She, Me, We: Anabaptist Women Publishing Theology

This past weekend Mennonite Church USA sponsored a conference honoring the diversity of women’s voices in theology, called All You Need Is Love. I had the privilege of co-leading a workshop with Managing Editors Melodie Davis and Valerie Weaver-Zercher. This blog post is a brief adaption of our workshop.

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Why does the Mennonite Church not have a Beth Moore? A Nadia Bolz Weber? An Ann Voskamp? A Rachel Held Evans?

I’ve heard variations of this question—just insert the name of your favorite woman writing theologically.

To answer the question, go back with me to the late 1940s when Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus and Ella May Miller had a huge following among Mennonites and those outside the Mennonite Church.

Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus founded Heart to Heart radio broadcast because she had a heart for the way she saw others parenting (or not) their children, and always longed for a platform, literally, in the church. (In those days a woman could speak from the floor of a Mennonite church but not from the platform.)

Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus photos

Ella May Miller was the speaker for over 25 years on this radio program. Her newsletter was mailed out to some 25,000 supporters and 181 radio stations across the nation carried the program. Annually during survey month she received 36,000 letters! One of her books sold nearly 210,000 copies.

Ella May Miller

Eventually Ella May resigned from the position in 1975, at a time when her approach and theology were no longer being embraced by the direction of the radio program.

A task force was charged with thinking about how to replace her, and they talked about not wanting to develop another personality-driven broadcast. Call it discomfort with women in leadership, call it discomfort with the theology that Ella May was espousing: I can only speculate on all the reasons for the team wanting to go a different direction.

Herald Press is the book imprint of MennoMedia, the publishing and media agency of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. The chart below shows the number of Herald Press titles published in the last 35 years. Specifically broken out are the books authored by women or co-authored by women.


It’s likely no surprise to know that nearly all the children’s books and cookbooks published in these years were written by women. Yes, women also authored devotional and inspirational titles, books about mission and church life, or worship, and books about families. Only a few books in all these years, though, are cataloged strictly as “theology” that are written by women. Why do you think it been acceptable for women to couch theological writing in the context of food, children’s books, or family life rather than just writing theologically? Is this still true?

While Herald Press is certainly not publishing as many books by women as by men, the sales figures tell a different kind of story. Below are the 10 bestselling Herald Press books of all time. And I’ve put in bold the titles by women. Note that just 3 of these 10 are by men.

  1. The Amish (1952), John Hostetler
  2. More With Less Cookbook (1976), Doris Janzen Longacre
  3. Caring Enough to Confront (1973), David Augsburger
  4. Meditations for the New Mother (1953), Helen Good Brenneman
  5. Mennonite Community Cookbook (1950), Mary Emma Showalter
  6. Rosanna of the Amish (1940), Joseph Yoder
  7. Favorite Family Recipes (1972), Mary Emma Showalter
  8. Meditations for Expectant Mothers (1968), Helen Good Brenneman
  9. Amish Cooking (1982), Compiled by Amish women
  10. Ellie (1988), Mary Christner Borntrager

We at Herald Press see books authored in one of the following ways:

  • Solo author: Single author creates content of the book. (Recent titles include Sacred Pauses, Ordinary Miracles, and Blush.)
  • Coauthor: Two or more authors create content of the book. (Recent titles include Mennonite Girls Can Cook and Creating a Scene.)
  • Editor: One or more editors invite others to create substantive content. Editor creates content herself. (Recent titles include Tongue Screws and Testimonies and Widening the Circle.)
  • Collector: One or more editors invite others to create substantive content. (Titles include More-with-Less Cookbook and Simply in Season.)

While books are written in all of those ways, at Herald Press we know that:

  • Solo-authored books generally sell better than coauthored or editor-driven projects.
  • Collected editions, though, have been among Herald Press’ bestselling titles, with cookbooks as the biggest example.

Managing Editor Valerie Weaver-Zercher talking about the ways that women write for Herald Press.

At the same time, when myself or others from Herald Press approach women to invite them to write a book as a solo author, they frequently suggest either a coauthor or editor approach instead. Perhaps it’s a lack of time. Perhaps it’s insecurity in author platform. Perhaps it’s feeling like you don’t have something to say.

As women, we practice theology on the go. It happens in the midst of conversations, in the midst of everyday life. The dialogical nature of how we “do” theology could be one of the reasons why women are so interested in writing with others and telling their stories together.


