This spring, Grace Kim and Bev Peters became the first women ever to be ordained for pastoral ministry by the Canadian Mennonite Brethren church, sparking discussions across the country.
Many are celebrating the event and see it as a direct outcome of the 2006 Calgary resolution on women in ministry leadership, which blessed individual churches to call and affirm gifted women and men to serve in ministry and pastoral leadership, according to their own discernment of Scripture, conviction, and practice. That affirmation of women now includes ordination.
“It seems like a logical extension to me that if a congregation would seek to call and affirm a woman as its lead pastor that it would also have the freedom to bless that individual through an ordination process,” says Ken Peters, chair of the Board of Faith and Life (BFL).
Confusion about ordination
But the practice of ordination – whether for women or men – is not common in today’s Canadian MB churches. “We’ve seen a radical decrease in the number of formal ordinations in recent years across Canada in our conference,” says executive director David Wiebe.
Although the BFL encourages pastors to receive their credentials with the conference (which includes attendance at a Pastors Credentialing and Orientation event, and completion of an application and interview process with the BFL), there is no obligation to be ordained. “As a denomination, we aren’t entirely clear about the purpose and place of ordination,” says Wiebe.
Some wonder if the practice is biblical; others worry that ordained ministers will abuse their power and privilege; still others see ordination as an act that unnecessarily divides clergy and laity. Some disagree about whether or not ordination presumes a lifetime commitment. In fact, several pastors have declined their congregation’s call to ordination based on their theological convictions.
However, there are a few points of agreement. Ordination is a marker by the congregation and conference that a person’s call to ministry is recognized. Any request for ordination must be made by a congregation, not an individual, to the BFL. The rite includes a public laying on of hands, often by a conference leader. Ordination is usually requested for pastors after they’ve served for a period of time and exercised their gifts.
According to a 1995 BFL statement on ordination, there should be “instruction both for the leader and congregation, indicating that such affirmation is not designed to confer status but affirmation for sacrificial service.”
Women were not always excluded from the practice of ordination. In the early 1900s, the North American General Conference ordained women, but only for the task of overseas mission work. From 1919–1954, 37 Canadian women, 19 of whom were single, were ordained as missionaries.¹ Their work often included teaching men, planting churches, administering programs, and participating in policy-making boards.
Some even preached. In 1922, Paulina Foote, an early MB missionary to China, wrote:
The thought of an ordination gave me struggles. Women in our conference do not preach. Why should I be ordained if I could not proclaim the gospel to those who had not heard it? Women were permitted to tell the gospel to women and children. What if men would come to my women’s and children’s meetings? Should I stop proclaiming the gospel message?
Did not the men have a right to hear the Word of God?...What a surprise to me when Elder Foth in his sermon at the ordination proved with Scripture passages that women should preach... Christ himself commanded [Mary Magdalene] to carry the news of the resurrection to the disciples, the men, and to Peter who had failed him. My problem about the ordination was solved. My later experience proved that this was of the Lord.
The conference rescinded the ordination of women in 1957 (after which time, affirmation for overseas mission was simply called “commissioning”). Following a 1981 General Conference resolution that stated, “while we recognize that women played a significant role in the early church – something we would encourage them to do in our day as well – we do not believe that the Mennonite Brethren Church should ordain women to pastoral leadership,” many wondered if Canadian MB women would ever be ordained again. Although the official word on ordination in the late 1900s restricted women from ministry leadership, the encouragement and affirmation received by early MB missionaries kept the embers of hope alive. Many gifted women continued to keep their ears attuned to God’s call to ministry.
Africa takes the lead
The church’s attitude towards women serving in pastoral roles began to change, not only in North America but around the world. It was the Mennonite Brethren Church of Congo that led the way in creating opportunities for women in ministry. On August 24, 2003, Mama Kadi Tshinyama was ordained by the MB Church of Congo. A widow, Mama Kadi was acknowledged for significant contributions to her church and country in the areas of spiritual formation, economic development, and theology. To date, three other women theologians have been ordained in Congo and more are scheduled for this year.
Congo’s willingness to come to a resolution about this issue appears to have influenced the global MB family. “We thank the church of the Democratic Republic of Congo for having accepted the ordination of female pastors. In light of this decision, we propose that the Church of America and Canada follow this example,” said a 2003 recommendation by an MB group in Kikwit.
Looking to the future
The recent ordination of two Canadian women suggests North American MBs have turned a corner in their discussion about this issue, with women now willing to accept expanding roles in kingdom ministry and churches publicly affirming them. “All of a sudden, you become more free, more serious,” says Bev Peters.
“Recognition implies valuation,” says David Wiebe. “Something that’s valued is usually an encouragement for others to participate. I hope this will encourage future leaders to listen to God’s call for pastoral ministry.”
And it couldn’t have come at a better time. With many MB churches struggling to find pastors, the Mennonite Brethren denomination needs all the gifted leaders – men and women – it can find.
As well, the BFL has recognized its need to revisit the question of ordination and has included the topic on its agenda for July. “The BFL plans to look at it and hopefully redefine it so as to fit today’s postmodern context, with a biblical/Anabaptist mooring,” says Wiebe.
The ordinations of Grace Kim and Bev Peters have revived some key conversations in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren church, deepening our drive towards biblically rooted kingdom ministry. And that’s a reason to celebrate. —LK
1 Gloria Neufeld Redekop, “The Understanding of Woman’s Place Among Mennonite Brethren in Canada: A Question of Biblical Interpretation,” The Conrad Grebel Review, 8 (Fall, 1990), pages 259-274