Rev. Gretchen Janssen, M.Div. ’86

Categories: Alums in the World

What do you do?

That’s the question! I’ve recently retired and am sorting through life again, now that I’m no longer serving a congregation or doing counseling. Author Dan Kadlec speaks of this as “the real retirement struggle,” defining oneself as more than the sum of a long career. For 28 years I’ve been a marriage and family therapist. While at Union, my family moved to Denmark for six years because of my husband’s employment, and during some of that time I did an internship at the American Church of Copenhagen. I returned to Union to finish my degree, but altogether it took me 13 years to finish. After I graduated, there were not very many women in pastoral ministry, but I was fortunate to be ordained at the First Presbyterian Church in Palisades Park, New Jersey, a congregation that had been founded in the early 1900s but in recent years had become almost entirely Taiwanese in membership. While I preached in English, the sermon was translated into Taiwanese. I was three-quarters time, but there’s no such thing as part-time ministry. My real work there was to prepare the way for a Taiwanese pastor to take the pulpit. It was after that ministry that I trained to become a counselor. Listening to people’s stories, now that’s been my dream job!

What’s the best thing about your job?

I’ve greatly enjoyed seeing how people become involved in reshaping their lives in ways that are satisfying and meaningful. It’s remarkable to work alongside people as they let go of traumas and experience healing. Perhaps I felt called to this ministry of care because at an earlier stage of my life, I had received help from a pastor who had a Ph.D. in psychology. In Denmark I was able to lead workshops that encouraged people to share in small groups, and because of that program, I was asked to preach at the American Church in Paris. I’ve been fortunate to experience how God has worked through me to help others.

How did Union prepare you for this?

In some ways Union failed to prepare me, especially about how to handle church finances or manage people as a pastor. But I had a great experience in field education, and my advisor encouraged me to engage in research and writing about what I was experiencing in my own life: the struggles of the “trailing spouse” whose corporate-employed husband was moved around all the time and the family was required to go along. With my feminist anger rising, I wrote my M.Div. thesis on biblical women facing similar challenges of disruption and resettlement. Eventually, I wrote a book Women on the Move: A Christian Perspective on Cross-Cultural Adaptation, which addresses these issues. This monograph sold all over the world, and I was able to lead many workshops that explored these gender issues along with women’s empowerment. I even heard from women in Mongolia.

How have you stayed connected to Union?

I’ve mostly stay connected with Union by donating regularly. Because I live in the Pacific Northwest, it’s a long distance to travel back to campus. Once I was able to attend a reunion, which I enjoyed very much. Hard to believe, but 2016 marked my thirtieth anniversary from my Union graduation.

What would you say to a prospective student?

Studying at Union is one of the best opportunities you can have, so take full advantage of it. I was a commuting student with two young children, so I faced some limitations about involvements in the city, but at Union you’ll be exposed to an amazing assortment of opportunities and connections. Right now, as I’m moving into life in retirement, I’m asking myself again, what can I find that will make a meaningful difference?