Survey: more women in leadership but still not enough
News Analysisby Joanna Shenk for Mennonite Church USA
Women leaders at the Mennonite Women USA strategic planning retreat in March 2009 observed that currently there are fewer women in leadership in some parts of Mennonite Church USA than in previous years. Furthermore, those gathered called for Mennonite Women USA to speak up for increasing the numbers of women in leadership across the denomination. In response, Ron Byler, then assistant executive director of Mennonite Church USA, called for the creation of the Women in Leadership Audit. Initial research entailed inquiries to the agencies of Mennonite Church USA;
• Mennonite Mission Network, Mennonite Publishing Network, Mennonite Education Agency, Mennonite Mutual Aid (MMA),
• Mennonite Church USA denominational leadership,
• Mennonite Central Committee,
• Mennonite Disaster Service,
• MHS Alliance,
• Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA).
We asked for records of women in leadership positions since the early 1980s. Specifically, we asked for the following:
• the numbers of women on boards of directors as well as in organizational and congregational leadership as executive directors,
• presidents and vice presidents,
• lead pastors,
• moderators and board chairs.
The goal was to track the trends since the 1980s to see if indeed there are fewer numbers of women in leadership now than in previous years.
What the findings reveal is a complex picture of change. In most cases, the data shows consistent increases of women on many of the boards of directors. For instance, since the merger of the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church in 2002, the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA has maintained near even numbers of women and men—an encouraging shift from the larger disparities premerger. At the same time, it is important to note that underrepresented racial/ethnic women are often required to fill two roles on committees and boards: as racial/ethnic people and as women. This is the case on the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA, which currently has no representation from racial/ethnic men.
In congregational leadership, there also have been increases in the number of women in full-time ministry. According to research compiled by Dorothy Nickel Friesen in May 2009, there are also positive changes in attitudes toward women in pastoral ministry. At the same time, there is still a large disparity between the number of women in active ministry and the number of men.
Although the number of women has increased on boards of directors, there has not been a similar increase in the organizational leadership positions of directors and presidents.
Currently the Governance Council of Mennonite Church USA, made up of the executive director, director of churchwide operations, agency directors, agency board chairpersons, the moderator and moderator elect, has 10 men and one woman. This is a sobering reality when coupled with the fact that we have had neither a female executive director nor a churchwide agency CEO in Mennonite Church USA or prior to the merger.
Why is this the case then, given the ability women now have to seek any leadership position in the church, congregationally or organizationally? Why has it also been the case that women have declined to accept, as often as men, certain high-level leadership positions, for example, that of the Mennonite Church USA moderator?
In the fall of 2009, Marty Lehman, director of churchwide operations, presented the preliminary findings of the audit to both the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA and the Constituency Leadership Council. In both instances, Lehman said that women had been asked to consider denominational leadership positions but had decided against pursuing them in some cases. Therefore, the question was raised, "Why do women say no?"
In order to answer this question and continue research into the audit data, a steering committee of women was formed. These women, all located in northern Indiana to allow for face-to-face interaction, have met twice to discuss the findings of the audit and prepare a report with recommendations for the denomination. The eight women involved are Regina Shands Stoltzfus, Yvonne Diaz, Patty Burdette, Anita Yoder Kehr, Jane Stoltzfus Buller, Hilary Scarsella, Joanna Shenk and Marty Lehman.
In January, members of the committee interviewed women who declined leadership positions in order to find out why they said no. Although a handful of interviews does not account for every perspective, certain themes were consistent and point to systemic issues within our denomination.
Still pioneers: One interviewee talked about women still being pioneers when they take on leadership positions, noting it is an experience that men will never have. Such work requires continual groundbreaking and is a "constant translation project between alternate universes. "Women also know that some people will still be opposed to their leadership, which only adds to the loneliness of leadership positions.
Too heavy: A few women said that top-level leadership roles are too administratively heavy, perpetuating a management model rather than a relationally transformative model. Hence, although Mennonite Church USA theoretically values the grassroots when it comes to decision-making, those in top-level positions are still expected to be the gatekeepers and chief decision-makers.
Another woman shared that the responsibilities at her job were too demanding and therefore she was not able to request the leave-time required of the moderator position. For her the question was, "Can I take on the role of moderator and still be available to my institution?" The answer was no, at this point, in her case. But she said the answer would have been different four years ago and will probably be different in the future.
Need larger pool: All the women interviewed emphasized the need for a larger pool of women from which to draw for leadership positions. Otherwise, a few women noted, there is increased pressure on a small group of women who are accepted as leaders in our denomination to take on any leadership role they are asked to fill. This can feel disrespectful because it does not take into account their leadership styles but instead expects them to fit a certain leadership mold. In the end, this model of leadership is limiting for everyone.
Along these lines, there was also consensus that increased mentoring opportunities for young women, particularly in organizational roles, is necessary.
"Due to generational shifts," one woman says, "organizations will need to restructure in a few years. So we need to discern what we let go of and what we retain. We’re in an adaptive time. There is much change happening, and what worked in the past will not necessarily work in the future."
The following questions and others will be addressed in the forthcoming report from the Women in Leadership Audit steering committee:
1. In analyzing the past, is it fair to say that leadership positions have favored white, male leadership styles and therefore kept women and others from accepting them? Or must we delve deeper and question the cultural conditioning that values certain types of leadership over others?
2. What do our leadership positions say about our values as Mennonite Church USA? As one woman put it, have we settled for “management” instead of “relational transformation”? Are there ways we can better hold together both analytical and intuitive modes of leadership, recognizing that we are systemically imbalanced toward a patriarchal model of efficiency and conformity?
3. What does a new generation of leaders, both female and male, have to offer?
In keeping with the legacy of courageous women leaders in the Mennonite Church, such as Clara Eby Steiner, founder of the Mennonite Women's Missionary Society, this audit seeks to cast a vision for the healthy partnership of women and men leaders. What began as a question of numbers has become an opportunity for Mennonite Church USA to engage in important systemic questions about leadership. At root, both women and men are diminished when patriarchy, the prevailing pattern, is present and unnamed. Therefore, may we continue to grow together as a denomination that values the contributions of all, while we seek our own healing and the healing of our world.
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