History of General Conference Mennonite Church Women’s Organization
Women Responding to Needs
Prepared in 2008 by Jeannie Zehr, former Window to Mission editor
Women responding to needs has been a strong theme behind the life of General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC) women through the years. They naturally banded together to learn, share and respond to calls for material aid and prayers, even in the 1880s. The first GCMC mission group formed at Donnelson, Iowa, with one purpose being to provide linens for the Wadsworth Seminary in Ohio, the first GCMC institution for higher education (Goering, Women). Other women’s mission groups continued to emerge in response to needs.
By 1917’s GCMC triennial conference in Reedley, California, women felt a need to bring the various mission and sewing societies of the conference churches into closer touch with GCMC missionaries. During that conference three women—Susannah Haury, Martha Goerz and Anna Isaac—sat in a parked car on the Reedley church grounds birthing this new Women’s Missionary Association (WMA). Even though the organization was not officially recognized by the GCMC, the women persisted in finding the names and locations of all 67 societies, and writing to all the GCMC missionaries about their needs which women’s groups could supply (Goering, Women). By the early 1920s GCMC missions received 27,000 garments sewn by local North American groups. Often as the women sewed, letters from missionaries were read aloud. Deep bonds developed between sewing societies and people on the mission fields (Goering, “1986”).
Most women did not have personal money since few worked outside the home, so it was suggested that they “share their Sunday egg money for the Lord’s cause” to support their societies’ mission projects. Mission sales, dinners and homemade items became a creative source of income (Goering, Women).
Women didn’t travel much, so early WMA decision making was done by letter writing, “round robin” style. Missionary letters were also circulated from group to group (Goering, Women).
In 1926 Missionary News & Notes, a monthly letter sharing missionary information and asking for prayers and contributions was printed in German and English, and edited by Susie Schroeder, the WMA secretary. The publication was financed by selling metal buttons that were used on the clothing the groups sewed for India. The editor was also in charge of the sale of buttons! For the next 40-plus years, Missionary News & Notes was the main source for mission information for GCMC readers, female and male (Goering, “1986”). In 1965 Missionary News & Notes was changed into a more family-oriented publication called Missions Today. In 1973, the mission board decided to print its own paper about the various mission fields, so Missions Today was no longer produced by WMA (Goering, Women).
Between 1923-1930 over 20,000 Russian Mennonites migrated to Canada, bringing need for financial help, food, clothing and employment. Mission societies throughout North America responded to these needs. In the years to follow, WMA women contributed 2 cents per week to the Missionary Pension Fund (later called the Missionary Supplemental Retirement Fund), helped ready Civilian Public Service camps in response to World War II, were involved with migrant work, and continued to meet the needs shared by missionaries overseas and in North America (Goering, Women; Goering, “1986”).
A constitution and bylaws were written in 1929 setting 6-year terms for officers, WMA meetings to be held every three years at the triennial conferences, and all women’s societies to be assessed 10 cents per member to help fund the work and expenses of WMA (Voran).
During the 1940s-1950s, the “golden era” for the GCMC women’s organization, 55-57 percent of all women and girls between the ages of 12 and 65 years in congregations belonged to mission societies, with memberships of small churches being 100 percent. In 1947 WMA acquired an office and hired its first employee, Eleanor Camp, who was designated as treasurer, but provided the functions of an executive secretary (Goering, Women).
Almost from the start, the women struggled to be recognized and blessed by the GCMC structures and leadership. Gaining recognition by the mission board and other arms of the church was slow to come. Finally in the 1960s and 1970s, as changes in women’s roles across North America became more commonplace, things changed in the GCMC as well (Goering, Women).
In 1973 WMA was instrumental in promoting and calling for a consultation on the role of women held at Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. Leaders from each of the GCMC commissions (boards), seminary, WMA, and some at large were chosen for these intense discussions. Frustration, joy and hope marked the sessions, but a beginning was formed. WMA began to move into the mainstream of the GCMC after asking for cooperation with the conference and closer ties with the commissions (Goering, Women).
Recommendations coming to WMA out of the consultation included changing the organization’s name to better describe women of that day; the women’s organization along with the Commission on Education (COE) and Commission on Home Ministries (CHM) hiring a staff person for three years to work on the issue of women in the church; and asking the General Board to allow the women’s organization to have one voting member on each commission (Goering, Women). To gain this representation on commissions, WMA spoke out boldly on behalf of its 10,692 members, saying that being part of the commissions would be a way to learn more about the conference, be better informed about its total program, and be better equipped to communicate about it (Regier, 31 March 1987).
