fulfill the additional requirement of being 'exceptionaI,'" she says.

In June 1978 Marchiene appeared at the meeting of an advisory committee of the synod. She summarized her reasons for her desire to be ordained. She asked permission to speak to synod. The committee received her courteously, asked a few questions, and reported her request to the synod. Her request was refused.

''The two things that hurt most," Marchiene remembers, "were, first, that most of my professors who knew me and encouraged me privately – did not support me publicly; and second, that the synod denied me an opportunity to give my personal testimony. I could handle the bitter letters in The Banner. I could handle the occasional hostile voices at church groups. But when the synod refused to face the issue on a personal level – not just a theological or hermeneutical level – I felt betrayed."

What now? Marchiene faced yet another painful choice. She could remain Christian Reformed and continue to fight for women's ordination – and be denied the opportunity to use her gifts. Or she could leave the denomination and follow her call elsewhere. After many weeks of prayer and struggle, she and her family concluded that her call was to be a woman in ministry.

Wyoming(Michigan) Presbyterian Church asked her to serve as their interim minister for a few months in 1978, and she accepted. "The decision was very, very tough," she says. She served there for one year. Presbyterian rules did not allow an interim pastor to be called to a permanent position. In her resume Marchiene indicated that what she would most like to do would be to start a new church. Much to her surprise, she received a call to help found Port Sheldon Presbyterian Church in the Port Sheldon area near Lake Michigan in Holland. She was ordained as a pastor/new church developer. There was a positive practical side to this appointment: Port Sheldon was within commuting distance from Jenison, Michigan, where the Rienstras lived, so

Marchiene's new position didn't involve moving the family. For Marchiene, the five good years at Port Sheldon Presbyterian Church confirmed her call. "As I led worship and pastored people, I knew I was doing what God had called me to do. Everything seemed to fit together so well."

On a cold, windy afternoon in October 1983, a phone call marked the beginning of still another stage in Marchiene's ministry. Hope Church, a large RCA (Reformed Church in America) congregation in Holland, Michigan, was looking for a senior pastor. Would Marchiene consider a call? Women had been ordained in the RCA only since 1978, and no women had yet held the position of senior pastor anywhere. Marchiene agreed to an interview. Port Sheldon was off to a strong start, and she was ready for a new challenge. When Hope Church called her, she accepted.

She brought the resources of many Christian traditions into the worship services. Her ecumenical background had convinced her that the different branches of the Christian church need to enrich each other by sharing their worship styles and spiritual disciplines.

In the summer of 1987, frightening news halted Marchiene's ministry: breast cancer. After undergoing a lumpectomy in October, she took a leave of absence. Chemotherapy weakened her too much to perform her duties, and she needed time to think. For eight months she struggled – with cancer and with her spiritual goals. She realized that the last fifteen years-which had involved breaking ground in seminary, surviving opposition in the CRC, and coping with the pressures of being in the spotlight and of being "the first everywhere she went – had taken their toll. After she finished her chemotherapy program and was given a clean bill of health, she returned to Hope Church in August 1988; she left in January 1989. She had been thinking, praying, and reflecting on her life, and she decided to rearrange her priorities. She committed her time to prayer, study, offering spiritual direction, leading retreats, and writing.

Since then, Marchiene has published a Bible study book (in 1990) for the RCA and has been working on several other writing projects. She also helped found the Association for Interfaith Dialogue, a group committed to fostering a better understanding among people of different faiths as part of the effort toward world peace. To date the young group has no headquarters but keeps in touch with its members through newsletters and personal contact.

In June 1990 Marchiene attended the annual meeting of the CRC synod for the first time since that heartbreaking day in 1978. During the twelve years since that day, many women had graduated from Calvin Seminary. Seven more study committees had toiled and reported to synod, and all had concluded that the Bible does not clearly prohibit women from holding church office. At this session, held on June 19, 1990, the synod voted to open all church offices to women (to become effective only when Synod 1992 ratifies the decision).

"I'm grateful I was there to see that moment," says Marchiene. "When I heard the night before that the synod had voted to end the debate and take a vote the next day, I felt that something extraordinary was about to happen. I drove to Grand Rapids the next day. My mother was with me, and many other women were there whose personal heartaches I had shared. For me, it was a very healing experience.

"But the most amazing and beautiful part of it all was the spirit in which the vote was taken and announced," Marchiene continues. There's no doubt the Spirit was moving in the hears and minds of all the people in that auditorium. I think that moment marked the beginning of a great renewal in the church."

Late in 1990, Marchiene gladly accepted the invitation from Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids to assist them for a few months while they look for a full-time second pastor. She will assist them with preaching, worship, and pastoral leadership.

Finally, Marchiene was "home," able to serve God's call in the church of her parents and grandparents. The circle was complete.