The first time I saw Pastor Mary, she was passionately making a case to a young adult audience for liturgy within the church. To everyone’s surprise, liturgy became the new fascination within our peer groups for a while. It had meaning and intent, it was beautiful, and it all pointed back to God. Pastor Mary has an absolutely keen ability bring together seeming opposites. She breathes life and passion into dull and tired topics--into dull and tired Christianity. She knows how to bring the old and the new together; generations, yes, but the Word too. She knows how to hold deep pain in solemnness. But she also knows how to laugh freely. So rooted in her belonging to Christ, Pastor Mary is very much like the liturgy that she teaches; intentional, beautiful, and always pointing back to God and his resurrecting power, from death to life. Her life is a loud, resounding Amen to the faithfulness of God. Come share in her story.
Describe your journey; how did you get to where you are?
I grew up in Holland, MI and went to the Christian schools there. When I was in 7th grade, my pastor said to me, “You're going to be a minister when you grow up.” This was at a point when our denomination wasn't ordaining women. He was ahead of the time. He planted a seed. And every Summer, when he returned from his out of town work, he would shake my hand at church and say, “Are you getting ready to go to seminary? Are you getting ready for ministry?" He was persistent about it.
I think when you are that young, to have somebody who looks at you and calls out potential is really significant. He was that person for me. I began to pay attention to what pastors did after that. I would ask myself, does this look like an interesting job?; taking care of people, preaching, managing a church?
In high school I started thinking about it seriously. I did a lot of research on texts about women serving in the church and how Reformed scholars interpret them. I wanted to know that I was on solid biblical ground for pursuing the call. By the time I graduated I was pretty sure that's what I wanted to do. I spent that summer working with a team of young people at a church for six weeks and I loved it. Just loved it.
I entered Calvin as a pre-seminary student and got involved in the worship life of the college. I majored in Classics--I studied the ancients because I wanted to know as much as I could about the culture from which scripture came. After college, I went to Calvin seminary and continued to be affirmed in the call. I needed a church where I could preach, because students had to get preaching credits. Well, there weren't many Christian Reformed churches that allowed it.
Allowed women to preach. There was this one church in Kalamazoo that had a tradition of women students from Calvin seminary come and preach, so I went and preached there. When I needed a place for a summer assignment, one church was willing to take me. I needed a church for my internship and one church was willing to take me. When I graduated from seminary there was one church that was willing to sign me on for a one year interim co-pastor position. And that turned into 8 years of being a senior pastor.
When I look back on my story, God opened exactly the right door at exactly the right time. That's so important because you can get discouraged in day-to-day life and think, 'What is he doing here? Why isn't he working fast enough? I don't understand what he's up to.' For me, to give my testimony is to say that at every point he gave me daily bread. He didn't give me a whole lot of bread. He didn't not give me bread. He gave me daily bread. Like manna, enough for every season. That's a key part of how my testimony is woven in with my call and my work.
I did 8 years at Eastern Avenue Church in Grand Rapids and it was just great. I loved being a pastor. Then I felt a stirring to do more graduate work, particularly in preaching. I applied for Ph.D. programs and was accepted to the University of Illinois Communications department. Afterwards, I was still not sure if I would teach or go back to parish ministry. But I thought, ‘If I don't try this professor thing, I'm always going to wonder.’ The Communications department at Calvin had a one-year term appointment open and so I taught Speech, Communication, and Culture. It was fun! I loved teaching Speech; I loved the Communications department colleagues--they're just great people. Shout-out to the CAS department at Calvin! [Laughs]
Toward the end of my year, it ended up that I took a job at Calvin Seminary teaching preaching. Then the job opening as college chaplain came up. I thought, 'Wow, I've only been at this job a year, that's kind of cheesy to bail'. But so many people said, 'Hey, are you going to apply for that job? I think you'd be really good at that job.' I remember in college I loved working alongside the chaplain and I thought, 'Wow, he does have a great job'. One day, while I was weighing all of these things, three friends of mine who live across North America, all emailed me on the same day to say, “You need to apply for this job”. That was enough. I really felt committed to my work at the Seminary, but I thought, 'Alright, this is God's leading'. So I applied. [Pauses] it was a long but really good process. I got the job and started on Jun. 1, 2009 and I'm entering my 5th year.
