Tag Archives: formational

Havin’ A Blast!

By John Stoltzfus

youthevent6What do you get when you bring together 130 junior high youth from 15 different churches in Franconia and Eastern District Mennonite Conferences? A picture of both the present and future reality of the church and kingdom of God.

Our junior high youth are image bearers of God. They have the ability to both feel and express the love and acceptance of God, giving expression to this through worship, energetic games and relationship building at the annual Junior High Late Night Blast on Friday, March 11.

Christopher Dock Mennonite High School provided the backdrop for five hours of fun and fellowship. Junior High youth and their brave sponsors from as far north as Whitehall Mennonite Church and as far south as Philadelphia Praise Center and Centro de Alabanza came together to give witness to the life of our larger church community. What a wonderful testimony of the fullness and diversity of God’s presence among us!

youthevent4Part of the purpose of this annual event is to give our youth a positive and memorable experience of worshipping together, playing hard, and catching a glimpse of the larger body of Christ. This event also gives opportunity for youth sponsors to engage with their youth and to partner together with other churches in ministry. One of the keys to developing an enduring faith in our youth is intergenerational relationships. Our youth need to know that they are valued and loved by all in the church.
youthevent7The evening included large group games and a host of other activities led by a group of great staff and volunteers from Spruce Lake Retreat Center. Bobby Wibowo led a band from Philadelphia Praise Center in a time of energetic worship through song. And, of course, it would not be a youth event without some sponsors getting a face full of whipped cream.

Thank you to everyone that helped to plan and carry out all the activities and a special thank you to all the youth leaders that commit themselves to serving with their youth. The Middle School years can be a series of highs and lows. There will be times of frustration and angst as they seek to form identity and explore independence but also times of great joy as they begin to discover their calling to be a child of God and follower of Christ in this world.

John Stoltzfus is the Conference Minister for Franconia and Eastern District Conferences. 

Epiphanies: A Call to Worship

By Michael Clemmer

Many of our churches have just finished their celebration of Epiphany – a day that seems to have taken a back seat to our more culturally-relevant Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. Epiphany is literally defined as a “Christian festival held on January 6 in honor of the coming of the three kings to the infant Jesus Christ.” Yet, as I reflected on the story of how the Magi saw something new in the sky and were compelled to leave behind all of their responsibilities and travel to see this new king, I couldn’t help but wonder if epiphanies have the same effect on people today. Is it even possible that we, who live in our practical or intellectual worlds of thought, would even be open to see or understand something in a new way through God’s divine enlightening?

threewisemenPerhaps we spend so much time trying to figure out what God is doing and saying through our epiphanies that we miss the real purpose of them – to draw us to worship. The sight of the star set the Magi into motion. They saw the star and they freed themselves to make the trip to worship the newborn savior king. Maybe we all need some sort of epiphany to point us to the place or posture of worship.

Over the Christmas holiday, my nearly 3-year-old grandson helped enlighten me about my own need to make worship a priority. One night before he fell asleep, he was lying in bed when he burst out in singing “Gloria, Gloria, Gloria,” the refrain of the Christmas song he heard earlier in the week. And then there was silence. A few moments later, he repeated his praises to God –this time adding “In excelsis Deo.” He had heard this chorus for the first time of his life earlier in the week, and now, he couldn’t help but continue to sing it as a way of praising God. It burst forth from his heart and broke the silence. The song was a part of him – and he sang God’s praises freely and joyfully over and over again.   In that moment as I stood in the hallway outside of his room, the light became clear to me.  It was an epiphany. My heart was filled with joy as I whispered – Gloria in excelsis deo, indeed!! Every day that we live should be guided by the Epiphany that opens our eyes to new understandings of the fact that a Savior has been born. And that leads us to worship. Come all, come everyone and worship!

Michael Clemmer is pastor at Towamencin Mennonite Church and a LEADership minister in Franconia Conference.

