Ordination of Women in Ontario

Ministering sisters, 1900

Ontario ministering sisters ca. 1900. Photo courtesy Missionary Church Historical Trust.

In an earlier post, we noted that the Mennonite Brethren in Christ (now Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada) had women pastoral leaders already in the 1880s. They were called ministering sisters, and often led congregations in small cities like Owen Sound or St. Thomas, or mission congregations in places like Toronto. Although these women participated in annual conference meetings with other pastors, they were never ordained for ministry. Ordination of Mennonite women for ministry did not come to Ontario until the last quarter of the 20th century. There were anomalous exceptions in the case of some overseas missionaries, like Leona Cressman of the Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church, but in most cases the ordination for mission service did not have the same status in North America.

The objection to women in congregational leadership focused on biblical passages that appeared to circumscribe the role of women in the church, such as 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2. Some commentators, like Mennonite Brethren leader, Henry H. Janzen, also suggested that women were more susceptible to emotion in teaching and that “sexual appeal” was an additional negative factor. In contrast, other biblical interpreters based acceptance of women in ministry on passages like Galatians 3:28 (“There is … neither male nor female …”) and numerous references to the apostle Paul’s female coworkers in Romans 1.

The first woman in Ontario to serve as a co-pastor was Doris Yantzi Weber, who served with her husband, Rod, at the Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford. At that time Avon was part of the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference, a regional conference of the Mennonite Church. Weber had grown up in the Ontario Amish Mennonite community west of Kitchener. When she was about ten her parents took her to a neighboring non-Mennonite church for a musical event. The musicians were introduced by a female pastor. Doris asked her mother the next day if she would ever be able to be a pastor. Although her mother honestly answered, “No,” Doris’s inner call to ministry never died. She attended Ontario Mennonite Bible School, where she met her husband. After bearing six children, she returned to school to obtain her BA and MDiv degrees. In June 1974 Rod and Doris began to serve the church at Avon. Although they functioned together as a team, Rod Weber was licensed for ministry in July 1974, and Doris was not. However, in February 1979 they were both “commissioned” to pastoral ministry, and this was later understood to be equivalent to ordination.

The commissioning language reflected a brief period in binational Mennonite Church history when the “recovery of the Anabaptist Vision” movement stimulated by Harold S. Bender emphasized the “priesthood of all believers.” This sixteenth-century Anabaptist precept caused some Mennonite academics and congregational leaders to reject the hierarchy they perceived in the rite of ordination, which invested leaders with a special office. Some young male pastors sought commissioning instead of ordination, believing this fostered a flatter power structure, and it was not assumed to be lifelong in the way Mennonites had previously understood ordination. John Howard Yoder, the prominent Mennonite theologian, was one academic who argued against the practice of ordination, saying it detracted from the vision of universal ministry and had little biblical foundation. Since a few women were just entering congregational leadership, this change in language from ordination to commissioning led some women to believe commissioning was a lower status that diminished their authority in the congregation. Thus while young male pastors reacted against traditional ordination language, emerging female pastors preferred ordination to undergird their authority in an unfamiliar role. Ironically, within a decade or so, most of the Ontario Mennonite male pastors in congregational leadership also abandoned commissioning language for traditional ordination.

Doreen Neufeld

Doreen Neufeld preparing communion soon after her ordination in 1980. Photo by Hugo Neufeld.

Doreen and Hugo Neufeld moved to Hamilton in July 1971 to direct the Welcome Inn Community Centre. Hugo, a social worker, had grown up in the Niagara United Mennonite Church in Virgil, where his father, Cornelius K. Neufeld, was an early leader. Doreen (née Dueck) grew up in British Columbia and was an elementary school teacher by training. The Neufelds worked cooperatively in their leadership of the Welcome Inn Community Centre activities and its large voluntary service program. Gradually, when their work included more church-like events, including worship services, the Hamilton Mennonite Church was no longer able to accommodate all the activity. Hugo and Doreen were both ordained as ministers on October 19, 1980, at the request of the Hamilton Mennonite Church, with Peter H. Janzen officiating. Janzen was the moderator of the Conference of United Mennonite Churches in Ontario, a regional conference of the General Conference Mennonite Church. As with the case of Rod and Doris Weber, the fact that Doreen’s ordination was for a co-pastorate with her husband likely reduced concerns about the appropriateness of women in leadership.

Martha Smith Good

Martha Smith Good in 1982. Photo courtesy Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Martha Smith joined the pastoral team at Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in Kitchener in November 1977 and was commissioned in January 1978. In March 1979 she married Gerald Good, a widower with four children who was pastor at the Hillcrest Mennonite Church in New Hamburg. After her wedding Martha worked half time, and she left Stirling Avenue in September 1979. In summer 1981 she became the pastor of the new Guelph Mennonite Church. The congregation requested ordination for Smith Good, but the leadership of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec (MCOQ), also part of the Mennonite Church, hesitated. There were several reasons for this hesitation. First, the Guelph congregation’s affiliation also with the Ontario United Mennonite Conference necessitated conversation between the two conferences because of their different procedures for recognizing pastoral leaders. Second, MCOQ remained uncertain whether it wanted to promote commissioning as a replacement for ordination. The conference’s ambivalence and delay in response to the ordination request caused Martha Smith Good much pain, but she was ordained in April 1982 and went on to serve in a number of locations in Ontario and the United States. She was the first ordained woman to serve as the sole pastor of a Mennonite congregation in Ontario.

Eventually these three conferences, composed of highly assimilated Mennonites, merged in 1988 to form Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC), a regional conference of Mennonite Church Canada. Other Ontario Mennonite groups resisted ordaining women into the 21st century.

To learn more about ordination of pastors among Ontario Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands.

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