Leaving the wilderness

MC USA women in ministry: joys, struggles and the manna that keeps them going

Elizabeth Johnson, left, a doctoral candidate at Duke University and member of Raleigh Mennonite Church in North Carolina, speaks at the 2023 Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City, Mo., on “Toward a Church in Which Women in Ministry Thrive.” Johnson and Amy S. Zimbelman, right, conference minister of Mountain States Mennonite Conference, conducted a nationwide study on the experiences of women pastors. — Ken Krehbiel/MC USA Elizabeth Johnson, left, a doctoral candidate at Duke University and member of Raleigh Mennonite Church in North Carolina, speaks at the 2023 Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City, Mo., on “Toward a Church in Which Women in Ministry Thrive.” Johnson and Amy S. Zimbelman, right, conference minister of Mountain States Mennonite Conference, conducted a nationwide study on the experiences of women pastors. — Ken Krehbiel/MC USA

When Anne was in seminary, the environment was so hostile that she wanted to hide. (Names in this article have been changed to protect confidentiality.)

“The head of the class asked us to draw a picture of how we felt being in seminary,” she said. “I drew a picture of sitting in a seat with a blanket over me and peeking out over the edge to see if it was safe, because I had not experienced safety.”

For most of our 499-year history, Anabaptist women with leadership gifts have traversed an unsafe, desert-like wilderness. Church environments have been largely hostile to their leadership gifts, with reprieve only formally beginning in the 1970s as Mennonite women were finally able to seek ordination.

Research partner Elizabeth Johnson and I conducted a 2022-23 nationwide study within Mennonite Church USA exploring the characteristics of church-workplaces of women in ministry. We learned about women’s joys and struggles and the manna that keeps them going, and we found hope that our denomination might continue to find its way toward greener environs.

Characteristics of the wilderness

Our mixed-methods research study used both interviews and a nationwide web-based survey to learn more about the women who make up almost 35% of active, licensed MC USA ministers. We heard from women 29 to 91 years old from every conference. Our interviews overrepresented the voices of Black, Indigenous and people of color, lesbian and bisexual women.

The top challenge facing women in ministry today, as identified by the women surveyed, was gender inequality. This included interpersonal inequalities like persistent sexist language or having their voices taken less seriously because of their gender. It also included structural inequalities such as receiving lower pay or experiencing hiring discrimination when they learned that women need not apply for a given pastoral position.

Our study analyzed two other forms of harm: nonsexual workplace harm (for example, bullying) and sexual harassment. Compared to men, women were significantly more likely to report having been mistaken for a pastor’s spouse or another non-pastor role; to have been criticized for not conforming to gender stereotypes; to have been pulled into unwanted sexual discussions; and to have been touched in a way that made them uncomfortable. Laypeople were the most common offenders for nearly all the forms of harm.

Forms of harm experienced by MC USA pastors
Forms of harm experienced by MC USA pastors

However, perhaps ­surprisingly, women want to be in MC USA ministry roles. Job satisfaction has increased; 96% of women currently in MC USA ministry were moderately or very satisfied with their work. In 1992, only 59% of women reported being satisfied or very satisfied with their pastoral role. Women love this work; they just don’t want to be harmed while doing it.

Job satisfaction of MC USA pastors
Job satisfaction of MC USA pastors

The taste of manna

When the Spirit of God breaks through in a desolate wilderness, it’s often more dramatic than if the vegetation were already lush — like bread falling from heaven.

Our interviews asked about women’s call to ministry, and about 1 in 5 shared a story of the Spirit of God breaking through via dreams, visions or other miraculous events to convince an often-reluctant woman to pursue or continue in ministry.

Anne, quoted above, had miraculous theophanies (encounters with the divine) throughout her career in Anabaptist nonprofit and church settings. After feeling like she was under a blanket, she experienced a vision later in seminary of Jesus wrapping a robe around her and saying, “You are my beloved daughter; in you I’m well pleased.”

Then, once she was employed in an Anabaptist nonprofit setting, Anne remembers that the president “who was much more conservative than I am led us in a time of silence, and . . . I just felt this wave of warmth go from my head to my feet, and the words were just right there of: ‘The blanket you hid under became the robe that I wrapped you in, and it’s now become your mantle of leadership. Lead!’ I looked around at these men and thought, ‘Oh my!’ ”

She goes on to say: “I almost quit maybe five times over the next year.” One of the times, Anne says:

I felt like God was saying, “Can you stick it out to teach these men how to work with a woman? Can that be your goal?” And I said, “OK, if I can view myself as a pioneer for the other women coming after me, then that’s a frame of reference that maybe I can work with.” So I lived with that, and when I would go into a tough meeting that I knew my voice was not going to be heard, I would wear a shawl . . . that was a symbol of pulling the mantle around me, and nobody else needed to know what it meant, but I knew who I was and who God said I was.

Anne’s visions sustained her, and the shawl she wore functioned as an oasis of sorts — instilling a sense of belonging and psychological/spiritual safety, even when the workplace culture conveyed a different message.

The promised land?

Compare Anne’s story to Marie’s. Born in 1988, Marie said a female colleague from another denomination asked for resources to support women in ministry, and she was slow to find them because she had not needed them herself.

“I’ve never felt like I have to justify my presence as a woman in ministry,” Marie says, “and I am very aware that that is thanks to the good work that women have already been doing in our denomination.”

While Marie was the only woman interviewed who voiced this level of being accepted in her role, it does signify the beginning of a new era in Anabaptism. In a little over six decades, women went from having no formal ministry positions (and therefore no female pastor role models in their denomination), to wilderness-like hostile work environments, to at least one woman reporting that she truly feels like she belongs in ministry — and the structures surrounding her support that sentiment.

It appears that, for the first time in 499 years, a more hospitable environment might be in sight.

But we’re not out of the desert yet. To fully enter that new era, our study had another major finding: Supportive traveling companions are vital, both inside of and beyond the church.

Women described the importance of friends, therapists, spouses and colleagues in making their work possible. Professionally, we learned that workplace support structures make a tangible difference as well. When women in ministry have supportive relationships with their conference ministers, they experience fewer types of harm.

Additionally, women in ministry who have a Pastor-Congregation Relations Committee, or a team of congregants who serve as liaisons between the pastor and congregation, also experience fewer forms of harm.

Yet women reported that formal supports were often lacking. Having supportive relationships was one of their top three concerns (along with gender inequality and balancing ministry with family and self-care).

To support women in ministry, how can our churches and institutions do a better job of walking alongside them?

Women have been sharing the Good News ever since Jesus commissioned Mary Magdalene to preach the first Easter sermon. They change the world around them as they preach, teach, care, protest, write and lead.

I may only see glimpses of true equality in my lifetime. But we can offer each other support in the meantime, like water in the desert. And perhaps, as we experience care and affirmation, our hope will take shape that it won’t take another 500 years to leave behind this wilderness.

The study was funded by Mennonite Church USA’s Women in Leadership ministry, Duke University’s Sociology Department, the Louisville Institute and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. The findings are reported only in terms of men and women because there are too few nonbinary clergy in the sample to report about those experiences while maintaining confidentiality.

Amy S. Zimbelman is conference minister of Mountain States Conference of Mennonite Church USA.

Amy Zimbelman

Rev. Amy Zimbelman is the conference minister of Mountain States Mennonite Conference. She holds a Master of Divinity from Duke Read More

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