Women in Ministry: Karen West
Karen West grew up in a mainline Christian church where faith was a very private thing. Over her years there, she understood Jesus to be a good moral teacher, but not a Saviour. “Jesus was who you needed him to be and Scripture was interpreted to fit your cultural expectations and your environment.” For this reason, there was very little concern for real discipleship or for sharing about Jesus. It was a “convenient faith.”
A Foster Mom’s Faith Inspires New Faith
She and her husband married young, and soon found they could not have children. They decided to pursue adoption, and were eventually blessed with a newborn baby boy. Delighted, they welcomed him home at 10 days old, and lovingly cared for him. However, after only three weeks the 15-year-old biological mom changed her mind and wanted her baby back. At this time, the legal system allowed the biological mom exactly three weeks to make her final decision. Karen and her husband were devastated when the baby was taken back from them. Though they struggled with the meaning of it all, and how God could allow such a thing to happen, they continued to pursue adoption.
About one year later, another infant boy became available for adoption. But this time, because of their previous painful experience, it was decided that he would go to a foster home during the legal wait time. Over the next three weeks, the Wests got to know the baby during their daily visits to the foster home. The foster mom turned out to be a vibrant Christian, vocal in her faith and trust in Jesus. She prayed for them and hoped for them, encouraging them every time they visited. Seeing this kind of overflowing faith was a new experience for Karen. And then, history repeated itself. When the baby turned three weeks old, this biological mom also changed her mind and decided to keep him.
Once again, the Wests found themselves journeying through crisis and heartbreak. They cried out to God, vulnerable. The foster mom also prayed for them and spoke in faith, saying that, as she spent time in prayer, she truly believed the baby boy would still come to be theirs in the days ahead. She called them daily, to pray and tell them to have faith, because God’s plan is good! Karen confesses that she didn’t want to get her hopes up. She just wanted to move on. The foster mom challenged her, “Your faith has to be what God wants for you, whatever his will is. He’s going to carry you to that point.”
What she learned at this time about enduring hope in the midst of struggle and crisis, is what Karen calls the “thread of God’s voice” in her life. “Vulnerability and brokenness, if lived out honestly and not hidden, become something beautifully redemptive that God gets invited into,” like a crack in our facade, “to change our difficult struggles and mold them into something beautiful. He gives us beauty from ashes. If we resist or try to put on a false front like we have it all together, then that redemptive space is somehow minimized or lost.” This thread followed her throughout the rest of her life and profoundly informed her later ministries.
Two months later, the biological mom went to court to give her baby up, realizing that she could not care for him. The Wests finally welcomed home this beautiful baby boy. Through the foster mom’s dynamic witness, encouraging them to see God and have faith and hope in their moments of crisis, Karen’s faith changed and grew. She finally saw Jesus for who he truly is –the One who holds all things in his hands, and whose redemptive power knows no ends. That was a huge turning point. She started volunteering more in church. She was excited about Jesus and knew that others needed to know who he is, too! Her faith could no longer be quiet and privately held.
Getting to Know the MB Family
A few years later in 1997, the West family, including two adopted children, now in grades two and four, moved from London, Ontario to Waterloo. They were looking to join a Christ-centered, gospel-oriented Christian community, rather than looking for a certain denomination. When they ended up at WMB Church, their first question was—what does ‘Mennonite Brethren’ mean? The lead pastor gave them a copy of the Confession of Faith. Karen found it so helpful to have this in hand and to go back to it as questions arose. It defined for her what the Mennonite Brethren believed, which resonated so deeply in her heart.
At the time of their move to Waterloo, Karen was a paralegal secretary. In response to the thread of God’s voice through their earlier struggles, she decided to go back to school to pursue her Bachelor’s of Religious Education in Pastoral Studies. Later she went on to get her Master’s of Divinity at Tyndale Seminary (Toronto) as part of an in-ministry program where for 3.5-4 years, she joined an in-person cohort all day every Wednesday. She remembers this as a very formative experience. WMB Church hired Karen as a part-time pastor while working on her BRE, and then invited her to serve full-time during her years in M.Div. studies.
Karen’s list of leadership roles is extensive. She started at WMB working with small groups. Later, the majority of her pastoring role was in community care and connections. She worked with a team of others to oversee pastoral care, and to help with weddings, funerals, care, meals, and outreach teams. She also oversaw the team leading WMB’s Barnabas Missions, an outreach to marginalized people in their church and community. Karen later served on WMB’s Senior Leadership Team, and the preaching/teaching team. In a transition time between lead pastors, she also served as co-interim lead pastor at WMB.
Beyond her ministries at WMB, Karen served as moderator of the ONMB Board for 7 years and was also on the CCMBC Executive Board during that time. Now, she’s retired from pastoral ministry at WMB, who have recognized her with the title Pastor Emeritus. Her leadership roles still continue as she serves on the Ontario Faith and Life Team and is the ONMB Representative to the National Faith and Life Team.
