Speaking of women…

In a kind of offshoot from my previous post, I find myself checking in at my 2006 journals, to see whether my memory of the awe, even euphoria, I felt when the Mennonite Brethren conference I was part of passed a resolution freeing women for ministry leadership (this after a long process of debate and study over many years) is accurate or if it has been imagined into stronger color over time.

I find it’s accurate enough. I was trembling through the final discussions of that particular convention, I noted, because it mattered that much, and then came the surprise, even shock, of the resolution passing, solidly enough (the news report here), a sense of “wow” as it began to sink in. “I feel that something has been loosed on earth, as we prayed…” my private pages said, bursting with gratitude.

Nearly six years later, I confess I’m disappointed in the “since then.” My impression — anecdotal, I realize, since I’m no longer involved in the conference — is that while women’s participation goes on a-pace in some congregations, the ethos of the Mennonite Brethren denomination as such has not changed to reflect that decision — or “the spirit, the direction” it represented, as one of the men who worked hard on that process put it to me recently. Perhaps it’s even regressed.

I’ve been mulling on why it hasn’t changed as much as hoped or why I’m pessimistic about it changing much down the foreseeable road. Of course I can speak of exceptions, yes, but here — without much elaboration, or links — are six reasons I see, or hunches at least. (I realize, especially for some of my subscribers, this is dreadfully in-house; my apologies; you’re welcome to bow out at any time!)

1. The resolution was a compromise resolution, putting the matter into the hands of congregations for implementation (or not). Thus, the “official” conference structures, the broader face of the MB church, felt little need to be proactive in modelling and promoting the accepted resolution.

2. The current organizational structure has only two main boards (executive, and faith and life), compared to an earlier structure with a good number of boards for each aspect of the denomination’s work, thus fewer places are open to women’s involvement and leadership visibility. Few women serve on these two boards.

3. The vision of the denomination as it’s being articulated seems something of a single flagpole vision — evangelism — which creates/continues, I think, a more masculine ethos. Now I know this is tricky, attaching certain gifts or endeavors with masculine or feminine, categories which are more fluid than their stereotypes, but still, I think it’s fair to say there’s a kind of energy and aggressiveness associated with church planting that brings certain persons to the fore and may not fit as well with women’s ways of leading. (This point about vision has a circularity about it, in that the developing vision may reflect a lack of women’s input in its shaping — the loss, that is, of a broader or more moderated articulation of what the church is about.)

4. A significant number of our leaders, as well as the major C2C program of our conference, are connecting with the aims and energy of the Gospel Coalition and/or Tim Keller’s church and programs. Here views on women in ministry leadership are different than “the spirit, the direction” of the resolution mentioned above, and because of their “whole piece” ethos, they set up tension with the position reached in 2006.

5. MB worship style is often quite feeling-based, even sensual. Is that subconsciously frightening, touching what might be associated with the feminine, so that reins then need to be pulled tightly around too much interaction with women in other parts of MB denominational life?

6. Sigh, perhaps it’s just in the DNA, as people like to say nowadays. Early Anabaptists, and early Mennonite Brethren too, it could be argued, expressed significant gender equality in the first stage of their movements, a shared energy, but history moves groups into other stages, and in the case of Mennonite Brethren, moved them through the Froehliche Richtung (emotionalism and freedoms which caused moral failure) corrected by the so-called June Reforms, and then into the heavy influence of fundamentalism with its battle language and other hierarchies/rigidities.

Ideas, these. Some hunches, as I said. I’d very much welcome responses, corrections, push back, or cause for optimism!

6 thoughts on “Speaking of women…

    • Thanks, Mary Anne. I don’t know if this dynamic is true for you as well, but when I work at analysis it gives me a kind of distance, calmness, that I’m glad for within myself! — Oh, and I appreciate your link at the Pangea blog!

  1. I always thought the way Mennonite Church Canada did it was more successful. If I’m right conference made it mandatory for every church to accept women pastors on equal terms with men. They did not leave it up to individual churches to decide. If you take a look at Mary A. Schiedel’s book “Pioneers in Ministry: Women Pastors in Ontario Mennonite Churches, 1973-2003” you can see how many female pastors there have been in Ontario alone. Schiedel had a list numbering high in the forties, too many to include all of their stories in her book. Twenty four women contributed their stories. One of them is our daughter. She did not feel comfortable studying at the M.B. seminary and at the time of her graduation from seminary, pastoring in the M.B. Conference. When she was invited to preach in her home congregation, an M.B. Church in Ontario, several men got up and walked out!

    • I appreciate your information here, Elfrieda, and the reminders about how other groups, like Mennonite Church Canada, have worked at this. I think you’re right, that the broader conference agreement made a difference. — I remember reading your daughter’s story when I read Schiedel’s book, though I’ve forgotten the details.

  2. I think it is awful hard to move the center, even from the center. The efforts made to make this room for women were certainly well intentioned. I worked at Bethany with Doug when he was doing his study conferences. I imagine the MB world would need a new generation of female spiritual leadership to move in to the space that was created before we would see a real impact from the decision. Right now I see a lot of disinterest in church leadership from young people of both genders.

    I don’t see the growing ties with neo-reformed types as a positive either.

    • Thanks Leighton, you’ve added a factor I hadn’t really given as much thought to, which is “a new generation of female spiritual leadership to move into the space…” but you’re right, I think, and makes me wonder at the interplay of cause, effect, etc. I’m glad for your bringing it in.

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