All posts by Emily

Thanking God for new offices, my Mac and Skype

by Stephen Kriss, director of leadership cultivation

transpacific interview
Steve, Mary, Aldo, and Verle Skype with Ubaldo for his credentialing interview.

In less than a decade, the Mennonite Conference Center has moved to its third location.   With increasingly dispersed staff, the Center has downsized to serve as a hub and back office for activity out and about.

My first day in the offices at Dock High School this week included crowding around my MacBook Pro with Verle Brubaker (Swamp) Mary Nitzsche (Blooming Glen), and Aldo Siahaan (Philadelphia Praise Center) for our first transpacific ordination interview by Skype.  We were interviewing Ubaldo Rodriguez, originally from Colombia, educated at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, who is now serving with SEND International in Manila, the Philippines.  Ubaldo is there to support and train mission workers from the 2/3rds world, hoping to build connections between Latin America and Asia.

Ubaldo is connected with a one of our partner congregations, New Hope Fellowship in Alexandria, VA, begun by Kirk Hanger after returning from a long term assignment with Franconia Mennonite Missions in Mexico City over a decade ago.   As a community, we keep being shaped and reshaped by our relationships and engagement in the world.  And now some of those connections are more easily sustained through technology like Skype, which we thanked God for in our interview.

Franconia Conference keeps changing and moving.  It’s not just our desks and cabinets, but it’s how we’re following the Spirit, paying attention to the pillar of fire that urges us to follow in the way of Jesus that moves us to be a part of God’s great redemption story in Souderton, Harleysville, Lansdale, Alexandria, Mexico City and Manila.

It starts in Heaven: a ministry of prayer

by Sharon Williams, Nueva Vida Norristown New Life

prayer
Noel Santiago (left) leads Franconia Conference’s prayer ministry.

What if we could focus our prayers to God by starting where God starts, with God’s good and perfect will? Like Jesus said, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10 NRSV). What does this mean, especially when we pray about earth’s troubling situations or illnesses that don’t exist in heaven?

Noel Santiago, Franconia Conference’s LEADership Minister of Spiritual Transformation, remembers his early years in the intercessory prayer ministry. A young girl was in an endless coma. Persons who felt drawn to intercessory prayer gathered at the conference center weekly. They wondered, what is God teaching us?

As they prayed, they began to hear the invitation to leave the situation at the altar, to praise God for what God was doing, and to find peace and rest in their spirits. They also realized that they were standing in the gap to pray for those who could not pray about this situation with a spirit of peace. Through grateful worship and silent listening, they noticed that Lordship of Jesus Christ over their lives, congregations, and communities was becoming a theme. They also sensed that God wanted the girl and her family to acknowledge Jesus’ lordship in their lives.

After three weeks of individual and corporate praying, the girl came out of the coma. At the end of six weeks, she and her family stood before their congregation to give thanks to God and to testify about what God had done in their lives. Then they sang a song that acknowledged the lordship of Jesus over their lives. God had used everyone’s prayers to bring about one of the key activities of heaven, echoed on earth.

Noel can recount many similar stories. One time, Claude Good of the Worm Project came to ask for prayer for one million deworming pills. Distribution of the pills had been tied up in red tape for three months. The intercessors sought God’s heart. A week later, the red tape was gone and the pills were released to their appointed place on earth, as it was the desire of heaven.

Why are we so amazed when we pray and God moves heaven and earth on our behalf?

An important lesson for the intercessors was to move forward by celebrating what God has done and is doing, rather than banging on heaven’s door with a report of what God has not done. We don’t need to beg God for what is needed. The purpose of prayer is to fervently align our hearts and purposes with God’s heart and purposes.

The intercessors—persons called within and beyond Franconia conference—learned by praying together and carefully observing what happened. When the intercessory prayer ministry started, some churches or Sunday school groups had functioning prayer chains for sharing prayer requests and praises. The intercessors encouraged congregations to form their own intercessory prayer teams and to create prayer rooms.

The intercessors stay connected by email for receiving and responding to prayer requests. Occasionally, they come together for special requests and events, such as the situation at Spruce Lake Retreat last fall and conference assemblies. They teach and equip intercessors for this ministry in Sunday school classes, Bible studies and conference meetings. Noel also incorporates intercessory prayer into his LEADership ministry with pastors and elders, teaching them to pray for each leader’s ministry and for the community. The team regularly intercedes for congregations, leaders, and anyone seeking God’s guidance.

