New affiliation frees congregation to fulfill its hope to ordain a woman

Teresa Enns Zehr Teresa Enns Zehr

It was the end of a long and sometimes challenging road — including a transfer to a different Mennonite denomination — when Aberdeen Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, Man., finally ordained a woman to be its pastor.

The ordination service for Teresa Enns Zehr took place May 5 at the church, which is part of Mennonite Church Manitoba.

“It was important for me, but it was just as important for the congregation,” said Enns Zehr, 44. “For a long time the church had been living in the space of supporting women in ministry but not officially able to do it.”

The church started in 1957 as part of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference. It joined MC Manitoba, a part of Mennonite Church Canada, in 2023. Until that time, it was often an outlier in the EMC, partly due to it being not only one of the few urban congregations in the mostly rural conference but also because of its location in Winnipeg’s north end.

The church’s presence in that gritty and mostly poorer part of the city and home to a large and growing population of Indigenous people led it to have a focus on social and justice issues for marginalized and poor people, including hosting a food bank since 2008 and supporting a nearby inner-city ministry that serves youth.

The church also focused on opening all its leadership opportunities to men and women, breaking with EMC in 1992 when it called Ardith Frey to be its pastor — the first female to have that role in the denomination.

Frey served until 2003, after which the church had two other female pastors, including Enns Zehr, who was called from the congregation to serve in that capacity in 2017.

Although women were not permitted to be ordained as pastors, the congregation kept hoping they one day could do that, said Solomon Janzen, co-chair of the congregation’s board from 2017 to 2023.

Their hopes were raised in 2021 when the EMC conducted a study about women in ministry and asked its ordained ministers — all men — to vote on whether churches in the denomination could be allowed to invite women as their leaders. The recommendation was narrowly defeated.

For Aberdeen, that was the final straw. “We were hoping that the vote would pass and give us freedom to be ourselves as a church,” Janzen said. “When it was defeated, we knew we needed to do something.”

That something was a congregational listening process that led to it leaving the EMC to join MCM.

“There was a unified voice that we wanted to have all levels of leadership in the church open to both men and women,” he said.

In conversation with EMC leaders prior to departing, Aberdeen acknowledged it “had been out of step with the conference for many years,” Janzen said, adding that the conference was “very gracious” about their departure.

In March 2023, the church was welcomed as a member of MC Manitoba. A few Aberdeen members left at that point, but the majority were “strong in their support of the move and of women in ministry,” Janzen said.

Marilyn Funk, co-chair of the congregation’s board with Janzen during that time, said Mennonite Church Manitoba is a good fit for the congregation.

As for the ordination of Enns Zehr, “we waited a long time for this,” she said. “It was a lovely service.”

Next up for the congregation of about 40 is the topic of LGBTQ welcome and inclusion.

“In practice we are accepting and affirming,” said Funk, adding they want to work through it as a church before formalizing that position — something that is allowed for churches that are part of MC Manitoba, which permits each church to make its own decision on the matter.

The congregation has also discussed whether it wants to stay in the north end. So far, the answer continues to be yes as it rents space in the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Aboriginal Catholic Parish, the only Indigenous Catholic parish in Winnipeg. Aberdeen once owned the building but sold it to the Indigenous parish in 2021 when upkeep got to be too much.

John Longhurst

John Longhurst was formerly Communications Manager at MDS Canada.

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