On a different track
Sharon Kennel, newly retired conference minister, reflects on her journey of ministryby Joanna Shenk
Sharon Kennel of Shickley, Neb., laughed when she was approached by two people in 1999 about becoming a conference minister in what was then Iowa-Nebraska Conference of the former Mennonite Church. "I laughed because I thought this was such an unlikely idea."
After all, Sharon did not have many of the credentials expected for conference leadership. She had not pastored a church, she had not been to seminary, and she was not a man. There had never been a female conference minister in Iowa-Nebraska Conference.
Sharon and Cecil Kennel in their cornfield. Photo by Vada Snider.
"Women are often on a different track," says Florence Schloneger of North Newton, Kan., Sharon's accountability partner and friend. "Gifts were called out of Sharon even though she was not on the usual path to conference leadership."
In her early 20s, Sharon recognized a deep desire in herself "to be the kind of person others could come to for counsel, comfort and encouragement.” She remembers, "I even started to collect materials to use in sermons and during my Bible reading would note passages that could be used for sermons."
In her 30s, she continued to feel called to this ministry but believed her geographical location would not allow for its realization. "My husband, Cecil, was farming on the land he grew up on, and it seemed there was no chance of moving anywhere else so I could be in ministry," she says.
Nonetheless, the track Sharon followed, or created, included various ministry leadership roles. She worked with the Women's Mission and Service Commission in different capacities, served on the Leadership Committee for Iowa-Nebraska Conference, facilitated pastor and spouse retreats and led the Nebraska Pastor's Cluster.
Sharon in her garden. Photo by Vada Snider
More than once, in these various contexts, people asked Kennel whether she had considered pursuing formal ministry.
She remembers disking corn ground one spring and crying out to God from the tractor cab: "God, people keep telling me I should be in ministry. That seems impossible, so what do I do? Why do they say that if that isn’t your purpose for me?"
But indeed it was God's purpose.
After receiving nudges to consider the conference minister role, Sharon asked God for a specific sign one Sunday morning. She prayed that someone in her home congregation, Salem Mennonite Church of Shickley, Neb., would tap her on the shoulder and affirm her gifts.
She says, "I released that prayer and didn't think of it again until after the service, when someone tapped me on the shoulder—literally. I turned around and there was one of the older men in the congregation with tears running down his cheeks. He said, 'God told me to talk to you, and I’m not sure why.'"
The man, chair of the Sunday Evening Planning Committee, asked Sharon to teach a series of Bible studies on Sunday evenings, which was something only the pastor had done previously.
"As I remembered my prayer earlier in the morning, the tears flowed from my eyes, and I told him he was an answer to prayer," Sharon says.
Sharon participates in the ordination of Dave Miller, pastor at Bellwood Mennonite Church, Milford, Neb. Photo provided.
Given what felt like an unlikely call, Sharon kept looking for affirmation in unlikely places. At Salem she found that five of the oldest men in the congregation were her strongest supporters. This felt significant, she says, since the congregation was not of one mind about women in leadership.
In March 2000, Sharon began her role with Iowa-Nebraska Conference, and in April of the same year was licensed for ministry as a pastor to pastors. Two years later, on June 15, 2002, she was ordained at the annual meeting of the Central Plains Conference, which was created in June 2001 by the merging of Northern District (of the former General Conference Mennonite Church) and Iowa-Nebraska Conference.
Engaging a new role
Sharon's conference role brought changes on the Kennels' farm, where she and Cecil worked together in the fields. But it was no surprise to Cecil that his spouse was moving into a ministry role. Prior to Sharon receiving any formal calls to ministry, he had recognized her gifts.
"A number of years ago, before I was called into this ministry, Cecil told me he felt his calling was to support me in the ministry God had for me," Sharon says. "I was overwhelmed by that thought and never imagined what would be asked of him."
Marlin Kym of Moundridge, Kan., former moderator of Central Plains Conference, says Cecil was "supportive and encouraging" and would travel with Sharon as much as possible.
Denton Jantzi, pastor of Whitestone Mennonite Church in Hesston, Kan., whom Sharon interviewed during his ordination process, says he thought Cecil was different from other Nebraska men in the way that he released Sharon to pursue her call.
