An MB Herald Digest Interview
Sandi Reutlinger is the senior pastor at River of Life Community Church in Blind Bay, BC. She has served in ministry there for over 16 years. She also serves on the Executive Committee for the British Columbia Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.
Tell us about yourself.
I was raised in an adopted family of beautiful Christians. Mom’s dad was a pastor, and my dad’s family were church planters, so I grew up in the faith and had amazing stories of how God moves and works, specifically in Western Canada. I was a typical teenager who walked away and had my rebellious years, and then I had my come to Jesus moment of, “choose you this day… choose life or choose death” (Josh 24:15, Deut. 30:19, paraphrase, combined).
I attended Bible school at what is now called Summit Pacific College just outside of Abbotsford (then it was called Western Pentecostal Bible College), where I studied Christian education. That’s where I met my husband, who was working on his bachelor’s in religious education. I was involved in lay ministry and worked in pharmacy for about twenty years before entering vocational ministry, and we moved out to Blind Bay just over twenty years ago. My husband is a cabinet maker, and we have four kids and four grandkids.
What led you to serve in the MB church?
I grew up in the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC) denomination. When we first moved to Blind Bay—a half-hour drive to the nearest PAOC church—we felt called to plant ourselves in our new community and to minister and work here. Blind Bay had a Catholic Church and River of Life MB Church. Leaving our PAOC church family was hard, but we were really drawn to River of Life. I remember flipping over the bulletin, probably on our first Sunday there, and thinking, “So, Mennonite Brethren, What does that even mean?.” And so we went online, looked at the MB Confession of Faith and began to learn more about our new church family.
Through the assistance of the BCMB apprenticeship program, I started on River of Life staff working with children, youth, and families, later moving into the associate pastor role. The transition to senior pastor seemed organic and natural: Reuben Pauls (senior pastor at the time) and I had been working together for so many years that it felt like a partnership. As Reuben got closer to retirement, he suggested we work on a leadership transition. Reuben’s health took a downturn, so I began moving more into that senior pastor role to fill in. I had been at River of life for close to 16 years, so most members already had high trust in me as a leader. Nor was it a significant shift in thinking for them to have a female lead pastor. Reuben has been supportive; he still lives here, goes to our church, and leads Bible study, and it’s just beautiful how things have worked out.
What have been some of the highs and lows of your ministry life?
The highs I expected I’d remember the most, like ordination, weren’t natural highs at all. Seeing the light go on in a person’s eyes when they experience Jesus, being able to sit with people in sacred spaces, in their grief, being invited to journey with and help them, that’s just precious. These personal moments are the real highs of ministry.
The most extraordinary low is seeing young people growing up in the church establish themselves as adults and start families but not following Jesus; they have tasted and seen that God is good, but still, they walk away from the faith. I can’t feel personally responsible for bringing them back— you can’t make someone accept Christ—I have to leave their salvation and journey up to the Holy Spirit.
What is your experience of varying MB perspectives on women in ministry leadership?
Growing up in the PAOC, female leadership was never an issue. But when I hired someone through a summer grant program a few years back who couldn’t find a place elsewhere because she was a woman, I thought, “Wait, what?”
In terms of the MB family, I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum. I’ve had people turn their back and refuse to engage in conversation, and then I’ve had others treat me like an equal. I’m okay if somebody has a complementary view. You can live out your convictions, but please treat people with respect. It makes me sad when somebody won’t come and sit and have lunch with me or will stand in the hallway and have a conversation, avoiding me.
On the other hand, some people have been fantastic: you’ll be in a room or a meeting together and wouldn’t think about what sex somebody is because we are all there for the same reasons.
What priorities should the Canadian MB family have moving forward regarding women in ministry? How can we support women in ministry leadership?
Start by treating women leaders with respect. I challenge the idea that women leaders are unfaithful to the scriptures and destructive to the Church, our family, and society. I’m not saying that everyone has to think the same way. Still, I’m encouraging us to acknowledge that this is a lesser issue and focus on function as a healthy family does.
We don’t all think the same when we get together, especially as an extended family. We don’t all agree on the same things; maybe we didn’t all vote the same way. But when we get together as a family, we just want to eat good food, tell stories, and encourage one another. The MB Church has a vibrant and robust family ethos that I don’t see in other denominations. I want female leaders to be welcomed into this family—without pretenses—because we want to love and serve Jesus wholeheartedly.
How do you experience renewal and restoration amid ministry?
I’m an introvert/extrovert extrovert/ introvert, and sometimes I need to be with people to recharge. And sometimes, I just got to go out into the forest alone. I put on hiking shoes or bare feet, hike in the mountain beside our home, and it’s just God and me. Also, I’ve got four grandkids. Hanging out with all my kids and playing makes for the best day ever. I’ll also purposefully go to youth on a Friday night because we’ll have fun, and Jesus is there, and those kids are amazing, and they’ll say something about their faith, and I’ll think, “Life is good again.” Jesus is in all of those ordinary spaces.
What’s happening at River of Life that you’re excited about?
In the summertime we’re touristy, we have lots of visitors. But ever since we could go back to meeting in person again, we have had new people every Sunday. We’ve got people that moved here sometime during COVID, and they’re just now coming out into real-life, in-person services.
How can we pray for you and your ministry?
Pray that River of Life will continue to have a strong and trusted presence in our greater community and that we can have an effective ministry. Pray also for all of our churches that we would aspire to be the Church that Jesus is coming back for, glorious without spot or wrinkle, you know, wholly blameless, and that that’s how our churches would see us.