The intercessors are eager to connect with others who are drawn to this ministry. To learn more, contact Noel (nsantiago@franconiaconference.org, 267-932-6050).

Sharon K. Williams is a musician, editor and congregational/non-profit consultant. She serves the Lord with the Nueva Vida Norristown New Life congregation as minister of worship.

KC2015 registration opens; presenters, exhibitors announced

MCUSA-AlanDebHirsch
Alan and Debra Hirsch, currently of Los Angeles, will offer several presentations on church planting and building missional movements.

Although it’s still more than five months away, Mennonite Church USA’s 2015 biennial convention is taking shape.

Registration opened Jan. 15 for the June 30–July 5 event in Kansas City, Mo. Hotel registration opens March 3.

Convention planners are lining up special presenters and exhibitors in addition to a full slate of worship speakers.

Recent decisions made in consultation with the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board have included accepting the Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Interests’ (BMC) application for exhibit space at KC2015, as well as allowing convention planners to work with leaders of the Pink Menno campaign to negotiate rental of a meeting room on site at the convention center.

“My team and I are ready and excited for everyone to join us in Kansas City this summer,” says Glen Alexander Guyton, chief operating officer and convention planning director for Mennonite Church USA. “We want everyone who attends KC2015 to be able to engage in worship and experience the healing power of Christ at some point during convention.”

Speakers Alex Awad, Drew Hart, and Alan and Debra Hirsch will share with participants at KC2015:

MCUSA AwadA04

Alex Awad of Jerusalem, pastor of East Jerusalem Baptist Church and a professor at Bethlehem Bible College in Palestine, will be a featured speaker throughout the convention week. Awad and Bethlehem Bible College are longtime Mennonite partners in Palestine.

“Alex Awad is an evangelical Christian deeply committed to Jesus and to the way of peace in the midst of intense suffering and injustice,” says André Gingerich Stoner, director of interchurch relations and holistic witness for Mennonite Church USA. “He and Bethlehem Bible College are a sign of hope. We have much to learn from their witness.”

After KC2015, Awad will travel to Harrisburg, Pa., to participate in Mennonite World Conference’s Assembly Gathered. Awad’s presence at convention is also made possible by support from Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

Drew Hart

Drew Hart will be available throughout the convention week, offering several seminars focused on liberation theology and strategies for addressing racism in local congregational settings. Hart is a Ph.D. candidate at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and his research focuses on intersections between black theology and Anabaptism. He is a part-time pastor and a regular blogger for The Christian Century.

Alan and Debra Hirsch, currently of Los Angeles, (photo above) will offer several presentations on church planting and building missional movements. The Hirsches are the founding directors of the Forge Mission Training Network.

Alan also co-leads Future Travelers, a learning program to help churches become missional movements, and is co-founder and adjunct faculty for the M.A. in Missional Church Movements at Wheaton (Ill.) College. He has written The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church, among other books.

Exhibit space granted for BMC
The Brethren Mennonite Council has applied for exhibit space at previous conventions; this is the first year that their request has been approved. Pink Menno applied to be an exhibitor at convention for the first time this year; the group’s request for exhibit space was denied, although convention planning staff members hope to work with the group to negotiate the rental of a meeting room inside the convention center.

“The decision to grant exhibit space to BMC is not a radical one,” says Guyton. “BMC has long been part of our conventions. They are an established organization with clear points of authority. We have had good conversations with BMC leaders about our shared expectations for the exhibit hall at convention.”

All convention attendees are expected to abide by the expectations for convention attendees and exhibitor guidelines.

“Conversations about sexuality are happening all across the church right now,” says Ervin Stutzman, executive director for Mennonite Church USA. “Our leadership team felt it was the right time for the Executive Board to revisit our policies about the use of convention space. We desire to be proactive, rather than reactive, in the conversations that need to take place among us as followers of Jesus Christ.

“This move does not represent a change in our church’s commitments but grows out of our desire to remain in loving conversation with people who have been a part of our church and our conventions for many years. We desire that every person who attends our convention will be treated with respect and care, in the exhibit hall and everywhere else.”

