by Krista Showalter Ehst, Bally congregation
For Noah Kolb, the journey has moved in unexpected places, bringing challenges and blessings alike. Reflecting on a 45 year ministerial career—the most recent 14 of which he spent in Franconia Conference leadership—Noah says, “I could not have dreamed this path and in many ways it has felt like God has nudged and moved me along step by step.” As Noah anticipates his retirement years, he continues to experience those divine nudgings, offering words of wisdom from his ministerial work.
Noah was born and raised in a farming family in Spring City, Pa. He felt the call to ministry at a fairly young age, and this call was drawn out and affirmed by many people along the road. Noah names teachers, in-laws, mentors, and seminary professors at Goshen Biblical as central to discerning and following his call. Perhaps most significantly of all, Noah’s wife Sara has brought wisdom and counsel—as well as her own gifts of hospitality and relationship-building—that have helped Noah live into his calling. As he says, “I would not have wanted to do the journey without her.”
That journey took Noah and his family to many different ministerial settings. He spent 24 years in pastoral ministry: beginning part time at Pottstown (Pa.) Mennonite, moving to Swamp congregation (Quakertown, Pa.) for 11 years, and then serving the Bellwood Congregation in Nebraska for 5 years. The leadership skills he exhibited during those years resulted in his call into conference ministry. After serving as the only Iowa-Nebraska conference minister for a number of years, he returned to the east coast. Jim Lapp, his brother-in-law and a former conference colleague, remembers that transition. “Noah’s strength as a leader arises from his lack of pretense and aspiration for recognition and a genuine humility and gentle spirit,” Jim shares. “It was his strong churchmanship and character that led us to call him in 2000 to serve as part of the Conference Ministry Team [of Franconia Conference].”
Conference ministry brought its own set of challenges and learnings. For Noah, one significant area of growth was in conflict management. Noah grew up with very little understanding of conflict and became quite anxious when faced with it. As a pastor and conference minister, however, he was quick to realize that “wherever you have two or three gathered, there will be conflict.” Noah worked hard to wrestle with his aversion to conflict and to develop a non-anxious presence. He tried to create safe spaces where people could gather to talk and to share openly about their differences. As is so often the case, Noah remembers his times of helping congregations to move through conflict as some of the most difficult and rewarding moments of his career.
As he’s worked alongside congregations, Noah has realized the importance of building relationships. He believes leaders cannot be effective without building trust with their congregations. Undoubtedly shaped by the many mentors in his own life, Noah has worked to build this trust by prioritizing one-on-one relationships with pastors, taking the time to listen to their stories and to know them more deeply. One leader who has benefited from this relational approach is Paulus Thalathoti, currently leading Peace Proclamation Ministries International in India and a member of Plains congregation, where Noah and Sara also attend. “Noah has energized me with his natural ability as a servant leader,” Paulus says. “I have seen and experienced in him the qualities of gentleness and love.”
As he moves into retirement, Noah continues to model gentleness, strength, relationality, and the willingness to listen in the midst of difference. “We live with a lot of judgment towards each other and we don’t know how to receive and accept each other graciously as brothers and sisters in Christ even with our diversity,” Noah reflects. “One of my deep convictions is that we need to work at a greater understanding of God’s grace and mercy—that God has received and uses us amazingly in our brokenness and that we can extend that grace to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. My deep yearning is that we can somehow learn to do that much better—not a sense that anything goes, but an extending of mercy and grace and compassion to each other in the midst of our brokenness.”
While Noah has faced challenges in the last few years of ministry as he struggled with failing vision, his care and giftedness as a pastor to leaders has continued to shine through. “While it is indeed true that he is having a struggle with his physical eyesight, the spiritual eyesight of my brother continues to grow,” said Ertell Whigham, Franconia’s Executive Minister, at the 2013 Conference Assembly in November. “[Noah is] able to see the needs and the care and the encouragement and the guidance and the wisdom that our brothers and sisters who serve in ministry need. And so, while indeed there may be some struggles with [his] physical eyesight, I thank God for [his] spiritual eyesight…. I have truly been transformed through our intercultural interaction.”