Sharon says: "He was home alone a lot during my 10 years with the conference and became adept at preparing tasty meals for himself. He even bought himself a vacuum cleaner, since he didn't like mine," she adds, laughing.
Due to the widespread geographical distance of Central Plains Conference, Sharon was on the road quite a bit. She spent up to about half her time navigating the conference’s span—1,000 miles east to west and 400 miles north to south. Her closest congregation was 47 miles away.
Sharon participates in the licensing of Karen Dalke, pastor at Des Moines (Iowa) Mennonite Church. Photo provided.
She also traveled monthly to Lincoln, Neb., to meet with her accountability partner and friend, Florence Schloneger. Both women lived an hour from Lincoln and worked in different conferences. When they started meeting, Schloneger and her husband were co-pastoring First Mennonite Church of Beatrice, Neb., in Western District Conference.
“Sharon was in high demand,” Schloneger says. "People trusted her."
Furthermore, Sharon was able to balance family life and work. She continued working on the farm during planting season and harvest, and wrestled through difficult situations with loved ones.
Jantzi says: "She was willing to face and embrace the challenges in her work and family life and learn from them. She loved people through the difficulty."
As a female conference minister, Sharon at times faced resistance in her work. She recalls that at one regularly occurring pastors' meeting a certain man would pray only for the men at the table. "He did that often enough," Sharon says, "that three or four men who noticed would jump right in and pray for me."
Another male pastor told Sharon he didn't agree with the idea of women in ministry but would respect her in the role she was called to fulfill. "And he did," Sharon says. "He often called for counsel and to test his ideas and convictions."
Ministry on the Plains
In her role as conference minister, Sharon installed 25 long-term and interim pastors, licensed 10 and ordained eight. A primary question for her when placing pastors was about their sense of call to Central Plains. For one congregation, she contacted 50 people.
“It was a struggle to get pastors to come between the Mississippi and the Rockies,” she says. But Sharon was convinced she only wanted to install those pastors who felt God was leading them to Central Plains.
Jantzi recalls that in his ordination interview, Sharon—the only female interviewer—asked the hardest questions. "I could answer the men's questions," he says, "but Sharon's questions really made me think." Her questions probed deeper as she asked about his feelings on being affirmed by his home congregation for licensing as well as stepping into pastoral responsibilities.
Kym notes that in his ministerial training, there was much emphasis on stepping into leadership "correctly," with certain credentials. But his life experience and conference work with Kennel taught him differently.
"It isn't about how much a person knows, it's about a person’s willingness to learn and be on the journey with others," he says. "Sharon invited trust. The 'correct' credentials can't guarantee that kind of connection."
Diane Zaerr Brenneman of Wellman, Iowa, current moderator of Central Plains Conference, says, "Sharon's call to ministry is representative of the church doing its work: noticing and calling gifts God has given to the sisters and brothers among us."
In Scripture, Sharon has been inspired by the stories of Jesus and how he ministered to many different kinds of people. His service was humble, and he generously poured out love on those he served, she says. Passages in Ephesians (3:16-21) and Colossians (3:12-17) also gave her "courage to persevere in spite of seemingly impossible situations and to continue to believe in the church and the possibility that God can use imperfect people to carry out kingdom work in this world."
In thinking about her story of call, Sharon notes the book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris. In the book, Norris talks about the spiritual geography of a place. She writes: " 'Spiritual geography’ describes the way a place shapes people's attitude, beliefs and myths. The spiritual geography of the Plains is complex. But the stark beauty of the land—its strength—also inspires strength in people."
Sharon says: "Opportunities are different in this part of the country. People get called on to do things they normally wouldn't do."
Supporting others on the journey
Sharon believes her story is important for other women to hear who are struggling with calls to ministry. Currently she is mentoring a young woman pastor. "I doubted my call on a number of occasions," she says. "I wondered if I heard God right. At times I felt beat down. It was difficult being the only woman at many meetings."
One gathering that Sharon supported early in her ministry was a women pastors’ retreat that was held for several years. This was a safe place for women to share concerns and frustrations, as well as worship together and celebrate. She also noticed that women in congregations were glad to have a female conference minister to talk to.
Sharon worked hard to build relationships among pastors, congregations, church leaders, the conference and the denomination. "I visited congregations for their special events, and other times just to be there with them."