Theologian Malinda Elizabeth Berry, at left, gave a wonderful workshop on thinking theologically about several Herald Press cookbooks. I’m on the right responding to Malinda’s assessment. It was theology on the go with my little theologian along for the ride.

But women, we need to hear your voices! The church needs you to “lean in” and communicate your message, to quote Sheryl Sandberg. I encourage you to work on your author platform either in person or via social media, to connect with readers and reviewers, and to engage in speaking and writing theologically. All of this helps you cultivate an audience that wants to follow you, and this is the audience that will eventually want to buy your book.

Amy Gingerich

Editorial Director

Picture of me 1


How to do a book launch and not blush.

Today is a big day for Herald Press/MennoMedia and we are excited to get the word out to everyone as much as possible!

It is the official publication date for Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World by Shirley Hershey Showalter. Finally.

IMG_8821Along the way there was a live-streamed online unveiling of the cover design (by Merrill Miller), discussing the long process of evaluating and redoing covers as author, publisher, and marketing come to agreement.

Backing up even further, Shirley went through a huge project of reading 100 memoirs and reviewing most of them at her blog, Yes, 100 memoirs. Some of them great, some of them not quite as great, I’m sure, but she did it to learn all she could about the memoir writing process and what was out there, even producing a small free booklet on “How to write a memoir.”

She then kind of went into hibernation, if you can do that in Brooklyn, N.Y., while taking a year to be Granny Nanny to her first grandchild, Owen. Many of us followed that blog too (now closed). She spent parts of her days taking care of the newborn and helping him discover first his fingers, then his family, then the big beautiful world out there.

Back in her newly adopted home of Harrisonburg, Va. (after a number of years in Goshen as president of Goshen College) and other places, she labored and stewed and produced draft after draft of Blush which had numerous names (like most books do) along the way.

She started exchanging ideas and plans almost weekly on Google Hangout with marketing director Ben Penner. She’s become a social media guru, tweeting through seminars, giving thoughtful and genuine comments on blogs everywhere, game for any promotion suggestion.
IMG_3117Ervin Stutzman and Shirley Showalter discuss their books in progress at the Mennonite Convention in Phoenix in July, picking up many pre-orders.

A small production crew of Wayne Gehman and Jerilyn Schrock put together a heartfelt and beautiful book trailer video.

An official launch party at—where else—her home church, Lititz Mennonite, Pennsylvania, in her childhood home community, is set for Thursday night September 19. Shirley and her husband Stuart, mother, friends, family and probably some people she’s never met are enroute as I write this. Shirley will also be making stops and appearances in Ohio and Indiana: see the current schedule here.

Staff had fun shipping out all those pre-orders this past Monday, (or at least posing for it)

IMG_8721and enjoying a coffee break with the busy author-marketer-speaker-book signer.

IMG_8765Endorsements from the likes of Bill Moyers and Parker Palmer are here. And lovely reviews have started coming in, too: from blogger Marion Roach Smith (with a chapter excerpt) and Melanie Springer Mock, and Jo-Ann Greene of the Lancaster, Pa. papers.

GoodReads is giving away 20 books and the entries are adding up. (You can enter too, here, closing Sept. 22.)

Books such as this that have potential to reach a market far beyond the Mennonite church receive a little more marketing attention from the publisher than some others, but truth be told, Shirley has done so much (with the help of her marketing–savvy daughter, Kate) to personally get the word out using almost every available form of media today (many of them free, beyond the price of your Internet connection). Shirley has personally given a 100+ effort.

Promoting one’s own book can be uncomfortable for many of us, especially Mennonites (see more on humility in an earlier Mennobytes blogpost by Blush editor Byron Rempel-Burkholder). We’re told not to brag or draw attention to ourselves. But selling a good book that draws attention to this faith group and ultimately God, Jesus, and a lot of good folks who try to follow the Christian path, is what this faith is all about–sharing it with others. No blushing. (You can order it here, through a local bookstore, or on Amazon.)

IMG_8700And P.S.: The real shipper of many of those pre-orders for Blush is here in the center, in a black top, between Shirley Showalter and publisher Russ Eanes: Beth Nealon. Others in back rows: Neal Weaver, IT, Melodie Davis, marketing/editorial, Jerilyn Schrock, marketing, and Merrill Miller, designer.

