By Annette Brill Bergstresser
ELKHART, Indiana (Mennonite Church USA)—Leaders of Mennonite Church USA’s Women in Leadership Project (WLP) met Aug. 5–8 in Sarasota, Florida, to plan the next steps for the project. Areas of focus include planning a second Women Doing Theology conference, creating an undoing sexism training, strengthening the project’s web presence and inviting men to participate in the project.
This was the first face-to-face meeting of the project’s steering committee, which formed in August 2012 and meets monthly via phone conference.
Jenny Castro of San Antonio, Texas, WLP coordinator, said that since she began in her quarter-time role in November 2014 following the departure of coordinator Joanna Shenk, she has been listening to women from across Mennonite Church USA about how the project has inspired and helped them as well as about areas of continuing need. This feedback helped her discern areas to focus on during the WLP leadership retreat.
At the retreat, the group determined that the second Women Doing Theology conference will be held in November 2016 with the theme, “I’ve got the power!” Castro says they are looking for an affordable location.
“We’re really excited about the theme because there are so many different, interesting, compelling ways you can go with it — examining the power we have, and don’t have, and who has power in which context,” she says.
The WLP leaders also discussed ways to move forward in creating an undoing sexism training for pastors and denominational leaders; they plan to apply for grant funds to host a curriculum writing weekend, test the curriculum and train facilitators.
“Many people believe we’re past sexism, and it’s not true,” Castro says. “It exists in the ways we communicate with each other, the makeup of committees across the church and who holds power, for example. We say we believe in the inherent value of all people, but knowing how to live into that value is something different.”
As a result of the committee’s discussions on fortifying the WLP’s web presence, Castro has already begun increasing the amount of WLP-related posts on the Menno Snapshots blog, which she coordinates. The steering committee decided that the project would start its own Facebook group as a way of expanding the circle of people involved, sharing resources and creating a space for women across the church to connect with each other.
Castro says that the project’s leaders frequently hear women express a desire to connect with other women who are going through the same things they are and have wisdom to offer. However, they acknowledged that the WLP does not have the resources to serve as a vehicle through which women find mentors. The steering committee members decided to commit to offering space in existing events in their different contexts — such as area conference gatherings — for women to make those kinds of connections more organically.
Conversations also included constructive ways to involve men in the project, Castro says. WLP leaders recognize the limitations of being a movement made up exclusively of women inside a patriarchal system and have been talking about ways to invite men into the work.
“In the same way as people of color need White people who have committed to work together with them in undoing racism, women also need men who have done their own work and understand what it means to operate counter-culturally in our patriarchal institutions and contexts,” she says.
The WLP leaders plan to begin by identifying men in their own circles to collaborate with the project on existing initiatives, with the hope that they will be able to integrate into the work. They would like to develop brief orientation materials for men who are interested in contributing their gifts, abilities and connections.
The group discussed the churchwide statement on sexual abuse passed by delegates at the KC2015 assembly, raising questions of implementation and accountability. They created a job description for steering committee members, decided on three-year terms, and are determining how best to stagger the terms.
The steering committee includes Regina Shands Stoltzfus, Goshen, Indiana; Erica Littlewolf, Albuquerque, New Mexico; Moniqua Acosta, Lititz, Pennsylvania; Linda Gehman Peachey, Akron, Pennsylvania; Sandra Pérez, Queens, New York; and Aveani Moeljono, Asuza, California (Moeljono could not be present at the meeting). Iris de León-Hartshorn, director of transformative peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA and Castro’s supervisor, participated in the meetings as a facilitator.
Donations to the work of the WLP can be made online.
Jenny Castro, coordinator of the Women in Leadership Project.