A few weeks ago, I received an email about a new book to be published next year on women in church leadership. As one of the first women ordained in the Mennonite Church, would I be willing to answer a few questions?
I had three thoughts almost simultaneously: (1) wow, that makes me feel positively ancient! and (2) if I’m one of the first, then the ordination of women is still quite new in my part of the church, and (3) yes, of course I’d be happy to answer whatever questions I can.
The proposed book is much broader than the ordination of women, and seeks to document the changes that have taken place for women as leaders in the North American Mennonite church from 1972 to 2006. What factors played a role in expanding women’s voices? How did denominational leaders encourage or discourage women’s participation? How did women leaders experience discrimination and hostility? What voices were silenced? What lessons or wisdom do women leaders want to pass on?
I look forward to reading this volume when it’s released, but in the meantime, here are some of the questions and my answers that form part of the research for the chapter on ordination.
1. Tell the story of your path toward ordination. Did this come from an inward stirring/call? Or was there an external call from church leaders?
For me, God’s call to pastoral ministry and to ordination came first as an external call from a local congregation. At the time, I was teaching English and Bible at a denominational Bible college, writing and publishing devotionals and other materials on Christian living, and getting to know the church.
When the pastor left suddenly, and the church was still searching for new leadership some months later, I was asked to plan and lead four worship services for the Advent season. I had been a guest speaker already and had led worship in churches elsewhere, so I was happy to help.
To my surprise, after the first service that I led, a woman came up to me and asked, “How would you like to be the pastor of this church?” I laughed since that was the last thing on my mind, but over the next weeks, more people began to ask the same question, and finally the chair of the search committee called me.
Over the next while, God took me from not at all thinking about pastoral ministry, to meeting somewhat reluctantly with the search committee, to becoming curious to learn more, and then excited at the opportunity to serve at a unique time in the life of the congregation. The church called me for what we all thought would be an interim time, then later invited me to candidate for the regular lead pastor role, and I served in that same church for 25 years.
2. What challenges did you face? Internally? Within the congregation? From the wider church and conference leadership?
At each step of the way, I felt as if the church was more ready than I was for my journey into ministry. The congregation’s call came to me before I even thought seriously about pastoral ministry, but by God’s grace, by prayer and discernment as a community, I grew into that call. Then when the church voted unanimously for my ordination, by God’s grace I grew into that too.
During the candidating process for the regular lead pastor role, when I met with conference leadership, I was told they were prepared to move forward with ordination given my interim pastoral experience with the church. I also had a master’s degree in theology. Yet to me, ordination felt premature since I was still very much getting used to the idea of pastoring, let alone being ordained. At the same time, I was aware that some parts of the wider church were adopting a two-year licensing process toward ordination, so I elected to wait.
3. What was the role of the conference in your ordination?
As part of the ordination process, I completed a ministerial leadership document, met with a conference committee for an interview, and our provincial conference minister led my ordination service.
Since I had no previous pastoral experience, I had asked our conference minister if he would meet with me periodically during that interim time, which he agreed to do. Later, other pastors would ask me, “How did you get that kind of time from a conference minister? They’re usually too busy for that.” But that’s where my lack of experience proved to be an asset—I had asked because I hadn’t known any better.
4. What was the positive in your ordination journey and experience? How did your ordination encourage you in ministry? How did it positively impact others?
Because I had entered ministry in an unusual way, with a sense of experimenting and trying it out, ordination was personally significant to me. To that point I was still able to say that I was exploring pastoral ministry. With ordination, I felt as if I were saying, I’ve tested, I’ve explored, and now I understand this ministry as part of God’s ongoing call and claim on me.
Within my congregation, ordination seemed like a natural next step and a wonderful celebration of our ongoing life together. Some beyond the congregation were also encouraged to see a woman ordained to pastoral ministry, especially an ethnic minority woman in a church with strong Russian Mennonite roots.
I was also aware that some beyond my own congregation were confused by it or even opposed, but those responses tended to be about women in pastoral ministry in general and not particularly about ordination. I know that some of my church members had to field some pointed questions, but for the most part, those who did not agree seemed willing to respect the congregation’s call and decision.
5. What memories/feelings do you have from the day of your ordination?
So many memories, but one I keep coming back to is a line from my conference minister’s message: “When you feel like running, then run to Jesus.” In the midst of celebrating my ordination, I love that streak of realism acknowledging that sometimes ministry is hard, life is hard. And when any of us feel like running right out the door, we can run to Jesus.
For more on When You Work for the Church:
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