Other approved exhibitors include all of the Mennonite Church USA agencies and higher education institutions, as well as Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service, Mennonite Economic Development Associates, and a variety of other faith-based organizations.

The convention offers programming for people ages 0 and older. Special programs are planned for infants, preschoolers, elementary-school students, junior high youth and high school youth. For more information about convention events and speakers, and to register on Jan. 15, visit convention.mennoniteusa.org.

Finding hope at the border

by Steve Kriss, reposted by permission from Mennonite World Review

Steve KrissThere are never enough winter jackets in the stacks of sorted clothes in the salon de fiestas (fellowship hall) at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas. The stream of Central American refugees who arrive there after detention by the Department of Homeland Security rarely come with warm enough clothes to head further north. The 100 or so parents and children who stream through this makeshift refugee center daily leave behind the well-worn clothing they came in — and bundle up for the journey by Greyhound to new homes on this side of the Rio Grande’s America.

Though the tide has slowed a bit, the same issues that pushed refugees from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador persist, and when warmer weather returns there will likely be a resurgence.

Current policy at the border is to remove adults, sending them back whence they came. But parents with children, and minors under 18, are allowed to remain. As a result, the “unaccompanied minor” crisis is largely one of our own government’s making. According to those on the front lines in South Texas, very few under 18 are actually unaccompanied when they arrive on the U.S. border. Most of them traveled with someone who was turned away — a family member, a friend or, sometimes, disturbingly, a trafficker.

Some refugees immediately seek asylum. Others travel within the U.S. to join family and friends as they move through a legal process. The morning I visited, several 20-something women had arrived from Honduras with a 7- or 8-year-old child in tow.

I spoke with a representative at the center from McAllen who said the city is committed to being hospitable but orderly. Everyone is offered soup designed for nutrient-deprived people, new clothes, a shower and a chance to see one of the medical volunteers. The showers were in trailers from the Salvation Army. Refu­gees can rest in an army tent on long-term loan until a bus is ready to take them north — but not for more than 24 hours.

Catholic Charities staffs the center with a combination of Catholic religious workers, professionals and local volunteers. Alma, a Tejana who teaches prayer in the Brownsville diocese, explained the operation of the refugee center. She said the Franciscans in charge of the parish facilities have said it can remain as long as needed. Alma described her charge and interacted with the volunteers and refugees with sincerity, grace and deep love. She said, “I treat everyone who comes in here as if they were the living Christ. Sometimes when we pick out clothes for the children, we give them clothes that they don’t really like. I invite them to come back to the pile to pick clothes they want, because with each boy or girl it’s like I’m dressing Jesus.”

I expected to come back from my border excursion with frustration and sadness. Instead, I returned with hope, having witnessed great love. The border responses aren’t perfect. The political and economic realities are complicated. Recent refugees are being equipped with ankle monitors to track their movements once inside the U.S. The refugees call the detention centers “freezers.”

But at the same time I was glad the U.S. government was admitting some of the most vulnerable arriving at our southern doorstep, escaping violence, feeling more pushed to leave their home than pulled by the possibility that is the U.S. I’m grateful that they’re given opportunity to state their case, to be reunited with family or friends while the process moves forward. I hope we’ll find a humane way through this situation.

The solution is a long haul of U.S. policies that might strengthen Central American economies and governments and help build healthy civil societies. But until then, the Franciscans will keep the doors open. And Tejanos like Alma will keep receiving newcomers as if they were Jesus, with open arms, clean shirts, new shoes, warm showers and instructions written in English to give to anyone who might help them land at their new, though possibly temporary, home.

Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.

We were made for life

by Emily Ralph, associate director of communication

Church of the Brethren crisis response has been working with refugees in Nigeria; thousands of their members have been killed and nearly a hundred thousand have been displaced. In all, three million Nigerians have been affected by the outbreak of violence. Photo courtesy of Church of the Brethren.

When a young teacher was murdered in her home down the street from my house last month, I was shocked, horrified, and scared.  So I can understand why the Western world has responded with such vehemence to the terrorist attack on a French satirical magazine.  It happened in the West, after all, to people who, in some ways, feel very much like “us” living under the protection of a democratic government.

