Mennonite Brethren pastor a leader but not ‘the lead’

Californian's role fits within denomination's restriction on women in senior pastoral ministry

Jul 3, 2017 by and

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A part of Audrey Hindes always wanted to be a pastor. Even as a child, she took seriously the suggestion to read her Bible every day.

Audrey Hindes


“When I went to Fresno Pacific University my freshman year, according to people in my life I had a lot of leadership abilities,” she said. “I could be a CEO, and I studied business, but I wanted to study Greek more.”

She chose to major in biblical studies. Later she returned to the Mennonite Brethren university and taught for several years in the same biblical studies program.

Hints of the untaken CEO path may cross her mind July 2 as she is installed as a pastor at College Community Church Mennonite Brethren in Clovis, Calif.

The congregation and its Pacific District Conference are clear that her title is not lead pastor, though the only other pastor on paid staff is Whitney Allen, pastor of youth and outreach. The U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches restricts women from serving as lead pastors.

“I am curious myself how this all will work out,” Hindes said from her office on June 26, her first day on the job. “Titles have been one area of concern, I think, for all involved. In the end we just went with the title ‘pastor’ because of the problem with the word ‘lead.’ ”

Growing up in the MB church, Hindes wasn’t encouraged to be a pastor, but she loved discussing the Bible and decided to be a teacher. She earned a master’s degree in biblical languages in 2005 from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and even began a doctoral program in Hebrew Bible. Most recently she was associate director of student life and academic support at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

Over time, she realized she was spending time preparing for lectures when she was more energized spending that time in conversation with her students. Last year, she heard the congregation was seeking a pastor.

“I had heard that College Community was doing a pastoral search,” she said. “It just didn’t occur to me [to apply] since it is a Mennonite Brethren church. It didn’t enter my mind as a possibility.

“My husband got a text message asking if he was interested in the job, and he said, ‘You should do it.’ ”

Ongoing conversation

The role of women in the church is not new territory to MBs. According to Doug J. Heidebrecht, a former director of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Winnipeg, Man., over a period of 50 years MB denominations have wrestled with such questions in four study conferences (1974, 1980, 1989, 2004-05) and nine resolutions (1957, 1975, 1981, 1984, 1987, 1990, 1993, 1999, 2006).

In 2006 the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches opened lead pastorates to women. The last time U.S. MBs discussed the topic was 1999, when delegates affirmed a policy encouraging women to “minister in the church in every function other than the lead pastorate.”

Heidebrecht received a $2,000 research grant from the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission in 2016 to analyze MB engagement with the question of women in church ministry leadership between 1954 and 2010. The title of his project is “Sisters Leading Brothers? Mennonite Brethren and Women in Ministry Leadership,” and the grant was made possible with support from the Katie Funk Wiebe fund.

“These have often been difficult and painful conversations,” he wrote in an application for the research grant. “No other issue has received this level of attention by Mennonite Brethren during the second half of the 20th century.”

In March, the USMB Board of Faith and Life worked on ways to have conversations with constituents after questions about the policy came from the denomination’s Pacific and Southern districts. Christian Leader reported the BFL will explore hosting a meeting with district-level BFLs to seek input and counsel.

MBs have traditionally viewed the issue of women in church leadership as a polity matter, rather than a confessional issue. The restriction on women as lead pastors is not in the Confession of Faith but in policy statements and resolutions.

A ‘whale’ arrives

“I took a few weeks to pray about it, and I wrote in my journal, ‘God, if you want me to do this, you’ve got to send a whale, because I feel like Jonah and going the other way,’ ” Hindes said. “I didn’t feel it was a possibility for a woman in the Mennonite Brethren world.”

She had a conversation with College Community around Christmas, which led to further conversations.

“Before I knew it, I really wanted to be the pastor here,” she said. “That’s what I needed. I needed to see it as a real possibility.”

College Community moderator Dalton Reimer emphasized Hindes’ title is not lead pastor and that the church has not had such a position for many years. The congregation instead has a history of using a pastoral leadership team. Hindes succeeds interim pastors Chuck Buller and Marci Bertalotto, who followed longtime pastor Bill Braun, who shared pastoral duties with Mary Anne Isaak.

“We have Pastor Audrey, we have a pastor of youth and outreach, but then we also have all our commission chairs who are part of the pastoral team, and among them, it depends on how you define things,” said Reimer, who noted College Community discussed with Pacific District leadership its desire to have a gender-neutral pastoral search.

PDC district minister Gary Wall said Hindes is joining a team of men and women who serve together in preaching and pastoral leadership, and she’ll be an important part of that team.

Policy parameters

“Both the USMB and PDC Boards of Faith and Life have affirmed Audrey in this role and have found the congregation to be within the parameters of USMB policy,” said Wall, who serves on both BFLs and is leading the July 2 installation service.

Though she hasn’t completed application materials for PDC licensing yet, Wall said she’s been affirmed to be credentialed and licensed by the conference BFL.

“We haven’t done the interview, but I anticipate that will go well and she will be a licensed MB minister among us,” he said. “We have dozens of women licensed among us.”

That application must find a slot in a busy schedule. She has a job to do, regardless of title.

