Women in Ministry: An Interview with Kristal Toews
Kristal Toews grew up immersed in the Mennonite Brethren theological and cultural heritage. Three of her grandparents came from Mennonite colonies in Russia, and emigrated from there in the 1920s. Most of these grandparents became leaders in MB institutions. Her own parents were missionaries with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Nepal, when she was a child. Later, they moved back to Canada and settled in the Bradner area in BC. She grew up attending Bakerview MB Church where her parents were involved in teaching and music. She attended a public elementary school, then went to Mennonite Educational Institute Secondary, the University of the Fraser Valley, and then Simon Fraser University for her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. She continued her academic studies at Regent College at UBC, where she achieved a Master of Arts in Theological Studies with a Biblical Studies Concentration.
Journey to a Cliff
Her own spiritual journey began when she was young. Kristal remembers praying to receive Jesus at six years old, responding to the example of God’s great love expressed in John 3:16. At her public elementary school, she found few that shared her belief in Jesus or who attended church at all, so she rarely spoke to others of her faith. When she started attending MEI in grade 8, she experienced a new freedom to express her beliefs. Her faith awakened and she felt God’s presence around her when she prayed and also as she observed nature and the beauty of spring blooming around her. The next year, the feelings waned and she struggled to believe that she was forgiven, or that God was near at all. Throughout her teen years, she slowly learned that her faith needed to be founded on the truths proclaimed in scripture, rather than on her changeable feelings.
After she graduated, Kristal went on a French immersion trip. Here, surrounded once again by unbelievers, she came to a crisis. Was she a Christian or not? Would she just blend in and go along with the crowd, or would she stand up for her faith? What would standing up for her faith look like? One night, she saw the choice as a cliff in front of her. Either she could throw herself off – and abandon her faith – or she could stay and cling to God on the cliff. She chose to stay with God. This was a pivotal moment in her life. From here she committed to unashamedly live out her faith, walking it out alongside people who had many different beliefs. She still had her struggles through university, but when she felt discouraged, her husband would remind her to get up and get together with her Christian community, and so she did. She learned to lean into God in the doubts, instead of distancing herself from him. This lesson became harder later on through financial struggles, relational challenges, and most poignantly, with the birth of a stillborn child. She spent some time navigating the ensuing grief and pondering questions about God’s ability to heal, and the nature of God’s goodness. Once again, she made it through, intact in her faith in a loving God. She saw God redeeming these trials for his glory and for her own good. She has no doubt that these struggles through weakness and hardship have strengthened her ministry to many others today.
It was at Bakerview that she began honing her leadership skills in her early 20s and into her 30s. Here, she served as a youth leader for four years, and shared a one-year interim Youth pastor role with her husband, Bob. She also served on the church council as a Member at Large, and began leading the women’s Bible study, with a leadership role in women’s ministry for several years.
She began to attend Northview in the fall of 2008, and joined the staff as Administrative Assistant in Women’s ministry in 2009. It was then that she began her master’s studies and was promoted to Director of Women’s Ministry in 2011 and then Pastor of Women (2012-2018) and is presently the Pastor of Discipleship. In the larger MB Conference, Kristal served as an MC and taught at several national study conferences and now serves on the National Faith and Life Team (NFLT) as a Member at Large.
Throughout her various roles, Kristal observed how God used many ordinary means to train her for the ministry he was calling her to. God gave her a love for teaching and language. Her English degree developed her ability to carefully observe the details of a literary text, and she started using this skill to study and teach the Bible. She realized how God used her volunteer positions to train her for her future vocation. She acknowledges that through all of the highs and lows of her time serving God, that only He deserves the glory for any ministry “success” she has been a part of. “We are completely dependent upon the work of his Spirit in our lives and the lives of those we are ministering to for the growth of his church.” Through all of this, her love to train and teach has only grown, as has her joy in seeing some of those she’s trained go on to serve in other churches and institutions.
