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Historian seeks to amplify voices of marginalized Mennonite leaders

11.19. 2018 Written By: Melanie Zuercher of Bethel College 946 Times read

Photos by Vada Snider. Rachel Waltner Goossen talks with Bethel College senior Nate Kroeker after her Oct. 22 convocation presentation as part of this year’s Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel.

Rachel Waltner Goossen thinks she may have crossed a line with her recent Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, but she’s not apologizing.

Goossen, professor of history at Washburn University, Topeka, Kansas, delivered the 66th annual lecture series Oct. 21-22 with the overall title “Sexual Identities and Leaders in the Faith.”

“I may have broken a taboo by broaching the topic of sexuality,” she said as she opened her first lecture, “even though the series has always focused on Mennonite thought, life and culture, and sexuality has forever been a part of that.”

The lectures were a result of two years’ worth of research that garnered more than 30 oral history interviews with people in Canada and the United States. Goossen’s criteria was “anyone willing to talk to me who was theologically trained and identifies in some way with the Anabaptist/Mennonite faith tradition and as LGBTQ+.”

But the seeds were sown well before that. In 2014, Goossen undertook a project on behalf of Mennonite Church USA looking at how, in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Mennonite institutions dealt with issues of sexual abuse and harassment, specifically by one of the most prominent Mennonite theologians of his day, John Howard Yoder.

From that, Goossen said, she was “pulled into looking at women’s experiences [in the Mennonite church], especially in what I considered to be a fairly patriarchal Christian faith tradition, of which I’m part and parcel.

“I realized, through doing that project, that at places like the [Mennonite] seminaries, certainly at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary [where Yoder taught for much of his career], there were a number of women who had felt called to ministry and who went to seminary”–but who ultimately abandoned that call because of “institutional hostility toward women at that time.”

“As a feminist and a Mennonite who is part of a church and Mennonite Church USA institutions, that impacted my thinking greatly,” Goossen said. She began to make the connection, she said, between a generation or a generation-and-a-half of women being pushed out of church leadership and the similar experiences of LGBTQ+ people with the same call.

“I thought, I’ve been spending all this time learning about women in the past who felt called to ministry–I wondered, what about queer leaders now, younger leaders, what’s their experience?”

In her three Bethel lectures, Goossen followed that timeline to some extent. She first examined the stories of seven church leaders (most of them pastors, the majority women) in the United States and Canada. All grew up in the Anabaptist faith tradition and felt called to work within it but were either forced out or felt so unwelcome they chose other denominations, such as the United Church of Christ.

In her second lecture, a Bethel convocation, Goossen looked at six individuals, mostly younger than the first group, not all of whom grew up in Anabaptism. All either chose or stayed within it in some form.

She noted that there have been more congregations, of varying sizes and in different locations, who have in recent years made public statements welcoming all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identification. She said that many of her interviewees were encouraged by societal changes as well, such as federal laws in Canada (more than a decade ago) and the United States legalizing same-sex marriage.

In the final lecture, Goossen told two “reconciliation stories.” One was about Keith Schrag, one-time pastor of Ames (Iowa) Mennonite Church whose credentials were revoked by Central District Conference of the General Conference Mennonite Church (now part of Mennonite Church USA) in the 1980s and who in the past four years has begun to feel welcome from current leaders in the same conference.

The other was about Shannon Neufeldt, who lost her job as an associate pastor at Toronto United Mennonite Church in the 1990s after she came out but who is now reconnecting with that congregation.

This lecture also included parts of Goossen’s interview with two now-retired MC USA leaders, Ervin Stutzman (executive director) and Nancy Kauffmann (denominational minister), reflecting on some of MC USA institutions’ forward movement over the past decade.

Goossen acknowledged that this movement has likely led to the loss of congregations and whole conferences. She added that Mennonite institutions with global reach, such as Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite World Conference, are trailing MC USA in their policies and practice.

Finishing in a more hopeful place, Goossen noted the licensing of several LGBTQ+ Mennonite pastors in the past several years–Theda Good (who was subsequently ordained), Michelle Burkholder, Randy Spaulding and others–with, she said, “more surely [to] follow.” 

Goossen’s first public presentation of her research was in summer 2017 at the conference at Eastern Mennonite University called “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries.”

Even though she has added to the presentation since then, she remarked several times that “this is still a work in progress.”

Most notably, she said, she has realized that her research decision to define “church leaders” as “those who are theologically trained” has left out a whole range of others whose skills are defined in a variety of ways, especially people of color.

“There are so many kinds of leaders besides [people who] have had the privilege and the opportunity to go to seminary,” she said. “Why not look more broadly at leadership? That’s actually where I want to move.

“To the extent I can amplify and lift up the voices of leaders, so people who are either hearing my presentations or reading my work can hear them in their own words–that’s the root and the heart of what I want to do going forward.”

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