I had a powerful conversation with a young mother of three small daughters. She lamented the fact that her congregation did not allow women to hold leadership positions. In fact, women weren’t allowed behind the pulpit — so if they were leading music, for example, they had to stand next to it. I was dismayed.
I shared with her how important it was to me to have female role models for our daughters. In midlife, my husband and I felt called to ministry. We moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia to attend Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Our daughters were 10 and four. We attended Community Mennonite Church and there was a woman on the pastoral team who became a role model for our daughters. I still remember Bethany, at age 12, leading worship and receiving affirmation for her leadership skills.
Listening to this young mother reminded me of the important ways female role models can impact girls. How do we widen the circle in our lives, when it seems that doors are still closed for women in our society and faith communities?
Both of my daughters, now adults, attend congregations with female pastors. Both are fully involved in the life of their congregations — leading worship, preaching, etc. I cannot help but think it is because the circle was wide enough when they were children that they are now willing and able to participate and be fully engaged as women in the church.
Was the circle wide enough when I was growing up in a rural, conservative Mennonite church? I’m not sure it was. My congregation was male-dominated. Women only led in service-oriented roles, but I did have women as role models. There were women who encouraged me and gave me opportunities to serve. Even sitting together in fellowship hall having conversations about life made an impact on me. No, the circle was not wide enough for women to have leadership roles in front of the congregation, but I received encouragement and affirmation from women serving the church in other ways.
I grew up in a large family; my dad was a blue-collar worker and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. My parents modeled a mutuality as parents, and their deep love and respect for each other was clear to us. My growing up years weren’t perfect, but my parents were encouragers, and I know they believed in me. Was the circle wide enough? Probably not enough, but it started my journey to become the strong woman I am today.
As an adult, I chose seminary study, because I believe I have gifts for ministry — gifts that make me more than capable of church leadership, and not just because I was a pastor’s spouse. My husband, Ron, always encouraged me to use my gifts, for which I am so grateful. Ten years ago, Ron died unexpectedly, and my entire world shifted. Suddenly, as a single woman, I had to navigate my world alone. My strong, independent instincts took over. I found a job that I loved at Everence as a Stewardship Consultant. In this role, I help congregations, nonprofits and individuals with their stewardship and charitable needs, including providing resources, trainings, stewardship events and preaching. I’m using my gifts, in leadership and service to the church.
I work with many different and sometimes very conservative congregations. After all, Everence serves over 26 denominations and other church networks which share Anabaptist or similar faith values, but that doesn’t mean those groups are homogenous in their faith beliefs or practices. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been told that I would never preach in a specific church because of my gender — and it has felt like a door slamming in my face. But I’ve also experienced being the first woman ever to preach in other congregations — which gives me a sense of gratification. I have been empowered as a woman of worth in many settings, for which I am so grateful. But there are still barriers to women in many forms of leadership.
We all come from different backgrounds and experiences, and with that comes different ways that each of us applies our faith understanding in our lives. I urge each of us to create space for female leadership in our congregations, in our homes and in our own contexts. Our voices need to be heard loud and clear, and I hope the circle can be wide open to allow all peoples to enter and fully engage in this important work of liberation and freedom. When the circle is not wide enough to let us in, we must seek change. Let the revolution continue!