Rachel Waltner Goossen
People identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer have long faced stigmatization and discrimination in many North American Mennonite churches and institutions. But during the past decade, two parallel denominations, Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada, have been moving sporadically but irrefutably toward policies of inclusiveness.1 The rise of LGBTQ Mennonite leaders is reshaping the North American Mennonite world, expanding a faith tradition that has staked its identity to radical Christian nonviolence and reinterpreting what it means to live in peaceable communities.
These changes within several Mennonite groups, which have been accompanied by intense controversy and schism, signify substantial developments in Anabaptist faith traditions. Until the early 2000s, when profiles of LGBTQ Mennonite individuals began appearing in a few publications, Mennonites were rarely visible in histories critiquing homophobia and heterosexism.2 More likely, students of Anabaptism might have encountered stories conforming to, in the words of literary scholar Daniel Shank Cruz, “the usual Mennonite trope of leaving the community because of its restrictions.”3
In 2016, I began interviewing theologically-trained Mennonite leaders on both sides of the Canadian/U.S. border who identify as LGBTQ, a project culminating in newly-published scholarship in the journal Nova Religio: “’Repent of the Sins of Homophobia’: The Rise of Queer Mennonite Leaders.”4 To help me locate potential interviewees, staff and board members of the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests, headquartered in Minneapolis, provided names of colleagues ranging in age from 24 to 80. Snowball sampling—that is, the practice of following leads gleaned through personal contacts—yielded forty-four seminary-trained LGBTQ leaders across the U.S. and Canada, some of whom no longer affiliated with Mennonite institutions.
Of the forty I was able to contact, thirty individuals consented to interviews. Many of them also made available sermons, letters, photographs, and other relevant documents for this study. Our interviews, which cover personal narratives and engagement with congregations and church-related institutions ranging from schools to mission agencies and publishing houses, provide windows into the experiences of queer leaders across decades and geographic regions. Although I had begun this work intending to document the loss of theologically-trained pastors and others to Mennonite faith communities as a result of discriminatory practices, I learned that their paths had been both complicated and highly variable.
In some cases, individuals had been pushed out of their faith communities or had left in search of more hospitable church homes. Stories of harm and spiritual violence, both episodic and sustained, are an integral part of these oral history narratives. At the same time, many interviewees recounted how they persisted in professional roles as Mennonite pastors, chaplains, and administrators, despite barriers embedded in institutional policies and practices. Still others, who in previous decades had departed their faith communities under painful circumstances, had eventually circled back to Mennonite structures undergoing profound theological shifts regarding sexual ethics and congregational hospitality.5
Interviews conducted for this study are now available for further research at the Mennonite Church USA Archives in Elkhart, Indiana.6 Leaders whose narratives have been archived include Sharon Andre, Michelle Burkholder, Jason Frey, Joanne Gallardo, Theda Good, Sarah Klaassen, Shannon Neufeldt, Paula Northwood, John Rempel, Annabeth Roeschley, Russ Schmidt, and Randy Spaulding. Additional Mennonite pastors and theologians who are hetero-identified and allied with LGBTQ Mennonites also contributed interviews for archival repository and public dissemination. Notably, former Mennonite Church USA officials Ervin Stutzman and Nancy Kauffmann, prior to retiring from their administrative positions in 2018, also went on record with interviews focused on their practices affecting LGBTQ pastoral candidates. In their interviews, Stutzman and Kauffmann reflected on the sustained criticisms of the denomination’s policies from the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests, Pink Menno, and other progressive activists within the church, as well as the exodus of conservative churches and conferences from Mennonite Church USA.7
This body of recorded oral histories is a significant resource for contemporary Mennonite studies. At its heart are first person narratives of theologically-trained individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer. Some of the interviewees have been in leadership in Mennonite congregations that have long welcomed all adherents, regardless of sexual orientation.8 One respondent, for example, recounted the prophetic witness of the Hyattsville Mennonite congregation in Maryland, which, she noted, has been a welcoming church for more than three decades and, as such, has earned the status of “rebel stepchild in the Mennonite Church.”9 But nearly all the respondents, in their personal and professional lives, have navigated far more conventional Mennonite settings.
The oral histories reveal how complex negotiations have been in the broader Mennonite world, as queer leaders and their allies have strategized to transform churchwide perspectives on sexual identity, and, in some cases, have moved to less heteronormative sites to practice their faith.10 Some left the church temporarily, even for decades, before returning with broadened perspectives to Mennonite settings. When queer Mennonite leaders and their allies departed, where, denominationally speaking, did they go? The evidence suggests that most individuals who moved away from Mennonite affiliations turned to the Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Society of Friends (Quakers), United Church of Canada, and the Unitarian Universalists. Others have circled again into Mennonite congregations that have grappled with, and ultimately dropped, exclusionary practices.