Leadership Highlights and Challenges
When Karen speaks of her experiences as a leader at WMB, she highlights when she saw the thread of God, woven through the voice of the foster mom, of hope in the midst of crisis, and of redemption in the midst of vulnerability. She observed how faith, lived out through the thick and thin of life in community care and in crisis, became such a vital witness. Hard circumstances like severe illness, or the everyday stresses and struggles marginalized people overcome became opportunities for God to work. “Something beautiful happens and others notice [this faith] as authentic witness.”
Even something so simple as a meal taken to a family in hospital so they have something to eat as they sit with their sick infant, becomes an opportunity to show hope to others who observe the meal shared, the love shared, the prayer and hope shared. “This is the church’s powerful witness,” Karen says. “We often perceive that God is not there in the crises. He doesn’t create troubles but God is there, using them, none-the-less. People identify with struggle, whether Christian or non. What non-Christians can’t identify with, though, is the hope that we have as Christians, even in the middle of the hardships. That hope is what they want and need.”
When Karen reflects on the more difficult aspects of her ministry, she admits that her role as a woman in leadership was not always easy. In Karen’s case, at the beginning of her time at WMB, she was the only woman at the table. “Stepping up into a man’s world was terrifying.” During this time, she realized she had to rely on these men, already in established leadership positions, to make space for her and others for whom this opportunity does not come easily. In her case, she feels overwhelmingly blessed to have been surrounded by such a great group of men at WMB Church and within the ONMB Conference, who fully believed in her, advocated for her, and affirmed her in the many different roles she came to inhabit. Their self-sacrificing support made her think a lot about leadership and privilege and how we use them, and to acknowledge her own privileged state.
As a result, she saw her leadership not as a means to further establish herself, but as an opportunity to encourage and affirm others toward leadership as she had been. And so, as she grew into her roles, she made room and advocated for the next generation of men and women leaders. Today, WMB enjoys a mix of men and women in leadership and she hopes that these leaders will continue to ask the important question: How can I use my position to affirm and make room for people who want to serve Jesus in alignment with sound biblical interpretation, but who are marginalized or underrepresented?
Another difficultly occurred as Karen entered into leadership roles on the provincial and then national level. She found the MB’s mixed perspectives on women in leadership confusing and difficult. While she felt supported and empowered at her own church, on the provincial and national levels, local churches are free to make their own decisions about women’s roles in leadership. “How do you lead confidently, as a woman, when you know there are people who believe you’re disobeying God by leading?” she asks. She experienced incredible support in her board roles, but found the expectations of one group within the Conference so different from that of the other. “It’s our responsibility as a Conference to bring clarity. How can we position women fully, without clear support as a denomination?”
She shares a story of her own journey when studying at Tyndale, where she felt God’s identifiable thumbprint on his calling for her. At the beginning of the program, in a prayer assignment about her future ministry, she prayed that if God was calling her to preach and teach, then that’s what she wanted to do, but she did not want to be a stumbling block to others: “I did not want others to not be able to hear God because the message was coming from a woman’s mouth. I would rather step down than be an obstacle.” At the end of the four years of studies, when asked again to write out her prayer, she distinctly sensed God’s voice: “Oh Karen, my positioning of you in the pulpit as a female is by design. It’s a visible expression of my Good News – the Gospel – which IS for all people!
Vision for CCMBC’s Future?
The priority most needed by CCMBC today, Karen believes, is to be a clear and unapologetic witness to who Jesus is and what it means to be a disciple. She sees all of this clearly outlined in our Confession of Faith. “This is what we believe, communally discerned over decades, regardless of geography. The Confession is a discipleship tool and should be used to be a means of witness of God’s redemptive power.”
But Karen admits that right now, not everyone agrees about our Confession of Faith, and this distracts us from our mission. Not knowing what we believe means we’re not unified in our witness. “We’re focusing on disagreements and not having the conversations we’d like to on how we reach the world.” But it’s not simply a matter of pretending we don’t have differences. “We need to have unity in what we believe as far as what Scripture says. Our common interpretation of Scripture is a really important structure for birthing mission.” That is one of the reasons why Karen serves on the NFLT. “I just think we have to do that tough work with the application of our Confession and remember our shared convictions. What do we believe a life with Jesus looks like?”
In the end, Karen will always remember how she was transformed by the powerful witness of a vibrant Christian foster mom who showed her what a life with Jesus looks like. This enabled her to see the clear moments of God’s touch in her life—of the powerful witness that hope is, in the midst of vulnerable struggles through crisis. She thinks of the men who advocated and made space for her out of their belief in her ability and calling. She thinks about how God spoke to her about what his calling a woman to ministry means. She thinks of the call to break down barriers. “That is the gospel. That is the fullness of why Jesus went to the cross, not only of our personal salvation, but also for the redemption of society, culture, creation, and the world.”
Karen Esau is a freelance writer and artist from British Columbia.