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Photo: Rachel Waltner Goossen. Photo provided.
For historian Rachel Waltner Goossen, research that began with studying institutional responses to sexual abuse in Mennonite contexts has led to a new research project seeking to highlight the stories of church leaders who identified as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer) and their struggles within Mennonite contexts.
In 2014, Goossen, professor of history at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, was tasked with writing a history of Mennonite institutional responses to the sexual abuse perpetrated by John Howard Yoder, Mennonite theologian and ethicist. This work led to the publishing of her 2015 article “’Defanging the Beast’: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse.” This work illuminated other trends for Goossen, namely the departure of leaders (especially theologians and pastors) who identify as women and/or LGBTQ from Mennonite Church USA and its predecessor denominations.
“One of the things I learned was that there were women who had come into seminary or women who felt vocationally drawn to ministry as pastors of congregations, missionaries, chaplains, church administrators or theologians who became so frustrated with the patriarchal structures they were up against, especially when they or friends or colleagues were reporting sexual abuse, that they left,” said Goossen in a June 19, 2017, phone interview.
Goossen also notes that for those who decided to stay, many chose to pursue other callings and became teachers, social workers and administrators working outside church contexts.
“When I learned this history, I thought others in the denomination would have certainly benefitted from those numbers of women being in church leadership,” she says. “That felt to me like something that had not been on the radar of many people in the denomination.”
This realization led Goossen to think about the ways LGBTQ individuals are not welcomed to serve in leadership roles in some spaces across Mennonite Church USA and in other Anabaptist communities as well.
“With the recent downturn in MC USA membership, it’s unfortunate that churches and conferences have been leaving. But even in this changing climate, many Mennonites remain unaware of individuals who have sought to become theologically trained, and would like to be in leadership as pastors, theologians and church administrators, yet are not made to feel welcome because of their LGBTQ sexual identities,” Goossen said.
Goossen sought out LGBTQ individuals who had either grown up in Mennonite or Anabaptist contexts and left or who still identified as Anabaptist for interviews. She began by talking with Sarah
Klaassen, who grew up in a Mennonite congregation in Whitewater, Kansas, but now pastors in the
Disciples of Christ denomination and serves on the board of the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBTQ interests. Through informal and formal support networks, Klaassen served as an interim associate pastor with Seattle Mennonite Church before joining the Disciples in Christ. She described to Goossen the ways her theological understandings still resonate with a peace church framework but have moved beyond Mennonite denominationalism.
Klaassen’s studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, Nashville, Tennessee, sent her “looking for people to share something besides ethnic identity or [Mennonite] denominational institutions. If we can get away from those kinds of things, it just makes sense that I’m part of this [local Disciples congregation], which is a peace church, which does social justice work, which prioritizes service….I learned at Vanderbilt that there’s not one thing wrong with me or my sexual orientation; all that’s wrong is wrong with the church.”
Klaassen told Goossen that moving out of Mennonite spheres was a “great gift” that allowed her to avoid having a “vested interest in upholding structures for their own sake.”
Through Klaassen and other contacts, Goossen was able to get in touch with other pastoral leaders, seminary students, and chaplains who identify as LGBTQ and who were willing to share their stories.
With their permission, Goossen shared the stories of eight women, including Klaassen, in a presentation at the “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and
Boundaries” Conference at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, on June 22, 2017. Among the stories she shared were reflections from Erica Lea-Simka, recently named lead pastor at Albuquerque (New Mexico) Mennonite Church, who was drawn to the Anabaptist tradition and served as a summer interim pastor at Houston Mennonite Church but was initially unsure whether she would be called to a pastoral position in the denomination because of her sexual identity.
“Yet [to be called] is my greatest heart’s desire. I feel strongly that eventually I will be able to come home to and serve faithfully a Mennonite congregation,” Lea wrote in an email to Goossen on Aug. 1, 2016.
The stories Goossen has researched echo in the recent departure of Jennifer (Jay) Yoder, one of the founders of the Pink Menno Movement and a one-time church planter for Mennonite Church USA in Pittsburgh.
In a June 12, 2017, blog post, one year after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando left 49 young adults, many of them Latinx and queer, dead, Yoder announced their decision to stop participating in Mennonite Church USA.
“As historic peace church MC USA prepares for its next convention, in Orlando, the site of the U.S.’s largest mass murder in modern history, I’m faced with the simple truth that I can’t participate anymore. At the last denominational gathering, in Kansas City, it was made clear that the majority of the delegate body does not consider queer people worthy of belonging in the church family,” Yoder wrote.
In her research, Goossen has noted a number of trends arising from interviews, including LGBTQ individuals finding safe spaces to participate in ministry in chaplain settings, concer
ns about the psychological trauma experienced by LGBTQ youth in Anabaptist and Christian contexts where the inclusion of LGBTQ people is debated, and a desire from queer leaders that future generations would have a chance to interact with and see openly LGBTQ church leaders.
She also underscores the ever-changing nature of Mennonite denominational identity, citing several queer pastors who currently serve Mennonite congregations after having been rejected from
Mennonite institutions and organizations in previous decades. Some of these individuals left the denomination for a time but now are welcomed as leaders in Mennonite conferences and congregations that are inclusive of LGBTQ individuals.
“Their stories acknowledge significant pain in the past,” Goossen says, “yet speak to broader possibilities for transformation and inclusivity within Mennonite Church USA.”
Goossen is primarily focusing on the stories of individuals who identify as LGBTQ and who felt called to ministry in some form. Goossen hopes that this work will help paint a picture of the harm and loss experienced by many Anabaptists and the loss of talent for denominations such as MC USA and Mennonite Church Canada.
“This has been a loss for our denomination that’s been fairly unrecognized until recently,” said Goossen. “Within MC USA now, for LGBTQ people who do want to exercise pastoral leadership or spiritual leadership in our churches, the number of congregations open to hiring queer candidates is growing, which is encouraging. And yet, unjust policies and attitudes have oftentimes resulted in gifted leaders pursuing opportunities in other denominations, even though their hearts and histories and love are with the Mennonite church.”
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