From Mission to Ministry

Tonya Eza

Perhaps one of the most powerful arguments for the LCMS to rethink its position on women in ministry will come from women doing ministry today. Tonya Eza is currently serving as a deaconess in Texas. Here is her story.

Contrary to many professional church workers in the LCMS, I did not feel the call to ministry at an early age. In fact, the first thing I can remember wanting to be when I grew up was a veterinarian. I grew up in the LCMS but went to public schools. My grandfather is a retired LCMS pastor, and while I heard the stories about his time in China as a missionary in the late 1940s, I myself did not dream of doing the same thing, although I did admire him for what he had done. When I went to college, my goal was to study as many languages as I could and to become a translator. I went to an Ivy League wannabe, a small liberal arts college in Vermont. And now I can point back to those years as a time where the Holy Spirit started prodding me to take a deeper look into the faith that I had grown up in but as years when I still did not dream of going into church work as a career.

Towards the end of my undergraduate college experience, I gave up dreams of becoming a translator because in order to do that, I had to go on to graduate school. I was not prepared to do this chiefly because I had no idea how I would pay for it, but also because I was tired of school and eager to try the real world on for size. I went back to my parents’ home in New Hampshire after I graduated and began looking for a job. In about two months’ time, I landed my first job as a reservations agent for a small tour operator. It was a good job to have, and I enjoyed the people with whom I worked. I also enjoyed the cool trips they sent me on around the world to familiarize myself with the tours that they sold so I could be more knowledgeable when I spoke to clients on the phone. However, what I did not enjoy was talking to people on the phone for eight hours every day. While some were nice, others were not, and it wore on my spirit after a while. One day I looked at myself and discovered that I did not like the person I was becoming. I decided to begin looking for a new job.

Shortly after I made this decision, I was approached at church one Sunday by the president of our congregation. He had received a list of mission opportunities from Saint Louis and thought I would be interested in them, so he gave me the information. (I had tried to go on a short-term missionary trip shortly before I got my job, but it had fallen through at the last minute.) So I took the information and began reading through it, as well as making phone calls and talking to different people. I filled out the application and sent it in to LCMS World Mission. Before I knew it, I was being flown out to Saint Louis for an interview. The man who interviewed me talked to me for a couple of hours, and at the end of the interview he said, “Well, we have this great program where you can go either to Japan or Taiwan for 2½ years and teach English as a second language.” Without thinking too much about it, I said that I wanted to go to Taiwan. Looking back, I am positive that this was the Holy Spirit speaking, because I myself really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I only knew that I needed to get out of the job that I was in. My parents were very supportive of me once they knew that I would be taken care of. They told me that they would miss me, but that it was okay for me to go.

This experience completely changed my life around from what it had been. It’s impossible in one article to detail all of the things that happened to me in Taiwan or all of the people who touched my life. I only know that about a year and a half into my time there, I knew that when I came back I wanted to continue working for the church. However, I didn’t know what I as a woman could do in the LCMS besides be a DCE or a music director. I did not want to be a DCE because all of the DCEs I had ever known worked exclusively with children, which I did not want to do. And I have no talent for music besides being able to carry a tune tolerably well. Here again the Lord stepped in to direct my way. I met my parents in Hawaii for vacation, and they asked me what I wanted to do when I got back to the States. I told them that I wanted to continue church work. After my parents went back to the States, my mother asked the pastor of our church if he could help me to find some work within the church. This pastor had just been newly called up to our New Hampshire church from Long Island, and he told my mother to tell me to get in touch with Dr. Benke, the president of the Atlantic District. I e-mailed him, and he put me in touch with the mission executive of the Atlantic District, who at that time was Rev. David Born. After some e-mail conversation, Pastor Born hired me to work in Chinese missions in New York City—without ever having met me before I came back to the States!

My time in New York City was a good time of learning. Just as my experience in Taiwan had been something completely different and had changed my life around, my experience in New York did the same thing. I was there when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and I was there for the now infamous prayer at Yankee Stadium and the uproar that it caused in the LCMS. That was my first not-so-gentle introduction to LCMS politics. My fellow missionaries and I were universally supportive of Dr. Benke, and these colleagues of mine, while all men, treated me as an equal co-worker in the kingdom of God. During this time I learned street evangelism techniques and taught English as a Second Language classes at a church in Chinatown as well as at my home church in Flushing. I did some other work at different churches that had a Chinese outreach as well. During this time the district began the Mission Training Center, a series of classes designed to give further education in Lutheran theology to its workers. Again, in most of these classes I was the only woman, but every man in the Mission Training Center treated me as an equal. After a while working as a mission assistant, however, I began to become dissatisfied. At my church in Flushing I was also working in the position of youth minister, which wasn’t where my heart was, but which I had agreed to do. I felt as though the congregation was giving me some support in youth ministry but not enough in the missionary work I was trying to do. I spoke to another pastor about it, but he unfortunately did not have any suggestions.