But even as I faced my new reality of a neighborhood that no longer felt safe, I sensed a dawning awareness that my shock at violence committed against someone “like me” in my “backyard” was a privilege.  Others in my city and around the world live under threat of violence every day; it shouldn’t happen in my neighborhood but it shouldn’t happen in anyone’s neighborhood.

Our grief is right and good.  I grieve the senseless death of this young teacher not because she is like me but because her life matters.  And as I grieve her death, I become aware of other losses in my city—in neighborhoods a little farther away to people that don’t feel as familiar.  And I’m challenged to consider whether I value some lives more than others, whether identification and “sameness” somehow determines worth.

As I see reports online about #IAmCharlie and “I don’t agree with what you say but I’ll defend your right to say it,” I wonder if I would.  Because it seems to me my faith is less about protecting the right to free speech and more about protecting you.  Free speech doesn’t give anyone the right to live.  But being made by and in the image of God does.

And God weeps.  Over a schoolteacher murdered in her home, over journalists executed in their office, over thousands of women, children, and elderly massacred on the streets of Nigeria, over each target and victim of a U.S. drone strike.  God weeps, not because they are heroes, not because they are innocent or guilty, not because violence shouldn’t happen in their neighborhood, not for any other reason than that human life is precious and we are made to live.

I am not Charlie.  I am not a child in Nigeria.  I am not a neighborhood schoolteacher.  But I am a follower of Jesus, the divine “other” who so valued the treasure of human life that he came to earth to stand in solidarity with humans everywhere.  We are made by God for life and life abundant.

In this week, like every other, God grieves lives lost.  And so do we.  Together, we stand in solidarity with this God who stands in solidarity with us.

Conferences end Peace and Justice Minister role

by Stephen Kriss, Franconia director of communication

Samantha LioiAfter a two-and-a-half-year experiment with a new model for peace and justice ministry in Eastern District and Franconia Conferences, conference leaders ended the contract with Samantha Lioi (Whitehall congregation) as Peace and Justice Minister on November 30, 2014 due to lack of funds. The peace and justice role relied on above-budget giving to the two conferences from individuals and congregations.  Contributions did not match ongoing expenses, leading to the position’s termination.

After consulting with leaders from both conferences, Franconia Conference issued a 90-day intent to discontinue Lioi’s contract in August 2014 if sufficient funds were not raised within that timeframe.  According to Franconia executive minister Ertell M. Whigham, there was a strong desire to find a way to keep the position funded and the conferences appreciated a last-ditch effort from numerous congregations to bridge the funding gap.

Both conferences hope to continue the important work that Lioi began in this experimental position. The role will be further reimagined within both Conference structures and alongside the Peace and Justice Committee serving both conference communities.

Lioi was appreciated by many congregations and leaders in her pastoral presence, work at initiating congregational peace representatives, and collaboration around important issues.  Both Whigham and Eastern District conference minister Warren Tyson expressed words of appreciation for Lioi’s ministry.  “We intend to find another way to extend Samantha’s good work,” said Whigham.  “She contributed passionately toward the ministry of Franconia Conference congregations. Her work is appreciated and her presence among conference staff will be deeply missed.”

Making theological formation and education relevant to urban churches

by Elizabeth M. Miller for Mennonite Education Agency, originally posted in The Mennonite

Kim-Mai Tang and Khoa Ho are part of the Year 1 Cohort (class of 2017) in Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s STEP program. Photo provided by EMU.
Kim-Mai Tang and Khoa Ho are part of the Year 1 Cohort (class of 2017) in Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s STEP program. Photo provided by EMU.

Flexibility is one of the critical ways the various schools associated with Mennonite Education Agency (MEA) are making theological formation and education accessible and relevant to urban churches.

But flexibility alone is not enough. Urban church leaders are also looking for education solidly grounded in a global context and embedded in relational networks, not just institutional structures.

In response a variety of Mennonite educational institutions have developed ser­vices meant to serve and learn from urban Anabaptists, often strongly rooted in a particular geographical center or located within a series of networks and partnerships.
1. Instituto Bíblico Anabautista
At Centro de Alabanza in Philadelphia each week, over 20 percent of the church community gathers to study and discuss courses offered by the Instituto Bíblico Anabautista (IBA, Anabaptist Biblical Institute) and facilitated by the congregation’s pastors, Fernando Loyola and Leticia Cortés.