Following up the consultation recommendations, in 1974 WMA changed its name to Women in Mission (WM) with the purpose being “to help women become involved effectively in the mission of the church and to develop and use the diversity of women’s talents.” The emphasis expanded from sewing for missions to include support of missionary, relief and educational projects (Loewen and Unrau). WM now had an Advisory Council composed of the president, Canadian and US vice presidents, secretary, chairperson of the Literature Committee, and district and provincial advisors and presidents. Paid part-time staff included coordinator, office secretary, and editor. A woman was appointed from the WM executive council as a voting member to serve on each GCMC commission and the seminary board. Herta Funk was hired part-time by WM, COE and CHM to work on the issue of women in the church (Goering, Women).
Part of the new face of Women in Mission included a new logo that was selected through a logo design contest won by a young woman, Cindy Stucky.
“The dove symbolizes woman’s desire for peace and our efforts to achieve it. The separation of the cross and circle (in the biological symbol for woman) pictures our new liberation from old bonds―a freedom to make use of our individual abilities. The circular portion of the symbol for woman encircling the globe is woman’s encompassing love and concern for people. In the center of all is the cross representing God’s guidance in our lives and work. -Cindy Stucky, logo designer (Goering, Women)
Women in Mission’s new magazine, Window to Mission, made its debut as a quarterly publication in 1974. The magazine included information and a study guide. Two pages provided contact among GCMC women’s groups, but most content was for the larger church. Window to Mission was distributed to 16,000 households as an insert in the GCMC magazine, The Mennonite (Goering, Women). In 1977 the magazine became a bi-monthly publication (Window).
Another new responsibility for Women in Mission came when the WM Coordinator was invited to join the GCMC Staff Council composed of the Executive Secretaries of each of the commissions and GCMC General Secretary. This council met frequently as part of the GCMC Newton office staff and served as a coordinating place for work among the various entities and larger GCMC (Window).
During the 1970s Women in Mission’s budget grew and by 1979 the organization supported the Commission on Oversea Mission with $100,000, Commission on Home Ministries with $30,000, Commission on Education with $11,000, and Mennonite Biblical Seminary with $8,000. The 1978 budget was actually met and exceeded with 115.7 percent (WM Minutes 5 February 1979). The 1970s also saw new involvements in a variety of kinds of missions:
Decrease in sewing assignments, with groups picking up sewing-type projects for area Mennonite Central Committee relief sales.
Financial support of the first All-India Mennonite Women’s Conference. Two WM representatives also participated in this 1977 gathering of 200 women.
A meeting called to discuss women in church vocations and how WM could be supportive. A “mission to themselves.”
Inviting, hosting and paying for the North American expenses of the 24-voice Taiwan Women’s Choir that performed at the Mennonite World Conference in Wichita, then presented concerts in five provinces and eight states (Goering, Women).
First WM representative to the Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission board (WM Minutes 8 February 1980).
Establishment of a Women’s World Outreach budget line to financially assist in the education and professional training of women from other countries (Goering, Women).
In the 1980s Women in Mission helped produce Peace Kits which were made available on loan to churches. WM also made a three-year commitment to give the Commission on Education $15,000 per year toward the hiring of a full-time worker in children’s education, and also contributed toward the Marriage Encounter program, and co-sponsored with COE and the Commission on Home Ministries the production of the video, “Building Shalom Families” (Goering, “1986”). WM continued strong support of overseas mission, but kept broadening its focus to help with North American projects One large cooperative project by WM and all three GCMC commissions over about a ten-year period was publication of the “Neighbors Near & Far” children’s curriculum series. Each packet contained 17 sessions accompanied by resource kits available on loan. Topics in the “Neighbors Near & Far” series included: Hispanic North America and Latin America; Asians in Asia and North America; Africans and Black Americans; Native Peoples in North America; and Mennonites of European Descent.
