For almost 20 years, the U.S. Conference of MB Churches (USMB) has followed the policy regarding women in ministry that was adopted by delegates to the 1981 General Conference convention and affirmed again in 1999. That policy says: “Resolved that women be encouraged to minister in the church in every function other than the lead pastorate. The church is to invite women to exercise leadership on conference boards, in pastoral staff positions and in our congregations, institutions and agencies. We ask women to minister as gifted, called and affirmed. We call the church to be increasingly alert to the gifts of women and to become more active in calling them to minister. We further call people in the Spirit of Christ to relate to one another in mutual respect as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
The U.S. Board of Faith and Life (BFL) has recently been considering how best to address the various opinions among U.S. Mennonite Brethren regarding credentialing women as lead pastors. In January 2018, the U.S. BFL hosted a summit that brought together district BFL members. The primary focus of the agenda was credentialing women. Christian Leader editor Connie Faber sat down with U.S. BFL chair Tim Sullivan (TS) and member-at-large Jana Hildebrandt (JH) to talk about the summit and next steps regarding credentialing women as lead pastors.
CL: Why did the U.S. BFL gather all district BFL members to discuss credentialing women as lead pastors in USMB churches?
TS: We felt it would be good to connect with district BFLs, to listen and to get their counsel for how to proceed. We also don’t know that there’s ever been a time when the district BFLs have met with the U.S. BFL. We thought it would be a great opportunity for us to affirm a working relationship and get to know one another. So, the value of gathering was broader than just this issue.
CL: Did you have specific goals related to the topic of credentialing women?
JH: There’s a broad spectrum of opinions among us on this issue. We thought it would be helpful to put faces to these various opinions, to respect each other in terms of relationship and to see each other as USMB family. I also think people forget that this isn’t the only place we disagree. So, it’s helpful for us to sit together and to figure out what it looks like to work together and to be in community even though we’re not 100 percent in agreement on every issue.
TS: One of the specific goals was that we wanted to test an option for revising the current policy to see if it would have any merit with our district BFLs. Basically, the model we proposed was the Canadian approach—that each member church makes its own decision based on that church’s understanding of Scripture, conviction and practice to call and affirm gifted men and women to serve in pastoral leadership. Twelve years ago, when the Canadians discussed and adopted this model, they hoped we would also discuss this proposal. But at that time, we were not ready to engage in this conversation.
CL: And how did the district BFL members respond to this idea?
TS: Their strong recommendation was that we not go in this direction.
JH: The first evening former seminary president Larry Martens led a Bible study from Acts about how the early church addressed their differences. Larry reminded us that differences of opinion are part of community, and community can be messy. So even though the U.S. BFL proposal wasn’t well received, we talked about it with grace.
TS: Both complementary and egalitarian viewpoints reflect core beliefs about what the Bible says about women in ministry. There are egalitarians for whom it is a core belief that women should serve as lead pastors, and they hold their view just as passionately as those who are complementarian and believe women should not be credentialed as lead pastors. And there are some in the middle that have a perspective on this, but it’s not a core conviction.
These differing opinions exist on our U.S. BFL and among members of the district BFLs. They exist among our churches, including churches in relatively close proximity to one another.
CL: Given the wide-spread disagreement, how did the summit format help to create unity?
JH: We sat at round tables. Each district BFL had time to have discussion among themselves. We also gave each district BFL time to share with the group. That allowed us to really hear each other well. I also think Larry’s Bible study was key in giving us the perspective that the apostles had to work through this kind of thing.
We also communicated very clearly that there weren’t any expected outcomes. We weren’t planning to walk away from the summit having made a decision. So that kind of took the pressure off.
We’ve been talking about women in ministry for 65 to 70 years, and we have not resolved the issue. Nobody has argued somebody else one direction or the other. No side has gained any traction. That’s a hard place to be. So, what do we do with that?
CL: Did the U.S. BFL succeed in what you set out to accomplish with the summit?
TS: Yes, we did. We got the boards together, and we had face-to-face conversations. I think people felt free to share. Each district was definitely heard. Based on comments coming back to me, people gained some understanding of others who have a different view and maybe regard each other with less suspicion now.
JH: I think there is a sense now that people want to stay in conversation because we value each other and that’s huge for me. It gives me hope that our MB family can find our way through this in a way that honors Christ and preserves our relationships with each other.
CL: So, what’s next in this conversation?
TS: While the U.S. BFL does have the authority to make policy, the decision about credentialing women for lead pastoral ministry came out of a resolution at the General Conference level that we affirmed and have carried forward as our policy. We (U.S. BFL) don’t feel like we have the authority to change this without taking it back to the churches. Since the summit, the U.S. BFL has been talking about holding a study conference in 2019 on women in leadership, and we will announce details once we’ve done a bit more planning.
JH: At the end of the summit, there were some district BFL members who realized that we aren’t always in compliance with the policy we currently have, and some are wanting to better lean into the current policy. So, there’s room for growth in seeing women involved in local church leadership as well as in district and national positions.
TS: The U.S. BFL does support the current policy about women in ministry, but the U.S. BFL can’t mandate to district boards and to USMB churches what they do. The current resolution doesn’t fully satisfy either complementarians or egalitarians. It’s a compromise because we haven’t been able to agree on what Scripture says.
JH: I really think the discussion needs to be more around how we graciously walk through disagreement. And do that in a Christ-like way, with grace and love. Can we disagree on this and still call each other family? Or will this issue be something that separates us?
TS: Jana frequently uses the word “relationship.” It’s a keyword for us as Mennonite Brethren, and it’s going to continue to be a keyword for us in terms of how we stay together as a denomination going forward.
The complementarian view is that God restricts women from serving in church leadership roles and instead calls women to serve in equally important but complementary roles. The complementarian view believes in the essential equality of men and women as human beings created in God’s image, but complementarians hold to gender distinctions when it comes to functional roles in society, the church and the home.
The egalitarian view is that there is no biblical gender-based restrictions and that since we are all one in Christ, women and men are equal when it comes to functional roles in leadership and in the household. The egalitarian view holds that all people are equal before God and in Christ, have equal responsibility to use their gifts and obey their calling to the glory of God and are called to roles and ministries without regard to gender, class or race.