An interview with Janet Elaine Rasmussen

Mennonite Church USA

This piece first appeared in the January 2012 issue of Equipping, a resource packet for equipping Mennonite Church USA pastors and leaders.

Janet Elaine Rasmussen is pastor of First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana, Ill. She is a graduate of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. Before joining the Mennonite Church, she served as president of Hollins University in Roanoke, Va., and in many other administrative and teaching roles. She holds a Ph.D. from Harvard (1975).

An interview with Janet Elaine Rasmussen

From college president to Mennonite pastor

Conducted by Joanna Shenk

Tell me a little bit about your professional work before your studies at AMBS.

I grew up in a small town and had very clear boundaries communicated about what women could do. There were two job paths, in addition to the primary role of wife and mother—teaching and nursing. These are wonderful vocations, but they were the only paths. Most women in my generation received the same message.

As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, I was in an honor’s English seminar and our professor, a brilliant scholar of American literature, was pregnant (with her third child). Her modeling was incredibly important to me. This woman faculty member was living life in its fullness.

As a graduate student at Harvard, I was encouraged to imagine a widening of roles. After earning my Ph.D. in 1975, I stayed on at Harvard and became a senior tutor or assistant dean. The dean of Harvard College wrote a letter of recommendation for me at one point. In it he said, “I can see Janet as the president of a small college someday.” That gave me a new thought.

I valued greatly those two important images—visual (woman professor) and verbal (letter of recommendation).

Women, to think about themselves in an expansive way, need these kinds of images and also direct encouragement and nurturing for leadership.

Gradually I recognized my gifts and was able to serve as both a faculty member and an administrator in higher education. From 1975 to 2005, I developed a career that included scholarship on women writers and women and immigration. I also became the first woman to do a variety of things. I became the first woman humanities dean at Pacific Lutheran University and the first woman academic vice president at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Then I became the president of a women’s college in Virginia, which was a wonderful opportunity to continue to empower women.

In 2001 I left the presidency and moved back to the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Lutheran University, where I developed an international center with the mission of educating for peace. I had a linear career, moving from modest to larger leadership roles. Not all women have that opportunity. Because I had encouragement early on and did intentional career mapping, my portfolio kept expanding.

With all of this success in academia, what compelled you toward a pastoral vocation?

In the midst of the bustle of a busy career, I found myself confronting spiritual poverty. I developed a deep hunger to study the Scriptures. I had given so much to my public roles and had not focused appropriately on self-care. A strong spiritual center is essential for sustainable leadership.

I started to ask myself, I’ve done all this, but is this what God had in mind? I began an intentional discernment process—personally and communally—at Seattle Mennonite Church, where I was a member. The call to seminary was affirmed. When I got to AMBS, I was still in discernment mode about exactly how I would serve the church.

In my first Bible, I had written as a 10-year-old the word “pastor” by my name. I had been called when no one could hear it. It’s a mystery what prompted me to write that. By the time I had completed my M.Div., I knew that I had come home to my calling. All that I’ve learned along the way helps me now as a pastor. God saved the best for last.

How do you see your work in higher education strengthening your work as a pastor?

As a pastor, I have the opportunity to model—imperfectly of course—a full life—a life that’s whole and sustainable and healthy, where we serve out of our hearts, out of love, out of the empowered limits God gives us. I have learned a sense of contentment and “enough.” That is a great blessing for me and I hope for others.

I learned a lot in academic leadership about the importance of communication. The importance of listening. The importance of slowing down when things heat up. That’s one of the paradoxes that provide a faithful way to walk with others and reach collaborative decisions.

We are involved in a lifelong process of growth and coming into the fullness of who we are as God intends us to be. In much of higher education we can’t be explicit, like we can in the church and in church-related colleges. Fortunately, our Mennonite schools provide such a context. I am glad to be working with the Mennonite Education Agency board for that reason.

Why is it important for Mennonite Church USA to encourage women to pursue degrees in higher education?

If we believe that God intends for the full human flourishing of each individual, we want all gifts to be nurtured and honored. We want our female students to see role models on campus and in church. We want all young people to recognize positive images of women leading and hear women’s voices along with those of men.

Formal credentialing is needed in most cases, so the pursuit of academic degrees should be encouraged across the board. It’s important not to set limits on the basis of gender, race, and class, because we thwart God’s mission when we do. We want to encourage the breaking forth, the transformation that frees people to be their full selves.

The latest stats from CCCU (Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities) show that for every five men in senior leadership, there’s only one woman. When you know that more than 60 percent of college students are women, that’s a problem.

What role does a pastor play in encouraging younger and older women to seek ministry and academic degrees?

It’s great to work with youth around gifts identification, as part of their formation, so that they develop familiarity with the language of spiritual gifts. It’s important to provide opportunities for youth—girls and boys—to have a voice in worship and other venues in the church—reading Scripture, performing in music and dramas, giving a testimony, and so on. Mentoring is also important.

Also, pastors walk with women in mid-life who are reevaluating, like I did. When they say, “I think there’s something more … ,” my ears perk up.

For women pastors, it’s important to have networks of support. Women in the Mennonite tradition are taught humility and self-sacrifice. Because of social and cultural norms, women don’t necessarily need those messages from the church. We need to look rather at how women were welcomed into Jesus’ inner circle and send messages of empowerment and leadership.

As I reflect in this interview, I recognize that empowering women has been a significant thread throughout my life. I am glad to continue weaving this thread into the tapestry of the Mennonite Church.

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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 joannas@mennoniteusa.org

The January 2012 issue of Mennonite Church USA’s Equipping packet, in which this piece originally appeared, can be accessed at http://mennoniteusa.org/news/equipping/january-2012/.