Opinion: Thoughts from readers
There is a lot of talk about the “catastrophe” in Mennonite Church USA brought on by Mountain States Mennonite Conference licensing Theda Good for ministry.
We don’t have to go back too far to read about other women in ministry who have been accused of creating trouble in the church. In the past few years, the Mennonite press has reported about women who have performed weddings or say they are open to performing ceremonies for same-sex couples.
Joanna Harader, Megan Ramer, myself and Joetta Handrich Schlabach had their credentials reviewed; Sheri Hostetler was twice sanctioned; Kathleen Temple had her credentials revoked.
Only one man in recent memory has been in the press and sanctioned for a similar action: Weldon Nisly. [Editor’s note: Randall Spaulding, Michael Schaadt and Richard Lichty had their credentials revoked; Randall and Michael for being in a same-sex relationship and Richard because he was pastor when Germantown Mennonite Church was excommunicated.]
This is not an exhaustive list of either women or men who have officiated such ceremonies or had their credentials revoked, but one might ask why we do not read in the Mennonite press of more men participating in similar ceremonies? Are male ministers not engaging in this kind of ministry? Are they opting out for ecclesial or theological reasons? Do they decline out of fear for their position and status? Or have the powers that be decided not to make their actions public, to save face for everyone involved?
It could be that women in Mennonite Church USA have a different reading of the Bible or approach theology with a different lens and thus do ministry in ways that men do not. Or perhaps the experience of women in ministry in Mennonite Church USA continues to be so tenuous that to step across a perceived polity line is just one more of the many risks we must take to do our jobs.
We might make a few other observations. The women named above are pastors in urban areas or university towns, where their gifts for ministry are not the exception. These women have developed a leadership style that allows them to act with the backing of their local congregations even if not with the backing of their conferences.
Since they have the support of their local congregations, they are assured they will not lose their jobs. One might ask if they have made the assessment that there are few options as women in ministry. If mobility is limited, there is freedom to follow their understanding of Scripture and the leading of the Spirit.
The trajectory for women in Mennonite Church USA is still one that for the most part ends in the small, local congregation. (The Women in Leadership Project identified that in 2009 there were fewer women in leadership in the Mennonite church than there were 20 years earlier. And women were not moving into executive positions. A quick look at the Mennonite agencies makes it is easy to see that five years later there are still no women as executives of Mennonite agencies. It is not that there are not women in leadership in these agencies but that they are not the lead executives).
On the other hand, we now have two women leaders in elected but unpaid positions: Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, moderator of Mennonite Church USA, and Patricia Shelly, moderator-elect. Is this progress, or are Elizabeth and Patty called now to clean up the mess that has been created since the merger brought us Mennonite Church USA?
Perhaps it is naive to wonder if the anxiety would be roiling this much if it had been men that had taken the lead in performing same-sex ceremonies. But one wonders if Mennonite Church USA is still so captivated by patriarchy that when women dare step out in leadership they are put in their place by those who hold the power in the institution?
Cynthia Lapp is pastor of Hyattsville (Md.) Mennonite Church.