Thursday, October 24, 2013

Shrinking Women No More? Mennonite Women in Leadership

"Shrinking Women" by Lily Meyers

Some things that continually surprise me:
1) just how many women's stories I carry within me-- stories I've been told or read from women I love/know/admire, stories that have not been told in public, that may never be told. 
2) how most of my college students in their early 20s--women included--use the word "feminist" like Americans might once have used the word "communist": a dirtied, failed term, a word that they wouldn't want to be caught embracing as part of their current American identity, a movement they've been taught to mistrust and keep rigid and stagnant by whom? The media? Each other? Their own mothers and sisters and female friends?
3) how I continually wrestle with being called to leadership and mentorship as an adult woman. This wasn't the case when I was younger. Those who knew me growing up would be surprised at my struggle, but I've continuously questioned the consistent inner push to raise my voice, to ask to be seen. This is a reaction I've been taught through watching women around me, but also a reaction I choose to sometimes live out, despite the consequences. As the poet says in her performance (see video above), "As she shrinks, the space around her seems increasingly vast."  

In pulling back and settling into silence at various times in my adult life, I've sometimes literally made myself ill. The first two years of my marriage felt like I was disappearing, and it scared me more than anything ever has. It wasn't my husband's doing, it was mostly my own. Some of the stories I carried inside me about "good wife," "good (Mennonite) woman" haunted me, even though I'd never fully acknowledged their power before. Formally a H.S. class/student council president, Rotary Scholar, and performing arts enthusiast, I suddenly felt like I didn't have a worthy voice or body to house it--and if I did and followed the call to lead (in various circles), I'd be letting someone down. I still haven't figured out who that "someone" might be, but "someone" still has a firm place in my psyche more times than I'd like to admit. 

So how did I get here, and why might other women who embraced leadership roles growing up hesitate to be leaders when they become adults? For me, I think one answer is that absence is a powerful teacher. And for someone who sees a church family as one of the most important, life-shaping communities, I didn't witness women in leadership very often. When I did, there seemed to be chaos and drama attached to it. This female pastor had this happen to her, this woman went to seminary and no one hired her, this woman writer left the church/community/denomination in order to write what she wanted, this woman spoke up and was socially shunned, this woman--well, you get the idea. Looking back, I'm also very aware that women who felt called to leadership, specifically within Mennonite circles in the area where I grew up, carried a weight and anxiety that often wasn't named but was always surfacing. This constant upset seemed part of being a woman in leadership inside a Mennonite church or our greater denomination...But I'm glad to say I feel/hope that this weight is shifting, maybe even being flung by the women who have carried it into the rural fields and city streets where we find ourselves. 

In "Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers," a recent online article in the Harvard Business Review, the authors name my ongoing story (and no doubt, others') by describing how "[p]eople become leaders by internalizing a leadership identity and developing a sense of purpose ... A person asserts leadership by taking purposeful action... Others affirm or resist the action, thus encouraging or discouraging subsequent assertions. These interactions inform the person’s sense of self as a leader and communicate how others view his or her fitness for the role." Mennonite women need to feel heard and be seen, starting by one another. 

Two major reasons I've started to call myself Anabaptist again and to rejoin a Mennonite congregation are 1) because I'm seeing more women from diverse backgrounds, races, and experiences--specifically in their 20s and 30s--who are raising their voices and asking to be seen as leaders. It thrills me that many Mennonite-affiliated women are raising their voices through the act of writing and storytelling, two things that inform both my own identity and faith walk. Through blogs, books, plays, conferences, sermons, and magazine articles, we are redefining and reclaiming our public connection to God and the roles we are called to play within a greater Anabaptist family. Secondly, I'm getting to know more and more Mennonite men in leadership voicing the value and necessity of women's stories and leadership (though I still haven't heard the word "feminism" in a Mennonite pulpit). Perhaps I can be one of the women to change this, speak up. And maybe it will be this Sunday, even. 

