A Conversation with Michelle Armster

By Emily Kraybill

Michelle Armster is an associate pastor for community life at Blossom Hill Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., an Atlantic Coast Conference congregation In the past she has served as the director of Mennonite Conciliation Services and co-director for the Office on Justice and Peacebuilding. She has also worked as a co-pastor at St. Andrew United Church of Christ in Lancaster. Michelle serves on the board of Lancaster YWCA and is a volunteer mediator for the Lancaster Mediation Center.

How did you become connected to the Mennonite church?

I was not raised as a Mennonite. Because my father was in the Air Force, my family moved a lot. So by the time I was 15 years old, I had lived in Japan, England, Germany, California, Texas, and Kansas, just to name a few. I became a Christian at the age of 12 at a Baptist church in California. From my own exploration of the Bible, I found myself drawn to the Beatitudes and Acts. I thought, “What is this?” It was different than my faith background, but the teachings felt like they were an expression of myself.

When I moved to Kansas, I met a pastor of a Mennonite church. I had seen traditional Mennonites and had thought, “This is fascinating, but this isn’t me.” But the way this pastor described this church was different. I could wear pants to this church! I couldn’t even wear pants to my church growing up! After graduating from Sterling College (Sterling, Kan.) I attended a variety of churches, such as an American Baptist church and a Disciples of Christ church, because there were not any Mennonite churches in the area.

But there was a Mennonite church close by when I moved to Dallas, Texas, and this was one of the most meaningful experiences I had at a Mennonite church. It was a space where non-ethnic Mennonites were exploring what it meant to be Mennonite, and it was an exciting time for the growth of the church. My time there grounded me for my work later on in life, by shaping the articulation of my Anabaptist understanding.

What leadership positions did you serve in once you became connected to the Mennonite church?

In 1999 I got a call to work for Mennonite Central Committee with conflict resolution and peace building. It was an eye-opening experience to go from worshiping in a Mennonite church to working for a Mennonite institution. I found this work to be useful in my work now as a pastor—whether it is struggling about sexual misconduct or arguing about the color of the sanctuary carpet—I learned the importance of communication.

Five years later, I was approached and encouraged to attend seminary. I agreed and attended Lancaster Theological Center. At this time I was struggling with the concept of pastoring. I did not think that I fit the idea of a traditional, conventional pastor. One Sunday I visited a friend who was pastoring at a United Church of Christ congregation when she announced that she was leaving her position. I realized that the UCC was a place where my skills were appreciated in ways that would encourage me to pastor according to what fit my style. I took the position and was able to share the pastor position.

You are no longer pastoring with the UCC congregation but are now working as an associate pastor for community life at Blossom Hill Mennonite. What has it been like to do this work at Blossom Hill with your work at the UCC as your background? 

It is liberating. You begin to realize that there is not just one group of people that have it right. You begin to realize to hold things lightly and that there are some things that are just not worth arguing over. This in-between place is enriching and brings freedom to care deeply about people. I have had wonderful conversations about ministering, not just Mennonite ministering or UCC ministering but truly helping others through a ministry that works for them. I have lots of relationships with a variety of people because it is important for me to be in community with the larger body of Christ.

What ways can the Mennonite church encourage young women to seek leadership positions?

I think that the Mennonite church can encourage young women leadership by supporting single women. I believe that there is a “coupled image” in the church, where the normal pattern is for young women to marry in their twenties and start a family. There is nothing wrong with this, but what about those who voluntarily, or involuntarily, do not marry? Is the church still a safe place for them when they want to seek leadership positions? We need to honor single women and their place in the church.

How have you experienced self-identity in leadership roles?

One of the hardest parts for me involving identity is the cultural piece related to being Mennonite. It is a struggle to have cultural assumptions about being Mennonite that are white but are not mine. I cannot own these assumptions and cannot even pretend to identify with them. There is a perception that these cultural traits are what it means to be a Mennonite. But if I do not identify with them, yet have been identifying with the Mennonite church for over 30 years, then what am I?

What strengthens you and keeps you positive throughout your work?

It is important for me to spend energy on myself by doing things because I want to do them. I am gradually making space to do more creative projects, such as writing poetry and brainstorming about doing a one-woman show, because this is what keeps me feeling most like myself. It has also been helpful to find mentors, such as the other pastor at Blossom Hill, Jane [H. Peifer], who supports me and teaches me at the same time.

Emily Kraybill is the Women in Leadership Project intern with Mennonite Church USA this summer. Each month this column of Equipping features input from a woman leader in Mennonite Church USA. The column is an initiative of the Women in Leadership Project. If you would like to learn more about the Project or get involved, please contact Joanna Shenk at joannas@mennoniteusa.org.