All posts by Conference Office

Did You Know: Taxable Income

by Conrad Martin, Director of Finance

As tax season is upon us, it is important to be aware of two things a church does that may affect the taxable income for congregational employees/pastors — one taxable and one a pre-tax deduction.

  1.  Love Gifts/ Offerings

Some churches give their pastor(s) a “love gift” or “love offering” in special appreciation for the many things they do for their congregation.  These gifts come from either the pastor’s employing church or from individual members of the church.  Sometimes these gifts come from a special offering taken by the congregation for their pastor.  Sometimes an individual member will feel the need to show their appreciation personally in a financial way, sometimes even unbeknownst to the congregation.  In almost every case, the IRS will view “love gifts” as compensation for services rendered and therefore taxable.  If coming from the church as the employer, the church needs to either include the love gift in the calculation of the W-2 or issue a 1099-MISC to the pastor.  If coming from an individual, the pastor needs to include the gift in their taxable income.  If you need further clarification, consult your tax accountant.

  1. Section 125 Flex Plan

If your congregation offers a medical insurance plan to their employees and also charges them a portion of the cost for the premium, those employee premium costs may be deductible from the employees’ taxable income.  If your congregation offers as part of their medical insurance plan a Health Savings Account (HSA), the employees may contribute personally into their HSA through payroll deductions and those payroll deductions may be deductible from the employees’ taxable income.  The key is, the church needs to have a Section 125 Flexible Benefits Plan documented.  Sometimes this is called a Cafeteria Plan.  Whatever it is called, it must be documented.  There are many companies that can write such a plan for your church, one of which is Everence.  Contact your local Everence Stewardship Consultant for more information.

Any time you have questions about your church finances, contact Conrad Martin at the conference office and he will help direct you to the answer.

 

Living God’s Great Shalom

by Stephen Kriss, Executive Minister

In our commitments for credentialing as pastors within Franconia Conference, we agree to giving and receiving counsel.  This week I am here in Indiana as part of our process of giving and receiving counsel through Mennonite Church USA’s Constituency Leader Council (CLC).

It’s not been an easy time in Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA).   Three conferences have seceded from MCUSA and several have lost significant membership numbers.  Three conferences have moved toward credentialing gay and lesbian persons which puts them at variance with our official confessional/polity positions.   We are not alone in our turmoil as similar processes have been playing out among United Methodists, Presbyterian Church USA and the Episcopalians.   Nonetheless we are here to keep trying to work it out.    At times, it feels like we are at our wits end with each other.

Franconia Conference was a founding body in MCUSA. We remain engaged thus far because we believe that we can do more together than we can on our own.  I recognize, though, that some of us question our relationship with MCUSA because of the tensions felt around our theology and practice thereof.   I understand both the acts of conscience and the levels of frustration that have meant Conferences have seceded and that others have landed at variance.

I believe in the kind of love that Paul wrote about that is patient, kind and enduring.   As a Conference, we have an enduring history. Unfortunately, it hasn’t always been marked with enduring love that has been witness of the reconciling power of Christ’s peace.   Our current exploration of a possible reconciliation process with Eastern District Conference evidences our lack of patience with one another, that now is being addressed over a century later.  Randy Heacock’s story from the last Intersectings reminds us of the sad reality that reconciliation work on an interpersonal level is still a rarity.   So, I’m committed this week to sit at these tables on our behalf, and to find ways to engage constructively and generatively, along with John Goshow, our Conference moderator, and Mary Nitzsche, chair of our Ministerial Committee.

In these few days, for the sake of all of us, I commit to believing and hoping, of seeking the Spirit’s stirring.  Of continuing to live into my ordination vows of giving and receiving counsel.  Whether around tables in Elkhart or at the kitchen table or the communion table, this is our invitation.  It’s an invitation that endures; a recognition that love never fails, a way of living God’s great shalom, even through day long meetings.