“The advantage of the courses is that you can start whenever it best suits,” said Cortés in a recent interview. “We can study at any time.”

The IBA courses at Centro de Alabanza are held twice a week. Most of the participants at Centro de Alabanza are married couples, so men study one night and women the next. This way husbands and wives are able to swap child care during their respective class nights.

“[IBA] has total flexibility,” says Rafael Barahona, IBA and the Hispanic Pastoral and Leadership Education office director. “So [the churches] can make it work for them.” IBA provides instruction manuals for students and training for facilitators, but it does not impose an external schedule on church groups using the program.

For Centro de Alabanza, this flexibility has been key. The ability to offer courses on a schedule that equally benefits husbands and wives from within the same households has had a tremendous effect on the congregation. “In my case with the women especially, they have more confidence that they are capable, that they can use their gifts,” said Cortés.

An IBA student retreat. The 2014 retreat took place in Talladega, Ala. Photo by Violeta Ajquejay.
An IBA student retreat. The 2014 retreat took place in Talladega, Ala. Photo by Violeta Ajquejay.

Cortés has observed the women immediately putting into practice what they have been learning in the classes. Some have even started preaching in the worship services.

IBA is one of the longest-running and most expansive programs for urban Mennonite church leaders. Now in its 27th year, there are 42 centers serving around 300 students across the country, from New York City to Miami to Omaha, Neb.

2. STEP
Eastern Mennonite Seminary, a graduate division of Eastern Mennonite University,operates a campus in Lancaster, Pa., that most directly serves the eastern part of the state, including many urban churches in Lancaster and the greater metro area of Philadelphia.

“One of the things unique about the EMS program is that our programs are intended for urban dwellers,” says Steve Kriss, associate director of pastoral studies at EMS Lancaster and LEADership minister for Franconia Conference.

While EMS Lancaster offers an M.Div. track and two graduate certificate programs, they also operate Study and Training for Effective Pastoral Ministry (STEP), an undergraduate-level program for church leaders who wish to strengthen their ministry and leadership experiences.

From the beginning, STEP was designed as a collaborative program, dependent on urban church networks and experience. An advisory committee from Philadelphia-area congregations helped design the original program, and teachers and students came from area Anabaptist congregations.

“It was a very deliberate attempt to connect with the vibrant urban minority [and] recent immigrant congregations in the Philadelphia urban metro area,” says Mark Wenger, director of EMS Lancaster.

STEP is grounded in practical experience and mentoring relationships. Everyone who joins STEP must already serve in a leadership role within his or her congregation, and each student is paired with a ministry mentor.

“[It’s an] embedded model, not an academy model,” says Wenger. “What you study, what you read about, what you write about, you practice right away in your context. That works in an urban setting very well.”

By necessity STEP integrates global realities into the formal education experience.

“Global political realities sometimes come crashing down in the classroom,” says Kriss. “The world does not stay as separated as it might in a more traditional setting.”

The urban congregations that partner with EMS Lancaster include Vietnamese, Latino, Anglo, African-American and Ethiopian ones. The diverse identities of these, combined with their urban context, bring global issues to the fore.

“Urban leaders are asking us to work at ways of telling the Anabaptist story that integrate with urban and global realities. For places like Philly, it’s not just the city that we’re dealing with,” says Kriss. “We’re dealing with global realities. So our coursework needs to reflect those realities.”

It has also been important for traditional Mennonite congregations to be involved in the work that urban congregations and leaders are doing. Kriss calls this “enlivening work.” “Across the board it helps build relationships and give [traditional Mennonite congregations] new ways to look at Anabaptism.”

3. AMBS-SCUPE
Both EMS in Harrisonburg, Va., and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Ind., offer courses in their graduate programs specifically focused on urban contexts and ministry. They also regularly receive students from nearby urban centers.

In general, however, the seminaries report that it is the partnerships in urban-based theological education that have most strengthened their programs in this regard.

AMBS, for example, is a long-standing member of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE). Rather than try to duplicate the courses and experience offered by SCUPE, AMBS encourages students to enroll in SCUPE’s courses in nearby Chicago.

