Tending and Befriending for 100 years!

This article was originally published in June 2017 for The Mennonite

For 100 years, Mennonite women have gathered to connect. As a result, service, prayer, study, nurture and mission materialized. At the heart of it all, friendships thrived. And naturally, women bore fruit, enlarged their circles and developed sisterhoods.

Author Brene’ Brown, offers this description of this experience of connection:

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they are seen, when they feel heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

This definition resonates with Christian friendship, compassion, love, and the relationship of vine and the branches, our theme verse from John 15:5. Among Mennonite women, these connections really do happen through friendship.

A landmark study from UCLA suggests that not only are friendships between women special, they literally shape who we are and who we are yet to be. Women friendships soothe our tumultuous inner world, fill the emotional gaps in our marriage, and help us remember who we really are. But wait, there is more!

Scientists now believe that hanging out with our women friends can actually counteract the kind of stomach-quivering stress most of us experience on a daily basis. Women respond to stress with a cascade of brain chemicals that cause us to make and maintain friendships with other women. It’s a stunning find that has turned five decades of stress research–90% of it on men–upside down.

Researchers suspect that women have a larger behavioral repertoire than just fight or flight. “In fact,” says Dr. Laura Cousin Klein, Ph.D., “It seems that when the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress responses in a woman, it buffers the fight or flight response and encourages her to tend children and gather with other women instead. When she actually engages in this tending or befriending, studies suggest that more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect. Men lack this calming response because when under stress they produce testosterone, which reduces the effects of oxytocin. Estrogen seems to enhance it.”

The discovery that women respond to stress differently than men was made in an “aha” moment shared by two women scientists who were talking one day in a lab at UCLA. They joked that when the women who worked in the lab were stressed, they cleaned the lab, drank coffee together, and bonded. “But,” offers Dr. Klein, “When the men were stressed, they holed up somewhere individually.”

I say, let women show the world a third way, a new way, a tending and be-friending way!

Friends help us live longer and better. When researchers looked at how well the women functioned after the death of their spouse, they found that even in the face of this biggest stressor of all, women who had a close friend and confidante were more likely to survive the experience without any new physical impairments or permanent loss of vitality. Those without friends were not always so fortunate.

So, do I have you convinced?

It’s not always easy. Depending on our personal circumstances and our decade of life, friendships come and go, strengthen or dwindle. Many women today will not be connecting with friends for life in a women’s church gathering, but in a running club, their career or via social media.

So what of the future for Mennonite Women USA?

I believe our future depends on our friendships. Women’s friendships can become the fertile ground where relationship with God is deepened, compassionate listening is modeled and personal empowerment happens. For many, friendships develop through an intentionally invitational stance.   Sometimes, but rarely, is it serendipitous.

How shall we tend and befriend?

Here is a start:

·      Invite a woman from a different decade of life for an informal meet-up, a hike, coffee, art or history event.

·      Develop skills of deep and respectful listening.

·      Collaborate with each other on a service project that moves you from acquaintance to friendship.

·      Demonstrate care and reliability with each other. This builds trust.

·      Accept and appreciate each other’s unique gifts.

·      Celebrate the milestones of each other’s lives.

·      Honor differences of perspective and mutually value each other.

·      Offer to be a mentor, or seek one.

·      Include younger women in leadership in your church.

·      Expand your circles by connecting with someone new.

Mennonite Women USA has chosen Fruit from the Vine as the theme for our 100 year anniversary. As we celebrate these many decades of faithfulness and connection to Christ and each other, let’s continue to do what women do best – tend and befriend. We are literally hard-wired for friendship.

 

Marlene Harder Bogard is the executive director of Mennonite Women USA. She lives in Salem, Oregon and attends Salem Mennonite Church.

2 thoughts on “Tending and Befriending for 100 years!

  1. Carolyn Heggen on said:

    Thank you, Marlene, for reminding us of the importance and healing power of women’s friendships and connections. The stories shared in Sister Care gatherings around the world certainly confirm the life-giving role of caring friends in women’s lives.

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