The oral history interviews make clear that “staying Mennonite” is not necessarily the most desirable outcome for pastoral leaders who have moved on to other faith traditions. Most who leave continue to identify culturally and theologically as Anabaptist Mennonites, even while serving as pastors, chaplains, and administrators in other faith communities. Several of the interviewees referenced other Mennonite pastors, beyond the scope of this study, who identify as LGBTQ but, at present, remain circumspect about publicly acknowledging their sexual identities. And although I sought to interview transgender Mennonites, only one transgender person agreed to be interviewed. Further historical research is needed on transgender leadership in Mennonite settings, as well as on the experiences of LGBTQ Mennonites who are not theologically trained.11
The witness of LGBTQ-identified leaders living their lives authentically continues to impact faith communities across geographic and denominational boundaries. Their perspectives inform and alter Mennonite institutions that are seeking, however convulsively, to acknowledge and address homophobic religious culture reaching back many decades. Beginning in 2014 with Theda Good’s ministerial licensing at First Mennonite Church in Denver and continuing to the present, regional conferences within Mennonite USA that have licensed openly LGBTQ pastors and chaplains include Mountain States Mennonite Conference, Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference, Central District Mennonite Conference, and Allegheny Mennonite Conference.12
The quickening pace of LGBTQ leaders arriving into and heading out from Mennonite institutional life blurs the lines of denominational identification, as openly queer pastors and theologians move into positions of influence in and beyond the Mennonite church. While many sectors within the broader Anabaptist landscape—not only in North America, but worldwide—continue to deny calls for equity and justice, queer leaders are pushing Mennonite bodies to make history, dismantling discrimination against LGBTQ-identified members and confronting the sins of homophobia.13
Rachel Waltner Goossen is Professor of History at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. Thanks to Ben Goossen for providing comments on this essay.
1. In 2020, for example, an advisory group within Mennonite Church USA proposed a series of nondiscriminatory practices regarding LGBTQ individuals; formal action is expected in 2021. See “Report from the Advisory Group on Mennonite Church USA Guidelines,” 27 January 2020, http://mennoniteusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/REPORT-MGAdvisoryGroup-Final-2.pdf; “Panel Recommends Retiring Membership Guidelines,” Mennonite World Review, 10 February 2020, 1, 13. On the Canadian context, see the General Board of MC Canada’s statement of apology to LGBTQ individuals across the denomination, “General Board Confession,” The Canadian Mennonite, 29 Sept. 2017, http://www.canadianmennonite.org/stories/general-board-confession.
2. Significant scholarship includes Roberta Showalter Kreider, From Wounded Hearts: Faith Stories of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered People and Those Who Love Them(Gaithersburg, MD: Chi Rho Press, 1998); Together in Love: Faith Stories of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Couples (Kulpsville, PA: Strategic Press, 2002); The Cost of Truth: Faith Stories of Mennonite and Brethren Leaders and Those Who Might Have Been (Kulpsville, PA: Strategic Press, 2004); Alicia Dueck, Negotiating Sexual Identities: Lesbian, Gay, and Queer Perspectives on Being Mennonite (Zurich: LitVerlag, 2012); Stephanie Krehbiel, “Pacifist Battlegrounds: Violence, Community, and the Struggle for LGBTQ Justice in the Mennonite Church USA,” Ph.D. diss., University of Kansas, 2015, and Irma Fast Dueck and Darryl Neustaedter Barg, The Listening Church, documentary, 2016, http://listeningchurch.ca/?page_id¼16.
3. Queering Mennonite Literature: Archives, Activism, and the Search for Community (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019), 136.
4. Rachel Waltner Goossen, “’Repent of the Sins of Homophobia’: The Rise of Queer Mennonite Leaders,” Nova Religio, 24 (February 2021): 68-95. Academic audiences provided commentary that informed this work at the Crossing the Line Conference, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, in June 2017; the Menno Simons Lectures, Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, in October 2018; the Women Doing Theology Conference, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, in November 2018; and the Queer History Conference, San Francisco State University, in June 2019.
5. Examples include Shannon Neufeldt, Keith Schrag, and Randy Spaulding.
6. Rachel Waltner Goossen Collection on LGBTQ Mennonite Leaders, 2016-2020, HM1-1030, Mennonite Church USA Archives, Elkhart, Indiana, https://archives.mhsc.ca/index.php/rachel-waltner-goossen-collection-on-lgbtq-mennonite-leaders.
7. Stutzman interview via phone, Harrisonburg, VA, 5 February 2018, audio recording; Kauffmann interview via Skype, 18 January 2018, Elkhart, IN, audio recording. On the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests and Pink Menno, see “BMC Mission and Vision,” https://www.bmclgbt.org/about, and “Pink Menno: History and Vision,” http://www.pinkmenno.org/history-vision/.
8. Cf. Richard Lichty, An Increase in Time: Story Lines of Germantown Mennonite Church and Its Historic Trust, 1683-2005 (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2015), and an account of Hyattsville Mennonite Church’s relationship to Allegheny Mennonite Conference in Emma Green, “Gay and Mennonite,” The Atlantic, 18 March 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/03/gay-and-mennonite/388060/.
9. Annabeth Roeschley interview via Skype, Washington, D.C., 5 Sept. 2017, audio recording.
10. On queer theologians incorporating personal experience, see Stephanie Chandler Burns, “Queering Anabaptist Theology: An Endeavor in Breaking Binaries as Hermeneutical Community,” in Recovering from the Anabaptist Vision: New Essays in Anabaptist Identity and Theological Method, eds. Laura Schmidt Roberts, Paul Martens, and Myron A. Penner (London: T&T Clark, 2020), 77–92.
11. The Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests’ Oral History Project, one avenue for fruitful research, makes available videotaped oral history records pertaining to individuals from multiple Anabaptist groups; see https://www.bmclgbt.org/center-history.
12. On the historic first licensing of an openly queer leader in Mennonite Church USA, see “Theda Good, Lesbian Mennonite Minister, Licensed in Denver, a First Step Towards Gay Ordination,” Huffington Post, 4 February 2014, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/theda-good-gay-mennonite_n_4723272.
13. This study is intended to spur broader research on other continents, as well. Mennonite leaders identifying as queer are prominent in Europe, but LGBTQ membership and leadership remain controversial among adherents in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. See Rachel Waltner Goossen, “Transnational Perspectives: LGBTQ Mennonites,” chapter in Just Peace, Vol. 2, Amsterdam Centre for Religion and Peace and Justice Studies, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, forthcoming.