Miller-and-Martin
David B. Miller, associate professor of missional leadership development and AMBS-SCUPE program liaison, meets with advisee Martin Navarro. Photo provided by AMBS.

According to Rebecca Slough, academic dean, SCUPE builds on the formation offered at AMBS while introducing students to a wider network of people.

“It puts [students] in a different theological and racial-ethnic environment,” says Slough.

Julia Gingrich, a 2014 AMBS graduate who lives and works in Elkhart, credits her SCUPE courses with giving her the tools to “exegete” her urban context.

“[They] played a significant role in forming me as a missional leader who seeks to be deeply and consciously rooted in my ministry context,” she wrote in an email.

The Urban Peacemaking course Gingrich took through SCUPE was especially helpful in preparing her for her ministry internship at St. James AME, which Gingrich described as “an African-American congregation located in a marginalized Elkhart neighborhood.”

“[In Urban Peacemaking] we studied and discussed gun violence and mass incarceration, issues that are of central concern to the members and neighbors of St. James,” wrote Gingrich. “Studying these issues helped me join St. James in [its] efforts to resist these forms of violence.”

4. Center for Intercultural and International Education
The kind of partnerships and networks that have made IBA, STEP, and SCUPE possible are also crucial to the work of the Center for Intercultural and International Education (CIIE) at Goshen (Ind.) College.

CIIE focuses on welcoming students from multicultural backgrounds—who are also often urban students—as well as working with organizations and churches that work with youth.

“Many times we think urban students are more needy than other students,” says Gilberto Pérez, CIIE director. But he notes that urban students often have a level of resiliency and network navigation skills that is helpful for college. Adjusting to college without the proximity of their home network can be daunting, however, so CIIE pairs them with a student mentor. “The mentoring gives them a place to experience what they had in their home community,” says Pérez.

While CIIE focuses much of its energy on the Goshen College community itself, it also sustains partnerships with 16 different community partners that work with students of color in locations all across the country.

Their goal, Pérez says, is “to be in relationship and offer the resources the church has available.”

5. ReconciliaAsian
ReconciliAsian, an Anabaptist peace center that works mainly with Korean-American churches in Los Angeles, recently began a partnership with CIIE. Like the Philadelphia churches who partner with EMS Lancaster, ReconciliAsian finds their focus to ultimately be a global one.

Their recent partnership with CIIE allows ReconciliAsian to reach what Park-Hur calls “invisible” youth in the Asian-American community who may not fit the “model minority myth” imposed on so many Asian-Americans.

Park-Hur also hopes to speak at more family conferences with her husband, Hyun Hur. Their respective backgrounds as a Korean-American and a Korean immigrant make them uniquely equipped to communicate a message of conflict transformation across generational boundaries.

Like many urban ministries, ReconciliAsian depends on a variety of relational networks and partnerships for its work.

As important as networks and flexibility are to theological formation and education in urban contexts, they alone cannot respond to other challenges. Some urban churches, for example, want their youth to attend Mennonite colleges, but they fear those same young people won’t return after four years away.

“Our undergraduate programs are all outside major urban areas,” says Kriss. “Some Mennonite congregations feel that to raise up good leaders and send them to Mennonite schools means the congregations lose them forever, because they don’t return.”

Cost is another hurdle. Some of the programs, like IBA, keep their costs low by using volunteer instructors. But accreditation comes with a price tag that can be particularly burdensome for urban churches and leaders.

Yet relationships can go a long way toward sharing these challenges and adapting or creating new educational structures that better serve urban churches.

“We need networks of trusted relationships,” says Kriss. “We need to spend time building relationships and being in each other’s space.”

Elizabeth Miller is a member of Berkey Avenue Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind.

Prayer ‘essential’ for MWC assembly

by Phyllis Pellman Good, Mennonite World Conference

MWC Prayer Network
Joanne Dietzel of Strasburg, Pa., coordinates the MWC Prayer Network. — Liesa Unger/MWC

Mennonite World Conference is establishing a Prayer Network, recognizing the importance of prayer in preparation for its global assembly July 21-26 in Harrisburg, Pa.

“We are organizing an event which will bring people together from all over the world,” said Lynn Roth, MWC North America representative. “I believe it can happen only if it is bathed in prayer and is God’s doing.”