Acting Smaller, Going Deeper, Thinking Wider: A Vision for Youth Ministry

by John Stoltzfus

John Stoltzfus picThere are many challenges that face our youth ministers and workers, yet we have a vision to overcome these challenges. A few stories I have heard from some Mennonite churches in our conference include:

  • A family with young children moves into the area. They are advised by many friends to choose a larger church with more programming for children and youth.
  • A youth pastor plans a weekend activity for the youth group. One youth shows up.
  • A youth pastor asks another youth pastor from a large church for recommended curriculum. He suggests a full package yearlong curriculum that costs $799. The pastor from the smaller church immediately knows this is out of the question because of limited church funds.
  • A family decides to leave a church citing the small number of youth and children as a contributing factor. The parents are concerned that their children will not choose to become baptized with so few peers.
  • A youth pastor confesses that it can be hard on the ego to look at the diminishing size of the youth group. He feels that the church is putting some blame on him.
  • With a smaller group, a youth pastor admits that he now has more time to spend with each youth.

From what I see, most Mennonite churches in the conference are not experiencing sustained or significant growth among the number of youth and young adults in their congregations. Of course there are always exceptions but the majority of conversations I have with youth workers include talking about the challenges of learning to work with smaller youth groups.

This is not just a youth problem. This is an adult, multi-generational challenge contributing to the decline of church attendance and affiliation. Articles and research studies abound in pointing to the reasons why this may be so.

Asking the why question can be a good and necessary exercise. However, I want to focus on the opportunities. Is there a compelling vision for the future of youth ministry in this changing context? The following reflections are a collection of ideas from area Mennonite youth pastors.

Acting Smaller

youth photo 1 12-3-15We need to act our size. We can’t pretend to act like the churches we used to be or like the mega church down the road. The smaller youth group can be a good place to grow disciples, deepen learning and widen our sense of mission. The sentiment of “we can’t do this because we are a small-sized group” turns to “we get to do things differently because we are a smaller size”. Think intimate, spontaneous, moveable, accessible, and other adjectives.

A youth group of 10 persons and fewer cannot act the same as a youth group of 50. It impacts budget, staffing, curriculum, programming and much more. While a small church may not offer all the bells and whistles of a larger church, it may offer more individualized care and discipleship. A church may be less tempted to hire a “rock star” youth pastor to relate to their youth and instead work to build up a congregation-wide culture of intergenerational relationship and discipleship making. I am not advocating for the devaluing of youth pastors and those who specialize in youth ministry; however, youth pastors at their best enable and empower other adults in the congregation to relate to and disciple youth.

Research indicates that the most common factor for youth who stick with faith and church into adulthood is that they had at least 5 significant relationships with adults as a youth. Might the future of youth ministry be less programmatic and become more embedded into the fabric of the overall mission and life of the church?

Going Deeper

youth photo 2 12-3-15When I taught the Sunday school class at a previous church, I used to despair when the majority of the group would not show up on any given Sunday. But then I started to see an opportunity. With a smaller group I was able to adapt the lesson to the specific interests and concerns of each youth. I began to make the kids count rather than count the kids. I was better able to connect individually with the youth and be more practical in application rather than creating studies and lessons that needed to connect with everyone in a larger group. Might the future of youth ministry more like the relationship between Jesus, the rabbi, and his small band of disciples?

Thinking Wider  

What if we were to consider our youth as not just those who show up on a Sunday morning with their parents, but also the youth who live in the communities surrounding our church? Consider what is happening with Project Haven in East Greenville operating out of the former Peace Mennonite Church building. A robotics club, bicycle recycling shop, weekend hangout spot are just some of the initiates that are engaging youth in the community and local schools. Might the future of youth ministry be more entrepreneurial, happening out in the community and making young people agents of ministry, not just objects of it?

Thinking wider might also include more collaboration with other community organizations and other churches. Mennonite youth groups in the area are already doing this — from doing winter retreats together to fundraising together to go to conventions. These relationships have the possibility of moving us across lines of culture, race, economic status and theology. Might the future of youth ministry be less about keeping youth in our church and more about helping them engage and build the kingdom of God in the wider world?

While we face many challenges in keeping youth engaged in the church and reaching out to draw in more youth, if we act smaller, go deeper and think wider, we might see that change.

John Stoltzfus is the Conference Youth Minister for Franconia Mennonite Conference and Eastern District Conference.

 

My Kind of Faith Heroes

by Aldo Siahaan

Aldo Siahaan
Aldo Siahaan

Every Thursday, I attend a Bible study among pastors and leaders of the Anabaptist Network in Philadelphia, commonly called Kingdom Builders Network. In November, 25 to 30 leaders discussed the scripture from Hebrew 11:32 – 12:3; it talks about faith. One of the questions in the discussion that morning was “who are your faith heroes?”  I heard someone say “my mom and my grandma are my faith heroes”; “one of the leaders in my church – he was a quiet person but had a strong faith, regardless of all the struggles he was facing”; “Mother Teresa – I worked with her for a couple of months and I saw her faith “. Someone from the group asked “How about you Aldo? Who are your faith heroes?”