Welcome Signs an Invitation to Dialogue

by Dwayne Henne, Chair of Outreach, Bally Mennonite Church

Members of Bally Mennonite Church had a growing interest in how area churches might be able to support refugees coming to the United States as they continued to see on the daily news the suffering of people in Syria and Sudan. As they began to explore this topic, it evolved into concerns about divisions in the United States over racism and immigration. The church then decided to order a huge sign, the design initiated by Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg VA, to be displayed along Route 100. The sign states in Spanish, English and Arabic: “No matter where you are from, we are glad that you are our neighbor.”

The “Welcome Your Neighbors” signs were the brain child of Matthew Butcher, pastor at Immanuel Mennonite Church. He reached out to an artist in his congregation, Melissa Howard, to create the sign with the phrase in English, Spanish and Arabic after a growing concern regarding the rhetoric in the United States during the 2015 presidential primaries. Numerous individuals and congregations from across the United States and Canada have begun printing the now tri-color signs, with the graphic available for download on the Welcome Your Neighbors website. The signs and the people who have posted them have had such a positive impact that they have gained media coverage by outlets such as NPR and the Huffington Post. Butcher was quoted in The Mennonite as saying, “I think it’s a symbol for people of how they want to live, and I think it’s been a point of comfort for people seeing it.”

Earlier this year, two days after the White House Executive orders about immigration and refugee resettlement, the large Welcome Your Neighbors sign ordered by Bally Mennonite Church arrived, and with the ironic timing, was installed.

Over the past month, people have contacted the church expressing appreciation for the sign; one person said that her daughter participated in the airport demonstrations.  Another is a pastor of a Boyertown area church; yet another, a Muslim man who came into the church one day, identified himself as having moved to the United States from Palestine. The Welcome Your Neighbors Facebook page has testimonies of folks receiving flowers on their doorsteps with a card in Arabic and English, expressing gratitude for the signs.

While Bally is grateful for the appreciation of the sign, the congregation would also be welcoming to concerns about it, for division in our community needs conversations whereby the parties listen to one another and seek to understand the other person’s perspective. The Bible says to love your neighbor as yourself (no matter where your neighbor is from, and no matter what their opinions may be). May these signs not only express welcome but an invitation to dialogue.

Local Women Networking to Make a Difference

Women Empowering Women(WEW) with Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) is a grassroots group providing a way for local women to network together and make a difference for women in third world countries.

For those less familiar with MEDA, its core mission is to create business solutions to poverty.  The goal of the WEW group is to raise awareness of MEDA’s various projects that empower women to rise above social and cultural barriers towards better livelihoods. This is important because when women have improved livelihoods, their families and communities also benefit.

The DelVal WEW group formed after a number of local women took an inspiring trip to Ethiopia with MEDA. The women participating on the trip began brainstorming about how to create a  more personal way for local women to learn about the impact of MEDA programs in regards to women, and the concept for WEW was born.

WEW is a forum for like-minded women to hear about global women’s issues.  They have hosted 4 meetings in the last year, each highlighting MEDA programs in a specific country and the special challenges to overcoming poverty that women face.  At each meeting, women get to learn about specific MEDA projects and participate in interactive activities that increase understanding of the day-to-day issues women face in countries where access to education, equality and business is often challenged by their culture. During the meeting, participants get to try foods that are common to the highlighted country and there is time set aside for questions , discussion and networking.  At each meeting, women will learn ways they can continue to support the work of MEDA, and make a difference in the lives of these women.
The last WEW meeting focused on Ghana, which was especially insightful because three area women had visited the projects in Ghana the month before the local meeting, and they were able to share their personal insights and photos from the trip.  The meeting highlighted the work of the Ghana Grow program (Greater Rural Opportunities for Women), which has already reached over 20,000 women and provided them with improved farming techniques, nutritional awareness, financial services, and better access to markets.  In turn, these improvements have led to greater income for the women, better nutrition for their families (providing more protein for their children) and an increased ‘voice’ in their families and communities, due to their farming successes.

