Najla Kassab, MDiv ’90, was studying nursing when she felt a strong call to attend seminary.
Although long devoted to the church, she had been hesitant in the past about pursuing ministry.
“I thought I might be a bit too much for the church,” said Kassab, who grew up in Lebanon. “God might not call someone like me.”
She pushed aside those doubts and went on to make history.
Kassab was the first woman in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL) to receive a preaching license. She was the second woman in the synod to be ordained. And she was elected and continues to serve as president of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, which represents 100 million Christians in 110 countries.
She spoke and was honored as a Distinguished Alumna at the 2021 Princeton Theological Seminary reunion, an all-virtual event held May 10-12.
The bold, barrier-breaking spirit that propelled Kassab to seminary and beyond continues to inform her work as a leader in the global church. She says that churches must reimagine their role in a world shaken by illness and inequality.
“COVID exposed injustices in the world,” she said. “The rich can take care of their health and the poor are left to die.”
“The church cannot do its ministry the way it used to,” she added. “Preaching is not enough.”
Kassab traces her sense of mission to being raised by open-minded parents who treated their four daughters the same as their son.
“I was always treated as an equal,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why not study theology?’”
At the Near East School of Theology (NEST) in Beirut, however, she had to major in Christian education because women at that time were not allowed to pursue divinity degrees. She then attended Princeton Seminary where she relished taking theology courses and doing field work at Harundale Presbyterian Church in Maryland.
“It was a shaping experience,” she said. “At Princeton Seminary I learned about how God can use women in the life of the church.”
She returned to Lebanon with a mission: empower more women. Over the next few decades, she — along with her husband, Joseph Kassab, MDiv ’91 — worked at NESSL headquarters in various leadership roles. She served as the synod’s director of Christian education, working at the grassroots level with women’s and children’s ministries.
A historic 1993 decision by the synod provided Kassab a license to preach the Gospel, but not to administer sacraments. Rather than push for outright ordination, she continued working at the local level to empower women, patiently laying the groundwork for the 2017 ordination of the Rev. Rola Sleiman. Kassab was ordained a short time later.
“My concern was never merely about getting ordained,” she said. “It was to raise awareness and to change minds about the value of women.”
She does not have to look far to see change. The Near East School of Theology hired its first woman president in the 1990s.
As president of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, a position she holds until 2024, Kassab thinks in global terms about what role the church needs to serve. She cites the example of a Beirut congregation that purchased oxygen machines for strapped health agencies treating COVID-19 patients.
“That is where churches should be,” she said. “Unless we protect lives, unless we protect the dignity of the people, we cannot be the church of today.”
On May 11, Najla Kassab delivered a lecture at Reunion 2021. Click to watch.