Family - Aldo article 12-3-15My journey of Christianity started with my parents. My parents were the ones who introduced Jesus into my life; not only that, they really put
their faith in Jesus. As a family, we would have our regular prayer meetings; my dad had his personal time with God in his room, where my mom always had her time with God at our dinner table. Sometimes I would see my mom’s prayer list that she would put in her Bible. Many times, when our family had difficult situations and struggled, my parents always used their “powerful weapon”: prayer. So, to answer the question, I can say that my parents are my faith heroes.

On the way back home from the Bible Study, God reminded me of another person that I have learned so much about faith from. He’s name is Stefanus and he is incarcerated.  During the eight years he has been in prison, if we talk over the phone or meet in the prison, he has a positive attitude most of the time. Not only that, but he has given testimony to me and his cell mates on how God has worked in many situations in his life, especially during his imprisonment. Every day is a busy day for Stefanus. He works taking care of those who are incarcerated and disabled, he does school work for his International Business major from Ohio University, he helps with the church service every Wednesday and Sunday, and helps others with their problems; many young and old cell mates like to share their problems th Stefanus, they feel comfortable with him and trust him.  He is also an artist, and keeps busy with the more-than-20 drawing orders he has from others who are incarcerated. Stefanus has shared many stories that encourage my faith. I can say Stefanus Santoso is my faith hero. I will continue to pray for him so that he can be released soon, and if God has another plan, I believe He will strengthen Stefanus for another 12 years.

Our faith heroes come into our lives in many different ways and from many different places. Who are your faith heroes? And are you living out your faith that you may be someone’s faith hero too?

Aldo Siahaan is pastor of Philadelphia Praise Center, and on staff at Franconia Conference as a LEADership Minister.

Built by God to Build God’s Kingdom

Conferences Gather for Worship and Discernment

by Barbie Fischer

On November 13th and 14th over 300 people from Franconia and Eastern District Conferences joined together for the fall joint assembly at Penn View Christian School in Souderton, PA. The two conference enjoy joint worship together on Friday evening and Saturday morning followed by separate business meetings. It is a time to see God’s work among both conferences. This year was a time of celebration, deep discernment, and a call to be the kingdom of God. Throughout the weekend there were reminders that God is building each person to be a part of the body of Christ and as the body of Christ to build God’s kingdom here on earth.

conference assembly worship 11The diversity within Franconia Conference was evident in Friday night worship including a children’s choir of 38 kids from across conference congregations and a choir of Karen people from Whitehall Mennonite Church who have settled in Allentown after being displaced from their homes in Burma/Myanmar due to ongoing conflict.

Ministry moments were offered by Andrew Huth, a youth leader at Ambler Mennonite, Jessica Hedrick, Children’s Pastor at Souderton Mennonite, and Scott Roth, Associate Pastor at Perkiomenville Mennonite.

Andrew shared of his experiences as a documentary photographer in Palestine and asked the assembly, “What does it take for us to care about our neighbors?”

conference assembly worship 6Jessica Hedrick, spoke from her experience as part of the millennial generation often noted for their absence in the church.  Hedrick said millennials are looking for the good news, for the church to show they care about the world again. She said, “Sometimes I think it would be so much easier to walk away, but I stay. I stay because I believe God can redeem anything, even the church, and because I have this crazy dream that the Church can be a beacon of light in the dark world again… As the church it is our job to be concerned about our neighbor, our friend and our enemy. It is our job to be concerned about the world.” She reminded the assembly that “we are a family and we need each other. It is time for us to stop spending so much time arguing over who is in and who is out and just get out there and be the hands and feet of Jesus. It is time for us to stop whining and start shining.”

