Reflections on the Anabaptist Women Doing Theology conference

Laura L. Brenneman is a hospital chaplain and visiting religion professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her work is at the intersection of biblical studies and peace studies, combining theory and practice. She is the New Testament editor of the Studies in Peace and Scripture (a series with the Institute of Mennonite Studies) and a restorative justice practitioner in her local community. Laura enjoys biking, reading, traveling, being outside, being with friends, and meeting new people. This post is adaptation of the report Laura submitted to Illinois Mennonite Conference after November’s Women Doing Theology conference.

On the weekend before the U.S. general election, 150 Anabaptist women gathered in a conference center near Washington, DC to do theology.

Subtitled “Naming and Reclaiming Power as a Force for Good,” people from a tradition that has often felt more comfortable with terms like “servant leadership” than “power” and women with our own often negative experiences of power, came together to name what is good, necessary, true, and personal about power.

The second Women in Leadership Project (WLP) conference (a Mennonite Church USA project) brought together different expressions of power, shown beautifully in mixing song, Bible meditations, scholarly papers, personal reflections, homilies, poetry, and more, reminding me of the power of multiple ways of knowing. The time was packed—plenary sessions, corporate worship, small group time, break-out sessions, talent night—with meals and breaks interspersed. I found it impossible to do it all. I needed long moments to connect, talk, laugh, walk outside, and integrate the many things happening all around. Above all, I think the importance of this conference will be in the many seeds shared that are and will be planted throughout the Mennonite church.

Here I focus on some of the points from the conference that particularly stick with me in the weeks following the conference. You will find reports from The Mennonite and the Mennonite Church USA . Please read these for more comprehensive overviews.

First, a diverse steering committee (Moniqua Acosta, Erica Littlewolf, Linda Gehman Peachey, Sandra Pérez, Regina Shands Stoltzfus, and WLP coordinator, Jenny Castro) and conference planning committee carried off what seemed to be a fully diverse Anabaptist conference. By this, I mean that while many white women were present and speaking, many women of color were up front and leading. In many cases, there were multiple representatives from racial groups, which in my view helpfully allowed women to speak from their own experiences, rather than as “the voice” of a whole category of people.

I think the WLP committees have done landmark work that can model for the Mennonite church how to bring people together in respectful and accessible ways.

Second, the term “remembears” has stayed with me as useful in conveying how generational trauma can be passed on. Sue Park-Hur, co-director of ReconciliAsian, spoke of this on Saturday morning (“Owning the Power within Us”), crediting Elaine Enns (co-director of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries) for prompting her thinking on this. Park-Hur recalled some of her family stories, speaking of how past events can have a hold beyond the initiating trauma, and they can also carry potential power for healing in living generations. I find this to be a useful stance in approaching painful past stories from family and church in hope of healing.

Third, it is exhilarating to see women gain clarity and confidence that what they do is theological. In February 2014 at the first WLP conference, I went to workshop session where a friend gave her first-ever conference paper. Her presentation emphasized how doing theology for her was in the everyday connections and interactions between neighbors and she contrasted it with how some men in her life do theology in officially recognized capacities. At this recent conference, I attended another paper given by this same friend, whose vision for how she does theology is still experiential and grounded in “the ordinary,” but refined and now claimed as a vocation. This is a moving example to me of the importance of this conference as a testing ground for women wanting to grow in confidence about the new ways being opened to them by the Holy Spirit.

Related to this, the Sunday session, “Empowered to Empower,” worked with the theme that claiming power can be risky and ruffle feathers. Each panelist, Chantelle Todman Moore (founder of unlock Ngenuity*), Barbra Graber (editor of Our Stories Untold), and Erica Littlewolf (Indigenous Visioning Circle, MCC Central States) touched on the professional or public risk of being visible, clear and passionate in communication, and sometimes not fitting into the “right” Mennonite narrative. But all were emphatic that choosing not to speak out and exercise their power was too costly, both personally and for people they care about and represent.

Todman Moore said that it is not enough for her exercise of power to be about personal liberation, but must take into account the people “we’re bringing with us and that we’re creating space for women who are becoming empowered.” I am glad that the conference dealt with reckoning with the costs of power.

Finally, there is power in naming something from the front of the room. For me this came through most clearly when Rachel Halder (founder of Our Stories Untold) talked about her own healing journey from interpersonal and institutional sexualized violence, coming to a place of deep acceptance with “I am who I am, and that is okay. I am who I am, and that is all right.” During the Saturday morning session, Halder asked everyone to repeat those words and as I heard and saw a whole room of women saying this, I had a profound feeling of love and feeling part of God’s good creation. Such simple sentences, but their profession held power, perhaps because in a room of diverse identities, many not often honored by the church—non-male, non-white, non-straight—it is amazing to publicly claim God’s love for who I am.

It is a good reminder to me as a church leader of the healing power of public welcome from the people who stand up front.

Get acquainted with the WLP’s work. You will find that they are working to prompt us Mennonites out of pretty conventional gender and race relations. I was honored to be part of the first Women Doing Theology conference in February 2014, “All You Need Is Love,” and many of the fruits of that conference can be accessed in the book about the conference, which you can get for free . If you wish to help, please spread the word and donate here.

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* Hear more about Todman Moore’s new organization in a recent interview with Glen Guyton, “Unlock Ngenuity to Step Out into New Ventures w/ Chantelle Todman Moore” (Nov. 16, 2016).