Tag Archives: John Stoltzfus

Value-Based Decision Making

by John Stoltzfus

When our oldest son was 13, he wanted to play in the park football program. Despite some misgivings about the benefits of youth football, my wife and I decided to let him play hoping that he would find a sense of confidence and purpose in a team sport. However, when the schedule came out indicating that some games may happen on Sunday mornings, we knew we had some additional discernment to do. So we engaged our son in conversation about what we would do.

Tim Bentch’s article “Are We Driving Our Children Away from God?” asks some important questions related to the values we as parents are modeling to our children. A frequent refrain among youth pastors is how to do ministry among the “busy schedules” that dominate the calendars of our youth and families.

A recent book, Overplayed: A Parent’s Guide to Sanity in the World of Sports, by David King and Margot Starbuck, asks some of the same questions. They address seven myths about youth sports that are deeply entrenched in our culture. What are the unintended messages we pass on to our children about what we value regarding performance, success, family, community, and justice and equity? What are alternative ways families can positively engage with youth sports culture?

They do not give a one-size-fits-all suggestion. Each family will need to make their own tough calls based on their priorities and values and responses to these questions:

  • What do we want to be doing with our money and our time?
  • What relationships are most important for us to honor?
  • What are three to five values we want to name as being important to us?
Courtesy of Towamencin MYF

As parents and/or youth workers it is important that we help keep the focus of our youth on Christ and being disciples. Identifying family values in advance gives you tools for decision making about athletic and other types of extracurricular commitments. As youth workers and pastors we can help keep these values at the forefront for our youth when we see them making decisions. These values may lead to limited or no engagement in certain extracurricular activities, or as seen in a previous Intersectings article, “The Everyday Missionary,” you may find a way to help make disciples for the Lord through extracurricular activities. Either way engagement should be based off the values your family holds.

Here are some guiding values for us to consider as communities of faith. What would you add?

  1. Sabbath. We need to be grounded in a Christian community committed to the sacred balance between work and rest. A life that incorporates Sabbath rest helps us to be more aware of the Spirit of God, more dependent on the providence of God, and more available for relationships of love. What does Sabbath look like in a world where choices abound and technology surrounds us? Sometimes our church youth programs buy into the “more activities and choices are better” mentality and only compound the problem. Let’s confront one of the diseases of our time: we are distracted from the “better” things often hidden among many “good” things.
  2. Accompaniment. How can we come alongside our youth in their journey of discipleship? Our task is to initiate young persons into mature Christian faith through relationships with adults who join them in living the way of authentic discipleship. As elders we can offer youth friendship, guidance and listening ears as they make the passage through adolescence into spiritual maturity. This is the work of the whole church and not just a youth pastor or a few youth sponsors in the congregation.
  3. Discernment. We need to be guided by prayerful discernment attentive to God’s living Word. We practice and teach the discipline of discernment with our youth so as to be responsive to the movement of God’s grace and mission. How can we be less anxiety and fear driven and more Spirit led in our ministry with youth? Involve youth in the decision making process in congregational life. Be open to how God is speaking to and through them to the larger church.
  4. Multigenerational: Make church multigenerational as much as possible. In some of our attempts to do great youth programming we may be unintentionally disconnecting them from the larger body of Christ. Young people at multigenerational focused churches are more likely to remain connected to the faith and become active church members as adults, because that’s what they already are and always have been. When my wife and I were looking for a church home, we were not looking for a church with a dynamic youth program as much as we were looking for a community of believers modeling an active faith that included the nurture of children and youth.
  5. Authentic action: We seek to engage youth and adults in authentic actions that reflect God’s mercy, justice and peace. Most studies of faith and youth point to parent’s faith as the key factor in their children’s faith. What is the shape of our faith that we are passing on our children? What is the one radical thing we are doing because of our faith? Our youth need to see the connection between life and faith.
  6. Baptism: Let’s reimagine baptism and its role in Christian citizenship and discipleship. What does baptism look like in our current context? To early Christians, baptism meant a decisive step of leaving one’s civilian life behind and accepting the commitment of becoming a “living sacrifice” for God’s service. How can we as adults make more of our baptismal promises and journey? How can we give space for the baptism instructional experience and ritual to be more fully robust and transformational?