The first worry on everyone’s mind is obtaining visas.

“Our main concern is for young people,” he said. “But older persons from some of the countries where the largest Anabaptist churches are located — Ethiopia, Congo and India, for example — may have trouble, too.

“The American government’s concern for security, now more than ever, means that many of our sisters and brothers will likely be denied the possibility of worshiping and fellowshiping in this grand reunion.”

A visa task force is prepared to support registrants going through the visa process.

“We promised to do all in our power to work with U.S. government officials and embassies in those countries where this issue is especially difficult,” he said. “We believe that prayer is essential.”

A second concern is getting North American Anabaptists to see the assembly as a not-to-be-missed opportunity.

“Many of us will probably question whether we can set aside things in our daily lives long enough to travel to and attend the whole five and a half days of PA 2015,” Roth said. “We want to pray for ourselves, that we will learn the gift of hospitality of the heart and be willing to be transformed by the experience of hosting the global church.”

Inspired by Zimbabwe

The idea for a Prayer Network came from the Zimbabwean Brethren in Christ Church, which hosted the MWC assembly in 2003. In Zimbabwe, food and fuel were scarce, the economy was weak and the government unreliable. The Zimbabweans acknowledged all of this, stockpiling food and fuel months in advance. They also prayed.

Zimbabwean BIC member Ethel Sibanda led a Prayer Network. She also rallied people who weren’t attending the assembly but wanted to assure hospitality.

“We have learned from the Zimbabweans,” said Prayer Network coordinator Joanne Dietz­el of Strasburg, Pa. “We invite everyone who believes in prayer and the global church to join the Prayer Network.”

All who sign up on the MWC website will receive emails sharing specific needs and giving thanks for blessings.

Jane Hoober Peifer, a member of the Prayer Network planning team, has launched an MWC Prayer Walk in Lancas­ter.

“ ‘Walking with God’ is the theme for PA 2015, so walking while praying seems like an appropriate discipline to practice,” Peifer said.

She hopes groups of walkers will form across North America and around the world. Ideas for forming an MWC Prayer Walk group will appear on MWC’s Prayer Network page, along with passages of Scripture and prayer requests.

Prayer Network information is online at mwc-cmm.org/pa2015prayernetwork.

Franconia Conference announces upcoming staff change

by Stephen Kriss, director of communication

Gay Brunt Miller
Gay Brunt Miller

With a stable team of LEADership Ministers in place, Franconia Conference will be adjusting administrative and communication staffing into the first half of 2015.   After 15 years of ministry leadership and administration, Gay Brunt Miller (Spring Mount congregation) announced her intent to leave the conference sometime in early 2015.  Brunt Miller has served alongside three different executive leaders and submitted her intent to resign early to allow the Conference to transition smoothly while she explores new vocational possibilities.

Emily Ralph, associate director of communication, relocated to Lancaster in 2013 where she began a pastoral position at Sunnyside Mennonite Church.  After serving Franconia for four years, she intends to resign her Conference role by March 1, 2015.   Emily will continue communication work with Mennonite World Conference through the global assembly in Harrisburg this summer.

Emily Ralph
Emily Ralph

“Gay and Emily have poured their hearts and souls into the ministry of Franconia Conference and we’ve been blessed by them and through them; I have been especially blessed in my role as executive minister.  Communication and administration have undergirded the strength of conference ministry over these last few years,” said Ertell M. Whigham, Franconia Conference Executive Minister.

The hiring process for administration and communication roles will begin immediately with an intention to have some overlap within both roles.   Staff changes in communication and administration open the possibility for the role to be shaped to serve the conference’s current needs.

Delegates commit to waiting, hoping, discerning at Assembly

Bob & Bonnie Stevenson
Charlie Ness (Perkiomenville) and Bonnie Stevenson pray for Bob Stevenson before he brings the message during Friday night worship. Photo by Emily Ralph

by Emily Ralph, associate director of communication

“Waiting on God is expectant and hopeful,” declared Marta Castillo, Franconia Conference’s outgoing assistant moderator, at the opening of the United Franconia and Eastern District Conferences’ 2014 Assembly.  The theme of this year’s gathering, held November 14-15 at Penn View Christian School in Souderton, Pa., was “Esperando: Waiting & Hoping.”

