Women and Leadership: Women in the Church

This post is the first in a series of posts reflecting on women in leadership, the workplace and the church.

I am the oldest daughter of an oldest daughter of an oldest daughter (and now expecting another oldest daughter). I come from a legacy of strong women: women who have taken on leadership roles as teachers, pastors, church leaders, etc. This identity has been important to me throughout my childhood and still today. It led me to unabashedly apply for leadership roles and to feel confident that I would be qualified to be chosen to fill those roles sometimes. 

After college, I took a job with a Mennonite Church USA agency. Although my direct supervisor was female, I began to notice that much of the leadership of the church was both male and white. I realized that, when I was traveling, there were still many churches that would not invite me to preach because they did not believe that a woman belonged behind the pulpit. I noticed that in meetings with executives or church leaders, certain types of language and behavior were privileged above others. I noticed that if I was too assertive, people might start to place labels on me. This experience not only opened my eyes to the ways that systems of oppression operated in general, but it led me to a keen interest surrounding issues of women and their access to leadership, especially within Mennonite Church USA.

This issue is not simply one that is personally important to me: I believe that the underrepresentation of women in leadership throughout Mennonite Church USA is a social justice issue that has significance for the church and for all of its members, not just women. In the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, our denominational statement of belief, the article on ministry and leadership states, “The church calls, trains, and appoints gifted men and women to a variety of leadership ministries on its behalf. These may include such offices as pastor, deacon, and elder as well as evangelists, missionaries, teachers, conference ministers and overseers.” While this confession of faith clearly affirms equal inclusion of men and women in leadership roles, the church’s actions tell a different story.

If one were to simply visit a Mennonite congregation, the disparities between men and women might not be immediately apparent. However, a closer look at statistics and quantitative research shows that while women have come a long way within the church, they still have a long way to go. In a 1987 survey of members of the Mennonite church, only 49 percent of members supported the ordination of women. In the most recent survey of Mennonite churches, conducted in 2007, that number had risen to 67 percent, a number well-below three quarters of all church members. In addition, although there is greater openness to the ordination of women, 58 percent of members indicated a strong preference for a man as lead pastor, while 40 percent indicated no preference and only two percent of members indicated a preference for a female pastor.

A 2009 survey of male and female Mennonite pastors reveals that 353 women were serving in pastoral ministry, as compared to 1,409 men. There is also some evidence that would suggest that it is very difficult for women who are not married to find a pastoral position. Currently, over 80 percent of all women serving as pastors are married. In addition, men consistently experience longer pastoral tenures at each location, and are more likely to be able to find another pastoral placement after completing their first term.

A look at the Mennonite Church USA directory also reveals interesting demographic data. Out of 21 area conferences (groups of congregations) and 30 conference ministers serving within the United States, there are only two females, and no women of color. In addition, Mennonite Church USA has five church-wide agencies, and all of the executive directors for these agencies are male. Mennonite Church USA also has five undergraduate universities that represent the church. Ten years ago, two of these institutions were led by female presidents, but today, all of the college presidents are male and white, suggesting that there may be some backwards movement away from equality for women and men in leadership roles. Mennonite Church USA does have two church seminaries, and the president for one of these schools is a woman.

Findings about women on church boards or leadership teams reveal some progress, but still leave more to be desired. Since the formation of Mennonite Church USA as a denomination in 2002, the number of women and men on the denomination’s board has remained equal. However, in an article published in The Mennonite, Joanna Shenk writes, “At the same time, it is important to note that underrepresented racial/ethnic women are often required to fill two roles on committees and boards: as racial/ethnic people and as women.” In addition, Mennonite Church USA has never had a female executive director or agency CEO.

Taken together, these stats can be pretty daunting. So why, one might ask, have we not made more progress with women in leadership roles, especially top

United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcaño, one of my she-roes and a prominent female leader on immigration issues

leadership positions, within the church and other spheres as well?

My posts over the next few days will explore these questions and other aspects of women in leadership. It will look at women in spheres beyond the church, the challenge of balancing feminine and masculine expectations and more. What questions or insights do you have to offer as we begin this exploration together? If you are not Mennonite, how has your church dealtwith women in leadership? Have women made their way into upper level management and leadership positions?



