Widening the Circle: Talkin’ Bout a Revolution

Rhoda Blough is an Everence® Stewardship Consultant who works with congregations and individuals, helping them integrate faith values with finances through a wide variety of Everence stewardship services. She earned a seminary degree from Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and will be a presenter at the upcoming Women Doing Theology conference. 

 I remember vividly a conversation I had with a young mother of three small daughters. She was lamenting the fact that her congregation did not allow women to hold leadership positions. In fact, women weren’t allowed behind the pulpit — so if they were leading music, for example, they had to stand next to it. I was dismayed as I listened to her.

I shared with her my story of how important it was — to me — to have female role models for our daughters. In midlife, my husband and I felt called to ministry and moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia, to attend Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Our daughters were age 10 and four at the time. Our first Sunday in Harrisonburg, we attended Community Mennonite Church, and in the car on the way home, our oldest daughter Bethany informed us that this was the church she wanted to attend.  So, we did, for the next three years. At the time, there was a woman on the pastoral team, and she became a role model for our daughters. I still remember Bethany, at age 12, leading worship and receiving affirmation for her leadership skills.

Listening to this young mother reminded me of the important ways female role models can impact our daughters and girls. I asked this mother how she felt about her three daughters attending a church where women’s gifts are not affirmed and appreciated.

How do we widen the circle in our lives, when it seems that doors are still closed for women in our society and faith communities?

Both of my daughters are now adults, attending congregations with female pastors. Both of my daughters are fully involved in the life of their congregations — leading worship, preaching, etc. I cannot help but think it is because the circle was wide enough when they were children that they are now willing and able to participate and be fully engaged as women in the church.

Was the circle wide enough for me when I was growing up in a rural setting, attending a conservative Mennonite church? I’m not sure it was. My congregation was male-dominated, and women only led in more service-oriented roles,­ but I did have women as role models. There were women who encouraged me and gave me opportunities to serve. Wrapping bandages, putting together Christmas bundles and baby layettes for MCC are wonderful memories for me. Sitting around tables in our fellowship hall having conversations about life made an impact on me. No, the circle was not wide enough for women to have leadership roles in front of the congregation, but I received encouragement and affirmation from women serving the church in other ways.

I grew up in a large family, where my dad was a blue-collar worker and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. I don’t remember ever thinking my dad was the absolute leader of our home. My parents modeled a mutuality as parents, and their deep love and respect for each other was very evident to us. My parents were encouragers, and I know they believed in me. My growing up years weren’t perfect, but I’m grateful for parents who loved and supported me. Was the circle wide enough? Probably not to the extent I would have wanted at the time, but it started me on a journey which helped me become the strong woman I am today.

As an adult, I chose seminary study, because I believe I have gifts for ministry — gifts that make me more than capable of church leadership, and not just because I was a pastor’s spouse. My husband, Ron, always encouraged me to use my gifts, for which I am so grateful. Ten years ago, Ron died unexpectedly, and my entire world shifted. Suddenly, as a single woman, I had to navigate my world alone. My strong, independent instincts took over, and I found myself employed at Everence as a Stewardship Consultant — a job I love. In this role, I assist congregations, nonprofits and individuals with their stewardship and charitable needs, including providing resources, trainings, stewardship events and preaching. I’m using my gifts, in leadership and service to the church.

I will say, I work with many different and sometimes very conservative congregations. After all, Everence serves over 26 denominations and other church networks which share Anabaptist or similar faith values, but that doesn’t mean those groups are homogenous in their faith beliefs or practices. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been told that I would never preach in a specific church because of my gender — and it has felt like a door slamming in my face. But I’ve also experienced being the first woman ever to preach in other congregations — which gives me a sense of gratification.

I have been empowered as a woman of worth in many settings, for which I am so grateful. But there are still barriers to women in many forms of leadership.

We all come from different backgrounds and experiences, and with that comes different ways that each of us applies our faith understanding in our lives. I urge each of us to create space for female leadership in our congregations, in our homes and in our own contexts. Our voices need to be heard loud and clear, and I hope the circle can be wide open to allow all peoples to enter and fully engage in this important work of liberation and freedom.

When the circle is not wide enough to let us in, we must seek change. Let the revolution continue!

______________________________________________________________

Find out details and register for Women Doing Theology at MennoniteUSA.org/wdt18.

Early registration deadline is Oct. 12.

Support the work of Women in Leadership here.