Scott Roth, Associate Pastor at Perkiomenville Mennonite shared about dreaming with God and shared of the work God is doing in Perkiomenville, through Project Haven. He reminded all that “God is moving when you follow.”

conference assembly 2015 105On Saturday morning in the joint worship time, Mim Book and Jim Lapp, current interim pastors at Zion Mennonite Church, offered a moment of silence to stand in solidarity and pray for the people of the world brought to a high level of fear in response to the acts of violence in Paris the night before.  As delegates prepared to enter their business sessions, Mim and Jim reminded them that, “We are built to build across language and cultural divides that too often separate rather than unit us. We are built to build a new kind of temple and dwelling place of God and may we be reminded this is happening as we go to our jobs, go to the classrooms, the banks and businesses where we are employed. Yes it is happening, yet there is so much more to build. Structures of love and forgiveness that serve needs greater than any buildings we might erect with bricks and mortar.”

Celebration of God’s work among his people continued on Saturday morning as Franconia Conference recognized six newly licensed ministers and seven ordinations that have taken place in the last year. This included recognition of the youngest person credentialed by Franconia Conference, Jessica Hedirck, Children’s Pastor at Souderton Mennonite, the first woman of color credentialed by the conference, Leticia Cortes of Centro de Alabanza de Filadelfia, and the first ordination of a millennial, Josh Meyer, Associate Pastor at Franconia Mennonite Church.

conference assembly 2015 241In the Franconia Conference business session, Steve Kriss, Director of Leadership Cultivation and Congregational Resourcing announced that after a year of formal exploration with Centro de Alabanza de Filadelfia and Indonesian Light Church, both located in South Philadelphia, the congregations still wished to join Franconia Conference. Steve said to the delegates, “What I want to note is that ; new leaders, new congregation, thanks be to God. What I want to note today is that both of these congregations walk to us through Aldo’s work… the actions that we do today have consequences; sometimes those consequences are good, amazing, beautiful, and unexpected.”

Aldo Siahaan, Franconia Conference LEADership Minister and pastor at Philadelphia Praise Center, shared that “in Acts 2, ‘they follow a daily devotion of worship in the temple with meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful. As they praise God, people liked what they saw and everyday their numbers grew as God added to their numbers those who were saved.’  Celebration, meal, worship, and joyful, that’s every time you go to Centro de Alabanza and Indonesian Light Church, meal, worship, celebration, and joyful. Glory to God we have these two new members of Franconia Conference.”  Both congregations moved to join the conference through relationships with Philadelphia Praise Center.

The conference also celebrated with Nations Worship Center as they received a check from Mennonite Men for the purchase of a new building. Don Yoder of Mennonite Men presented the congregation with a check and shared about how God is growing that congregation.

The assembly was able to hear how God is moving and building through a conference missional operations grant (MOG) received by Salem Mennonite Church in Quakertown. Pastor Bruce Eglinton-Woods shared how God had been working through the church in Quakertown to rebuild a skate park and provide a positive environment for the youth of the community, which has led to the bureau requesting help with maintaining a cemetery. The MOG allowed the church to assist with the groundskeeping of the cemetery which has now led to the bureau requesting assistance from the church in the building and development of a youth center.   MOG’s are an ongoing resource fund available for congregational initiatives in Franconia Conference.

The first urban mission of Franconia Conference, Nueva Vida Norristown New Life Mennonite Church, will celebrate its centennial, and a new book is out regarding the history of this mission and its continued growth. John Ruth shared the history with the delegates and photographs of how the diversity and congregation have grown over the years. The book A Mennonite Church in Norristown by Beverly Benner Miller can be purchased at the Mennonite Heritage Center; check their website (www.mhep.org) for more information or visit their shop at 565 Yoder Road, Harleysville, PA.

In the midst of the celebration, the Franconia delegates spent time conferring around three Church Together Statements. The conference leadership had requested the congregations put forward statements that:

  1. Support the conference’s mission of equipping leaders to empower others to embrace God’s mission.
  2. Propose ways in which to apply the Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA) Kansas City resolutions to the Franconia Conference context.
  3. Propose ways for Franconia Conference pastors and congregations to continue to deepen relationships in 2016.

Nine Statements were received by the Church Together Statements Committee. Some were combined together to form new statements. In the end, five statements remained. Two statements dealing with resolutions passed at the MCUSA convention in Kansas City were approved by the board for implementation. The statement, Israel/Palestine, calls for the formation of a task force to continue education within the conference on the conflict in the middle east. The second, Addressing Abuse Within our Midst, calls for the formation of a task force to implement training, education, and support groups around addressing abuse.

conference assembly 2015 132The remaining three statements were presented to the delegates for discernment. The co-chairs of the Church Together Statements Committees, Angela Moyer, Pastor at Ripple, and Joe Hackman, Lead Pastor at Salford, presented each of the statements and clearly identified the meaning of a yes and no vote. Joe stated, “This delegate body, according to our by-laws is the decision making body of the conference. The staff, board, and congregation need direction from this delegate body in order to move forward. This is most commonly done through voting… Voting yes or no might sound divisive, but the larger purpose of voting on these statements is to give the board, staff, and congregation immediate understanding of the priorities and desires of the congregations in our conference.”

