Tag Archives: Mennonite Church USA

Being comfortable with complex unity and honest about theological diversity

Conflict by Dawn Hough Sebaugh

Over the course of the past several years, conversations about sexuality, gender and membership have risen to the forefront of Mennonite Church USA conversations, as they have for many other denominations. In the past few months alone, Mennonite periodicals have been filled with articles and editorials about sexuality: there was Pastor Joanna Harader’s explanation of her rationale for performing a same-sex marriage ceremony; a letter from many pastors asking whether the issue of sexuality was worth splitting over; a response from another group of pastors suggesting that sexuality has implications for a broad range of church issues; and news that Central District conference would not suspend the credentials of Pastor Megan Ramer, who had recently performed several same-sex marriages, and that some churches might leave Central District Conference over this decision.

This news is clearly a mixed bag, illustrated the conflicted nature of the conversation and the broad spectrum of understandings about inclusion throughout Mennonite Church USA. This conversation is one whose roots go back many, many years, and the denomination has put out a variety of statements. According to Loren Johns, of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, conversations about human sexuality first rose to national denominational consciousness in the mid-1970’s. Statements released in 1986 by the former General Conference and Mennonite Church denominations in Saskatoon and Purdue respectively both emphasize that sexuality is a good, beautiful gift from God. They talk about sexual ethics beyond simply homosexual relations. And, perhaps most importantly, both statements emphasize the importance of inter-denominational dialogue. They state, “ We covenant with each other to mutually bear the burden of remaining in loving dialogue with each other in the body of Christ, recognizing that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace and that the Holy Spirit may lead us to further truth and repentance. We promise compassion and prayer for each other that distrustful, broken, and sinful relationships may experience God’s healing. We covenant with each other to take part in the ongoing search for discernment and for openness to each other.”

Later, in 1995, we a statement on how to agree and disagree in love was released, which offered tools for Mennonites to use when conflict arises. This document emphasizes that conflict is a “normal part of our life in the church” and emphasizes a process of dialogue and community discernment which suspends judgment and avoids “labeling.”

Also, in 1995, the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective was published, which included a statement, in Article 19, that reads, “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.” However, in the introduction to this document, it states clearly that this statement gives an “updated interpretation of belief and practice in the midst of changing times,” but that it also is subject to the authority of the Bible and is meant to help guide discussion around Mennonite practices and beliefs. It is not meant to be a final word or creedal statement.

The last five years have seen a rise again in the intensity and frequency of these conversations throughout the denomination. In many conversations that I have had occasions to have while visiting Mennonite Church USA congregations, I sense a growing anxiety from people on both sides of this issue. The question of whether we can remain together as a church with this ideological gulf seems to weigh heavily on many people’s minds.  There are fears that churches on both sides of this issue will leave, and that our denomination might never be the same. This fear pervades our conversations with each other, and hovers in the background of each of these articles/editorials and the comments that follow them.

Several weeks ago, the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board released a statement in response to this growing conversation surrounding same-sex unions. In this document, the Executive Board wrote, “The board owns the understanding of our confession of faith that sexual union is to happen between one man and one woman who are committed to each other for life in holy marriage.”

This statement is nothing new and seemed to echo what the board has been saying over the course of the past few years. This particular statement understandably drew both affirmation and strong critique from members across the church.

In response to a call from some pastors to respond with disciplinary actions towards pastors and conferences who were permitting same-sex unions to take place and ministerial credentials to remain intact, the Executive Board states, among other things, that they affirm the understanding laid out in the Confession of Faith. The letter goes on to say, “The board has no plans to suggest that the church should change its current understanding and commitments.”

 Unfortunately, and perhaps unintentionally, this statement seems to send the message that the church itself is unified on questions of sexuality and inclusion, and that those with opinions different than the Confession of Faith are outliers. This statement seems troubling, given the fact that there are many committed members, staff, and leaders of Mennonite Church USA who would hold opinions that differ from the statement of the Confession of Faith. And this language, whether intentional or not, does seem to set up an “us vs. them” paradigm which does not serve to enable the dialogue that the church has been calling for since Purdue/Saskatoon to continue.

However, the statement does not stop there.

Later, it states, “The national conference of Mennonite Church is composed of conferences and congregations. The national church does not have the authority to control the discussion or decisions at these levels. Congregations decide on their members and conferences decide on member congregations. Ministerial credentials are held at the conference level and thus minister’s accountability is to the area conference rather than the national conference. We are aware that our polity creates some differences in the practice of church discipline from conference to conference.”

In my mind, this simple statement does have some hopeful emphases within it. Anabaptist polity is not set up to grant high levels of centralized power. Indeed, our denomination uniquely privileges the discernment processes of local communities, at both the congregational and conference level.

This may mean that people on both sides of this issue, and those in the middle, will have to live in a transitional, border space for awhile. We are stuck in a liminal moment, where our denomination bridges a wide range of opinions. This is the same process that occurred as women were allowed into ministry (as one of my professors says, “Churches don’t know how to free everyone at the same time: it happens in chunks.”).

Over the course of the next era, we may need to define our idea of what it unity means. It is no longer a simple, clear-cut concept. We will need to decide if we can truly value and see our theological diversity as a gift that enriches our conversations, just as we value diversity of many other kinds. We will need to determine whether we are willing to remain at the table with one another even though we don’t always agree on the rules that govern it. We will need to decide whether we are willing to broaden and expand our definition of “unity” from simply an integration of difference into a cohesive identity where distinctive, different parts are subsumed, to a complex unity that celebrates diversity and collaboration across difference.