My conviction is that God is speaking to our youth in every part of their lives. How can we as adults help them respond with the words of Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”?

Staff Update: The Space In Between

by Stephen Kriss

We are three weeks into Executive Minister Ertell Whigham’s three month sabbatical.   In the meantime, I’m serving as acting executive minister, which so far has meant attending to both more details and broader issues and possibilities for our community of faith together.   These months will continue to provide opportunities for staff growth and engagement in new ways.   Our conference youth minister, John Stoltzfus, is also on sabbatical, which makes the staff lean and busy for the summer.

In Mennonite Church USA, our conference currently has the most advertised pastoral openings.  We are searching for diverse leaders from Taftsville in Vermont to South Philly to serve among our congregations.   With about a dozen pastoral openings across our Conference, this is a significant time of transition and focused work.  Pastoral transitions are high priorities for LEADership Minister engagement to help keep our congregations healthy and growing.

conference assembly 2015 175This summer we, the staff, begin “Going to the Margins” staff meetings which will mean the Conference office will be closed the last Wednesday of July, August, and September in the afternoons as staff engage with our congregational communities.  Our first “Going to the Margins” staff meeting will be with Doylestown Mennonite next week where we’ll engage with pastors and spend time learning there.  I look forward to each of these three afternoon times out together.

Franconia Conference is about conferring.  There are frequent meetings and there is much planning happening for meetings coming up this fall.  Office staff work hard to ensure that we are ready to gather together in ways that are meaningful and that information flows in a timely and efficient way.  We’re in process of planning for our annual assembly and continue to work to update our pastoral credentialing records.

There is much to do.  We have many good stories to tell.   We continue to work and to hope.  I invite you to join together in prayer for the conference, staff, board and everyone across our almost 7000 people conference community as together we strive to “live a life worthy of our calling.”

Together Despite Differences: Youth Worship Event Report

By Madison Smith, Deep Run East

In order to bring teens “together despite differences”, Eastern District and Franconia Mennonite Conference held their annual Youth Worship Gathering on June 4, 2016. The theme of the event was “Built together in Christ”, and was led by Chantelle Todman Moore, Philadelphia Program Coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee.

Youth gathering 3According to Christian Zeo, Doylestown Mennonite Church, the theme helped to “bring us all together under Jesus.”

The message that Todman Moore delivered also resulted in a positive responses.  “It put flesh and blood on the idea of Christ,” said Doylestown Youth Leader Brandon Landis.

As well as a message, the gathering also had many times of worship throughout the event, which were led by Nathan Good, Associate Pastor at Swamp Mennonite Church, and Danilo Sanchez, Leigh Valley Youth Pastor for Ripple, Whitehall and Vietnamese Gospel.

According to Zeo, the songs get people to express what they normally can’t. “Besides the messages, the songs had an upbeat feel,” said Zeo. “Most songs are too solemn.”

Youth gathering 4This event is held biannually, the first weekend of June following the Mennonite Historians Whack and Roll event. Usually the youth enjoy time outdoors under a big tent on the Mennonite Historians’ land in Harleysville. Due to the rain, the event was moved indoors to Christopher Dock Mennonite High School. Yet, the rain did not keep the people away; over 12 youth groups participated, including those from Doylestown, Ripple, Whitehall, Blooming Glen, Deep Run East and Deep Run West and many more.

