Women in Ministry Leadership: The Journey of the Mennonite Brethren, 1954-2010

Sherri Guenther Trautwein

The Conrad Grebel Review 38, no. 2 (2020)

Douglas J. Heidebrecht. Women in Ministry Leadership: The Journey of the Mennonite Brethren, 1954-2010. Winnipeg, MB: Kindred Productions, 2019.

This volume documents the story of one denominational family and the shifting landscape of discussion and debate that took place concerning womens roles within that church. Author Douglas Heidebrecht draws on a wide range of written source material including minutes, publications, and personal correspondence as he surveys 50-plus years of Mennonite Brethren  study  conferences  and  conventions,  resource  material,  and resolutions. Along the way, he attends to a diversity of constituent voices, highlighting the breadth of the conversation and reconstructing the story of a faith community struggling to discern their belief and practice around this issue. The result is a well-researched history that provides not only the debates  and  decisions  surrounding  women  in  church  leadership  within the MB denomination, but also an analysis of deeper questions related to hermeneutics, cultural context, and the practice of community discernment. Heidebrecht  divides  his  account  into  seven  chapters.  Chapter  1, Introducing the Conversation on Women in Ministry Leadership,” situates the question of women in ministry leadership within the broader history of the North American Mennonite Brethren. Chapter 2, Emerging Mennonite Brethren Conversations (1878-1879; 1954-1973),notes early discussions around the inclusion of women in the life of the church, highlights the emergence of womens voices on the question of womens roles through columns in denominational publications in the 1960s, and relates the addition of some mens voices in the early 1970s. In chapter 3, Challenging Mennonite Brethren Tradition (1971-1980),” the author reviews the contrasting responses by MB leadership in the United States and Canada to this issue: the former limiting the conversation in favor of maintaining the status quo, the latter unable to resist responding to a growing diversity of views and practices among its constituency.

Chapter 4, Discerning Mennonite Brethren Belief and Practice (1978-1987),surveys a critical juncture in debate and decision-making for both the Canadian and American contexts. It recounts the events of a 1980 study conference (Current Issues in Church Leadership), a benchmark resolution at the 1981 General Conference that affirmed women could exercise their gifts in the church but maintained that ordination to pastoral leadership was not permitted, and later attempts to clarify ambiguities of the 1981 resolution. Chapter 5, Unraveling Consensus Challenges Mennonite Brethren (1988-1993),” describes the deepening divides that were forming in the wake of the 1981 resolution and the increasing inability of MBs to reach a consensus view.

In chapter 6, Conflicting Convictions among Mennonite Brethren (1992-2002),” the author details a decade that saw conference leadership attempt, and fail, to move the conversation out of the realm of biblical faithfulness into the realm of polity—a shift that would allow congregations to discern practice at a local level and preserve the unity of the whole—and the decision to dissolve the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren. Chapter 7, “Seeking Consensus as Canadian Mennonite Brethren (2001- 2010),turns attention to changes within the Canadian conference following the dissolution of the General Conference. A shift towards a missional understanding of womens leadership roles, allowing churches to affirm women in whatever position was beneficial within their context, including lead pastor, culminated in the passing of a 2006 resolution that freed churches to exercise their own discernment around this issue.

As Heidebrecht brings the book to a conclusion, he identifies three threads” that were central to the debate throughout: “1) the need to look at Scriptures in response to questions regarding women in church leadership,

  1. the attempt to live faithfully in the midst of prevailing cultural forces, and
  2. the practice of discerning together as a community what the Bible says” (298). These threads sum up the testimony and the tensions of the MB story.

This book illuminates the backdrop to the current MB landscape in both Canada and the United States. In Canada, some people rejoice in the changes that have come with years of study and discernment, some question the faithfulness of the church in opening leadership positions to women, and others continue to suffer from the wounds inflicted through this difficult, and at times dehumanizing, debate. In the United States, a recent revival of the conversation in 2019 has led to a reaffirmation in 2020 of the resolution that prohibits women from serving as lead pastors.

Through his history and analysis, Heidebrecht offers both a guidebook and a cautionary tale for communities who endeavor to study, learn, and apply Scripture together. The Christian church—MB churches and other denominations as well—continues to face apparent incongruities between the voice of Scripture and the values of culture. How will we read and learn togeether? How will we respect and honor those who find themselves at the center of our questions and our debate? This book calls communities of faith to consider what forms us and what informs our readings of the Bible, of culture, and of one another.

Sherri Guenther Trautwein, Pastor, Lendrum Mennonite Church, Edmonton, Alberta; Ph.D. Candidate, Theology, Wycliffe College, Toronto, Ontario.