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Flourishing on common ground

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Women in leadership in Canadian Mennonite Brethren

As the discussion about women in ministry leadership continues, the recommendation (1999) that “women be encouraged to minister in the church in every function other than the lead pastorate” is common ground we have staked out as a denomination. Flourishing on this common ground are women, ministering as “gifted, called and affirmed,” across the country.

Meet just a few of them: Sharon Johnson, Sylvie Plante, Kathy Francis, Hilda Wiebe, Heidi Gray and Carol Baergen.

Listen to their struggles, hear about those who encouraged them, sense their passion to serve in obedience.

Facing struggles

Each of these women faced obstacles in the beginning. It took faith in God and encouragement from others for them to become leaders. Carol Baergen, elder of adult ministries at Cedar Park Church, Delta, B.C. and part of the adult ministries team for the Canadian MB Conference, identifies with Moses when he kept questioning God about his suitability for leadership. “0ne of the biggest challenges I have faced is believing that God knows what He is doing putting me in a place of leadership!” she said.

For Heidi Gray, co-pastor of Notre Dame de Grace Community Fellowship in Montreal, the greatest obstacle to overcome has been her own prejudices about female leaders. She grew up in a church that was not supportive of women in leadership. She also struggled with self-confidence. “Not having many models in my field I often didn’t know who to ask for advice or who to share my fears with.”

Finding support

Gray went on to say, “But God has been faithful to bring people into my life to help with that, especially my husband.” Her father was also a great encouragement. “He challenged me that I didn’t need to marry a pastor to be in ministry.” She did marry pastor but after attending seminary together in Fresno, Cal., Dave and Heidi Gray waited for two years until God provided a church that would allow them to minister together.

One of the people who helped Carol Baergen develop as a leader was her pastor, Dave Esau. He gave her a leadership position in the church, encouraged her to grow in God and mentored her as she learned to speak and teach. Baergen has a passion to lead other adults toward Jesus. She said, “To journey with people and to see all of us growing in our discipleship-that is joy!”

Sharon Johnson of Glencairn MB Church, Kitchener, Ont., is a pastor’s daughter and a pastor’s wife. Back in the early 1980s, she was one of the first women to graduate from the MB seminary in Fresno, Cal. alongside her husband. Both her husband and father have strongly encouraged her on the journey to becoming a leader.

When the position of director of Christian education for the Canadian MB Conference came available, Johnson was not going to apply. “I didn’t think I could do it,” she said, “and I didn’t think I should do it.” Her husband, Mark, told her she would be good at it, so she took a risk. She got the job, which led to her current position as adult ministry director for the Canadian MB Conference.

Sylvie Plante attends Eglise Chretienne de St-Jerome in Quebec. She said her husband Christian “has never ceased to offer his encouragement, never ceased believing in my abilities. He has always known how to hear my most outlandish ideas with ease and humour.” Ginette Rolland, a female friend, has been also been an encouragement and role model for her.

Alert churches

When Fort Garry MB Church, Winnipeg heard about the national Leading Women conference held last February, church trustees arranged for two gifted young women to attend. Hilda Wiebe, 28, was pleased to go even though she is not sure she is a leader. “Hilda has a very deep faith. When I hear her talk and see her interact I can tell her relationship with God is number one in her life. This is what qualifies Hilda for further ministry,” said church treasurer Vic Bergman.

Wiebe serves in a leadership role with the Fort Garry women’s ministry, participates in greeting newcomers, and co-leads a tambourine dance worship group. The trustees felt that sending her and the other young woman, Rachel Bamford, to the Leading Women conference was a tangible way of affirming and encouraging them.

Don’t let generalizations and society “norms” dictate who you will be in Christ. Sometimes God will have you lead way out in front and other times He will have you lead by quietly serving from the back. Both are leadership. –Carol Baergen

A passion to serve God

Sylvie Plante was inspired by Luke 9:1, where Jesus delegates power and authority to His disciples so they can bring healing to people. In response she prayed, “Jesus, I would like to be a part of that concept of healing. I want to support, accompany, and share struggles with whoever needs it.”

Kathy Francis, who co-pastors Gateway Community Church in Lower Sackville, N.S. with her husband Paul, loves to “hear God’s heart” on something, communicate it and then watch people grab hold of it. “I like to be a part of having something new begin that extends God’s kingdom,” she said. She also enjoys training young leaders and watching them discover that God can use them.

For Heidi Gray the most rewarding thing about being a leader is “seeing changes in people’s lives- whether that is new discoveries in the discipleship process or people turning their lives over to Jesus for the first time.”

Mutual respect

It’s easy for a discussion on women in leadership to polarize men and women. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Carol Baergen believes perspectives from both genders give a better picture of the heart of God. “Good leadership is like a coin,” she said. “Men and women are the two sides. Although the two sides are unique and different, the coin is most valuable with both.”

Sylvie Plante said she longs for more cooperation between brothers and sisters in Christ. “I find the rift between men and women [within the church] particularly difficult to live with.”

Kathy and Paul Francis planted Gateway Community Church together 14 years ago. She has seen the practical outworking of mutual respect in Christ. “I feel very privileged to work with Paul in giving pastoral leadership,” she said. “We both feel we are enriched when working as a team because we contribute different viewpoints and giftings.”

A highlight of Sharon Johnson’s years of ministry, where she has frequently been part of a mostly male leadership team, is when one of the men comments, “We forgot that you were a woman.” Johnson believes that if women “come in humility with confidence and credibility, doors will open. Coming in anger closes doors.” When she ministers effectively and God affirms her ministry, she said, gender ceases to be a critical issue.

[Sandra Reimer is a freelance writer (Reimer Reason Communications) who lives in Kitchener, Ont. with her husband Wes and two children. They attend Glencaim MB Church.

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