A Woman in Leadership
While Kristal attended Bakerview Church, she didn’t recall any women leading in a paid staff position, so assumed that there would be no vocational role there for her either. Later, in the early 2000s Bakerview staff took part in discussions around an MB study conference and officially moved to a more egalitarian stance, though this change did not immediately result in new paid staff roles for women. On the other hand, pastors and congregants consistently recognized Kristal’s gifting and encouraged her to step into volunteer leadership positions. These leadership opportunities with youth and women helped her recognize that God had gifted her for church ministry and was giving her experience to grow and explore these skills.
When Kristal’s family moved to Northview Church and she was invited to join the staff there, Northview was entering a time of discernment about their position on women in ministry. The elders and some staff members entered a year-long study process together, considering key texts and different interpretative approaches. After a year-long study, Northview’s elders affirmed that it would be a complementarian church that trains, equips and empowers women for all vocational and lay ministry positions in the church with the exception of the elder and lead pastor roles. Kristal benefitted from this decision immediately, as they paid for half of her tuition costs as she worked towards her Master’s degree at Regent.
Not done with her own research yet, Kristal continued to look into the subject of women in ministry leadership while at Regent College. She dove into feminist theology and studied a wide variety of views for her papers, distilling from them what would become her own stance. During this time of personal questioning and processing, she appreciated the trust and freedom Northview’s Senior Leadership Team extended to her as she continued to teach and lead there. She came to understand and respect the egalitarian perspective, knowing many who have arrived at this conviction from a careful study of the Scripture. But in the end, as a result of her own studies, she found herself aligned, theologically, with Northview’s expression of complementarianism.
Over her fifteen years of ministry there, she has seen all that Northview has done to equip her and many other women for ministry leadership, sending women to many learning and training opportunities such as conferences (Evangelical Theological Society, Charles Simeon Trust Workshops on Biblical Exposition, Gospel Coalition and Lifeway Women’s Conference) and offering both graduate and undergraduate level training programs. Kristal taught and trained students in the Immerse classes–Northview’s own fully-funded, accredited, 4-year Masters of Divinity program from which two women have already graduated, with one more almost done and more working their way through the program. Dozens of women have already come through their Ministry Apprentice Program (MAP), a one-year internship. All of this training has enabled these women to provide training in lay-leader preaching/teaching cohorts for male and female lay-leaders in the congregation. They also mentor and support women leaders in other churches, and help run a 3-day regional Women of the Word Biblical Exposition workshop, in conjunction with St John’s Vancouver and Christ City Church, usually involving 60-80 women from the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. Kristal also greatly appreciates the opportunity to regularly take part in Northview’s sermon preview and reviews, giving and receiving critique together with the teaching pastors and Immerse students there. She is excited that their vision keeps growing and that they continue to expand their leadership training opportunities.
A Vision for Growth in the Conference
Kristal’s vision for the Canadian MB family of churches is that we would seek a renewed intimacy in our relationship with God through worship and prayer. She prays for a recommitment to the Scriptures by “knowing, meditating on, studying and living our lives in light of God’s trinitarian revelation of Himself, and his plans and purposes for humanity.” She is convinced that it is only when we are committed to living as the Lord designed us to live, in dependence and submission to him and in loving relationship with others, that we can truly flourish as humans. She also encourages a renewed commitment to making disciples, following evangelism with teaching people to obey all that Jesus commanded. Finally, as she herself experienced, she would like to see a renewed commitment to equipping women and men for the work of both lay and vocational leadership.
In the end, Kristal values her experiences and training at Bakerview and at Northview, and the caring men and women who were always there to urge her to take leadership roles. Even more importantly they also encouraged her to deepen her dedication to follow Jesus–that the journey of discipleship to Jesus is key to becoming a thoughtful and impassioned preacher and teacher. She has now had many opportunities to teach and lead at Northview and beyond and she is flourishing in these roles.
Karen Esau is a freelance writer and artist from British Columbia.