Planting, Watering and Watching God Grow: Conferences Gather for Annual Assembly

“The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.” – 1 Corinthians 3:8-9

On November 4 and 5, 2016, Franconia Conference and Eastern District held their annual fall Conference Assembly. Since 2012, the conferences have come together for assembly holding separate business sessions, yet enjoying joint times of worship on Friday evening and Saturday morning, sharing in the recognition of newly credentialed leaders, lunch, and workshops.

plant-water-grow-colorThis year Assembly was centered on the theme of Plant, Water, Grow with 1 Corinthians 3:8-9 guiding the weekend. Over 200 members from both conferences gathered for worship and an ice cream social on Friday evening. They enjoyed being led in music by worship teams from Nueva Vida Norristown New Life, Centro de Alabanza de Filadelfia, a worship team comprised of credentialed leaders from the conferences, and a children’s choir comprised of 17 kids from congregations throughout the conferences, led by Michael Bishop from Blooming Glen Mennonite Church.

The evening was full of videos, highlighting how congregations have been planting, watering, and where they see God growing in their congregations and broader communities. There were stories of a bi-lingual women’s retreat, congregants gathering to support a refugee brother and sister as they navigate resettlement, ministry to motorcyclists, work toward being good environmental stewards, and more. All of the videos will be available for viewing on EDC-FMC.org/assembly by next week.

Timg_6106he message Friday evening was brought by Nate Stucky, Director of the Farminary at Princeton Theological Seminary. Nate is credentialed through Eastern District and spoke on “Lessons from the Garden,” including the process of death and transformation.  Nate, who thought himself a Kansas farm boy, imagined that his journey to Princeton would mean leaving behind his agrarian roots.  Instead, God used his background in farming and love of theology with his work at Princeton’s Farminary, where he integrates theological education with small-scale, sustainable agriculture.

Saturday was a historic day as over 240 delegates from Eastern District and Franconia Conferences met in separate business meetings to discuss a proposal for intentional exploration of reconciliation between the two conferences. Prior to assembly, delegates received a letter (read it here) from both Rodger Schmell, moderator of Eastern District, and John Goshow, moderator of Franconia Conference. The letter laid out some of the shared history, reasons for the split 169 years ago, and the collaboration that has been happening in the last two decades. In addition, the letter included a proposal to engage two consultants over the course of 2017 to intentionally explore what differences still exist between the two conferences and how the conferences may work toward reconciliation. Both moderators in their separate business sessions emphasized the current collaboration at a congregational and conference level. They also highlighted that the focus is on reconciliation which may or may not include a merger; however, both are hopeful that a merger may happen.

ca2016-10Table discussions from both conferences about the proposal included comments about how this is a great witness to the world and that as Mennonites “we are a people of reconciliation.” The timeline and not rushing the process was affirmed, along with the acknowledgement that the spirit is leading in this direction so it is wise to follow. At the same time, there were concerns voiced over differences in polity and views of the Confession of Faith, along with a call to ensure history of both conferences is respected and preserved.

The proposal for the intentional exploration of reconciliation between the conferences was affirmed by 96% of Franconia delegates and 100% of Eastern District delegates. This means that both conferences will now work to form a reference team representing both conferences’ diversity, that will begin to meet in January with consultants David Brubaker and Roxy Kioko from Eastern Mennonite University (EMU).

The leadership of both conferences believes that both Dave and Roxy’s extensive experience on organizational leadership and working at church conflict will be invaluable to this process. Brubaker brings both an organizational and peacebuilding background as he is both the Director of the Master of Business Administration and Master of Organizational Leadership Programs at EMU and Associate Professor of Organizational Studies for EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Roxy brings over 10 years of experience in the social change sector and currently is a doctoral student at James Madison University’s School of Strategic Leadership Studies with a concentration in nonprofit and community leadership. A reconciliation process like this has never been attempted before and both conferences’ leadership have faith that these two are uniquely qualified to assist in exploring this path to reconciliation.

The timeline for this exploration of reconciliation includes information gathering, such as surveys, focus groups, and some individual interviews, proposed to take place between January-March 2017; a time of analysis, working to summarize what has been learned, during April-May 2017; finally, developing clear recommendations as to how both conferences might move forward together in a shared future will be done June-August 2017 and refined in September-October with key stakeholders. The goal is to present the recommendations and reasons for them to the delegates of both conferences at the November 3 and 4, 2017 Assembly. At that time, there will be conferring and discernment about accepting and implementing the recommendations.

Other business addressed during the Franconia Business session included the affirmation of several board and committee members for additional terms. All reaffirmed by over 97% of the delegates. In addition, a new board member, Smita Ruby Singh from Whitehall Mennonite Church, was voted in by 96% of the delegates and will begin her first term in January 2017.

