ELKHART, Indiana (Mennonite Mission Network) – Women church leaders, representing 10 Anabaptist conferences gathered Nov. 6-9 to learn about healthy boundaries for themselves and their communities. This regional workshop, sponsored by the Movement of Anabaptist Women Doing Theology from Latin America (MTAL), brought together women from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. Most of the 33 women worked from a foundation laid by previous Sister Care seminars, a program of Mennonite Women USA. Mennonite Mission Network provided part of the funding for women to participate, as well as logistical support.
The women were especially ready for this theme of healthy boundaries since sexual harassment and abuse were often the crises they identified during previous Sister Care seminars. This workshop was facilitated by Elizabeth Soto and Alix Lozano. Soto received training from the Faith Trust Institute, and Lozano has experience working at healthy boundaries with leadership in Iglesia Cristiana Menonita de Colombia (Colombia Mennonite Church, IMCOL).
"From the beginning we made it clear that teaching healthy boundaries is an educational effort toward preventing sexual harassment and abuse in our churches," said Soto. "As a seminary instructor I framed healthy boundaries within Christian ethics. And as an Anabaptist, from the need to live out Jesus' teachings to care for and not hurt others."
Lozano and Soto guided the group through developing an understanding of the importance of healthy boundaries in ministry, especially in preventing sexual harassment and abuse, and understanding appropriate responses when boundaries are crossed. As a group of women leaders, the participants thought both about the limits that they need to draw and keep in their own leadership roles, and how they work with their churches in processes of establishing practices that help keep everyone safe and are understood by both leaders and the congregations.
"The openness and willingness of each of the women to share their own experiences of abuse and those of others touched me deeply as a facilitator," said Lozano.
Participants illustrated real-life situations, through role playing, that arise in churches, and discussed the necessary actions to stop harassment or abuse and to support survivors. One scenario, of a male church member teaching a girl how to play guitar, addressed the violation of healthy boundaries through the unnecessary and excessive touching of the girl's hands and arms, and minimization of the girl's discomfort even after she shared it with other leaders.
Andean regional MTAL coordinator, Martha Lucía Gómez, reflected, "I consider that one of the most significant impacts of the workshop is women becoming aware of their capacity to respond, their ability to build support networks, develop dialogue, intervene with denouncements when necessary, and strengthen the church as a healing and preventive space."
There were several meaningful closing activities. One was reading together a "ministerial promise," adapted for this specific context from the Faith Trust Institute materials. The promise served as a pledge to inspire and call each woman to what they learned.
Together, the women read the promise with each paragraph calling them to care for themselves and for others. "I promise to practice daily self-care, so that my spiritual life may flourish in the Lord, to take care of my body, and rest in order to serve better … I will not violate the space of other people or of myself."
Men were present for a couple of sessions to help open communication. In Colombia, IMCOL is working on healthy boundaries with men and women together.
"For my life, from this time together, the lesson is to be filled with strength and encouragement," said Juana Perea, from Chocó, Colombia. "And courage to reproduce this valuable information, not only with women, but also to involve men in this issue. Both they and we can be at risk at certain times."
Linda Shelly, director for Latin America at Mennonite Mission Network, said, "Participants expressed high appreciation for this workshop, and I am sure that many will find ways to share what they have learned."
As women in South America have replicated Sister Care workshops across their countries, they hope to do so with the theme of healthy boundaries. Leaders brainstormed about taking on the responsibility of creating a manual utilizing this experience and the contextual case studies so that others would have the tools to teach healthy boundaries in their own settings.
Lozano expressed a sense of urgency to initiate an educational process within communities of faith. "I felt very deeply touched and thank those who have challenged and inspired us with the materials. This has led us to recognize the need to contextualize materials for our own realities."
"I am taking with me a beautiful treasure to share with my church and conference," said Rosa Córdova from Piura, Peru. "I know that this work is difficult, but I feel empowered to be part of this beautiful gift."