Women play important role in religious community

Jeniece Smith

Being a religious leader means taking on responsibilities and helping others strengthen themselves spiritually and grow in their faith. Often, laywomen affect the faith community more than they know.

“Sometimes you’ll never know what kind of impact you had,” said Mariel Heinke, executive director of Rockford Area Lutheran Ministries. “A big part of faith is listening – listening to others and being quiet.”

RALM, founded in 1985, unites 22 Rockford, Ill., area Lutheran churches to serve the community. Heinke has been executive director of the not-for-profit organization since 1986.

The ministries of the organization are diverse, including conflict management programs for community children and teens, divorce recovery programs, an area singles’ fellowship program and marriage counseling for couples.

Through a partnership with Zion Development Corp., RALM is building a coffee shop for fellowship in Rockford. RALM also partners with Habitat for Humanity and has helped build 10 houses since 2000.

Many would find the range of ministries overwhelming, but Heinke loves the challenge.

“The variety is what’s really fun,” she said. “There are always new things to think about, always new ideas to percolate, always new people to work with — all in the name of the church.”

Marie Schneeman, secretary of the Rockford Interfaith Council, also thrives on variety.

“It’s interesting meeting the heads of different faith communities and learning about different religions,” she said. “You not only learn about their faith, but you learn about their culture. We’ve become a very close-knit group.”

Schneeman, an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has been secretary of the Interfaith Council since 1993.

The organization joins about a dozen local faith groups, including Christians, Baha’is, Hindus, Unitarian Universalists, Muslims and Jews. Annually, the group hosts an observance of Sept. 11, the Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration and a service project.

Schneeman has come to respect the differences in other faiths and has learned to recognize their similarities.

“We try to promote understanding and respect among the various faith communities in the Rockford area,” she said.

Connie Griffin, who founded Rockford Renewal Ministries with her husband, Bob, helps spearhead a program called Greater Rockford in Prayer and Praise, which sponsors monthly prayer meetings for various religious denominations in Rockford.

Griffin says the ministry’s vision is to transform the faith community from the inside out.

“Our ministry is about prayer, and we want to see it change not only our community but the church,” she said. “We need to go out into the community, not expect people to come to us.”

Through her board membership at Rockford Woman’s Club, Griffin is able to share her passion for faith and ministry.

“I have found Christ to meet my needs, and he has given me peace,” she said. “I want other women to know that peace.”

Dawn Gessner of Rockford, who teaches weekly Bible studies at First Evangelical Free Church, shares Griffin’s belief that it’s important for women minister to one another.

“Women are so often insecure, and they’re torn by the demands of our society, and they feel that they are not successful,” she said.”

Gessner’s areas of ministry also include leading Operation AFFIRM (Armed Forces and Families Imparting Resources and Ministry), an organization founded in October 2006 that sends care packages to U.S. troops serving overseas.

While Gessner has also been involved in children’s and youth’s ministries and has spoken at the Rockford Rescue Mission, she feels especially called to teach other women.

She frequently speaks at retreats for women and strives to remind herself and others that women have a special place in society.

“I believe that one woman impassioned by God can make a difference in her world and the world she lives in. I think there are incredible women in Rockford.”

Contact Jeniece Smith at or 815-987-1356.