Reports were also given to the Franconia Conference delegates by three groups that came out of the 2015 Assembly Church Together Statements. The Faith and Life Commission reported on their quarterly gathering of credentialed leaders and shared plans for the next gatherings to be held in February and March 2017. The Addressing Abuse Taskforce spoke of their work to provide support to adult survivors within the community, working to ensure appropriate policies are in place, and that there will be educational opportunities for congregations in 2017. The Israel/Palestine Taskforce reported on their work to educate the conference about the situation there in anticipation of the upcoming Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA) resolution which was tabled last year.

In addition to these reports, the Executive Minister Search Committee provided an update that they have been meeting weekly and are narrowing the list of nominees through prayer, discernment and interviews. The committee did state their hope is to have a recommendation for the next Executive Minister to the conference board by the end of December 2016.

ca2016-6This was the final assembly as Executive Minister for Ertell Whigham who has been on staff with the conference for over 14 years. In his closing remarks at the end of the Franconia business session he thanked God and the delegates for the opportunity to serve God during this season stating things he has been reminded of and thankful for. Ertell spoke of being called to the role of Franconia Conference Executive Minister for “such a time as this,” and that “this time has ended.” He offered to all present his “true love for this conference, and the grace I have felt from those who have embraced me.” Whigham will finish his role as Executive Minister in January 2017. He will remain a pastor at Nueva Vida Norristown New Life, and looks forward to continued engagement with the conference and the denomination. To hear his full remarks (and other assembly audio), CLICK HERE.

ca2016-6Following the business sessions, Eastern District and Franconia Conferences joined once again in worship led by Tami Good of Swamp, Kris Anne Swartley of Doylestown, Franco Salvatori of Rocky Ridge, and Brent Camilleri of Deep Run East. Two videos were shared highlighting the work of Ripple and Whitehall in the Allentown community as they joined forces to grow a community garden and use that as a teaching tool for local children, along with a video sharing how West Swamp is a key member of the Upper Bucks Code Blue Shelter and how their involvement there is spreading God’s love through meeting physical needs.

In the midst of Saturday worship, recognition was given to the passing of John Bender, a credentialed leader within Franconia Conference with a slideshow and the lighting of a candle by his wife Marilyn Bender and sister Rose Bender, who are also both credentialed within the conference.

ca2016-4Franconia also recognized 10 leaders who chose to have their credentials moved to retired status rather than undergo the extensive credential renewal process last year that included new background checks required by Pennsylvania Law. While 10 retired the conference welcomed 9 newly credentialed leaders including two transfers, three ordinations, one reactivation of ordination and three licensed toward ordination.

The Saturday worship closed with a joint recognition by Eastern District and Franconia Conference of Franconia Executive Minister, Ertell Whigham. Acting Eastern District Executive Minister, Scott Roth, shared how Ertell’s fathering led to his wife’s salvation, as one of Ertell’s sons was her youth leader and led her to Christ.

Following worship both conferences enjoyed a joint lunch and then participated in their choice of workshops.

One workshop was led by David Boshart, moderator-elect of MCUSA entitled “Same-sex Marriage and the Witness of the Church” where participants discussed five commitments that can help the church navigate the current conflict with faithfulness and integrity: 1) communal biblical discernment, 2) constructive biblical exegesis and theology, 3) Christocentric ways of knowing, 4) grace-based spirituality, and 5) public worship as witness.

ca2016-3Another workshop was presented by acting Executive Minister of Eastern District, Scott Roth, and Franconia LEADership Minister, Noel Santigo, called “What it means to be the Church.” They examined if the church is growing the Kingdom or just tending to those that are showing up on Sunday. Through examples from within the community they looked at what Christ did and how that transpires today in 2016. Hear the podcast of their workshop by clicking here.

Also offered was a workshop on “Youth Ministry for the Margins” by Danilo Sanchez of Ripple, Whitehall, and Vietnamese Gospel congregations, and Josh Jefferson from Souderton, where they discussed sustainable strategies for youth ministries that are “going to the margins” in both urban and suburban contexts.

The workshop “Seeking Peace in Israel/Palestine” was presented by the Franconia Conference Israel/Palestine Taskforce, offering stories from those who have participated in the Come and See Tours and ways in which the conferences can respond. They also reviewed the Kairos Palestine document and the resolution process from Kansas City 2015, looking ahead to preparing a resolution for Orlando 2017.

There is truly a lot of planting, watering and growing going on amidst Eastern District and Franconia Conferences. That is evident in the testimonies and stories shared throughout Assembly 2016. May God continue to guide both conferences as they embark on a historic journey exploring the possibility of reconciliation over the next year, while continuing to plant, water and watch the kingdom of God grow.

* For Assembly 2016 videos, podcasts and photos visit EDC-FMC.org/assembly (all items will be posted within the week)