Women are encouraged and invited to join this dynamic and growing new program!  The next meeting focuses on how MEDA is supporting women entrepreneurs in Libya and will be held on Thursday, March 30 from 7:00 to 8:30 pm at Harleysville Party Rental, 851 Maple Ave.  Feel free to just come, or can register ahead of time  with Allison Nafiziger via email (anafiziger@Meda.org)or by calling 717-560-6546.

Reflections on Breaking Free to Follow an Untamed God

By Jenny Duskey, Ambler Mennonite Church

Todd Wynward

An Exodus Time, a Great Turning, a Watershed Moment – whatever we call it, we are in the midst of crisis.  We, children of a free, wild, untamed God, try “to follow Jesus while shackled to Caesar.”  “Fast food, cheap oil, chronic debt, and constant pressure are only some of the cultural cages that hold us captive.  Bottom line:  We’ve been constrained and colonized by corporations,” says the prologue of Rewilding the Way: Breaking Free to Follow an Untamed God by Todd Wynward. Todd was the speaker this year for Franconia and Eastern District Conferences’ Peace Retreat held February 10-12 at St. Mary of Providence Center in Elverson, PA.

A watershed is “a region draining into a river, river system, or other body of water;” or “an event or period marking a turning point in a state of affairs.”  (http://www.mennocreationcare.org/watershed-way ) The Winter Peace Retreat this year was about embracing this watershed moment, this crisis, and seizing the opportunity to break out of our shackles and live the Golden Rule Jesus teaches us, treating those downstream, both geographically and chronologically, as we would have those upstream treat us. Communities downstream and future generations have no choice but to inherit the consequences of our lifestyle today.

“Taking care of our environment is the most important social justice issue today,” said Todd.  He did not, however, discourage any of us from continuing to pursue the various peace and justice activities in which we are engaged.  If we are going to minimize the damage resulting from the way we have been undermining water cycles, atmosphere, soil, oceans and thermal balance for the past 200 years of industrial growth, we need to find ways for everyone to have clean water and renewable energy sources.  Human society needs to transition from industrial growth for the few to sustenance of life for all.  If we keep Jesus at the center of our work locally, in our state and nation, and worldwide, the church can offer the world hope, love and peace as we work for this transition.

Co-intelligence arises when we all share our visions.  Todd passed out sticky note pads and asked us to write what we’d experienced in the past six months in five categories:  Good News/Grounded Hope, Fresh Insights/Awareness, Examining Our Lives, Calls to Action, and Laments/Despairs.  We mounted our notes on newsprint sheets on the walls. When the “Laments/Despairs” newsprint fell off the wall from its heaviness, we shared some much-needed laughter!  Todd encouraged us to stay with our laments as long as we need to, going through them instead of around them, to find the hope and motivation that lead to action.

By the end of the final session, we felt highly energized and hopeful.  Many of us want to continue this environmental theme for the next five years, at least as part of what we do at Peace Retreat.  Some are motivated to form two or three ongoing regional groups within our two Conferences, to get together more often to encourage each other in efforts to care for God’s creation.  Any who are interested in being part of that may contact John Stoltzfus (jstoltzfus@franconiaconference.org) who will coordinate the effort.  Congregations, groups, or individuals are also encouraged to join the Watershed Way sponsored by the Mennonite Creation Care Network ,and/or to accept a voluntary Carbon Tax. To learn more about Mennonite Creation Care Network visit: (http://www.mennocreationcare.org/watershed-way. For information on a voluntary carbon tax, where you can calculate the cost of your carbon footprint and choose to donate what you can afford of that cost to a project or non-profit that helps the environment visit: http://voluntarycarbontax.org/index.php.

As we continue to work for peace and justice, we must be mindful that our care for the environment is a part of that. As God’s creation provides for us, we must ensure it can continue to do so for everyone now and in the future.