All three statements were affirmed by the delegate body. One was a vision statement, the other dealing with human sexuality, and the third dealt with a call to reestablish the Faith and Life Commission for pastors to come together to discern biblical and theological questions.

The Going to the Margins Statement was affirmed by 87% of the delegates present (10% not affirming, and 3% abstaining). Noted by the delegates who affirmed and those who did not was the lack of the mention of LGBTQ people and women in the list of those marginalized. With the affirmation of the Going to the Margins statement, the conference board and staff will take this statement into consideration as they begin strategic planning in the coming year.

conference assembly 2015 83The Grace and Truth Statement, while affirmed by 73% (18% not affirming, and 9% abstaining), many delegates noted that they agreed with the statement except for the items within the statement holding that credentialed leaders may not perform same-sex covenanted ceremonies, the conference may not credential those in same-sex covenant relationships, and calling on congregations to not hire persons living in same-sex relationships to serve in pastoral leadership were points of contention. With the affirmation of the Grace and Truth statement, the delegates have affirmed the conference’s existing position on human sexuality at this time.

The Faith and Life Statement calling for the reestablishment of the Faith and Life Commission was affirmed by 71% of the delegates present (22% not affirming, and 7% abstaining). The comments from the delegates included needing clarity on what it means to “offer pastoral care to LGBTQ individuals and their families…”

At the end of the day, delegates were given an opportunity to speak about the process. One delegate stated, “I was prepared for a little more lively discussion and maybe some contentiousness today but it felt very calm and we had really good discussion around our tables. I give credit to the worship time and the songs that you had us sing throughout the day.”

Pastor Michael Meneses, of Wellspring Church of Skippack, stated that he and his table group felt the process was, “delightful, hopeful, and significant. It felt meaningful to be here in real conversation. This is getting deeper.” He spoke of how being able to dialogue without expectation allowed for truly meaningful conversation.

Mark Michalovic, a delegate from West Philadelphia congregation, said, “the one word I used to describe our conversation, the word that came to me was ‘welcome’. Because when I first spoke I was nervous and apprehensive because I was about to say things and I didn’t know how well they would be received and I had a good feeling that a lot of people might strongly disagree with me. At our table we did have a lot of disagreements, but everybody made each other feel welcome and we all listened to each other respectfully and all feel like we can keep discussing things even when we disagree.”

The day closed with remarks from conference Executive Minister, Ertell M. Whigham, who acknowledged the conference staff and their behind-the-scenes work. He added, “This meeting for me has been one in which Jesus through his spirit has promised to be present where two or more are gathered and he has been faithful to that.”

John Goshow, conference Moderator, acknowledged that he felt guilt for worrying about today’s meeting. He said of the delegates’ interaction with one another that it was “demonstrating the finest way of church that I have experienced in a long time.”

The day concluded with Nancy Kauffman, MCUSA Denominational Minister, offering her observations and a blessing for the delegates. In her observations she noted that “you have celebrated what God is doing among you. Thinking about where God is at work and not allowing that to be buried under your disagreements.”

It is clear that the building of God’s people is not finished. Yet, the delegates of Franconia Conference have indicated that within their diversity and differences they will continue to work to be built by God to build God’s Kingdom.

All conference assembly materials can be accessed on the Franconia Conference website. For podcasts, click here and pictures, click here.

Tools for Transition: Training Offered This October

by Jenifer Eriksen Morales

Interim training 8-27-15Change is inevitable.  Every congregation moves through times of change that lead to a period of transition.  How a congregation responds during a transition is key to continued health and wellness.  Transitions are a part of our communal faith and life. If we invite God’s Spirit to guide us through these times there is potential for transformation.

