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2013-01-01 issue:

Paths to leadership

Profiles of three women presidents of Mennonite higher education institutions

by Kerry Strayer

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Despite encountering the “concrete wall” (impenetrable barriers), “glass ceiling” (invisible barriers) and “labyrinth” (unclear paths), women have made progress in higher education. A 2012 report from the American Council on Education notes that the number of women presidents has increased from 10 percent in 1986 to 26 percent in 2011. The following profiles recount the circuitous paths taken by the women presidents of Mennonite Church USA-affiliated higher education institutions.

Shirley Hershey Showalter: building on maternal models
Goshen College president, 1996-2004

Shirley Showalter is grateful for the women in her family and the legacies they have given her—a tradition of aspiration, a knack for socializing, a love of reading and a “tremendous maternal love energy.” These gifts nurtured and empowered her. She was also blessed with teachers and mentors outside the family. “My high school teachers [saw] in me someone who could succeed as a leader, a professional and a teacher.”

Shirley Showalter at the Goshen College Music Center dedication, Fall 2002. Photo by Ryan Miller, GC Public Relations Office.

She attended Eastern Mennonite College (now University) in Harrisonburg, Va., to pursue a teaching degree in English because she “wanted to be a teacher, … just about the highest pinnacle of career aspiration as far as I was concerned.”

After teaching for two years, she and Stuart, her husband, attended graduate school.

Once she completed her master’s degree, she continued her education. For her dissertation she wrote about the Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Willa Cather and Ellen Glasgow, who struggled to balance the competing desires of love and work. While still writing her dissertation, Goshen (Ind.) College dean John Lapp recruited both Showalters.

At Goshen, she took on new challenges—first as head of continuing studies, then partnering with colleague Judith Davis to write a $1 million Title III grant, and finally shepherding a change in general education. “My only criteria for saying yes or no was: Does it seem interesting? Would I enjoy it? Would I grow as a result of it?”

Showalter credits Goshen for cultivating her unique path to the presidency. The small college context gave her flexibility to mix administrative and teaching tasks. As a pioneering member of the women’s studies faculty, the feminist consciousness on campus reinforced her leadership potential.

In 1980, early in her college career, President Lawrence Burkholder chose her to attend a workshop to meet and be mentored by other college presidents. This fed her inclination to think institutionally and planted the idea of being a college president.

During sabbatical years, she acquired more knowledge and experience—first as a senior fellow for the Association for the Advancement of Higher Education, then as a senior fellow at Valparaiso University. So when she was nominated, she felt prepared.

Showalter has continued to lead and mentor—first as a vice president at the Fetzer Institute and more recently through her writing and home congregation. She hopes for a future where women are given the freedom and encouragement to develop their gifts—much as she did throughout her life.

Lee Snyder: unexpected opportunities
Bluffton College (now University) president, 1996-2006

In the beginning, Lee Snyder didn’t think of herself as a leader. She grew up in an Amish-Menno­nite community in Oregon, where women not only were not leaders but were expected to be silent. But Snyder’s father had an interest in education and encouraged in her a love of reading and science.

Lee Snyder with John Kampen, dean and vice president of academic affairs at Bluffton University at the time. Photo by Burton Andrews, Bluffton University.

Although an A student, Snyder was still surprised when, after she took an aptitude test at Western Mennonite High School in Salem, Ore., her teacher Bernard Showalter told her she could be a surgeon if she wanted. “It seemed so far-fetched,” she says.

After a year of college, she married and pursued the traditional route of home and family. With both daughters in school, she returned to finish her degree at the University of Oregon.

When Del, her husband, was offered a teaching position at Eastern Mennonite College, they moved to Virginia. She attended James Madison University, also in Harrisonburg, and earned a master’s degree in literature. Open to new options, she applied for clerical jobs in the registrar’s and dean’s offices at EMC. “I hadn’t yet discovered I was a good administrator,” she says.

Her gifts were soon recognized, though, and she became the assistant to the dean, then assistant dean, which she discovered she loved. She knew intuitively that she needed a doctorate to move on, although her goal wasn’t clear.

During her second year of graduate work, EMC President Richard Detweiler contacted her about applying for the dean position. Knowing that a dean could excel and still not satisfy everyone, she was hesitant. When the president called again to tell her that faculty members were advocating for her, she applied.

