Rev. Esther Baerends is 26 years old — making her the youngest newly ordained minister in The United Church of Canada. Now serving at Brooks (Alta.) United, Baerends spoke to Mario Toneguzzi about her formative years in the church and the calling that led her into ministry.
On her childhood in the United Church: My parents emigrated from the Netherlands in 1988, and instead of going to the Christian Reformed Church, which a lot of Dutch people tended to do, they looked around for something different to better integrate themselves into society. They started going to St. Andrew’s United in Lacombe, [Alta.], and that’s where I was baptized. In junior high, I always went to youth rallies, youth conferences.
On church as a big family: The church felt like home. That’s where I had most of my friends and community and support group. Even at these youth events, I would meet the same people over and over again — it’s like a large family. I really liked the wider church as well.
On what drew her to ministry: It was a calling I always kind of had. Even in high school, I started thinking about ministry. At that time, I couldn’t see myself writing sermons every week. So I thought, no, maybe I’ll put that out of my mind. But it kept coming back, even through my bachelor’s degree [in international development from Wageningen University in the Netherlands]. I’ve always really wanted to help people, to work with people. I’m more of an extrovert, so ministry was a way in which I could be around people and just journey with them, to offer a ministry of presence. It’s very humbling to be able to work with families through funerals, for instance, as well as baptisms.
On being a young minister: I’ve always come across as more mature. I look a little older than I am — that works in my favour. But [it could be challenging] to have authority in particular spaces, such as when it comes to conflict resolution. Most of my congregation is older; it averages 60 or 70 years.
In the year I’ve been at Brooks United, I’ve focused on all-ages worship. A lot more younger families are coming, and I keep hearing from congregation members that there are more children now than there used to be. Having a younger minister has given life to the church. I throw new things at them. And that’s just me being me.
On the future of the United Church: At the moment, I see ministry as pioneering church in a new way, particularly in a society where the church is competing with all of these other secular activities that take place on weekends and in the evenings. Trying to find a time where everybody can gather together becomes more and more difficult. The church might look different in the future, but it would still be relevant.
On the future of Christianity: People need faith in order to make it through life. So Christianity as a whole, even though it might not be the nation’s religion anymore, will still be there because it is still a belief [system] that people will continue to nurture.
This interview has been condensed and edited. It first appeared in The Observer’s July 2017 issue with the title “‘I throw new things are them. And that’s just me being me.'”