Filed under Leadership, womanhood

15 responses to “Women and Leadership: Women in the Church

  1. Carolyn Holderread Heggen

    The continuing gender imbalance in Mennonite Church USA leadership is graphically portrayed in the recent electronic issue of The Mennonite. In a photo of the important people cutting the ribbon at the dedication ceremony of the new church offices in Elkhart, there are seven men and one woman.

  2. I agree with this analysis. I also think there is a major lack between mentoring of older and younger women within the church. I wrote about this in the “Young Women & the Church” Timbrel issue (http://www.mennonitewomenusa.org/SiteCollectionDocuments/SO%202011%20drft%206%20web.pdf). I guess what I would like to hear are solutions on how to solve this problem – something I myself am working towards, but am struggling with. How do you engage in this issue without getting frustrated and fed-up with the church as a whole? How do you have conversations with those who do not think women should be leaders in the church without getting exasperated? These are issues/questions I’m still working through.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Rachel – Thanks for raising these questions and for the link to your article and this issue of Timbrel. I had not read through that one yet, and it contains food for thought. I am particularly interested in your question about mentoring. One of the posts that I hope to feature will be on mentoring, and I think you are right that we sometimes drop the ball with leadership development alongside young adults and with people of color. We are not good at inviting new people into our systems and into new roles, perhaps because it’s sometimes easier to work with known quantities. But I recognize that that means that we never push our church to grow or expand our picture of who a leader is.

      I’m actually on a task force right now, led by Joanna Shenk, that is looking into issues across the church about mentoring. especially for women. One of the things that has been interesting for me to note is that for myself, and many young women my age, the most supportive mentors we have found have actually been older men, not women. Whether this is because women in leadership are pulled in so many different directions or whether this is because there are just more men in leadership positions to serve as mentors, I’m not sure. But it is something worth exploring, and I think you are right to note that we really need to be beefing up our connections and development with young women.

      Finally, from reading your article, it sounds like you have been involved in a lot of very interesting work alongside women in Indonesia. If you ever would like to cross-post or write a guest blog for this site, I would love to see that happen. I’m hoping that this blog can grow to feature many more voices of women from across the church. Just let me know if you are interested. Thanks for reading!

      • Thanks for the reply. I’m also involved with Joanna Shenk’s task force! I’m in the Mennonite Monologues group, as I’m a big proponent and lover of story collecting. We haven’t exactly done a lot in our group yet, but I foresee something awesome eventually coming from our discussions and ideas.

        I would also be interested in writing a guest blog or cross-post. Would love to talk more! My email is raehalder@gmail.com

  3. Jennifer Gorman

    I grew up in a UCC congregation with a woman Assistant Pastor, and now in my Mennonite congregation we have two, after our female Lead Pastor moved. I am grateful to have these woman as role models in the lives of both my son and daughter. It took many years for our congregation to get to this point, with my young daugher asking why she couldn’t be a pastor. Each of them has been a comfort to my family during difficult times. Each person brings the baggage from their own journey to the ministry in new ways.

  4. What fantastic findings! a) I’ve never been aware of the mennonite stance being welcome to women (I come from a Methodist tradition which is quite affirming of a women’s call to ministry, but recently encountered more resistance outside the safety net of that denomination, which has opened my eyes).
    As a former person in ministry, I’d add that the issue of women in ministry extends outside church walls. A large reason I’m not serving at this time are my 3 little ones. Much like the rest of the world, the church (as employer) still hasn’t figured out how a woman can lead a meeting and leave to pump. Our meetings are scheduled at bedtime. So much of life in that realm just doesn’t seem conducive to active parenting, especially with a spouse that also works.
    I think the women in ministry question is a fair one – I appreciate the examples you’ve cited. But for me, personally, leadership has been roadblocked by children – in part because there are aspects I can’t give up, in part because church life doesn’t know how to interweave the 2. But then again, in all fairness, my secular employer hasn’t quite figured it out, either.

  5. Modern women are blessed with the ability to make choices–cut the ribbon at the building dedication or be home to ride bikes with the kids–but that doesn’t change the fact that these choices have consequences.There are only so many hours in the day, and people with children who want to be active parents (men or women) have to choose how they will spend the limited time available to them each day.

