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.)
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.
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.
- The Amish (1952), John Hostetler
- More With Less Cookbook (1976), Doris Janzen Longacre
- Caring Enough to Confront (1973), David Augsburger
- Meditations for the New Mother (1953), Helen Good Brenneman
- Mennonite Community Cookbook (1950), Mary Emma Showalter
- Rosanna of the Amish (1940), Joseph Yoder
- Favorite Family Recipes (1972), Mary Emma Showalter
- Meditations for Expectant Mothers (1968), Helen Good Brenneman
- Amish Cooking (1982), Compiled by Amish women
- 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.