“You shall not pollute the land in which you live…. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I also dwell; for I the LORD dwell among the Israelites.” -Numbers 35:33-34

From Dust You’ve Been Created

“Do you not realize what the Holy One can do with dust?”–Jan Richardson

By Steve Kriss, Executive Minister

Growing up in a dominantly Catholic community, I annually had ash envy.   There was something about that mark of the cross on the forehead, the smear and the audacity of wearing it out and about in town and at school that made me want to be marked similarly.

This year I joined the shared worship at Blooming Glen, jointly planned with Deep Run East and Perkasie congregations.  Each of the congregations’ pastoral leaders had a part.  I found my eyes becoming full as I watched them mark each other’s foreheads, after finishing marking those who came forward.  There was something both beautiful and awful in the fragility of the statement “from dust you’ve been created, and to dust you shall return,” being spoken to pastoral colleagues I know and love.

“Do you not know what the holy one can do with dust?”  It’s a serious question, written poignantly.  The dust of human existence breathed on by God becomes true life and even resurrection. Until then, we have these fragile days of marking, of honoring life, of sharing generously, of witnessing profoundly, of journeying together in sickness and in health, ’til death do we part.

Last Thursday, we honored the relationships we have with our credentialed leaders in an evening dinner with music.  It was a lovely night with good food and fellowship around tables while listening to some Gospel Folk music by The King’s Strings.   It felt like an extravagant night out for some of us.  A few pastors incredulously and skeptically wondered how the costs had been covered.  Two families from our community paid the bill as a gift, to show their appreciation for our credentialed leaders and conference.  Our pastors who attended felt honored.  It’s one of the ways we honor life’s fragility, through generosity and appreciation.  I’m grateful for our donors and our time together.

We set out now into these 40 days of journey toward the cross and resurrection.  Some of us are fasting from sugar or social media.  My catholic cousins often refrained from chocolate or soft drinks.   A recent suggestion I appreciated invited us to give away something every day.  They are all acts of devotion or attempting to focus direction differently.   These can be meaningful practices that stretch and strengthen our spiritual reflexes and muscles.  The Hebrew prophets repeatedly provoked honest service, pure-heartedness, and justice-seeking & doing over showy displays.  Our religiosity and practice, even during holidays, that help tell the story of our faith have little meaning without right relationships.

We continue to work and hope across our conference, our cities and towns, our country and all the world of sharing God’s extravagant and creative love incarnated in Christ and also through us when we live out the invitation in Isaiah to seek justice, share generously and relieve the burdens of those who struggle.   This is our journey this season of Lent, and always.

 

We’re All Out of Chicken!

By Joshua Jefferson, Youth Pastor at Souderton Mennonite Church

We were all drawn together on that cold, windy Monday evening, February 13, by the promise of fresh enchiladas and tostadas made by the members of Centro de Alabanza, along with some warm conversation with James Krabill of Mennonite Mission Network, to share stories about the church in mission.  The topic of the evening was “Celebration of Shalom: Stories of the Church in Mission”, and so, after we finished a few tasty treats, James spent time sharing about his readiness as a missionary for plans to be interrupted by God’s unexpected appointments.

The son of parents who met on a church-planting mission trip,  James grew up in a congregation in mission.  North Goshen (IN) Mennonite Church was a Goshen College student-planted church in what was called an “immigrant community”, serving largely unchurched factory workers who had migrated from Kentucky and Tennessee.  This early foundation prepared James for a lifetime of mission-oriented teaching, service and administration, including 20 years as a Bible teacher in Ivory Coast.  He is currently Senior Executive for Global Ministries at Mennonite Mission Network.

James KrabillThroughout the the evening, James shared Biblical principles about how the Cross brings reconciliation on a cosmic yet personal scale.  He then reminded us that the ministry of reconciliation is God’s highest priority in the cosmos.  At this point I leaned in, realizing how often this simple calling gets strangled by the tyranny of the urgent.

“Peace,” he continued, “is not the distinction of one tradition, but the very model and message of the church!”  He finished by telling us of a friend who was once at an airport, trying to find a quick dinner before his flight.  He stumbled up to the counter of a Popeye’s, and ordered a meal. “We’re all out of chicken,” the cashier replied.  “But chicken is who you are!” the man responded.  For Popeye’s, to be out of chicken is to be out of business.  For the Church, to be out of reconciliation, is to be out of mission.

