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
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?