Another special event for WM was the 1987 Learning Tour to South America. Each U.S. area conference and Canadian provincial conference women’s organization sent one representative. In teams of two, the women spent 2-3 weeks in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay or Uruguay. This experience broadened understanding of South American mission and the lives of Mennonites and others in those countries. Later in this decade, WM also responded to current issues such as domestic abuse and the misuse of power in homes and churches (Regier, Interview). By 1987, 13 years after WMA asked for representation on commissions, there were women serving on all the commissions, not just the WM representatives. Women served as chairpersons of some commissions. One commission had a woman Executive Secretary, and the GCMC had a woman president!(Regier, 31 March 1987). Sara Regier, WM Coordinator in the late half of the 1980s, referred to WM as “the big toe that keeps the General Conference from limping (20 January 1987).
In many respects WMA/Women in Mission of the 1970s served as a midwife for women to truly be born into the church in a more equal and empowered way. Another result of this birthing was that as women gained more roles in the broader church, many untied themselves from the women’s
organization’s apron strings (Regier, 20 January 1987). By the late 1980s WM membership at the local, district/province, and GCMC level was declining. The membership that remained was aging. Women’s roles were changing. So, in 1988-89, Women in Mission underwent a self-evaluation and goal setting process. It was an exciting and uncertain time. Many women valued WM for the fellowship and support it provided and the opportunities it provided for service locally and abroad, but not as many younger women were becoming part of the groups. Some felt WM didn’t speak to the real issues women faced. There was a feeling of need for the training of strong, confident leaders (Mennonite; Widening).
A new mission statement was written in 1989 coming out of this time of self-evaluation. WM committed itself to promoting spiritual growth, discerning and nurturing women’s gifts and skills for leadership and service, building relationships and networks, and supporting and strengthening the mission of the GCMC (Widening).
Eight GCMC Women in Mission and Mennonite Church Women’s Missionary & Service Commission
women together attended the 1988 Yokefellow Institute Workshop titled, ”What’s Ahead for the Women’s Organization?” This was the beginning of joint meetings to discuss joint initiatives and also plan a joint rally for the Normal ’89 conference/convention. The women agreed to give priority to bringing people together, joint leadership training, and working toward eventual joint devotional and program materials Regier 1988 Report).
By the early 1990s Women in Mission leadership reflected on the 1988-89 evaluation results, and decided to choose to affirm women’s groups as profoundly valuable expressions of faith and mission for many women. “They acknowledged that WM didn’t speak to or for all women, but gave invaluable and unduplicated opportunity within the church to be encouraged spiritually and to respond in support and active mission”(Jantzen). They chose to value and resource the local women’s groups.
The women of the General Conference and Mennonite Church led the way toward integration of the two denominations by coming together in 1997 as Mennonite Women. Out in the lead, they assumed the two denominations would come together as one bi-national body. As denominational integration came closer to reality in the early 2000s, Mennonite Church Canada decided to become a separate entity from the U.S. groups, so Canadian Women in Mission decided to go with that proposed structure, and moved to separate structurally from the integrated Mennonite Women organization. Separation was difficult, but the Canadian and U.S. women’s organizations agreed to share production of an annual Bible study guide, and production of Timbrel, the new women’s magazine (Jantzen; Hockman-Wert)).
Goering, Gladys. “1986 Women in Mission” Report to Saskatoon Triennial Conference.
Goering, Gladys. Women in Search of Mission A History of the General Conference Mennonite Women’s Organization. Newton, KS.: Faith and Life Press, 1980.
Hockman-Wert, Cathleen. Canadian Mennonite, Vol. 6, No. 7. 11 April 2002.
Jantzen, Susan. Interview, reflecting on her years with Mennonite Women, September 2008.
The Mennonite. 11 April 1989.
Regier, Sara. Interview, reflecting on her years with Mennonite Women, September 2008.
Regier, Sara, Mennonite Women Coordinator. Report, 1988.
Regier, Sara, Mennonite Women Coordinator. Speech to Bethel College Church Women. 20 January 1987.
Regier, Sara, Mennonite Women Coordinator. Speech to Hutchinson Faithful Workers, First Mennonite Church, Hutchinson, KS, 31 March 1987.
Loewen, Edith C. and Ruth Unrau. “Women in Mission (General Conference Mennonite Church).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Retrieved 02 October 2008 <http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/W652.html>
Voran, Elizabeth, secretary. “Women’s Missionary Association.” GCMC Files. North Newton, KS: Mennonite Library and Archives.
Widening the Circle. Brochure of Women in Mission, late 1980s.
Window to Mission. Magazine of Women in Mission.
Women in Mission Advisory Council Minutes, 5 February 1979.
Women in Mission Advisory Council Minutes, 8 February 1980.