On International Women’s Day (Thursday 8 March), members of the Uniting Church in Australia, Queensland Synod share their thoughts on what it means to be a woman of faith.
Rev Heather den Houting is the General Secretary of the Uniting Church in Australia, Queensland Synod.
Journey Online: How long have you been involved in the Church?
General Secretary: All my life. I’m a minister’s daughter. I grew up in the church and decided I didn’t want to have anything to do with the church because it is what my upbringing was and I’m an independent spirit. After I finished school, I decided to find my own path by studying law but by my early 30’s, I hadn’t found anything else in the world that made more sense to me than being in the church environment. So, I came back to the church, and here I am.
Journey Online: So, you can be an active participant in the church, but is there anything in particular that inspired you to pursue a career in ministry?
GS: So, when I came back into the church there was never an idea that I would ever pursue ministry. The intention was always that I would forge my own destiny and never be caught up in the family business. So, I spent a lot of time fighting what I sense to be a call from God to ministry and just kept on saying no, no, no, that’s not for me. I made lots of decisions basically to separate myself from the church and the church environment in order to find my own identity in the world. But for those who have experienced a call of God to the ministry, it doesn’t matter what you do, there is always a constant tug down a particular pathway and it doesn’t matter how much time you spend avoiding it, eventually it’s relentless. Anyone who has had a call to ministry will explain that to you, and that is absolutely what happened to me.
Journey Online: What are some of the challenges that you have experienced to date?
GS: The trouble is that when the path is open, the challenges all just seem to fall away. So, the challenges that I have experienced are my own expectations of what the church would mean to me and how I would never find fullness of life based on what I have observed. A good example is when I started to candidate and my supervisor for my period of discernment, the Rev Dr Geraldine Wheeler will attest to that I spent a lot of time saying, well they won’t accept me because I’m too radical, I’m a feminist, my theology is too far to the left. I set up all these reasons why the church would be ultimately to challenging for me. The church just said, “you have a call from God, and we will say yes to that because in all our testing processes, in all our discernment processes, it is clear that you have a call from God”. So, the beauty of being part of a community that doesn’t think your mad and that doesn’t think that your bad, but that lives in the openness and accommodation of the open creativity of God is what I experienced when I came in. For International Women’s Day, there is no way I could say that every environment that I have been in, every door is open and every opportunity given. But what I do, is I find another way. Basically, if that door closes, then I find other opportunities available to me, and they have always come up.
Sometimes, the greatest challenge is to wait. So, I remember when I first started studying theology and started my ministry journey I was talking to someone and I said, why is this only happening now in my late 30’s. Why didn’t it happen in my early 20’s. That person looked at me and said, because it just didn’t. So, I have used that story with lots of people that I have met and any conversation I have where someone says, “I’m too old” or “It’s too late for me to start” or “I won’t add value to the church”, I just point out that God’s economy invites us in to participate. That may not look like ordained ministry, it may not look like work in the church at all. But there is always an invitation in and to explore. Anybody who has a sense of call, even if it is not to ministry but something I want to explore here, the period of discernment is a fabulous process. It is supported, mentored, strategic process that will allow you to do your own thinking about where you belong. And that’s available to anybody.
Journey Online: Throughout your involvement, have you seen perception change? Have you seen women becoming more welcome?
GS: I grew up in a very strong, churchy family. I had an aunt who was a deaconess, my mother, everyone was highly engaged in the church. I grew up in Victoria where there was a strong feminist movement within the church, which made absolute sense to me. I have been fortunate to have found key female leaders and role models in all environments where I have been. I’ll remind people of Norma Spear, who I didn’t know but was a trailblazing leader in Queensland. There are hundreds of people in Queensland who can tell you about how Norma Spear influenced their life.
When I meet people from other churches who are still struggling with that question of what does women in leadership look like, I don’t have to struggle in the same way. It doesn’t always mean you have to have a narrative about women in leadership, but that first threshold issue has been resolved decades ago. And nobody is allowed into ministry within the Uniting Church without acknowledging and accepting that.
That does make me reflect the one of the issues we are having currently is the low level of female representation in our councils and our leadership positions in the Queensland Synod. As a result, there are several initiatives in place to ensure we find, support and mentor women into different roles within the church. I’m not saying it’s something we don’t have to pay attention to, but I don’t think we have the same struggles as other churches.
Journey Online: What advice would you give to a young person out there thinking ministry is the place for them?
GS: Please do a POD. Please do it. The beauty of the POD is that it doesn’t lead you down paths that you don’t want to go, it doesn’t force you into a mould, the whole point of it is for you to explore, what does this look like. The beauty of the program is that you are put with a mentor that makes sense to you. You are given the resources of the church to use, it is free to you, the church is absolutely committed to encouraging leaders of all sorts and hopefully they will see there are some key female leaders in the church. The Assembly General Secretary and incoming President are woman, the General Secretaries of New South Wales and Queensland are women. We have had, and will continue to have strong female leadership in the Uniting Church. Hopefully this continues to demonstrate that women are welcome in all parts of the church. All pathways are open.