Engendering Mission

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Engendering Mission

“Gender matters everywhere in the world. And I would like today to ask that we begin to dream about and plan for a different world.”

—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigerian novelist and nonfiction writer

“Mission work empowers….We must change gender relations to empower missions.”

—Dorothy Oluwagbimi

One of my earliest memories from my childhood congregation in the rural Midwest of the United States is of the controversy that came about when a female member taught an adult Bible study. It was the controversy linked to this event that caused me to realize that my gender set me apart and that the church would at times limit the ways in which I could serve. Eventually, because I felt called to a life of ministry and had natural tendencies to manage and lead, I left Anabaptism, hoping to find a faith community that would not restrict my vocational movement and calling.

It was in my first year of service in Kyrgyzstan that I not only reclaimed my Anabaptist identity but also discovered what so many other women had before me—that serving as a missionary offered an opportunity to lead within the church. Distanced from the North American institutions I was affiliated with, I found space to exercise my gifts.

Through mission engagement, women have long been empowered to empower. From the records of the life of Elisabeth van Leeuwarden—an early Anabaptist who escaped a convent, studied the scriptures, and carefully went from one village to another teaching others the way of Christ—we read how women strategize. In the Old Testament story of Esther, who saved the Jewish people from destruction, we see how women subvert. And the legacy of Walpurga Marschalkin von Pappenheim, who edited one of Pilgram Marpeck’s writings, demonstrates that women organize. As Bre Woligroski shares in the introductory book review of this issue, “women find a way.”

Understandings of gendered roles in North America in the mid-nineteenth century led to the (maternalistic) belief that women were responsible for reaching other women and their children with the gospel, resulting in what historian Dana Robert identities as the first-gender-linked mission theory.1 The motto “woman’s work for woman” shaped North American Protestant understandings of mission for more than forty years. By the time of the landmark 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, where few of the thousands of delegates were women, Protestant women in America were already celebrating fifty years of the Golden Jubilee tour of the American women’s ecumenical missionary movement. By 1916, when twenty-four thousand North Americans were engaged in mission, 62 percent were female.²

It is in this context that Anita Hooley Yoder begins this issue of Anabaptist Witness. In “A Mission to Themselves: Changing Views of Mission in North American Mennonite Women’s Organizations,” she documents major shifts in Mennonite understandings of mission in the mid-twentieth century. As North American congregations began to transition away from international efforts toward an emphasis on ministering to the communities in which they lived, women’s organizations also shifted their focus. During this transition, women in North America began to emphasize self-care and personal faith development within their own circles rather than abroad.

Kimberly Penner contends in the second article that female international missionaries had more opportunities to serve in leadership than their sisters back home—as I also experienced in my years of international service. Despite women’s increased freedom, however, women’s organizational efforts were still subordinate to male-dominated church structures. As Dana Robert notes in American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice, men have traditionally been the gatekeepers of church institutions and mission theories (and men continue to dramatically outnumber female missiologists today).³ Typically, women have engaged mission at personal and ethical levels; consequently, church planting efforts were mostly led by men. In those rare occasions when women did plant a church, leadership was quickly turned over to their male counterparts. Penner suggests that this tendency continues to shape church planting leadership today and might explain the dearth of female church planters in Mennonite circles.

The central argument of Penner’s paper, however, is that power is unleashed when mission structures and leaders listen for and to the voices of the marginalized. This act of listening allows for the opportunity to build relationships of shared power and mutuality. Arli Klassen responds, affirming Penner’s primary argument but then pushes the conversation forward by naming the complexity of oppressive systems. People on the margins in one context often have power in other contexts. “There is no clear divide between ‘from the margins’ and ‘to the margins.’ ”

As a white woman, I have recently felt this tension between marginalization and power. Power is complicated. While white heterosexual women in the United States have believed that all of our gender were bound together in sisterhood, some of us have recently discovered what our marginalized sisters have known all along: we continue to fail each other. We have allowed our fear of difference to outweigh the strength we have when united. And this is also true of the church. We continue to fail each other. We fail when we do not seek out the voice of the marginalized. We fail when we do not recognize the other as created in God’s image. We fail when we hold on to our own power at another’s expense. We have failed and continue to fail our sisters, brothers, and transgender and intersex siblings.

I had hoped that this issue of Anabaptist Witness would, in part, allow for a relevant and much-needed conversation about how to minister to and with transgender and intersex individuals in the global church. But, while this concern surfaces briefly through many of these papers, we have not yet made the conversation front and center. We have highlighted stories of one gender, bringing forward a powerful voice, but have not looked for or listened to other voices well enough.

In this issue, you will find stories of courageous individuals determined to share the gospel. Their legacies and the challenges they put forth provide us with much to draw on as we consider gender in our changing contexts and what it means to bear the good news.

 Jamie Ross, Co-Editor

1) Dana L. Robert, ed., Gospel Bearers, Gender Barriers: Missionary Women in the Twentieth Century (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002), 7.

2) Ibid., 5.

3) Dana L. Robert, American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press), 409–10.

Articles in this issue

Editorial by Jamie Ross

Changer les relations entre les sexes pour dynamiser la mission

French translation of editorial / Traduction française de l'introduction
Exclusive online content

Academic article by Anita Hooley Yoder

A Mission to Themselves

Academic article by Kimberly Penner

Building Right Relationships

Reflection piece by Arli Klassen

Response to “Building Right Relationships”

Poetry by H. J. Recinos


Reflection piece by Brianna C. Millett

I Have No Husband

Academic article by Ann Graber Hershberger

Other Ways in Which We Can Serve

Reflection piece by David W. Shenk

Neither Male nor Female

Reflection piece by Anne Thiessen

The Tension of Grace

Disponible en version française

Reflection piece by Alix Lozano

Jesús, la mujer y el encuentro en un espacio de frontera

English language version available

Reflection piece by Alix Lozano

Jesus, the Woman, and Their Encounter in a Border Region

Disponible en español

Academic article by Susanne Guenther Loewen

Can the Cross Be “Good News” for Women?

Disponible en version française

Book review by Bre Woligroski

Kristen Welch and Abraham Ruelas, “The Role of Female Seminaries on the Road to Social Justice for Women”

Book review by Susanne Guenther Loewen

Frances S. Adeney, “Women and Christian Mission: Ways of Knowing and Doing Theology”

Book review by Joanna Harader

Tim Otto, “Oriented to Faith: Transforming the Conflict over Gay Relationships”

Book review by Kelly Bernadin Dvorak

Rupa Viswanath, “The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion, and the Social in Modern India”

Book review by Jonathan Bornman

Peter M. Sensenig, “Peace Clan: Mennonite Peacemaking in Somalia”

Book review by Matthew Knight

Roberta R. King and Sooi Ling Tan, eds., “(un)Common Sounds: Songs of Peace and Reconciliation among Muslims and Christians”

Book review by Maxwell Kennel

Samuel J. Steiner, “In Search of Promised Lands: A Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario”

Book review by John F. Lapp

Alan Kreider, “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire”

Book review by David W. Boshart

Curtis W. Freeman, “Contesting Catholicity: Theology for Other Baptists”

Book review by Jodi Spargur

Rosalind I. J. Hackett, ed., “Proselytization Revisited: Rights Talk, Free Markets, and Culture Wars”

Book review by David Driedger

Qwo-Li Driskill, “Asegi Stories: Cherokee Queer and Two-Spirit Memory”

Academic article by Susanne Guenther Loewen

La croix peut-elle être une « bonne nouvelle » pour les femmes ?

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English version available

Reflection piece by Anne Thiessen

La tension de la grâce

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English version available