I believe that a complex unity is marked by a commitment to remain in conversation and relationship with one another, sharing a common, unified Mennonite identity, while still celebrating and understanding the diversity of identities and opinions that exist throughout Mennonite Church USA.

Together by Josefina Aguirre

It seems to me that there are few denominations that whose polity would allow for such a flexibility and diversity of opinion to exist. If we Mennonites can take seriously the call to be engaged faithfully with discernment in our own local communities, as well as respectful dialogue across the denomination, we could be leaders for many other Christian groups who are struggling to figure out what it means to live together with such varied ideas of community ethics. But to really take this process of discernment seriously, we cannot deny or try to hide the theological diversity that is pervasive throughout our denomination, and we cannot pretend that the church holds one, unified theological opinion on sexuality.

As Parker Palmer writes, we will need to learn to “hold tension creatively” and to understand that, as process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead notes, greater complexity also lends itself to deeper beauty.

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Women in Leadership: Saying Yes

This post is part of a series examining issues surrounding women and leadership.

In the summer of 2001, I found myself beginning to think about transition intentionally for the first time in my life. I had just finished my sophomore year of high school, and for the first time, people began to ask me more intentionally and often about my plans for college. I realized that people I had called friends were graduating and would no longer be staples in my high school hallways. I was beginning to get intimidated about taking the PSAT and other standardized tests and figuring out that nebulous concept called “the future.”

In the midst of these transitions, I embarked on a bike trip with my youth group en route to the Mennonite Church USA convention in Nashville. Over seven days, I was encouraged and supported by my youth group as we pushed our bodies hard on a seven-day pilgrimmage to convention. Upon arrival in Nashville, we participated in seven days of worship, servant projects, relationship-building and more with thousands of Mennonite youth from across the country. I don’t remember a lot about that week. But one thing I do remember was a speech given by Shirley Hershey Showalter, then president of Goshen College, during one youth worship service. Showalter talked about the cloud of witnesses that was present among us and had gone before us, and that were cheering for each of us young adults spread throughout the worship hall. She invited a host of adults up onstage as a symbolic show of support and hope for our collective futures. I remember being struck by the power inherent in this small gesture. As I looked around at members of my youth group and my youth sponsors, I was struck by the knowledge that I was

A Cloud of Witnesses

surrounded by people who loved me, supported me and would walk alongside me as I transitioned into each of these new life phases.

I feel particularly blessed to have encountered new mentors in each new phase of life, who were able to offer advice to me, to name what they saw as good in me, and to encourage me to pursue goals that were sometimes even bigger than I was able to conceive of for myself. There were my parents, who continually dreamed big dreams for me. Teachers and professors, at all levels of education, who affirmed my gifts for writing and thinking theologically, and who pushed me to be better and not to settle for mediocrity. There have been co-workers and supervisors who have invited me to take on responsibilities that seemed too big or too daunting and helped to guide me successfully through a process. Each of these mentors have offered abundant affirmation, but also criticism and suggestions for improvement at key moments. These mentors have been open and honest with me, and shared their own stories and struggles.

And so, for me, here is the encouragement that underlies even the bleakest statistics: that there are many adults who are willing and interested in helping to develop the next generation of leaders through mentoring relationships. Leadership development for me has not just been a trendy development: it has been a lived experience. These mentoring relationships have been of the utmost importance for helping me to build a base of confidence that has allowed me to say yes when new leadership opportunities arose.

But I know that not everyone has been lucky enough to be accompanied by such encouraging mentors. One of the greatest holes that has been identified in development for new female leaders in the church has been mentorship. Not too long ago, I had dinner with a group of women about my age who were lamenting the fact that they part of the way through graduate academic careers with few strong female allies in sight. If you do not necessarily have easy access to church systems or to individuals who make mentoring a priority, engaging in leadership at any level can feel daunting and may not even seem like an option.

I currently have been given the opportunity to serve on a task force of women within Mennonite Church USA who are examining ways to build a network of mentors and to continue to connect women with one another. Sharing our stories with one another and spending time affirming the new leaders who are just beginning their careers is not just a bonus: it will need to be a priority for the church if we hope to keep expanding our pictures of who and what leadership looks like.

I have been thinking about this recently as I realize that 27 is no longer 22 or 18, and there is a new whole new generation of leaders already emerging behind me. Leadership is a journey and it’s a posture that we can engage in any position and interaction.  I have a responsibility to continue to encourage new leaders, just as my mentors encouraged, and continue to encourage me.

Several years ago another former Mennonite college president, Lee Snyder, encouraged me by sending along this poem (which also appears in her excellent memoir), and I still carry it along with me when new opportunities continue to present themselves. I offer this poem to other compatriots on this leadership journey, in hopes that they will be empowered to continue to “say yes” when new opportunities arise.

Say yes quickly, before you think too hard
or the soles of your feet give out.
Say yes before you see the to-do list.
Saying maybe will only get you to the door,
but never past it.
Say yes before the dove departs for, yes,
she will depart and you will be left
alone with your yes,
your affirmation of what you
couldn’t possibly know was coming…
Keep saying yes.
-Sherri Hostetler, A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry

Who are the mentors who have helped to lead you along the way? What obstacles stand in the way of your saying yes? Has finding willing mentors been a challenge?

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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?

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