The Rise of LGBTQ Mennonite Leaders

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.

Theda Good (in rainbow stole) at her ordination celebration in Denver, December 2016. Courtesy Theda Good

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,; “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,

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, 2016,¼16.

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,

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,”, and “Pink Menno: History and 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,

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

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,

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.

Holding to the Jot and Tittle: Deaconesses in Virginia Conference

Anna Showalter

I grew up in a Mennonite community that did not recognize women in positions of church leadership.  As times changed, I assumed that my sisters and I were the first generation of women in our family to imagine that our calls to ministry might be affirmed and even ordained by the Mennonite Church.  Imagine my surprise when my dad discovered that my great-great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Shank Showalter, was ordained as a deaconess in 1889 to the Middle District of Virginia Conference!  As much as I celebrated the rediscovery of my deaconess matriarch, I also learned that church polity, influenced by a renewed zeal for doctrinal conformity, significantly confined the role of the deaconess, eventually making it obsolete.


Deaconess Elizabeth Shank Showalter

Deaconesses were an anomaly in the (Old) Mennonite Church except for in the Middle District of Virginia Conference, where around 28 women were ordained as deaconesses loosely between the years of 1861-1962.1  Deaconesses were appointed to assist ministers in providing for the pastoral care and physical needs of women and girls and to help facilitate services of baptism, communion and footwashing.2  The role of deaconess, at its best, offered women an outlet for meaningful (albeit modest) ministry in the church complete with public affirmation through ordination (of a kind).  However, as power consolidated around conferences and Bishops, Mennonites began emphasizing doctrinal and behavioral uniformity.  As a result, the role of deaconess was significantly curtailed to focus heavily on monitoring women’s dress and behavior.  

Mennonite historians have amply documented increases around the turn of the century in ordered organizational structures in conferences, which consolidated power to Bishops and enforced order in doctrine, dress, and congregational life.3  This institutionalization was part of an attempt to secure and clarify Mennonite identity so that it could withstand the challenges of a modern era.  Maintaining doctrinal and behavioral compliance was a struggle, however.  In 1919, the Middle District of Virginia Conference reported that out of its 700 members only 100 men and 175 women “conform to the regulations of the church.” Leadership addressed this problem, saying, “We need to redouble our energy.  We need to hold to the…jot and tittle and it is necessary to place more emphasis on this subject now since the world is against it.”4

The responsibility for holding women to the “jot and tittle” fell to deaconesses.  Their work increasingly consisted of “visiting women and girls, members of the church who were out of line in dress, morals and conduct.”5  Holding the line included ensuring that other women were dressed properly, particularly for communion and baptism, sewing suitable garments for converts in mission posts and “visiting” (a euphemism for correcting) those who did not comply.  

Some deaconesses fully embraced their role in holding the line. Deaconess Betty Keener believed wholeheartedly in the importance of the bonnet and plain dress.  A missionary with her husband in West Virginia from 1909-1912, she sought to bring the women there into compliance with Mennonite standards of dress.  She was appalled to learn that “fault had been found” in a convert who ceased to wear her bonnet because she didn’t feel comfortable being the only woman her community to do so.  The woman was seen in “one of those big straw hats and jewelry.” The sister in question “flew off the handle” when confronted and said, “ If you can’t carry me as I am, scratch my name off the book.”  Betty expressed her disappointment.  “How could she?  How can it be possible for her whom we thought consecrated to fall away so soon?  What has done it?”6  

Other deaconesses, however, had more empathy with the “transgressors” and felt the burden of enforcing standards.  Frances Suter Harman, daughter of deaconess Pearl Suter, recalled impressions of her mother’s ministry in the 1930s and 40s.  “The deaconesses of those later years often felt that their duties were becoming onerous, as they tried to hold the line with the rules for the dress of the women.  They did this for the bishops who felt they should not become involved in overseeing that the women and girls were dressed properly for baptism and communion.”7  Another daughter remembers feeling how much her mother worried about the task of visiting sisters who had fallen into sin—a task assigned by church leadership as hers to “deal with.”

By the 1940s and 50s, as the work of the deaconess became more “onerous,” fewer deaconesses were ordained, and finally in 1962 the Middle District Ministerial Council decided that the wives of ordained men would perform the duties of deaconess but without title or ordination.  In her study of Virginia Conference deaconesses, Ruth Lehman suggests that the ministry of deaconesses had “become so mundane that the vision of the possibilities for the office in the life and growth of the church were no longer seen.”8  Someone still needed to bake communion bread, wash out basins for foot washing and attend to women’s needs in the church, but the role of deaconess had become so confined to upholding discipline that there was no longer vision for a recognized ministry role for women in the church.   The ministerial council decided that pastors’ wives should take over these tasks.  Thus, church polity, with its solidifying institutions and insistence on doctrinal and behavioral uniformity, first curtailed the role of the deaconess before finally phasing it out.

Thus, church polity, with its solidifying institutions and insistence on doctrinal and behavioral uniformity, first curtailed the role of the deaconess before finally phasing it out.

The story of my deaconess great-great- great-grandmother was completely forgotten by my family until my dad stumbled across it while doing family research.  We are surprised that my grandpa, a knowledgeable Mennonite historian, never told us about it.  His cousin compiled the deaconess list at the archive so surely he would have seen it.  We will never know if Grandpa didn’t know about his deaconess great-grandmother or if he chose not to talk about it because of his opposition to women in leadership.  In any case, those of us who know about Elizabeth Showalter and the deaconesses of Virginia Conference have the opportunity to remember forgotten leaders of our past and to be aware of how church polity continues to affect marginal leaders in our own day.  

Today women serve in a variety of roles in Virginia Mennonite Conference and are ordained as pastors.  Concerns about holding to the “jot and tittle” no longer pertain to plain dress, but issues of authority, decision-making, compliance and discipline continue to affect leaders in minority positions.  Are negotiations between ministry on the margins and conference polity once again “onerous?”  The future of a viable ministry for leaders in minority positions may depend on the answer to that question.  

  1.  Ruth K. Lehman, “Deaconesses of the Middle District of Virginia Conference,” (class paper, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, 1989), 40-42. 
  2.  Lehman, 14. 
  3.  James C. Juhnke,  Vision, Doctrine, War: Mennonite Identity and Organization in America, 1890-1930, vol. 3: Mennonite Experience in America (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1989), 119. 
  4. Minutes of the Virginia Mennonite Conference (1835-1938), (Scottdale, Pa,  Virginia Mennonite Conference, 1939), 125. 
  5. Lehman, 14. 
  6.  Henry Brunk, History of Mennonites if Virginia 1900-1960, (Verona, VA. McClure Printing Company, Inc., 1972), 188. 
  7.  Lehman, 17. 
  8.  Lehman, 22.