“We’re not waiting for something, we’re waiting for somebody,” added Bob Stevenson during Friday evening worship.  “Waiting is not just a passive sitting back.  And so the word I have is that we wait ‘until’ [we receive the power of the Spirit] and then we get up and go!”

Stevenson and his wife Bonnie were called and commissioned as missionaries to Mexico at a Franconia Conference Assembly 26 years before.  They were celebrated Friday night as they reached a milestone in their ministry: the transition from raising missionary support from the States to full funding through their congregation.  “I thank the Lord for allowing us to be a part of this conference,” Bonnie responded after she and Bob were presented with a Spanish fraktur created by Salford congregation member Roma Ruth.  “There are many times on Friday morning when we have our prayer together … that we pray for each one of your congregations by name.”

praying for Danilo Sanchez
Conference leaders pray for Danilo Sanchez, Whitehall, one of this year’s newly credentialed leaders. Photo by Bam Tribuwono.

The theme of leaders raised up and called from within the Conference continued on Saturday during the joint delegate session, when the gathering recognized a number of newly credentialed leaders who were licensed out of Franconia congregations.  “Where do our pastors come from?” asked Steve Kriss, Franconia Conference director of leadership cultivation.  “They come because you invite them.”

This year also saw the credentialing of leaders from other conferences and denominational backgrounds, adding to Franconia’s increasing diversity.  “Diversity is a catalyst for growth,” reflected Jessica Hedrick, Souderton congregation, during table feedback.  Her table encouraged conference delegates to prioritize prayer and, as corporate discernment continued, to recognize “the opportunity to learn from each other instead of necessarily trying to get everyone to agree.”

KrisAnne Swartley praying
KrisAnne Swartley, Doylestown, joins in prayer for the other congregations at her table. Photo by Bam Tribuwono.

The theme of listening well and together wove through many of the stories and hopes shared throughout the weekend.  Danilo Sanchez, Whitehall congregation, named three areas that it seemed the majority of delegates were wrestling with: “Listening to the Spirit, how to sit with our differences, and how to love like Christ.”

The Franconia Conference Board asked delegates to consider what kind of conversations needed to be planned leading up to the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City next summer, knowing the likelihood that Convention will include decisions about denominational structure and human sexuality.  Many delegates agreed that the questions of structure and sexuality only skimmed the surface; perhaps there were other questions that should be asked instead.

delegates conferring
Delegates discussed difficult issues around tables with grace and laughter. Photo by Bam Tribuwono.

Josh Meyer, Franconia congregation, wondered how the upcoming dialogue could form those participating into the image of Christ.  “How we have this conversation is just as important as any decisions that we make,” he said.  “It doesn’t matter what we decide in Kansas City; if we don’t treat each other as sisters and brothers in Christ, then we’ve missed the point.”

Throughout the weekend, conference leadership encouraged delegates to actively wait on the Spirit, to take time for stillness and listening, and to collaborate in acts of justice and mercy.  “We must not become paralyzed by the issues of the day,” encouraged Eastern District moderator Brenda Oelschlager, “but move forward in love … as God leads us along new paths.”

Several new paths highlighted included a new Lehigh Valley collaboration in hiring Sanchez as youth minister, welcoming two new Philadelphia congregations (Centro de Alabanza and Indonesian Light Church) into an exploration of membership in Franconia Conference, and the move of the Mennonite Conference Center to the campus of Christopher Dock Mennonite High School in Lansdale (Pa.).

Aldo Siahaan introduces new congregations
LEADership Minister Aldo Siahaan introduces two new congregations exploring membership in Franconia Conference: Centro de Alabanza and Indonesian Light Church. Photo by Bam Tribuwono.

Although 2014 saw the beginnings of new ministries and the licensing of many new pastors, it also brought the deaths of three influential church leaders: Paul Lederach, John Drescher, and Israel Bolaños.  In reflecting on their legacies, Kriss encouraged delegates to remember them by carrying on their work of teaching, writing, and mission.

“The gospel isn’t good news until someone takes it and goes with it,” Bob Stevenson agreed.  The power which sends the church is not political or force, but “a power that is a ‘preach the gospel to the poor’ power, it’s a ‘healing the broken heart’ power….  What will change this world is us, God’s people.”