Change brought by the loss of a pastor can be especially difficult for many congregation. Regardless of the reason for the pastoral change, congregational emotion tends to run high.  This time of transition between pastors has the potential to shape a church’s identity and strengthen their health well into the future.  Studies show that healthy transitions require congregations to address their past, allow for new lay leadership, think about their identity, set a vision and goals for the future, renew connections with other congregations and/or their denomination, and commit to new directions and leadership.  Therefore, along with God’s Spirit, congregations often invite specially trained intentional interim ministers to journey with them and lead them through the months and sometimes year or more between pastors.

Intentional Interim Ministers are often experienced pastors with a call and specialized training gifts and skills that enable them to help congregations respond to change and envision the future.  An intentional interim minister helps a congregation take advantage of the opportunities presented through change.  By providing pastoral leadership (preaching, teaching, pastoral care) and by helping a congregation identify and work through specific transition priorities and tasks within a designated time frame, an Intentional Interim Minister equips and empowers a congregation to be as ready as possible to receive a new pastor and move forward in God’s purpose and vision for them.

As Franconia Conference works to equip leaders within congregations, once again a partnership with Lancaster, Atlantic Coast, and Eastern District Conferences has come together to provide an Intentional Interim Pastor Training on October 26 – 30, 2015 at Towamencin Mennonite Church. Pastors who complete the 40 hour training are certified to serve as Intentional Interim Pastors in MCUSA and Canada.  Trainers with a wealth of experience and knowledge utilize various teaching techniques and case studies to prepare participants to understand and address the unique needs of congregations in transition and offer insight and tools for guiding congregations through these “in between” times.

Previous participant Fred Kaufman stated, “The Intentional Interim Pastor Training made me aware that transition is a time of promise and seeking again to name the call of the church and be faithful to that.”

Any pastor who is considering intentional interim ministry in the future or who would like tools for understanding and leading through times of change is strongly encouraged to take this course while it is being offered locally.  An early registration discount is available through August 31, 2015 and registration is limited to 30 participants.  For registration or more information visit http://interimtraining.org/or contact Jenifer Eriksen Morales, jeriksenmorales@franconiaconference.org.

The Gathering Place

johnstoltzfusJohn Stoltzfus, Conference Youth Minister for Franconia Mennonite Conference & Eastern District Conference and Campus Pastor at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School, recently had a blog published on the newly-opened The Gathering Place –  an interactive website for Anabaptist youth leaders that provides connection, resourcing, networking, mentoring, and spiritual formation.  READ THE ARTICLE HERE.

Forbearance That Leads to Repentance

by Kris Wint

Kris WintThe blast and boom of the fireworks was not all that made my heart pound that night as I headed home.  Saying goodbye to my then girlfriend (now wife) caused joyful lingering and it was now well past midnight.  As I drove back home I remembered the zeal of local police officers and was mindful to make complete stops and go the speed limit (if not a little under).  I didn’t even turn my music on to keep my subwoofers from bringing any unwanted attention my way. Even in my caution, my rearview mirror exploded with bright dazzling lights. This time, it wasn’t fireworks; it was police lights.

After a brief exchange, the officer informed me that my license plate light was out. Then, contrary to the fervor I had heard about for their enforcement of the law, he gave me a deal. It was a warning.  Fix the light and stop by the police station.  However, if I failed to fix the light in time a ticket and fine would ensue.  I quickly agreed to the deal, thankful for the kindness and leniency.  His response was a demonstration of forbearance at work.

The Bible speaks of forbearance as well. Jesus shares a parable about forbearance illustrating why God would forbear with us. Luke recounts this parable in his gospel. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down’” (Luke 13:6-9 ESV).

Clearly, God is full of grace and rich in mercy. His forbearance and patience is at work in all of our lives. I turn away daily toward idols, self-reliance and pride but God waits, not cutting down the tree, but digging around instead.  He cultivates growth and calls me back.

Just as in the parable, forbearance has a purpose.  God does not endure our sin so that we remain unchanged. Divine forbearance is not tolerating our sin.   The verses before the parable tell us the purpose and nature of forbearance, especially verse 4. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Jesus links forbearance with repentance, giving insight into why God forbears with us.  His forbearance is so that we would turn from our ways and align ourselves with God.

The police officer extended patience expecting the same: that the broken light would be fixed.  What did I do in response? Did I fix the light and drive to the police department? Nope. Somehow, I never got around to it. This kind officer who showed forbearance also then demonstrated his justice and truthfulness when a couple weeks later I got the ticket in the mail as he said I would.  What should have only cost about a dollar to fix ended up costing a whole lot more.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul was led by the Holy Spirit to write these words, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead to your repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:4-5).