Melodie Davis, Mennobytes Blog coordinator

Bragging rights (and why Mennonites value humility)

By Byron Rempel-Burkholder

In my weekly phone conversations with my parents, it is almost routine for the conversation to include a little chuckle on the subject of pride. Whether we’re talking about our children getting on the dean’s honour roll, or my excitement about some high-profile endorsements for our upcoming new comic book, Radical Jesus—Dad will inevitably pose that old question that dominated his own upbringing: “Is this making you proud?” He asks it with a twinkle in his eye, because he understands the complicated relationship with pride that Mennonite Christians have had historically.

Mennonites value humility as a pillar of discipleship. You don’t put yourself forward; you serve others and deny yourself. You don’t brag about your achievements, and you even withhold lavish praise from others lest you feed a culture of pride. In some quarters, you don’t wear stylish clothes or jewelry, because that draws attention to yourself.

Dad and I both recognize that humility is a mixed bag. In excess, it can sabotage the self-esteem we all need for our well-being. Restraining our joy over an accomplishment—ours or someone else’s—can undermine gratitude. On the other end of the spectrum, everyone knows how a swelled head can mess up our spirituality and our social life. In the middle somewhere is a humble kind of pride that allows us to celebrate God-given gifts and achievements.

And so it is in our publishing work. As our books go into production, we send the manuscripts to well-known people to endorse. We excerpt the pithiest compliments from their statements and we emblazon them on the back covers, on our website, and in social media. We ask our authors to do the same—to talk and blog about their books, to sign books at launch events, and to gush about how good they are.

Shirley Showalter reads from her soon to be released memoir Blush while Ervin Stutzman looks on.

Shirley Showalter reads from her soon to be released memoir Blush while Ervin Stutzman looks on.

Call it godly bragging if you like—godly because we recognize that our books, curriculum, and periodicals, are ultimately gifts of God to the world, and they deserve to be talked about, praised, and even urged upon the world.

There was a time—just a couple of decades ago— when we didn’t need to do this as a church publisher. Loyal congregations and individuals would buy our products simply because we were their publisher and they trusted us to put out the resources they needed. The annual catalogue and a few simple display ads in church papers were about all we needed to get people buy the product. That was okay, and it fit nicely with the self-effacement we called humility.

Today, to survive, we have to be assertive in getting the word out to the world, including to our own churches. We highlight the good things about what we are publishing. In our promotions we become evangelists of a vision, a message, a gift: a biblical orientation of discipleship and service. We can actually be humble in our “bragging” because we’re carried along by something bigger than our own egos. I hope that’s what we’re doing.


Shirley Showalter’s soon-to-be released memoir, Blush, shows some of the healthy tension around humility. In her traditional “plain” Mennonite girlhood, Showalter had a desire to be “big” in a world beyond her small, culturally confined community. While she valued Mennonite teachings on humility, her sense of vocation in the glittering world beyond Lititz, Pennsylvania, drew her into a big world of service. Ultimately, it wasn’t self-inflation; it was a call. Shirley went on to become a professor, and eventually president of Goshen (Indiana) College and then a foundation executive with The Fetzer Institute in Michigan.

Blush is to be released on September 30, but the fanfare has been running for some time already. Months ago, Shirley hosted a party in her home to unveil the cover of the book. She keeps updating her vast Facebook network on the progress of the release, and announces launch events on her blog. Like our marketing department, she is getting the word out.

BlushCoverReveal_blogThere is something bigger happening here than mere publicity, though. Shirley has started an electronic network of folks who are also wanting to write their own memoirs, sharing what she has learned and encouraging others. She’ll be teaching a college class on memoir writing this fall. Like a number of our authors, she is donating royalties to a charity.

Shirley’s story is about her, but it’s also about community, and a way of life that celebrates and shares the stuff of our lives. That is what happens when our desire to be “big” is bound up with a larger vision.

Shirley enjoying a watermelon as a child.

Shirley enjoying a watermelon as a child.

I think that is also what the Apostle Paul was getting at in his own frequent reflections on “boasting.” He had much to brag about in his life—including his pedigree as a Pharisee, supernatural revelations, and a dramatic conversion. In 2 Corinthians 11 he does seem to wear his experiences on his sleeve. But he puts it all in perspective by saying: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (2 Corinthians 10:17).

I hope that’s what’s going on when we promote our products. We take these gifts of stories, these blessings of a vigorous Anabaptist theology, and we broadcast them to the world—unabashedly, with confidence. And yet we do so humbly, knowing that these gifts are from God, meant to be shared.


Byron Rempel-Burkholder is a managing book editor for MennoMedia.