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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