Paul is simply saying the same thing that Jesus did in his parable. God’s forbearance is a suspense of wrath (which will eventually be exercised) unless the sinner repents (accepts God’s conditions). We cannot rely on forbearance alone, taking God’s kindness for granted. But rather God’s forbearance invites us to confession and repentance.

Regardless of the offense–pride, greed, joylessness, lack of compassion, unforgiveness, lust, sexual intimacy outside of marriage between a man and woman, hate, anger, envy–we are all broken and need to repent before our good and holy Creator. When we do Christ takes us and just like the gardener in the parable transforms us into trees that bear fruit.  This is patiently enduring for the purpose of cultivating repentance.  This is forbearance that I can stand behind and get excited about. This is the forbearance that we should all be thankful for. This is what Christ offers, restoration through repentance for our good and God’s glory.

Kris Wint is lead pastor at Finland Mennonite Church in Pennsburg, PA.  This article is part of a series that the Conference has invited in considering responses to the resolutions for Assembly at Kansas City 2015.

The Other Statement on Sexuality: Why it’s Important and What it Might Mean

by Gwen Groff

gwen-groffThe Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse is a strong, unequivocal statement about sexual abuse in our families, churches and broader culture. When I first read the other statements about sexuality to be discussed at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City, I internally responded with reservations and disappointments, noticing places where they sound like they were written by a committee struggling to satisfy conflicting interests, places I felt the statements didn’t go far enough or went too far. When I read this statement on sexual abuse I responded with unequivocal affirmation and deep gratitude.

This statement was written in response to the church’s institutional mishandling of the sexual abuse perpetrated by John Howard Yoder. It is part of a process of lament and repentance, but it also addresses the need for actions that will have broad beneficial effects on congregations and other church institutions. The tone of the statement is remarkably positive given that its subject is heinous and anxiety producing. It does not perpetuate an illusion that healing is easy or quick, but it does point to the constructive goals of truth-telling, education, and prevention.

The resolution is beautifully written. It makes simple, clear statements. It declares “human bodies are good.” It commits us to developing and teaching “healthy, wholesome sexuality.” It equates inaction with sin. It acknowledges links between sexism and racism. It draws distinctions between sexual immorality and sexual abuse of power.

The statement identifies the need for concrete action. It reports that 21 percent of women in Mennonite Church USA congregations and 5.6 percent of men reported having experienced sexual abuse or violation. Those who have been sexually abused can hear their voices reflected in this statement. Those who are in leadership in congregations and church institutions can hear this as an explicit call to action.

As I read the statement and its three invaluable appendices, “Actions and commitments,” “Lenses for understanding sexual abuse,” and “Resources,” I recalled working in Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) Peace Office when MCC was drafting a peace statement. As the Peace Office presented a finely wordsmitedh draft, one board member lamented that although all the parts of the statement were sound, the document didn’t “sing.” He wished the words were more resounding and poetic. Reading this document I felt that some sentences of this sexual abuse resolution do in fact sing: “Our spirituality and our sexuality are not disconnected or competing aspects of our lives but express our longing for intimacy with God and with others.” Not quite sing-able, but certainly true and beautiful.

I wondered who wrote this powerful statement on our behalf. Who are these individuals on the “Mennonite Church USA Discernment Group”? The MCUSA web site names them as Carolyn Holderread Heggen, Regina Shands Stoltzfus, Ted Koontz, Chuck Neufeld, Linda Gehman Peachey, Sara Wenger Shenk, and Ervin Stutzman. Their brief bios explain their passion for this work. They represent Mennonite institutions that are committed to necessary change. I look forward to personally thanking some of them in Kansas City.

The work is not finished with drafting and affirming these words. The statement calls us to take very difficult action. It commits us to careful theological work, for example, exploring how our peace theology might contribute to tolerating abuse: “Examine religious teachings that make it difficult for victims to protect themselves or speak up when they have been violated and hurt,” being “especially alert to teachings that advocate … suffering and bearing the cross as signs of discipleship.”

The statement also calls us to tough and sometimes tedious concrete work that might seem contrary to our usual trusting ways of relating in the church. Do we really have to put “windows in all interior doors” of the Sunday school rooms and require “screening for all staff and volunteers”?