This is the perfect weaving together of all things I love. I love academics, I love to learn, I love students. I love ministry, preaching, and caring for people. I love being a part of an organization that I believe completely. I love the mission of Calvin College. I look back and think, ‘God knew what he was doing. He pulled together all the things I love and plopped me down right here’. It's really cool.
“For me, to give my testimony is to say that at every point [God] gave me daily bread. He didn't give me a whole lot of bread. He didn't not give me bread. He gave me daily bread. Like manna, enough for every season.”
What does that feel like, to know you are doing what you are meant to do?
It's great--it is such a gift. There was an introductory article about me in the Alumni magazine, and they quoted the former chaplain who said, “Mary now has the best job on campus”. What was really fun about my first year is that so many people walked up to me and said, “Actually, I have the best job on campus.” Everybody from janitors to administrative assistants, to faculty members, to coaches [pauses] because when the body of Christ has everybody functioning in their 'spot', that's how everybody feels: I have the best job. That's such a rarity. It's really fun to work in a place where so many people feel, 'I am doing what I'm supposed to be doing'.
It sounds amazing. How does where you are (Grand Rapids and Michigan culture) inform who you are and how you do your work?
Calvin is doing some really cool initiatives to partner with Grand Rapids and be less of the bubble that it was 30 or 40 years ago. It's much more integrated into the neighborhoods and the city.
An interesting thing is, I can't go anywhere in the city without somebody noticing me or greeting me. My husband teases me, “You're always selling.” It's true. You don't know if you're going to run into a former student or an alum or a donor or a parent. What it means for me personally, is that I have to have really strong boundaries. Otherwise I could just work all the time.
How do you find that boundary? Is there ways that you define it or things that you do?
Yes. I take a Sabbath every Monday, which is big. I work Tuesday through Friday in the office. Saturdays I write my sermons. Sundays I edit my sermons and practice them because I preach without notes. Then Sunday nights I preach. Mondays I'm off.
Off means no email. It means praying and journaling for longer than I can do during the weekdays. I don't drive until noon because it's really tempting to take a sabbath and turn it into a day off--run errands and do yard work and do laundry. So I really force myself to be calm. I read the paper, have a cup of tea, and just chill.
How do you find spiritual rest versus physical rest?
I try really hard to do my devotions every evening, and that's really important quiet and spiritual rest. Before I sleep, I give my day over to God and think about what's coming up the next day. About once a month, I take a day at a retreat center with two colleagues. There too, no email, I'll take a journal. I may take a book that I'm reading or would like to read. Maybe I'll take a nap. It's just like a Sabbath day.
Often I'll go into those days with a question or something I'm really pondering and say, “Lord I really need to listen to you about this, about this person or situation. I need to listen well today”. It's less of an agenda and more 'How do I listen?'
I love to vacation, go camping, travel, hike etc. But I also love to spend three days of just quiet, prayer, reading. As a newlywed I said to my husband at the beginning of Summer, “I'm going to need a few days on a prayer retreat” and he was like, 'Hmm'. He understands that I need to do that, but he doesn't really understand the longing. He's happy to make space and cover things at home so I'm free to do that. And he's glad when I come home calmer, rested, and centered. But that's not his longing.
I think for those of us who spend a lot of time pouring out in ministry, being quiet and filling up is so important. If church leaders give their pastor that set aside time, the entire church will be healthier. Because you won't see your identity in your work, you'll see it in Christ. That gets affirmed every time you go into prayer. Oh that's right, God is in charge, I'm not.
You have so many roles that you're juggling in life. But who do you first identify yourself as?
My primary identifier is disciple and follower of Jesus. I don't always do that perfectly, of course. I can easily get swayed to think I have to perform as a chaplain, be a really great wife, and be a really good friend and that gives me value. That's why these times of prayer are so important. They remind me, “No”. That's why I love what I do, but I hold very loosely to it. Because I think God can call me to do anything at any time. I've had four great years here. Well, will I have more? I have no idea because God has been full of surprises my whole life. So if my identity is in Him and not in my job, I'm fine. And it allows me to do my job well because I think, ‘I am just going to do my best and let God take care of the rest.’