    I work half time as a pastor in an MCUSA congregation. The church is amazing. They held evening meetings in my home so I could nurse my baby. They allowed me to take maternity leave just a few months after starting my new position. They are just all-around supportive and wonderful.

    I think women today are blessed to have a lot of leadership opportunities. I get asked to take on leadership roles all the time, and I turn them down right and left because saying yes to those opportunities comes at the expense of being home with my family, and at this point in my life that is not a trade-off I’m willing to make. It’s wonderful to have that choice. I’m grateful for that choice, but right now I’m choosing my family over ribbon cutting.

    In my opinion, I think it is quite possible that the opportunities for leadership in MCUSA are greater for women than men. By this I mean that I think if a woman wanted to pursue a leadership position in MCUSA, she could attain that position more easily than a man of equal ability. However, you don’t see very many women banging down the doors of various higher level leadership positions because they don’t have to and they don’t want to.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Mandy – I appreciate you bringing this perspective to the “blog table.” I agree with you that once you are within the MCUSA “system”, leadership positions, especially volunteer ones, can be offered abundantly. But I think there are also many women, throughout the church, who don’t feel like they have a way to get a foothold within the system in the first place, and who would be interested in leadership positions.

      That is the gift of being a working woman now is that we do have a choice about how to engage. We CAN work within the church and we can also choose to build flexible enough work schedules that they allow us to have good work and home life balance (and hopefully this works for men now as well).

      But, there are also women who do have both gifts and a desire to serve in high level leadership positions within the church (talking about church structures and hierarchies and how that fits with Anabaptism could be a whole other post, but let’s just stick with this for now), and I don’t know that there is or has always been equal access or opportunity to those positions. And, I would hope that, within the church, this would not be a process of “clawing one’s way to the top,” but rather a process and movement that grows out of a sense of discernment and call.

  6. Pa

    I look forward to more of what you are writing. Opening the door for another woman’s step into leadership is the role i want to take on. Mentoring, encouraging, tapping on the shoulder is the work of the older woman and perhaps we all need to be awakened to that call. My opportunties came because someone else–and it was always a man several decades ago that opened the door for me. But I did need to say yes and my spouse was supportive. It is no secret that a woman’s perspective strengthens the work and direction of the church.

  7. Melanie Zuercher

    Almost 30 years ago, at the first joint Mennonite Church-General Conference Mennonite Church convention in Bethlehem, Pa., in summer 1983, a group of young women, most of us just out of college, formed an ad hoc group to talk about the place — or lack thereof — for young women in the MC-GC structures, which since then have shifted to Mennonite Church USA structures. We did get some attention — and affirmation — from church leaders, but otherwise not a lot came out of it.

    However, Hannah’s blog post and the replies have led me to ponder this again. It seems that each generation of young Mennonite women since then (and maybe before then, though I don’t recall it) has had to raise the question: What is our place? (I expect young men have done so as well, but their gender makes it different, too.) I’m tempted to be frustrated that “not much has changed” or to think: “It’s 2012 — are we STILL dealing with this?”

    MC USA is not where I wish it was, or where it should be, regarding the assumption of equal value of all God’s children and of every one of us having gifts for which gender is no qualifier — yet I believe there actually has been some movement. For example, the idea of mentors never occurred to us in 1983, and if that can take a more deliberate, thoughtful shape, I can see it going a long way toward addressing some of the issues.

    Thanks for raising the issue, Hannah. Change is slow, but it would never happen at all without these conversations and actions, no matter how small.

  8. Hannah, this is such sobering stuff. I know that being a woman in church leadership is tough, and so is being a woman in the academy. Just yesterday in a class I teach in a denominational seminary, students were describing (in helpful ways!) some of the negative associations feminism has for them. More often than not, (women’s) anger about gender/sex inequality scares people, but there’s a lot to be angry about! Feminism isn’t just about providing women with opportunities to be in leadership, its also about changing the way we do business in the world so that as women we have power and authority that is respected, honored, and cultivated right alongside of men.

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      I agree! I think it’s both an issue of access and of changing expectations about the nature of power and leadership itself.

  9. Pingback: Women in Leadership: It Takes an Attitude Adjustment | The Femonite: Musings from a Mennonite Feminist

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