“I guess at the end of the day I am simply considering myself to be the pastor and I think in a different context — if this church was one that had a few associate pastors and a children’s pastor and a youth pastor — the word ‘lead’ might be more meaningful,” Hindes said. “But in our context the word ‘lead’ is an imported word that has more meaning elsewhere.”

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  • Daniel Hoopert

    It’s time to become people of the Book again. Claims that women have been called to pastoral ministry need to be examined by looking at the Scriptures again. I commend a few books to you before I discuss some passages from Scripture that address this matter. First is Claire Smith’s God’s Good Design. I have read the first part of this book, where she addresses roles of men and women in the church, and a few pages in the second part, where she addresses matters in the family. She does good work in Part 1.
    A second book is Women in the Church, in various editions, from 1st to 3rd, edited by Andreas Kostenberger and Thomas Schreiner (the first edition also had H. Scott Baldwin as an editor). This book presents findings by such people as Steven Baugh on first century Ephesus, Albert Wolters on the Greek word authentein ‘hold authority’, Andreas Kostenberger on the term oude ‘neither’ in the construction ‘to teach nor to hold authority’, and others. These are significant in the matter of analyzing and interpreting 1 Timothy 2:12-15. Another book that is the product of a doctoral dissertation is Equality in Christ? by Richard Hove, where he examines the text in Galatians 3:28 ‘there is neither male nor female’.
    In 1 Timothy Paul tells Timothy that he does not permit a woman to teach nor to hold authority over men. The grammatical object of ‘teach’ is not expressed, but is the same as the grammatical object of ‘to hold authority over’. Paul simply does not express the object because of economy of expression. The term ‘to hold authority over’ may be disputed, but Wolters, mentioned above, argues well that it means to hold authority. Kostenberger contributes to this by noting that the Greek term oude ‘neither’ is used between two terms that are either both positive or both negative. The teaching that Paul prohibits in this verse is positive teaching; ‘to hold authority’ is a positive concept that Paul prohibits; it is not a negative concept meaning ‘to usurp authority’.
    Paul gives the reasons why he prohibits these things to women. He writes, “for it was Adam who was created first, and then Eve,” and “and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” Someone may not like what Paul wrote, but his is what he wrote, and he wrote it as the reasons (the grounds) for his prohibition. (We might note that the passage is structured as an inverted parallelism: the reason that Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor occurs last, and relates to the first prohibition. The reason that it was Adam who was created first, and then Eve, is the occurs as the first of the reasons (it appears second to last), and relates to the second prohibition, i.e., to not teach (men).
    People argue that this passage is part of a letter designed to stop false teaching. I am not sure that people would want to pursue that. Don Carson observes that Paul does not prohibit men from teaching. On the other hand, Paul writes that he does not permit women to teach. That would seem to silence all women. Should we conclude then that no men were teaching false doctrines (Paul does not silence the men on teaching), but that the women were teaching false doctrine, and furthermore, that all the women were teaching false doctrine? And then were no men deceived, and were all the women deceived? What would that say about women???
    That is one passage that addresses the matter. Do other passages say something different? What about Galatians 3:28, “there is neither male nor female’? In this passage in Galatians, Paul is not saying that sexes and roles of men and women have been obliterated; he is saying that there is something that men and women have in common; men who have been justified by faith in Jesus Christ and women who have been justified by faith in Jesus Christ are both heirs of the promise; in this sense, there is no difference. Hove makes an interesting observation about the use of ‘one’ in 1 Corinthians 3:8. There, Paul writes, ‘the one who plants and the one who waters are one’. He uses the neuter form of the word for ‘one’, hen. In Galatians, he uses the masculine form, heis. The difference in grammatical gender does not really matter (perhaps Paul uses the masculine because he has just referred to all of them being ‘sons’). In 1 Corinthians, Paul is telling the Corinthians that the person who plants seeds and the person who waters them have something in common; he is not saying that they do the same thing, and he is not saying that their roles are interchangeable. In the same way, Paul is not saying that the things that males do and the things that females do are the same; he is saying in each case that the ones who are one have some one thing in common.
    It’s time for us to become people of the Book once again. The Scriptures are our authority for faith and practice. It is necessary that we study them and interpret them in their contexts, beginning with the immediate literary context, the broader context of paragraph and section, then the context of the book in which they are found, and then in the context of the whole of Scriptures.
    I think I wrote before about trajectory hermeneutics. It is true that revelation progressed through Old Testament times, and that full revelation came in Jesus Christ. The revelation that came in Christ was explained and applied by Christ’s appointed Apostles. Revelation is complete as we have it in the New Testament. There is no new canonical revelation that has come to us since the New Testament was written. And the Scriptures that we have, although given through various people, have one Author, God Himself; there will not be contradiction between Scriptures (alleged contradictions between, say, teachings under the Old Covenant and teachings in the New need to be resolved in finding the relation between the two covenants). When contradictions seem to exist (say, the apparent contradiction between women being allowed to prophesy in 1 Corinthians 12 and their being enjoined to silence in 1 Corinthians 14:34) must be worked out in humble submission to God’s Word and through the hard work of exegesis and interpreting things in context and the development of themes across Scripture. It is helpful and good to consult such works as C. Smith’s God’s Good Design, so once again I commend this book to you.

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