What does it mean to be a woman in the church? I have clear memories from growing up of sitting around my grandparents’ dining table and hearing stories that answered this question. Stories about women in my family would pour out about Mennonite women’s complex and often painful journeys towards having the choice to wear a head covering. Today, when I think of difficulties facing women in the church, these stories are the first that come to my mind. However, though these stories speak for the women that have come before me, I am challenged to think of my own story. What does it mean to be a young woman in the church today?
I had the opportunity to wrestle with this question this past Sunday night at a reflection night hosted by the Goshen Student Women’s Association. The goal of the night was to open a space for women to talk about their experience in the church and to share ways they have, or have not, felt welcomed by the church. Three young women from the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, a few faculty members and about 15 students shared their experiences with this issue.
After breaking up into small discussion groups, the group reconvened and offered their thoughts. As I sat there collecting stories, a common theme stuck out to me. Young women have been hurt by the church. Because of the church’s exclusive language and a lack of female leadership, young women have felt pushed away.
However, at the same time, young women have felt loved by the church. Through opportunities for fellowship and social and spiritual growth, these women have felt pulled towards the church. This dissonance is a struggle for many women. How do you respond to something that is so loving but so hurtful at the same time?
Older generations of women have responded to this struggle by joining together and forming groups within the church as a space for support. But for my generation, the story is different. Our struggle is difficult to name because it is not embodied through the marking of the covering, but is instead embedded in layers of institutionalized sexism and patriarchy. Our response is different, too. We are not as patient as those who came before us—we do not want to wait for change. We want in the church, and we want in now.
As a result, many young women have decided to leave the church out of frustration, which takes a huge toll. There has been a decrease in the number of women in leadership and there has been a lack of opportunities for safe spaces, like the ones that have been so life giving to generations of women, to form.
What I took away from this night was a broader understanding of not only the
experiences of young women in the church around me, but of my own experience as a woman. I carry with me the stories of my grandmothers and mother, but I also hold my own unique story of pain amidst a deep love for the church. I hope that Goshen College and the broader church can find and open a space for young women to share their experiences so that all are heard and welcome at the table.