At Their Best :: Women Collaborating

report by Ruth Lapp Guengerich

The story of five sisters pleading their case to Moses for inheriting land, as recorded in Numbers 27, vividly set the stage for a meeting of 11 women (see the list of these women at the end of this document) on November 21, 2013, in Lancaster, PA. Linda Gehman Peachey, author of Courageous Women of the Bible, referred to her own research and writing to lay out a process for us to discuss the roles, responsibilities, and goals of two organizations, Mennonite Women USA (MW USA) and the Women in Leadership Project (WLP).

No doubt each person had some anxiety about how this meeting would progress. Certainly each woman had some vision for her hoped-for outcome of this meeting. Some months earlier Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, moderator of Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) had invited several of us to meet with her to talk about the future of these two groups. She was remembering the meeting in 2009 at Camp Amigo, where MW USA had invited several women church leaders to participate in a strategic planning day, to make certain that MW USA was headed in a direction that would continue to maintain the stability and viability of the organization.

During that day of strategic planning concerns were expressed about the loss of numbers of women in leadership within the MC USA. It was an intuitive sense we had, but we did not have numbers to support that intuition. We united in agreeing that a request should go to MC USA requesting that someone explore the reasons why there were not as many women in leadership positions as there had been in the previous 10-20 years. There was some resistance to this statement, and comments were made that women turn down invitations to serve in positions of leadership.

Joanna Shenk, associate for interchurch relations and communications, was instructed to conduct an audit of women across the church to determine why they have declined invitations to serve in top level administrative positions. Joanna’s research uncovered systemic sexism that was affecting women’s ability to accept and function in top level leadership positions.

Joanna continued providing leadership for Women in Leadership and was given assistance when Hilary Scarsella was appointed to a ¼ time staff position for Women in Leadership. Together Joanna and Hilary have continued to guide a steering committee in this work. To read more specifics about the work and progress of the WLP check out their brochure and other information.

In the fall of 2013, when the WLP advertised a conference for women doing theology “All you Need is Love,” some persons became concerned that WLP is in direct competition with MW USA, especially since Women in Conversation retreats, which occur bi-ennially, will take place in the two months following the “All you Need is Love” conference. Others responded that it was wonderful that MW USA was sponsoring this conference.

Because of this confusion, it was timely that MW USA and WLP respond to Elizabeth’s suggestion for a conversation to clarify our roles and relationships. Hence 11 women met in Lancaster, PA to explore our common concerns, and the differences in our purposes as groups. (Three women participated via Skype or telephone.) As we went around the table expressing our hoped-for outcomes of the day, it was clear that we had a common agenda – to collaborate, and not compete. WLP has clearly stated its mission is to “name and transform sexism in the church”; MW USA’s mission is to “empower women and women’s groups to nurture their life in Christ through Bible study, using our gifts, hearing each other, and engaging in mission and service.”

These two are not necessarily the same, but we agreed we are focused on the same desire, to empower women, to provide opportunities for leadership, to train leaders, and to assist in uniting women across the church. Rhoda Keener clarified that for MW USA, our purpose is to “connect globally, provide resources, and to speak prophetically” about issues that touch women locally and globally.

Through a process of “appreciative inquiry” we paired off as twosomes, to affirm the strengths of the two organizations, to talk about the challenges we are facing, and to express our dreams (in the form of headlines) for the two organizations five years from now. We combined all our responses, posting them on the wall to visualize our values, challenges, and hoped-for headlines.

Our values included such things as:

  • facilitating the involvement of more women, especially younger women, in leadership positions
  • sharing our stories and finding healing from experiences of sexism, racism, domestic violence, sexual abuse and patriarchy
  • providing leadership opportunities for younger women in the church
  • connecting God’s call to meet the needs of women, both nationally and globally

Common themes of challenges for each group were identified as well:

  • the need for continued staff time, funding and funding sources
  • keeping the issues of women in leadership forefront for the entire church
  • acknowledging the complexities of women’s experiences with regard to race, class, etc.
  • addresses resistance, especially to exploring the meaning of sexism and patriarchy, among men and women.

We also explored our dreams for the future, in the form of headlines. We boldly dreamt aloud about attaining endowments, appointment of women to significant leadership positions in MC USA, and the practical needs of leadership training, involvement of women in the diverse women’s groups across the church, non-defensive engagement with sexism.

Our dreams are important. Our futuristic headlines demonstrate that women of the MC USA have big dreams, but they are not impossible dreams. We claim and honor the work of our “foremothers” who have blazed through difficult terrain to create spaces that allow for women’s involvement in the church today. Yet there is much more to be accomplished.

As we concluded our time together MW USA staff announced that their board of directors has agreed to provide funding as co-sponsors of the “All You Need is Love” conference at Leesburg, VA in February. The group gathered affirmed the consulting Hilary, Joanna and Ruth have been doing should continue, to keep each other informed, to provide each other with counsel and feedback, and to continue to explore next steps.

Ruth Lapp Guengerich, co-director for MW USA, Hilary Scarsella and Joanna Shenk, co-coordinators for WLP will continue to meet regularly to share about our work, to keep each other informed, and to receive input when appropriate, and to continue exploring next steps. The two groups agreed to work at representation at the other’s board or steering group meetings, to work on documenting stories of sexism and racism, to better understand the systemic issues women have experienced for many years, and to explore new models for resourcing women.

With Mennonite World Conference scheduled in Harrisburg, PA in 2015, we explored possible ways to work together with women theologians from around the world. It was noted that women theologians are more organized in other parts of the world, so more work needs to be done with regard to providing leadership for the women theologians in North America.

MW USA offered space in an expanded Timbrel for WLP to provide updates on their work, or other information of interest to the readership. WLP encouraged MW USA staff to provide information for the WLP blog.

And finally, together we voiced our desire that men also address the issues and experiences of sexism and patriarchy. As women we cannot handle these issues alone. We reflected on how those conversations can happen, noted that we cannot make those conversations happen, but longed for men and women to be in conversation together, and men to reflect in men’s groups, about how their privilege has affected women.

At the end of four hours of sharing, dreaming, visioning, collaborating, we were all tired but also inspired. This was hard work and good work. We were women focused on common themes and agenda. Iris’ closing quotation expressed our ongoing intentions:

“If you divide and conquer, you maintain power; by coming to the table, we are overcoming that.”

WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP representatives
Joanna Shenk
Hilary Scarsella
Linda Gehman Peachey

MENNONITE WOMEN USA representatives
Ruth Lapp Guengerich, staff
Rhoda Keener, staff
Rhoda Charles, board chair
Twila King Yoder, board member
Beth Martin Birkey, board member

MC USA representatives
Marty Lehman
Iris deLeon Hartshorn
Elizabeth Soto Albrecht

FACILITATOR
Lisa Landis, Lancaster Mennonite School

4 thoughts on “At Their Best :: Women Collaborating

  1. Patricia Hershberger on said:

    I appreciate this report, and this conversation as I’ve found these same questions within my own mind. I support and affirm the collaboration of ongoing conversation and efforts regarding women and their ministry within MC USA.

  2. Thanks for your affirmation, Patricia. We need to continue to find ways to work together. I believe we are headed in the same direction, with complementary agenda. Will we see you at the Leesburg conference, or at Women in Conversation? Peace, Ruth

  3. Jean,, we are grateful for your support and encouragement. “Arduous and celebratory” are good descriptive words for this journey. “Miraculous” is another word, in my estimation, that describes how God is working among women of MC USA. We truly feel blessed by the way things are developing.

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