Completing a term as interim dean and her doctorate after one year, she worked happily as the dean for 12 years, cultivating good working relationships with faculty. When she felt ready for a change, she received inquiries from other institutions. While the timing wasn’t right, she says those calls “prepared me to be ready for something else.” When Bluffton (Ohio) College (now University) called, she was ready to accept the presidency.

Snyder also served as moderator of the new Mennonite Church USA denomination. During this time, she saw an opportunity to cultivate an up-and-coming leader. She observed James Harder, a member of the Executive Committee, “with growing admiration for his abilities.” She persuaded him to come to Bluffton and serve as executive assistant to the president. He was named the next president after Snyder stepped down.

In the epilogue to her memoir, At Powerline & Diamond Hill: Unexpected Intersections of Life and Work, Snyder shares a significant email from a friend who prayed “that God will give you the gift of discernment as you are constantly faced with more than you can do.”

Snyder has the same hopes for future women leaders: that women in the church get equal opportunity and respect, that they feel empowered to explore their leadership gifts and that they don’t feel they have to do it all.

Sara Wenger Shenk: clear path, surprising destination
Associated (now Anabaptist) Mennonite Biblical Seminary president, 2010-
In the Summer 2011 issue of AMBS’ Window, Sara Wenger Shenk wrote that she was surprised by how much she loved her work as president. Knowing her educational pedigree, others aren’t surprised.

Sara Wenger Shenk with AMBS student Tony Froese 
Photo by Peter Ringenberg.


Her grandfather, A.D. Wenger, was the second president of EMU (1922-1935) and took a progressive stance of advocating for women’s education. Parents Chester and Sara Wenger were missionaries in Ethiopia and started several schools. Wenger Shenk herself earned an undergraduate degree in English education. She never taught high school, though; instead, she followed Gerald, her husband, to Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., to pursue further education.

As the second wave of the women’s movement peaked, Wenger Shenk found plenty to reflect on regarding what it meant to be a woman. One professor at Fuller—who taught a course that assessed what the Bible had to say about women’s roles—especially helped shape her thoughts.

Such theological reflections and her experience contrasted with the women’s movement, which frequently denigrated homemaking. She wrote her first book, And Then There Were Three, about wrestling with the implications of a woman called to be a leader and a mother.

Yet Wenger Shenk didn’t perceive herself as a leader until after they moved to Virginia in order for Gerald to teach at EMS. She clearly remembers a comment by EMS Dean George Brunk III: “Sara, you must be a good manager; you’re caring for three children, overseeing an addition to your house and teaching part time.” He saw something in her that she hadn’t seen, named it and encouraged it.

When a half-administrative and half-teaching position opened up, she took it. As part of her training, she worked toward a doctorate in education from Union Theological Seminary. At the same time, Brunk mentored her administrative skills. When Brunk prepared to retire, she was encouraged to apply for the position. She enjoyed her tasks as associate dean, and the dean’s role as the public face of the seminary didn’t interest her. Instead, she continued as associate dean, working with dean Ervin Stutzman for the next eight years.

When the call from the AMBS Presidential Search Committee came in 2009, Wenger Shenk says it was “out-of-the-blue,” since she hadn’t pursued the position. While honored to be identified as a candidate, Wenger Shenk was conflicted. She liked her current job and did not want to move or make her husband switch jobs. She informed the committee that she was unlikely to take the job if offered, but they encouraged her to continue the process. After a discussion with Lee Snyder (then interim provost at EMU) and with her husband’s support, she interviewed and was offered the job. After extensive prayer, soul-searching and tough conversations, she decided to take it.

She felt a growing realization that it would be tough to build her own style and priorities at EMS, following two strong leaders for whom she had been seen as a second-in-command. She realized that AMBS would be a new chapter in her life, moving from the internal work of policy and pedagogy, to building the public case for theological education.

“Suddenly I realized that, yes, this is what I’m called to do.” At AMBS, Wenger Shenk is practicing her vision of good leadership—“shared mutual regard and collaboration.”

Kerry Strayer is an associate professor of communication at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, and a Bluffton (Ohio) University alumna. She taught at Goshen (Ind.) College, took classes at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and attends Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church.

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