About this time a professor from Concordia Seminary in Saint Louis had come to New York to teach a class at the Mission Training Center. As I was discussing an assignment with him, he asked me what I was going to do with all of the classes I had taken. When I said that I didn’t really know, he told me that the seminary had started a deaconess training program and that I should look into it. So I requested information from the seminary and started reading about the program and praying about it. I was very interested in the program but really had no desire to leave New York City, even though I felt a lack of support from my church. One day I was agonizing over this struggle when I distinctly heard God say to me that I had been praying to Him for a long time to get me out of the situation that I was in, and here He was opening the door for me and why wasn’t I jumping through it? At that point I completed the application, was accepted into the seminary and left New York for Saint Louis at the end of the summer.

The deaconess program at Concordia Seminary in Saint Louis was relatively new, and I was a member of the second class to go through the program and the largest class up to that point. When I began the program, there were two tracks for the deaconess students: either the exegetical track or the spiritual care track. I chose exegetical, which meant that I got to learn Hebrew and Greek. Although the program got switched around in the middle of my time there, I still was able to finish with an M.A. in exegetical theology. I enjoyed all of the classes that I took at the seminary, and not once did any of the professors treat me differently because I was a woman. However, it was outside the classroom that I felt like I had entered a time warp and landed back in the 1950s. It was very hard for me to believe the attitudes that I saw among the other students—both men and women—about the “roles” that they had as male and female. I often felt very out of place as far as the other women went because I did not fit (and still do not fit) the stereotypes that are still so prominent in our church: I don’t cook very well, if at all, and I don’t enjoy it. I have no talent for sewing and doing crafts. I am not musical, except for singing. I tremble in my shoes anytime I am asked to teach small children, and I have no desire to have children of my own. I do, however, take great joy in visiting the elderly and those in the hospital. I love teaching Bible studies for youth and adults, and if you ask me to translate and exegete a Bible passage, I’m there. So at the seminary I felt very different from the women who surrounded me and felt most comfortable discussing theology with the men and with the other deaconess students.

As part of my training to become a deaconess I spent a year on internship in Alaska. I had always wanted to go there and immediately felt like I had come home at long last. Alaska is part of the United States, and at the same time is not. It is so far removed from everything that I had ever known, and I felt a great freedom there to be who I am and not to be judged. Each person seemed to march to their own beat, and everyone got along with one another in spite of that. While I was there, I spent part of my time working for an established church and part of the time doing missionary work in an undeveloped part of the state. If you think of the old TV show Northern Exposure, that is the kind of atmosphere in which I was doing missionary work. My specific duties on the missionary side of things included making contacts and building relationships as well as a monthly “Super Sunday,” which was like a mini-Vacation Bible School. On the parish side of things I taught the high school Sunday school class, directed the youth in a Biblical play, assisted the pastor and his wife with the youth group meetings, taught a women’s Bible study and helped plan a Seder meal. I also made hospital visits, visited our single homebound member and occasionally filled in for the pastor with chapel for the children in the Open Arms program.

As I write this, I am about two months shy of my one-year anniversary in my first call in Texas. I am enjoying my work as a deaconess and am learning and growing more and more from the work that the Lord has called me to do. My job here has included giving children’s messages on Sundays, visiting our homebound members and those in the hospital, working with the youth, teaching a women’s Bible study, planning and directing a Seder, assisting with VBS and anything else that comes up that is something that I am trained to do. My pastor and I frequently have theological discussions, and he values my opinion. I still tremble in my shoes when I’m asked to teach children younger than 10, but as long as something is prepared for me to say, I feel like I can do a good job. My favorite part of the work is teaching adults and making visitations. I have applied, with my pastor’s support, for an extended unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) with the short-term goal of improving my hospital visitation skills. In the future I may take more units in order to have the qualifications to serve as a chaplain in a nursing home situation. As the baby boomer population ages, the need for those who are trained in spiritual care of the elderly and the sick is only going to become greater.

Another future possibility would be going back to school to get my Ph.D. If I am ever asked to teach at the university level, this would be a necessity. However, I see this as a somewhat remote possibility as a good portion of the Missouri Synod would have a problem with a woman teaching theology to men, even if it is not in a worship setting. This has even been an issue in the church in which I am now serving. And the irony is that it is not the pastor who has a problem with a woman in a position where she teaches men, but instead it is the people, including the women. This is why I have restricted myself to teaching only a women’s Bible study thus far. I do not want anyone to stop coming to church because of something that I’m doing. While I regret that I have to restrict myself in this way, it is more important to me that my weaker brother or sister not stumble in their faith (1 Corinthians 8).

Throughout my church career, especially at points where I have had to determine where the Lord was leading me, people both in- and outside the Missouri Synod have asked me why I do not leave the synod to join a denomination which is more open to women in leadership roles. My answer is that I believe that the theology of the Missouri Synod is true to God’s Word. While some other denominations are more open to female leaders, they often have other beliefs which I believe are not in line with the Bible. But also the Missouri Synod is family to me. And it is my belief that you do not turn your back on your family except as an extreme last resort. Therefore, I will continue working with the family to which God has called me, and I will continue praying that the Lord will bring peace to my family where divisions exist. I am content in the belief that being a deaconess is what the Lord has called me to do and that He has given me the gifts and abilities to fulfill His calling.

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