What gifts lie dormant among women in our churches?
by Karen Neufeld
My husband and I joined the many hands of blessing that surrounded our daughter. She had recently received the unanimous support of her congregation for a second, three-year term as solo pastor. How did we arrive at that moment?
We are fourth generation Mennonite Brethren. Our daughter was raised in a Mennonite Brethren church. She graduated with a Master of Divinity degree from our Mennonite Brethren seminary in Fresno. The U.S. Conference of MB Churches (USMB) does not permit women to serve as lead or solo pastors.
Our daughter, an only child, was born after 20 years of marriage. I identified with women in the Bible who waited for a child—Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth. I had a deep sense that this child was intended for a special purpose. But she didn’t show early gifts commonly associated with leadership. She was shy. She hid behind my skirts when meeting strangers. She remained quiet among boisterous children. She didn’t do motions with gospel songs or enjoy playacting in Christmas programs.
More subtle gifts emerged—gifts of listening, sensing emotions and empathizing with others. She demonstrated an amazing ability with language. She recited the entire story of Cinderella at age 2 1/2. She used grown-up language in unique ways. In the safety of home, she asked probing questions and responded insightfully to classic literature and Bible stories.
Gradually her shyness matured into a quiet strength. She made loyal friends, sang in a community children’s choir, performed piano solos and earned academic honors. She chose to attend a Mennonite college miles from the security of home.
Exploring the options, testing her interests
What would she do with her life? Her dad encouraged her to take practical courses—accounting, computer science. I encouraged her to explore a career in library science. Her interests drew her toward a history major with an Anabaptist studies minor.
During the summer of her junior year, our church invited her to serve as an intern. She would organize events, make pastoral visits and preach one sermon. As the summer passed, people began sharing things about our daughter: “She has such a sense of what needs to be done.” “Her visits mean so much to me.”
As the Sunday of her sermon approached, she appeared calmer than either her dad or I. She didn’t want our help. We heard her practicing in her room. During the actual sermon delivery, I was mesmerized. She had an engaging and sincere presence. Her message was biblically based, thought provoking and challenging. Was it just me? At the end of the service, affirming members of the congregation surrounded her.
But after college, the question remained: What would she do with her life? She applied for an office job and an archive position with Mennonite Central Committee. Neither materialized. She was accepted to graduate school in library science but wasn’t drawn toward the program of study. She began teaching piano lessons and assisting an elderly couple in their home.
Gaining experience, affirmed gifts
To explore other possibilities, she enrolled in a course at our nearby MB Biblical Seminary, now Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. The course ignited her passion for biblical study and ministry. She applied to the seminary as a fulltime student in its master of divinity program. I worried about where the program would lead. I knew USMB limited women to supporting pastoral roles. She didn’t demonstrate the bubbly charisma of a children’s pastor or the casual style of a youth pastor.
While studying at the seminary, people witnessed and affirmed her gifts as she gained experience. She preached for vacationing pastors at local churches and occasionally led worship and preached for our home congregation. She completed a supervised ministry requirement with a church in a nearby community. The church was so appreciative of her gifts that it created a position for her as part-time chaplain at its retirement center.
After completing her master of divinity degree, she looked for a full-time ministry position. Facing limited options in USMB churches, she filled out an online questionnaire and posted her resume with Mennonite Church USA. She received calls from district ministers, then a series of interviews with a search committee. The interviews were followed by an invitation to candidate for a position as solo pastor of a Mennonite church in Kansas. In January of 2012, she accepted the church’s call to be its pastor. The following May we delivered her to her new church
Do we believe God prepared our daughter for her role? Yes—from the development of her gifts to the unfolding of her life. We are witnesses to a union between God’s provision for leadership and congregational needs. In the words of her congregation: “She is God’s gift to us.” “She is wise and mature beyond her years.” “We look forward to every sermon.”
Where are the dormant gifts?
USMB churches send girls to Ministry Quest, prepare women in our seminaries, bless women for international ministry and employ women in supporting church roles. Mennonite Brethren conferences in Canada, Africa, India and South America permit women to serve as solo pastors. Why do we as USMB churches close ourselves off to the possibility of a woman serving as a solo or lead pastor?
Our daughter did not force herself into the hearts of her congregation. Her church simply recognized her gifts as fitting its needs. What gifts lie dormant among women of our USMB churches? Who has left us to serve elsewhere? In the 1980s and 90s the U.S. Conference periodically addressed the role of women in the church. We have remained strangely silent since.
I am aware of interpretations of biblical passages that make male gender an absolute requirement for pastoral leadership. I am also aware of interpretations that put gender in an historical and cultural context and elevate discernment of gifts as the determining factor. I’m convinced that arguing the biblical passages won’t lead to resolution.
My experience as the mother of a pastor convinces me that we must observe the beauty of what God can do through women. I believe it is time to revisit the reality that God has gifted us with women who stand ready to serve God and the church in a full range of leadership roles, including that of solo or lead pastor.
Karen Neufeld is a professor emeritus of Fresno Pacific University. She and her husband, Lorin, are members of the College Community Church MB in Clovis, Calif. Her daughter, Laura Neufeld Goerzen, is pastor of First Mennonite Church of Christian in Moundridge, Kan. Mother and daughter are pictured in this photo by Vada Snider.
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