Sharon also often reminded herself to be herself, to be an advocate for pastors, elders and congregations, to be a presence and a safe place. Although at times she did not feel equipped and could be hard on herself about her shortcomings, she was aware that the conference that had called her was also committed to supporting her.
In her first years as conference minister, much of her work with congregations revolved around conflict resolution. "When challenges arose, I turned to others for council and advice," she says. "Our ministry staff was a great help as well as the Pastoral Leadership Committee. I researched resources so I could offer them to pastors and congregations, providing insight into the challenges they faced."
Schloneger also notes Sharon's ability to separate herself from difficult congregational issues. "She spoke into these issues and then was able to let them go."
Kym says emphatically, "She did a marvelous job. She had a passion for the good news and for helping people in congregations understand the good news for themselves. She could celebrate with congregations in the good moments and reconcile the difficult ones."
During a sabbatical Sharon was also able to enroll in seminary classes.
"I think Sharon would have enjoyed the luxury of a three-year seminary education before beginning her role," says Zaerr Brenneman. "However, the need in the churches was immediate. So she accepted the harder call of taking seminary classes while in ministry."
Sharon desired both to learn and to set an example for pastors who hadn't attended seminary. "I felt like I could encourage others to attend seminary because I had done it myself," she says.
In retirement, Sharon is looking forward to continued learning. She dreams of becoming a master gardener, pursuing quiltmaking and possibly taking other classes that catch her interest. Most importantly, though, she wants to connect with family and friends she had less time for while involved in conference ministry.
Sharon reflects on her journey since her studies at Hesston (Kan.) College and Goshen (Ind.) College in the mid to late 1960s. "At that time I believed the call was to congregational ministry of some kind," she says. "I now realize my gifts were most suited for administrative ministry."
"In years past, dreaming of being a conference minister was not on my radar," she says. "Rather, the call came organically—the culmination of many years of service to the conference, a reawakening of my sense of call into ministry, the nudging of God’s Spirit and the overwhelming affirmation that came from many people."
Through these experiences Sharon has learned not to doubt God's call, even in seemingly impossible circumstances. Just as she was tapped on the shoulder, she now taps others. "I believe the experiences of the last 10 years have given me many tools for continuing to be a mentor and an encourager."
Joanna Shenk serves Mennonite Church USA as associate for interchurch relations and communication.
- On a different track
- Reclaim the wisdom of Hans Denck
- A long life of witness and service
- Still dreaming
- Confessions of a modern day pacifist
- Not on the road to Damascus
News stories, digests and Meno Acontecer
- International workers return to Egypt
- Church experiments with extending the table
- Denominations invite MWC to Farm Show building in Harrisburg
- Bomb scare at MC USA Archives
- MCC suspends work in Egypt
- Mennonite Church USA invites topics for Prayer and Conversation Room
- Website opens for discussion surrounding Phoenix 2013 decision
- Mennonite Central Committee monitors Egypt situation
- The do's and don'ts of e-mail and Facebook
- Indian hospital turns 100
- 'Mennonite rabbi' shares learnings
- Mennonite farmer travels to North Korea
- Eisenhower, King and the military industrial complex
- Binational organizations balance national dynamics
- MMN SOOP volunteer turns rags into blankets
- This is a first: seminary courses at convention
- Friesen rides through 48 states for MDS
- Major changes at Mennonite Central Committee
- Three charges filed in death of Chloe Weaver
- Elevated gardens offer food sustainability
- ¡Bienvenidos al Meno Acontecer de febrero, 2011!
- Educación Integral
- Retiro de tutores de IBA
- Soto Albrecht recibe nominación para moderadora electa
- La Iglesia está escuchando
- ¿Pittsburgh 2011? ¡Allí vamos!!
- Del doctor Nuñez …
- Silence over sexuality issue creates confusion
- Rethinking the prosperity gospel
- Class conflict at the movies
- Habits of peace, habits of violence
- Lessons learned as a teenager
- Farmer Ken
- Pop's encore
- Mennonites and alcohol
- Investing in hope: Seeds of hope
Births and Marriages
- Force public to pay for war
- Winery in Virginia
- Phoenix decision
- Chloe's friends say thanks
- Quilts not used to guide slaves
- Logan responds to Beck
- Peace churches work at roots
- Unhappy about silence
- Serious misconceptions
- More with less
- Beyond Islamophobia