The resilience of glass-ceiling breakers

Proclaiming the Good News: Mennonite Women’s Voices, 1972-2006, edited by Lois Y. Barrett and Dorothy Nickel Friesen (Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2023)

PROCLAIMING THE GOOD NEWS is a collaborative effort by longtime Mennonite pastors Lois Y. Barrett and -Dorothy Nickel Friesen to document the feminist movement’s impact on North American Mennonites’ leadership and theology. 

During the last several decades of the 20th century, a growing number of women sought seminary training and attained positions as ministers, chaplains, theologians and church administrators. 

But such change-making was often fraught. Some women seeking entry to professional church leadership positions succeeded, while others were sidelined or refused outright. 

A valuable feature of this anthology is its index, which identifies more than 300 ordained Mennonite women across Canada and the United States from 1973 to 2005. If that number seems surprisingly large, given the pernicious reach of patriarchal assumptions and structures, then this volume has much to teach about the resilience of those who broke glass ceilings.

The book draws on insights of 13 contributors, whose essays range from the experiences of women of color in church leadership to the governance of Mennonite-related institutions. 

Gayle Gerber Koontz and Ted Koontz, scholars of theology, ethics and peace studies, contributed a chapter on the role of Mennonite Central Committee’s Peace Section, which in 1972 incorporated “women’s concerns” to its agenda and for the next 30 years produced a newsletter, The Women’s Concerns Report. This publication featured topics that rarely appeared in Mennonite forums elsewhere: divorce, depression, abortion and more. 

As the Koontzes note, for -several -decades as feminist ideology was taking hold, the Report was an “informative and networking instrument for [readers] . . . who were often feeling isolated in their convictions about changes in the roles of men and women in church and society.” By the time it ended in 2004, this periodical had contributed to changing gender-based policies and practices across a broad swath of the North American Mennonite world.

Several Essays are autobio-graphical. In “Blinders and Power,” pastor and administrator Iris de León-Hartshorn, a Latina, and -Regina Shands Stoltzfus, an ordained Black woman and professor of peace, justice and conflict studies, -provide reflections on their professional lives. They offer nuanced critiques of persistent racism and related injustices in contemporary church life. 

De León-Hartshorn notes that “women of color are finding it hard to stay in leadership roles. . . . The diversity within our own groups is not recognized and is often used against us.” 

Shands Stoltzfus vividly outlines what she terms “a classic dilemma for Black women and other women of color, finding the time, energy and resources to work against both racism and sexism, leaving barely any resources or energy to fight against other systems of domination.” 

These chapters, in particular, ensure this book’s place as a necessary addition to Mennonite historical literature. A study guide enhances readers’ engagement. 

At present, only 16% of ministerial leaders in Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA are women. Given the pervasive and continuing obstacles to women’s leadership, the book calls readers to activism, noting that Mennonites have yet to develop “a culture of calling young people of any gender to consider pastoral ministry.”

THe book is silent on -exclusionary practices toward LGBTQ people and related barriers to leadership. The omission is troubling, given the rich historical material from the 1970s onward documented by the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests and other advocacy organizations, as well as archival sources, including oral history interviews with queer Mennonite pastors and church leaders, which extend back for decades. 

The fits and starts of women’s lead-ership in Mennonite settings are inextricably linked to heterosexism in the church, as well as to the histories of marginalized people, including ministerial leaders who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or non-binary. Despite its noteworthy contributions, this volume’s silence on these histories continues the longstanding erasure of queer leaders in North American Mennonite pastorates and related settings for ministry. 


Rachel Waltner Goossen of Topeka, Kan., is professor emerita of history at Washburn University.

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