What is your favorite thing about this job?
I have two. One is conversation with students. I love listening to students; what they’re struggling with, what they’re curious about, if they're doubting, if they're excited, if God's doing great things in their life or not enough in their life. I love being a conversation partner with students. I love helping them further articulate their theology about who God is and how He acts in our lives.
And I love preaching. I love having a group of people gather around the Word and saying here are the cool things that I found when I was studying this passage and I can't wait to share them with you. That's how I think of preaching.
I think the bible is the most fascinating book ever written. I love to study it. I love to say to people, look look, this is God. If he did this with [broken people], he can do this with you. You are never outside the reaches of God's grace. That's gospel, baby.
Preach it! (Laughs) What moments in your life have you experienced that grace for yourself, deeply?
Many, many, many. God has brought a lot of healing in my life. The most recent, obvious, thing is giving me an amazing husband. I have amazing people around me. I am extremely blessed.
[Pause] My first marriage ending, was one horrible pain in my life and I did everything I could. But God took that really awful situation and used it to shape me, and allow me to look at other things in my life that needed healing and redemption [pauses] God never wastes anything. Resurrection isn't just once. He's constantly working to resurrect, saying, “You thought this was dead. I'm going to bring it back to life. You thought this was something that killed you, but I'm going to use it to do something else. I'm going to use it to bring life.”
How did you get out of those dark portions of your life?
Christian therapists and good friends. And enough work to distract me. I didn't use work as a therapy, or a drug, or an escape. I did hard work. Hard emotional, mental, spiritual work. You get out of it by going through it, you don't get out of it by running around it. A lot of people like to run around their pain and say “That didn't really happen, didn't really matter, it wasn't that big of a deal”. But it's not like it goes away. It sits there and pops up later in life, probably in an uglier fashion.
Having the courage to face your garbage and to process and sort it out--this is recyclable or this is just trash--that is important. Really important. Having friends who hold faith for you when you can't hold it. Friends who aren't intimidated when you get mad at God. The best part of Job's friends is the very beginning when they gather around and they just sit there in silence. It's when they start to talk that things get a little problematic. You have to have people who are willing to sit with you in silence. Those are the kind of people you want around you when you're going through a dark spot.
Do you have those kind of friends?
Absolutely. My two best friends walked with me through all of this, and I walk with them through stuff. They love the Lord, they love me, and they don't let me get away with anything. One of them is a pastor's kid so she's not impressed by the pastor piece of my life. The other one is a professional woman. You need people who can call you on your [wrongs]. People who love you and make you laugh. There's enough in life that makes you not laugh.
That's true. Let's talk about what makes you not laugh. [Laughs] What is the hardest part of living out your faith?
I think [pause] needless suffering. When I watch people suffer, I want to fix it. I would do anything to fix it. If a young woman comes in my office and talks about being sexually assaulted, I would do anything to go back in time and undo that. She doesn't know what to do with it. She doesn't know what it has to do with her and God. You see, this is a moment that can just turn someone away from faith and God. They ask, “Why didn't God protect me? Why was nobody there?” Those are hard questions.
Or with our gay and lesbian students who [pause] come to this realization in their late teens that they are different from other people. And they love the Lord and the church. For them too, “What does this mean for me? What is my life going to look like?” And to sit with them, again, with no easy answer. To give them hope that life is not always going to look like it does when you're nineteen. I would do anything to take their burden away and make them have hope. I think those are the kind of things that weigh on me, that I'll take home with me.
How do you not let that keep weighing you down?
(Takes a deep breath) Because I really believe that God is about resurrection. I've seen amazing people come back from sexual abuse and assault. I've seen gay and lesbian Christians who are living lives of integrity and wholeness. So, if I can get this student through the worst of it, I mean (laughs) God will get the student through the worst of it--I get to bear witness and encourage. I just say, “There's another side. You'll get to the other side of this.”
“Resurrection isn't just once. [God] is constantly working to resurrect, saying, “You thought this was dead. I'm going to bring it back to life. You thought this was something that killed you, but I'm going to use it to do something else. I'm going to use it to bring life.”
Can I ask you a question about you and your husband? What was that like, coming out of another marriage, to get remarried and fall in love again?
