By Joanne Gallardo
One of the great privileges of my job as campus pastor at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) is working with student leaders who are testing their gifts in ministry. Many of these students are members of Mennonite Church USA (MC USA), and many of them are women. This isn’t surprising, given that the numbers of female students are on the rise; 61% of students at EMU are female, and many of our colleges and seminaries are seeing an increase in female enrollment.
But as the demographics of our educational institutions shift, the leadership of MC USA remains predominantly male. Mennonite Women USA reported in 2009 that female leadership in MC USA has been declining. Since then MC USA Executive Board staff have created the Women in Leadership Audit to address the possible roots of this issue.
As I work with women student leaders at a university whose mission statement desires that we “educate students to serve and lead in a global context,” I wonder, “Will MC USA have a place for our young women leaders? Is MC USA embracing what women have to offer?”
Upon graduation from seminary, I received a rude awakening when I discovered that not all congregations in MC USA are open to women in leadership. While I knew this was a reality, I had been in a college and seminary context for eight years where female leadership was visible and cultivated. I had forgotten there were other attitudes about women in leadership. Discouragement quickly set in when I realized that the role I had been studying and training for, and the vocation to which I felt called, wasn’t as available to me as it was to my male colleagues. While I am now in a position where I feel my gifts are used and appropriately challenged, I also know that this isn’t the universal experience of women leaders in many denominations.
As I work with a younger generation of women who desire to be leaders in ministry contexts, I’ve heard the following observations from various students:
- Women leaders need women mentors. This has been stated in the Women in Leadership Audit, and I have heard this echoed in my academic context. This need is particularly urgent for the millennial generation (roughly those between 18-29 years of age), who look to teachers and older coworkers as mentors, not just as the keepers of information and authority.
- The leadership of young women may not look like the leadership of the past. I am careful not to assign a particular leadership style to a specific gender or age group, but leadership changes with each generation, and this is no different for young millennial women. While this can cause tension for some, new leadership can be exciting and energizing, particularly for other millennials who are have been taught the benefits of collaboration and diversity. “Different” does not mean “less valuable.” Millennials thrive on “different.”
- Space needs to be made for young women to enter the conversation. If young women feel they do not have a voice in MC USA, they will use their gifts elsewhere. There are many reasons that young people are turning away from the church. What I hear most often from students who have left or who are thinking of leaving the church is that they feel who they are and what they have to say would not be received or even accepted. Many of the issues and viewpoints that make congregations uncomfortable do not have the same effect on millennials, who are familiar with tension and a plurality of viewpoints. If they can’t enter into the conversation in the broader church, the conversation will happen elsewhere. Given this generation’s ability to handle difference with grace and curiosity, the absence of young people, male and female, will be the church’s great loss.
With the influx of young women who are being trained to lead, MC USA has several opportunities to respond. How can the denomination provide mentorship, encouragement, and orientation for young women leaders? Can we allow leadership to possibly take a different form, and how do we make space for that? Are we listening to the young women of our denomination? If we as a denomination can respond in ways that are supportive and empowering for young women, then we will be setting the groundwork for a strong and healthy future.