by Carrie Martens
My experience of women in leadership has spanned Mennonite Church Canada, the Evangelical Mennonite Conference, the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, and Mennonite Church USA. I have to say that while each of these denominations has rather different understandings of women in leadership on paper, in practice I’ve experienced a push/pull reception to women in leadership in all four.
In each of these spaces I was invited into ministry as either a pastoral intern or paid pastoral staff. So the invitation to participate was clear. And yet, my lived experience felt much more conflicted. In some cases it was explicit, such as being asked not to speak openly about a preaching class I was taking or being told by a member that my ministry was to children and she would walk out if I were to preach. In others, it was more subtle; it was the casual mention that certain congregations or conferences were simply not options for women applying for ministry positions. It was the whispered caution to avoid being alone with a particular male church member (this caution is all too common and indicates an unhealthy environment for all women).
Currently, I minister in a congregation with a longstanding tradition of women’s leadership and I often find myself attending to gender balance from the other side of the spectrum. And yet the push/pull reception to women in leadership remains. Even though it’s not evident in my own congregation, it seems strikingly obvious at an Area Church and Conference level that there is a lack of women in leadership positions.
In July at the MC Canada Assembly I heard Anneli Loepp Thiessen voice her concerns from the floor during a delegate session on the Future Directions Task Force Recommendations. She named that the lack of gender diversity that she saw in leadership frightened her. She noted that it seemed like we hadn’t come very far from her mother’s early days in ministry. I share Anneli’s concerns.
I also heard three comments that gave me pause. One came from Mennonite Church Eastern Canada moderator Paul Wideman, who named that, as moderator, he does not represent his own personal views. Rather, he represents the views of the constituency and the diverse group of individuals who sit on the various councils of MCEC. The problem with this argument is the assumption that the individual is a blank sheet of paper or a conduit through which the constituency communicates. This simply isn’t true. Regardless of demographic, the moderator can only hear their constituency, understand their experiences, and voice their concerns through the lens of the moderator’s own life experience. This means that who we have in leadership does matter. So if we care about women’s voices in our Area Churches and in Mennonite Church Canada then we need to have women in leadership who will bring a lens of female experience (broadly defined) to their work as representatives.
The second comment I heard came from Ryan Siemens, the Area Church Minister from MC Saskatchewan. He spoke passionately about the fact that countless women are asked when trying to find someone to say yes to leadership in the Area Church and MC Canada. These positions are open to everyone. Anyone can say yes to these roles. To my ears this sounded like the problem we have with women in leadership is that women just don’t say yes. This doesn’t ring true to me. In my experience as a woman and as a pastor, I generally find that women are incredibly likely to say yes, but they are also incredibly likely to be juggling multiple roles. However, if women are being asked and are declining these positions to this extent, then we need to be asking why.
The third comment I heard came from a young adult from a church in SK. She implored us to work toward diversity in leadership right from the outset as we transition to a new structure. She indicated that yes, finding leaders from New Canadian churches can be difficult, but if we really value diversity, we will make it happen. I suspect that the same is true for gender diversity.
Seeing women in leadership positions and experiencing their gifts and their mentorship were key in helping me to imagine my own place as a leader in the Mennonite church. I’m concerned with current lack of gender diversity in the Area and National Church. I’m concerned that young women may not be seeing a place for themselves as pastors, council members, moderators, task force leaders and as something more than a token under-20 member on a committee. It is past time for us to put an end to the push/pull invitation for women in leadership.
Some things to consider moving forward:
- Do we really care about having women’s voices in church leadership?
- If women are being asked for particular roles and they decline, why is that?
- Are there aspects of the role that make it challenging for a woman to say yes (this could be asked for many other peoples as well)? And if yes, how could we shift things to make their presence possible?
Should we require councils to have a minimum number of women and men (for example, a council with 8 members should have at least 3 women and 3 men) to ensure some gender balance?
Carrie is Pastor of Faith Formation at Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church, Kitchener, ON. We are grateful for her reflections-please reply and share!