By Mary C. Roth
In early November, I gathered with twenty women from Goshen College and the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary for an evening of story-telling and conversation about women in the church. The gathering emerged from an ongoing initiative by Mennonite Church USA—the Women in Leadership Audit—to identify what realities keep women from stepping into church leadership positions.
As you have read in previous columns, since 2010 Joanna Shenk, associate for Mennonite Church USA national staff, has organized similar gatherings with various groups of women around the country. While there are common areas of concern among Mennonite women of all ages and backgrounds, this particular conversation turned to topics of leadership, inclusive language, and the need for female mentorship in higher education and church positions.
Our evening began with a brief time of centering worship, focusing on Isaiah 58:6-12. The verse begins:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?”
In the context of our conversation, this passage took on particular significance for me—Isaiah’s call for social justice is both an invitation to heal the injustices in our larger communities and the personal injustices we face in our church communities. How do we, as young women, find places in the Mennonite church to worship, teach, lead, serve, and support each other in a context where expectations regarding women’s role are still unclear.
To address some of these questions, Joanna Shenk—along with Nicole Bauman, co-founder of Rise Up Farms, and Libby Smith, a student at AMBS—framed our conversation with their own stories. They shared honestly about both the challenges and hope they experience as young women working and worshipping in the Mennonite church.
Following their sharing, groups of three or four women cradled cups of hot tea and exchanged stories of acceptance and rejection in their own church communities.
Groups raised a variety of questions and concerns, but three core issues seemed to emerge:
- How do we talk about gender injustices within our denomination? Within our specific
congregations? Within our families?
- How do we agree and disagree in love?
- How do we transform our conversations into action?
Many women described a pattern of shifting relations with the church: feeling nurtured by their faith communities at a young age; encountering a broadening worldview or a faith crisis as a young adult; and then facing a decision to leave or reenter the church.
College-aged women, perhaps more than any demographic in the Mennonite church, confront a unique tension between the established acceptable positions within the church for women and differing personal understandings of women’s roles in the church.
One young woman reflected on this tension: “In college I discovered a vocabulary to talk about women’s issues. I felt a pushback, though, when I tried to incorporate these ideals into my faith practices.” The group described this pushback as an institutional “covering.” Mennonite women are no longer expected to wear a physical sign of subordination, but there are still issues of silencing and imbalance in positions of institutional leadership.
Members of the Mennonite church represent as broad of a spectrum as most faith traditions when it comes to questions of gender and leadership roles. Thus, it is difficult to find a denominational consensus. Amidst the somewhat slower progress taking place at an institutional level, Shenk encouraged us to find support and renewal in smaller communities of faith.
Mara Weaver, a third-year History Education major from Bloomington, Illinois, shared her thoughts on the evening. “I found it really meaningful to hear about the experiences of women both in my immediate circle at Goshen College and women outside of my circle,” she said. “These conversations bridged the gap for me between what’s happening on an institutional level and on a personal level.”
This gap between the personal and corporate voice is perhaps the biggest obstacle to progress. The real movement toward healing and change, then, may happen when circles overlap, when women of many backgrounds and generations voice their concerns and their hopes for the future of the church, and when a rising generation of younger women are emboldened to assume positions of leadership.
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 Audit. If you would like to learn more about the Audit or get involved, please contact Joanna Shenk at firstname.lastname@example.org