Dorothy Nickel Friesen grew up in a small
Minnesota town and an active General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC)
congregation in the 1950s and ’60s, then went away to Bethel (of the GCMC’s two
colleges the one most likely to draw her and her peers). People and experiences
in both her home church (Bethel Mennonite, Mountain Lake) and at Bethel College
affirmed her natural gifts for organization, administration,
public speaking, teaching and leadership, and her essential belief that at its
heart to be a Christian meant following the call of Jesus wherever it led,
unhindered by race, gender or other similar characteristics.
It may seem unsurprising that Nickel Friesen, now retired in Newton with her husband, Richard, was a pioneer for women in ministry in the Mennonite church. She was (with Lois Y. Barrett, Rosie Epp, Marilyn Miller, Anne Neufeld Rupp and Patricia Shelly) among the first cohort of women ordained, in the 1980s, to serve Mennonite congregations and institutions; the first woman to be lead pastor of a Mennonite church (First Mennonite, Bluffton, Ohio, 1995-2002); and the first female conference minister of a Mennonite area conference (Western District Conference, 2003-10). Yet even with her largely positive church-related experiences as a girl and young woman, pastoring was not on her radar. In fact, it was initially directly discouraged, when she began taking classes at Associated (now Anabaptist) Mennonite Biblical Seminary at the time Richard was working on a degree, and an adviser told her she should go back to teaching – her first profession – and “stop wasting professors’ time that could be directed toward future pastors.’
Nevertheless, Nickel Friesen did become a pastor – first serving Manhattan (Kansas) Mennonite Church and later interims at Bethel College Mennonite Church in addition to the congregation in Bluffton and the seven years as conference minister (she also was assistant dean at AMBS for five years in the ’90s). She did complete her seminary degree, at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. And the book she has written, though it falls most nearly into the genre of “memoir,’ is, as the subtitle indicates, a collection of stories – about being a female pastor who was often breaking new ground.
The stories are divided into six chapters that are six “areas’ – Formation, Decision, Love and Death (weddings and funerals), Rituals and Rhythms, Surprises, and Sacred Encounters. They are roughly chronological, though do some swinging back and forth in time. Some of the stories are about experiences universal to any pastor but many more illustrate, through Nickel Friesen’s own experience, what is peculiar to being a female pastor in a denomination that was nearly into the 21st century before it began formally recognizing (and credentialing) them.
Two stories are about appearance – probably not something most male pastors have to think much about (no one is likely to be commenting on their earrings, their shoes, their hairstyle or the length – or lack – of their sleeves). Another describes a “bathroom plot’ – a meeting in the women’s restroom at a binational Mennonite conference that resulted in nominations from the floor of women candidates for churchwide office. One story outlines the “threats’ women pastors face that men likely would not in terms of propositions from fellow (adjective used deliberately) clergy, and other sexually inappropriate behavior, and how women have to alter their own conduct in response. Some of the most painful but also interesting stories involve the complications of ordination (especially so because Nickel Friesen was ordained at the Manhattan church, affiliated at that time with the Mennonite Brethren who to this day will not ordain women) few if any men would have experienced, and struggles with sincere Christian people’s belief that a female pastor is “unbiblical.’ And one story recounts a time when the church treasurer (a man), seeing a temporarily slow cash flow, decided to delay writing paychecks for the church’s female employees “because they have husbands who have good jobs.’
Those looking for a straightforward history, or memoir, of a woman pioneer in Mennonite (pastoral) leadership will be hard-pressed to find it here. There are few dates, specific or general, and of necessity almost all names have been changed and some details altered to protect privacy and confidentiality. However, by reading it straight through, you get a good idea of the trajectory of Mennonite women’s leadership within the U.S. church. As well – and also by dipping in, or reading in bits and pieces over time, which the format of this book encourages – you’ll receive a picture of a woman confident in Christ’s call, with a good sense of humor and a deep well of compassion, and some of the barriers she had to cross in her pastoral leadership journey.