Below is an excerpt from my (male) pastor's most recent email letter, in which he reflects on themes in sermons past and forthcoming. May I sleep well the night before this service. May I feel God's voice welling up in me, too, a woman also made in God's image, according to one version of the Creation Story that I didn't hear until my early 30s. May we as Mennonite women leaders claim this creation story with faith and energy and and joy. May we tell our stories in public because it's one of the hardest and most self-healing and empowering acts we can do
     "On the last Sunday of October congregations are invited to observe Mennonite Heritage Sunday, each year having a different theme related to the Anabaptist/Mennonite story. This year’s theme is The Gifts of Women.     Needless to say, the church historically has not done such a good job of treating women and men as equal partners in the mission of God.  Neither has it done such a good job of using language and imagery for God that celebrates both the feminine and the masculine.  The dual effect here is that men have too often seen themselves as god, and women have too seldom seen themselves as god.      We’ve not done this well, and we are all the poorer for it.I see Columbus Mennonite as a community committed to learning and growing and nurturing the gifts of all who are present, regardless of gender identity.  That’s a beautiful thing and an important witness. I thought it would be a little strange if I, in my maleness, would deliver the sermon on this theme, so instead I’ll be interviewing three CMC women about their experiences with church – Joyce Wyse, JoAnn Knapke, and Becca Lachman.  We’ll talk about the churches of their youth, how their gifts have or haven’t been welcomed, their evolving relationship with the predominantly male populated Bible and masculine God imagery, what they are observing presently, and their best hopes for what the church can be. I, for one, am looking forward to it. This Sunday we will celebrate the gifts of women, we will lament the ways those gifts have been ignored and repressed, we will sing to the Divine who is the Source of the feminine and the masculine, and we will hear from women who will give voice to their own journey with God and church. And whatever ways the conversation needs to continue after Sunday, may it be so."


  1. Becca, thanks for this open and honest look at the difficulties of identity construction for women leaders. I'm happy to see the excerpt from your pastor's email letter.

    You might enjoy knowing that Lee Snyder, former president of Bluffton University, recently brought the HBR article you mention into a conversation among women administrators at EMU.

    I hope that you are encouraged and surrounded by your church and get back in touch with the young girl who saw herself as a leader. You obviously have a call. And the creation story of Proverbs 8 is still unfolding.

  2. oops i forgot dont hit the enter key
    or was that what sent it off prematurely
    my previous post
    seems not
    grrr computers versus pen and paper...
    sometimes ...
    as i was saying
    about blood related we be maybe
    your dad's mother's mother lily
    be my dad's sister and as we all should know lily had 2 sisters and ONE BROTHER...
    that survived childhood anyways...
    thank god the gypsies warned dad's sisterzzz
    that he might drown
    and thus he was not allowed to swim...
    and almost drowned coz he didnt learn
    but that is a different story...

    as u might know my rep
    of being big on bible quotes
    and the inspired word of the bible
    where to get it
    one need apply symbolic sense to some of it
    like women
    are the weaker vessel..
    as the quakers i think correctly figured
    that woman be symbolic of the receptive subconcious or heart in both genders
    but pray tell why would it be the weaker of the 2
    well coz of course
    the one that makes the conscious choices..the conscious mind..symbolically man
    determines if the soul hooks up with the power of love that as we all know is as
    the ylt translations says...
    Ecc 3:11 The whole He hath made beautiful in its season; also, that knowledge He hath put in their heart without which man findeth not out the work that God hath done from the beginning even unto the end.

    now 'tother main points on such and related matters
    once one understands the bible on the symbolic level
    one knows that by way of jesus that all human souls well eventually be redeemed
    and that reincarnation is involved in biblical salvation

    now as to what was lost when i started this here venture
    ifn it be to be read yet
    i dunno
    but i am savin this here
    in case it gets lost too
    and too tutu
    possibly clarify the first part that maybe got lost in cyberspace....