Women and changing roles in the church

by Helen Lapp, Plains

PlainsChange can take a lot of time. And it is very unsettling for many—no surprise there! This past summer Plains congregation (Hatfield, Pa.) decided to explore together, during the usual Sunday school hour, some changes the church has weathered in the past several decades. Several of these changes are:

  • Musical choices: They can bring us together in worship but also can divide.
  • War and peace: It has impacted many lives in our congregation; a number of young men chose not to participate in war, but some also shared stories of serving in the military.
  • Rural to suburban: The trend of moving off the farm brought profound changes to our church.
  • Becoming a diverse church: People from a variety of countries shared the challenges and blessings they experienced as they became an enriching part of our church community.
  • Divorce and remarriage: There was discussion of the sadness and pain of divorce, as well as stories of healing. Joyful remarriage meant more change for our caring community.
  • Gender: The changing roles of women in the church

For the session dealing with changing roles of women at Plains, I led a panel of six women of various ages in sharing of their own experiences at Plains. We reflected on how the Bible we valued was written chiefly by and for men, and also taught by men. Candid sharing about the impact wasn’t easy. And, our own personal journeys continue.

Lois Clemens
Lois Gunden Clemens was the first woman to teach Sunday School at Plains.

The women listed some of their role models and helpers along the way; One was Lois Gunden Clemens, who was the first woman to teach a Sunday school class at Plains—the “young adults,” that is. Lois later served as one of our first elders. She was the editor of “The Voice,” the first church periodical specifically published for women. In 1975 Lois also released her book, WOMAN LIBERATED, a gentle guide during the time the secular liberation movement was also finding its voice.

It was clear that most of the women who took part in our panel grew up as loved little girls and privileged women.

My own story was similar.

After I married my husband, Sam, but before coming to Plains Mennonite, I had attended a small country church where the women seemed to make the wheels go round, and I remember them with appreciation and affection. I did notice that only men stood behind the pulpit—several leaving an imprint on my heart with their sermons. But I did weary of a male-centered church, and hungered for more.

During my college years at Eastern Mennonite College, having several women professors brought a learning curve; teaching English for several years likely also pushed me.

And I have always been touched by Jesus’ open-hearted conversation with the Samaritan woman.

A turning point came for me when Sam and I lived for two years in mid-Kansas while he finished his undergraduate college work. While there I met wise Mennonite women, Elaine Sommers Rich and Katie Funk Wiebe, who became mentors and role models as they explored and wrote of God’s clear calls to women in today’s world.

On that Sunday morning panel, all six women shared stories. Generally, personal change happened with little fanfare. Several told of courageous personal choices.; most of these choices led to welcomed role changes. At times change was scary, and sometimes annoying. Was it easier, some wondered, when little was asked but the care of our children?

Panel members found that congregational life had been enriched by having women as pastors alongside Pastor Mike Derstine during the past 15 years.

We acknowledged on this August Sunday morning that both our sons and our daughters accept most of this role flexibility as the new normal. And with God’s help, we usually can also. Healthy change requires open hearts and minds and a commitment to live in love with our fellow life travelers.

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