Finally the statement calls us to careful, thoughtful work in our institutions. Leaders of institutions often see it as their primary job to protect the institution, sometimes at the expense of victims of abuse committed in the institution. This statement confesses that leaders “have often responded with denial, fear and self-preservation. We have tended to listen to voices who have positional power, rather than to those who have been violated and those who are most vulnerable.” Institutions are good at self-preservation. Doing the patient, transformative work that this statement advocates is the best way to preserve what is worth preserving of our institutions.

Gwen Goff is lead pastor at Bethany Mennonite Church in Bridgewater Corners, VT.  This article is part of a series that the Conference has invited in considering responses to the resolutions for Assembly at Kansas City 2015.

 

Learning to Love our Neighbors: Why I’m for Forbearance

by Joseph Hackman

joe hackman 5-21-15 3On a Sunday several weeks ago, my family and I had several neighbors over to a “goodbye party” for our next door neighbor John, who had decided to move to an apartment closer to his son’s family after suffering the sudden loss of his wife in October. As we gathered together, we ate hoagies and Tandy cakes, and had pleasant conversation about what was happening in our neighborhood and in our lives. At 4 p.m., we awkwardly hurried the neighbors out the door to make room for our small group from church.  For a few minutes, our neighbors and our small group shared the same space, one group cleaning up and moving out and the other group waiting for a space to move in and sit.

What struck me about these two gatherings is how similar the conversations were in the two groups.  There were neighbors suffering from struggles in professional and personal relationships.  Church members maxed out by frenetic schedules. Everyone in need of supportive community.

In thinking about supportive communities, a press release I read several weeks ago following the MCUSA’s Executive Board meeting came to mind. Buried at the end were several sentences about the EB counseling staff to include a new overarching priority within The Purposeful Plan that emphasizes a commitment to outreach, evangelism and church revitalization.  The EB recognizes that many congregations are struggling with identity and many Mennonites are not comfortable with evangelism, and so the board urged staff to give greater time and energy to these initiatives. Reading about this new priority raised both excitement and anxiety.

I thought back to something I heard Andre Gingerich Stoner, Mennonite Church USA interchurch relations coordinator,  say at one of the recent conventions:  Mennonites tend to love service, flirt with peace and are allergic to evangelism. I think this description mostly fits my orientation to faith, as well as many in my congregation.

In my neighborhood, people identify as Muslim, Hindu, nominal Catholics, and others claim no faith at all. They know I’m a pastor, and especially with those who have negative perceptions of church, I don’t want them to associate my family or Mennonites with strong armed evangelism.  I notice in conversations with these neighbors how sensitive and deliberate I am in talking about my experience of Christian faith.  On Sunday, even though the stories my neighbors and small group shared were not all that different, the way in which I shared my own was.

This summer the delegate assembly will discuss a resolution on forbearance, an attempt for the church to remain united in the midst of our disagreements.  I confess my spirit is fatigued by the seemingly never ending discussion on LGBTQ inclusion.  There are days when I’m not sure I want to be in relationship with people who don’t have the same views as me.  Yet, I don’t believe division is our destiny.  Forbearance is more than a solution for how we can live together in this difficult season of the church.  It can be a signal to our world that we believe the church does not only exist for those who are already a part of it, but for those who are yet to come.  It can be a statement that rather than being driven by asking who is most right, we are driven by a vision of creating a community where people of all nations, backgrounds, and beliefs are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  It can be a statement that difference and diversity is blessing in Christian community, rather than a curse.

Whether it’s with my neighbors or small group, most people are not looking for community that is consumed by the quest to be right, but rather one that cares deeply about one another, even when it’s difficult.  Division is to follow the “course of this world” as Paul puts it in Ephesians 2.  Neither my neighbors nor my small group need further polarization and divisiveness in their lives.  Our families and communities are divided enough already.

I support forbearance, not because I doubt or want to compromise my own conviction, but because my neighbors are just like you and me.  They experience all the joys and hardship that life brings.  Just like you and me, they deserve to be invited into the healing power of transformative Christian communities that give people the opportunity to experience faith, hope, and love.

If all across our denomination we would make it a priority of inviting people to be part of our communities of faith, hope, and love, perhaps we too would remember the potential for the uniting love of the church that’s been there all along.

Joseph Hackman is lead pastor at Salford Mennonite Church and lives in Harleysville, PA.