There was a long break between my first marriage and this one. In fact, I was single longer than I was married. I was married for nine and I was single for twelve. People say that right after a marriage ends, you just think, ‘I never want to do that again. That was stupid. Married people are stupid.’ And in that scenario, God just brought a lot of healing into my life. There were a lot of stretches where I thought, I would love for this to happen again, but I don't see how it is going to. I'm a professional woman. I'm a minister. I have a Ph. D. These aren't things that most guys are like oh that's awesome! Let's date a minister!
Particularly in West Michigan where everybody gets married really young, there just aren't many single people in their thirties or forties. The demographics aren't here.
When the Lord called me to stay in Grand Rapids with my work, I just thought ‘All right, there are certain doors that are closing. This is what it's going to be.’ So it came as a big surprise. It will be 3 years ago that we met. For Drew too, he didn't think he would get married again. You never know what God is going to do.
What's your favorite thing about your husband?
Oh man, there are so many.
I mean there are the descriptors: he's smart and he's funny. He makes me laugh and takes care of me. He is a man of deep faith. His experience of faith and his expressions of faith look different from mine, so he's always teaching me about how he's learning, and I'm teaching him about what's important to me. But he is somebody who will always try to do the right thing. I just love that about him, he is a man of integrity--a man of character.
In your relationship does he make you look to God more?
Absolutely. I think when you are in a good relationship with anybody, a friend, a romantic partner, that person needs to draw you into deeper faith. It's not [Drew’s] job as my husband to make me look to God. No, that's who he is and that's what attracted me to him. But it also attracts me, in different ways, to my friends. These are people who love the Lord.
What is one thing that the world does not know about Mary Hulst?
Here's my secret indulgence: my husband and I love to watch Wipeout. That show where people have obstacles courses. (Laughs) We just laugh. On Friday nights when we're both fried out and we laugh so hard. It's total mindlessness.
Do you have any books you are reading right now? Or favorite books?
I just started reading a book called “Sensible Shoes”, written by a local pastor and spiritual director [Sharon Garlough Brown]. It’s about the stories of different women figuring out how to get spiritual healing. I just finished the “Power of Habit” [by Charles Duhigg], which was really interesting. I have a big stack on my nightstand. I have “Thinking Fast and Slow” [by Daniel Kahneman] which was a book about how people think and make decisions.
I like to read memoirs a lot, particularly spiritual memoirs. And I read lots of magazines--I read Time, and the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Christianity Today, Christian Century, and Oprah Magazine.
What kind of legacy do you want to leave?
I don't think about that a lot. [Pause] I love thinking about what I'm working toward, rather than what I'm leaving behind. So I'm working towards having Calvin being known as a place where people love scripture, where people love to pray, and where people are kind; a place where people forgive easily. If we were known that way, wouldn't you want to send your children here some day? You know, I want to keep moving us that way. Because those are our roots. Our roots are: people of the book and people who love the word. If we do everything out of our love for scripture--whether its interpreting films, working in a chemistry lab, running track--and with the idea of bringing glory to God and building community, then we're going to be great! So, I hope that my little part is to keep us moving that way.
“Calvin being known as a place where people love scripture, where people love to pray, and where people are kind, a place where people forgive easily--I want to keep moving us that way. Because those are our roots.”
Wonderful. What is your favorite food? (laughs)
My favorite food is potatoes in any form--fried, potato chips, baked potatoes, hash browns, they're amazing. In fact, I have a basket of chocolate candy in my office and people always ask how I don’t eat it all the time. But for me, Eminems and Twix and Snickers are eh. Every now and then I'll grab one but I can go weeks without eating one. But not potatoes. I love potatoes. After LOFT, I go home make mash potatoes and watch my recorded shows. It's the beginning of sabbath for me! Laughing and eating mash potatoes.
Maybe if I write a memoir, I'll call it “Laughing and Mash Potatoes”. Wouldn't you buy that book?
I would. (Laughs) Final question. If you could say anything to them right now, what would you say to your students?
They are precious and loved by God and it's all going to be okay. And they can come into my office anytime when they don't believe that. And I will give them chocolate.
“[You] are precious and loved by God and it’s all going to be okay.”