Last fall, ignited by curiosity about what we would hear if we invited women to share their experiences of life within Mennonite Church Manitoba congregations, Mennonite Women Manitoba decided to host two Conversation Circles, one in Winnipeg and the other in southern Manitoba.
Jayme Friesen, abuse response and prevention coordinator with Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba, facilitated both conversations, which engaged two questions:
1. Through the eyes and experiences as a woman in the church, what is going well?
2. What would make our congregations a healthier space for women?
As we listened to each other’s experiences and observations during those events, certain themes began to emerge in both Circles, despite the wide age demographics represented. These included comments like:
- “In our Manitoba church family, there are places where women are involved at all levels of leadership, but there are also places where we still feel merely tolerated on the margins of the ‘old boys club.’ ”
- “Safe places to talk about power, gender and abuse are generally missing.”
- “While appreciating the inclusion of feminine names for, and metaphors about, God in our worship life, we also long for more stories about women in sermons.”
Many women also acknowledged that MC Manitoba congregations had experienced positive movement in areas such as women in leadership and in more inclusive worship language.
However, this acknowledgment came alongside expressions of frustration over many congregations not having moved fast or far enough on these issues. Numerous comments reminded us of this, as did ongoing stories of horrendous abuse in the church, overpowering patriarchy, shaming through language and exclusion due to gender, all of which have their own place of stifling pain.
A few weeks after these Conversation Circles, participants were asked to share what these conversations had left them with. Their comments further expanded awareness of women’s experiences in our churches. For example, one woman wrote that she was “extremely excited to be asked to be part of this discussion. As an immigrant and not a native English speaker, I often feel people don’t have the patience to listen to me.”
Another participant noted that what struck her most was “the fact that we clearly journey together within a church that is a complexity of paradoxes. We exhibit and hold on to the hope of the way things should be with gender equality and sensitivities, and sometimes do that really well, but at other times the church fails miserably and causes deep pain and hurt.”
Still another commented that, as she reflected “on the wealth of experiences expressed, one theme that lingers in my mind is the need to support, encourage and champion the gifts that women, young and old, bring to the church. I came away thinking that we are not in a time of limiting. . . . The church is more open to us now than ever before.”
Overall, these Conversation Circles turned out to be powerful experiences of intergenerational storytelling and cross-congregational connecting, offering many words of encouragement and hope. These, in turn, led to the creation of a Conversation Circle Summary Statement that will be passed on to MC Manitoba’s Ministerial Leadership Committee, with the hope that there might soon be “faster and further” movement on women’s issues among us.
Kathy Giesbrecht attends Home Street Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, and is MC Manitoba’s associate director of leadership ministries. She is the MC Manitoba staff person on MW Manitoba, whose other members include Larissa Pahl, Janet Peters, Cheryl Thiessen and Elsie Rempel.
For more on Mennonite women's groups, see also: “A season of change”
Read John Longhurst’s On Faith Canada blog, “Remembering Peggy Unruh Regehr, pioneer for women’s rights in Mennonite churches,” at bit.ly/peggy-unruh-regehr.