By Joanna Shenk
Cyneatha Millsaps is lead pastor at Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Illinois. She is a graduate of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and grew up in south central Elkhart. I was interested in talking with Cyneatha since I knew a little bit about her leadership of a decidedly diverse Mennonite church. I wondered what it was like for her as a woman and person of color to navigate her role in Markham and within the Mennonite church more broadly.
Do you have a pastoral team at Markham? What is the church like?
At first we had pastoral team of three—Chuck and Bonnie Neufeld and myself. Then Chuck was called into conference ministry (Illinois Conference). He’s emeritus pastor now. Bonnie and I handle the day to day. Bonnie is half time and I’m full time.
The church is diverse—black and white, half older than 60s and half younger than 40, many with undergraduate or higher academic degrees and some without even a high school diploma. This makes it interesting and challenging. And with all of that diversity, an African American female is hard to swallow as a leader. The younger generation is fine, but the older generation struggles—both white and black.
In the past, female pastors came along side of their husbands as co-pastors, or at least the couple was viewed as a pastoral team. Most people would deny it is a problem to have a female pastor, but I can tell it is a struggle.
Joanna: What challenges do you face in your role?
Cyneatha: The biggest challenge must be kept in context that this is the first church I’ve pastored, I recently graduated from seminary and I’m forty years old. Being a person of color and a first time pastor at Community Mennonite Church (CMC), there was no precedent for someone like me. I’m not what many people expect a Mennonite pastor to be. Yes, I went to a Mennonite seminary, but I didn’t grow up in a Mennonite family.
I think that some of these things are issues for younger women across the board. Race makes it that much more difficult.
How are you supported in your leadership?
I am blessed, even though the church is challenged daily. The church is used to being challenged, which makes it easier. The people who are unable to handle it, leave. People choose CMC because of the challenge and blessing of diversity. This is part of who we are. We will be challenged; we have been for a long time.
I am encouraged by what I learn from other people. The learning goes both ways and helps all of us to see God in new ways.
In terms of encountering challenges, what posture do you have toward them?
We learn in the midst of adversity. For example, just because I’ve always done something in a certain way, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right way. Where am I meeting God if I’ve always done things the same way? If I’m uncomfortable, then I’ll grow.
I encourage all churches to ask themselves: “Are we doing the same things we’ve always done? Are we attracting the same kind of people? What is it about us that doesn’t attract other kinds of people?”
How do you foster community and identity amidst diversity?
What attracts people is how they are welcomed. When people come to Markham, they are welcomed just as they are. Whether they’re new or have been here for years. People are not pushed to be a certain kind of person—whether they’re poor or wealthy, young or old, white or black.
People are amazed by the diversity at our church. People keep coming just to see that it’s real.
Given the diversity, what is Sunday morning like?
Music is a challenge and will be for a while. We’ve been working at that a lot. Right now we sing hymns, which is a challenge especially for African Americans. Even if they grew up singing out a hymnal too, there was improvisation and the four-part harmony (if any) came naturally. Sometimes we use recordings to introduce other kinds of music.
The best part of Sunday morning is the sharing and prayer time. People have the freedom to share what God has done for them that week—whatever the case may be! We close the sharing with pray and it’s the same—everyone is invited to share. There’s a safety that happens in that space. This takes the most time of any part of the service. It’s what makes us community. It’s personal and it’s raw.
This is the only church I’ve been in where I’ve seen people walking together in this way. Usually people don’t share with the whole church. But here people lay their lives out. That’s what makes it work, in spite of the all the challenges.
And there are a lot of disagreements because we see things so differently. But we’re committed to talking through the challenges. Military is one area of disagreement—we have people both who have served and people who are peace activists.
Since we have relationships with each other, even when another person challenges us, we have an understanding of where that comes from—we understand the larger context of each other’s stories.
In closing, what exhortation do you have to share with Mennonite Church USA?
I’m glad the church is calling for ‘intercultural transformation.’ Along these lines, I would call for white, ethnic Mennonites to form relationships with the other—whether it’s someone who’s poor or of a different race and culture. Not just individuals, but churches need to do this.
Someone once asked me how to do this. It’s as simple as visiting a completely different church. Or, at work, eat lunch with someone different from you. Or, hang out at a local bar (they do sell non-alcoholic beverages). Or, join a bowling league. To engage the other you must move outside your comfort zone.
Churches can invite pulpit exchanges with other local churches. They can invite another church to celebrate the holidays together or share in a neighborhood festival—engaging the traditions of both congregations.
Often, churches who want diversity seek diverse leadership but find they’re not ready for it. They don’t understand the other cultures and backgrounds well enough. CMC had been working on diversity for many years. Prior to my coming they worked really hard to get to know the other and encouraged diverse leadership from within.
For example, I grew up around Mennonites in south central Elkhart, so ethnic Mennonites were comfortable with that. But they also got an African American woman and teenage-mother and someone who grew up poor. Some still struggle with understanding those parts of my identity.
People need to move in order to get to know the other. Don’t go trying to change them. See who they are and why they believe what they believe.
And sometimes you need to keep your mouth shut. You don’t have to give your opinion all the time. Watch and learn… and listen, even more so when you don’t agree.
In sharing all this I have great hope for the Mennonite church and for the power of God to continue to move in our midst. I look forward to what the Spirit has in store for us as we continue to grow through the challenges we face!
Each month this column of Equipping features input from a woman leader in Mennonite Church USA. The column is an initiative of the Women in Leadership Audit. If you would like to learn more about the Audit or get involved, please contact Joanna Shenk at firstname.lastname@example.org