James told us about the history of his home congregation — Prairie Street Mennonite Church.  Founded in 1871 as a presence in the city of Elkhart, Indiana, the congregation originally housed the Elkhart Institute (which later became Goshen College) and the Mennonite Publishing House in the late 1800s.

“People who have been connected with that congregation their whole lives think of this as the ‘golden days’,” James confessed. “They live in the past, rather than saying ‘What is God doing right now?  How can we be God’s people today in this time and place?’ The neighborhood has completely changed; our context has completely changed.  In 2017, we do not live anymore in 1871. We have people with doctoral degrees and some people who can’t read and write.  We have some fairly wealthy people, and virtually, some homeless people!  We have some English speakers, we have a growing number of Spanish speakers. We have cradle Mennonites, and other people who are just becoming acquainted. So how do we figure out how to be the church in 2017?”

Listen to James’ story of how an unfortunate misunderstanding has led Prairie Street to become a place of hope for their community:
 

Download the podcast


At this point, we changed tables to meet someone new and to share about our experiments and obstacles encountered in mission.  I had the privilege of sitting with Lynne Allebach, the lay pastor from Arise Community Outreach, and Fernando Loyola, pastor of Centro de Alabanza.  We reminisced about our own unexpected appointments, and commented on the unique shape of the ministry of reconciliation in our different settings.  At the end of the evening, James offered a few final remarks, namely that Christianity comprises about one third of our planet, and that Islam comprises about one fourth of our planet.  This is paramount to the ministry of reconciliation.  We must recognize the task before us now, for the life of the world!

(Hear the entire “Celebration of Shalom” podcast in our audio gallery.)

 

Grateful for a Sad Surprise

By Randy Heacock, LEADership Minister

When Steve Kriss, Conference Executive Minister, invited me to consider being a LEADership Minister, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect.  I have a LEADership minister and I have been in the conference long enough to remember the early conversations of the role of a LEADership Minister.  However, one of my first interactions, a phone call from an elder of a congregation I now serve as a LEADership Minster, caught me by surprise.  Steve never warned me of such a call, nor was it listed in the memo of understanding I signed.  I attended the training on mandatory reporting; Barbie Fischer, Conference Communication Manager, provided some guidelines for communication protocol so that confidentiality is maintained.  I was ready to go, so I thought.

An elder called and began with the following statement, “Randy, I need to apologize to you and ask for your forgiveness.”  He went on to explain how he had heard something about me that he allowed to shape his opinion of me.   When my name came up at their elders meeting, he raised some questions based on what he had heard about me.  The other elders challenged him to speak to me directly rather than to rely on what he had heard.  Hence, he began with an apology for not speaking to me first.  His sincere apology and request for forgiveness provided a solid foundation for us to discuss his questions.   I believe we both ended the conversation grateful for the interaction.

Though grateful, I soon felt a sense of sadness regarding this conversation.  Sad, because it made me realize how rarely I have been involved in communication with other believers in which a person requested to be forgiven.  In 30 years of pastoral leadership, I can only recall one other time when a person asked for my forgiveness.  I wondered why this is so rare in the church that proclaims that reconciliation is the center of our work.   At the same time, I have witnessed men with whom I have played basketball with for 15 years apologize to one another on a far more regular basis.   Why is it more common for these men, many of whom do not share a faith commitment, to readily apologize to one another?

While I could provide some possible answers, I prefer to let us think on this for ourselves.  I do know the positive outcome of one elder’s apology.   I was deeply moved and our relationship enhanced by his phone call.  It also challenged me to consider what stops me from freely seeking the forgiveness of another.  I am grateful for this sad surprise.   I pray we all may grow and experience the fruit of forgiveness in our relationships as the norm rather than the exception.

Luke 17:4, “”And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”