Letting Go With Love

By John Stoltzfus, conference youth minister

“When you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” John 21:18

This may not be the first verse that comes to mind when considering the Easter season we just celebrated. Yet, this speaks to my current experience with my father who has two debilitating terminal illnesses. As I sat with him this past Easter Sunday I couldn’t help but think that this may be our last Easter together. He delivered many inspiring Easter sermons while pastor for over forty years at Conestoga Mennonite Church in Morgantown, PA. Now he is limited mostly to nods of his head and a few slurred words.

Grant Stoltzfus (John's brother) shaving their dad. Photo credit: Zachary Stoltzfus
Grant Stoltzfus (John’s brother) shaving their dad. Photo credit: Zachary Stoltzfus

He communicates in a different way now–through a posture of grace and vulnerability. As his movements become more restricted, more intensive care is needed. Now the most basic and intimate tasks–to shave, to dress, to bathe–require help from others. He accepts this all with a quiet grace I can only hope to possess when my time comes.

My father and I did not always agree on matters of theology and church. At the same time, I learned much from him and received from him a deep love for the church. Recently, he pointed to an article in the Mennonite World Review telling the story of Lancaster Mennonite Conference cutting ties with MCUSA and simply said, “We’ll never agree on everything.” I know he has seen a fair share of church fights and splits in his lifetime. I wonder if a perspective and knowledge of our own ending can help us hold more lightly and with more grace the tensions of our current time. Might we be more willing to extend a hand of mercy and freedom knowing that we cannot control and hold tightly for all time?

I see some of the same dynamics in my work with youth and my role as a parent. Parenting is a journey of learning to give and let go. Passing on the faith and work of the church to the next generation is also a journey of giving and letting go. We trust that the same Spirit that is at work in our lives will continue to live and move in our children and the next generation of the gathered body of Christ. Our attempts to control what happens today are often an expression of fear that does not trust the ongoing move of the Spirit. Love does not demand its own way. Christ gave all in his journey to the cross and trusted the future into God’s hands. Christ chose to love freely to the end.

In the end and in our end, this Christ-like love is what remains and points most profoundly to the resurrection. A month ago my extended family gathered with my parents for a time of sharing memories of the past and making plans for letting go and the coming death. It was a love feast of laughter and tears. As we got ready to go, my father, who was engaged in the conversation but not able to say much the whole time, quickly got up and stood at the door to give each a loving hug as we left. I thought of Jesus’ most repeated words to his disciples following the resurrection, “Peace be with you.”

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. 

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.

 

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.

Connecting our Stories: Imagining our Future

by John Stoltzfus

What are the stories of race that you were taught? How did these stories shape your identity? How do these stories shape your ministry today?

These were some of the questions raised by Felipe Hinojosa during the recent annual Youth Ministry Council (YMC) at Spruce Lake Retreat Center, April 19-22. The event’s theme was “Connecting our Stories: Imagining our Future.”

Over 40 youth pastors, leaders, and sponsors from across Mennonite Church USA gathered at Spruce Lake Retreat Center for the annual Youth Ministry Council (YMC). Franconia Conference churches were well represented including Mike Ford from Blooming Glen Mennonite Church what said:

“I always appreciate time to network and learn from other youth workers, and Youth Ministry Council is a great time of catching up with old friends, making new friends, and asking questions and sharing details of how each of us does youth ministry in our churches.  I come away from such times refreshed, and often with a new idea or two to try in my ministry.”

john stoltzfus 5-21-15Felipe Hinojosa who serves as an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas drew on stories and examples from his book, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith and Evangelical Culture.

“How are you talking — or not talking — about things shaping our culture like Ferguson, the U.S.-Mexico border, demographic changes and social media?” said Hinojosa. “Each of our stories is powerful. We need to keep telling these stories and learning how to re-frame them to provide hope for the future and to get past the paralysis that history can sometimes bring us to.”

One of the interesting little known stories we heard was of the Cross Cultural Convention held in 1972 where Mennonite youth from diverse backgrounds came together to work for “the politics of the possible,” and invited us to consider ways in which the Church can today step forward to work for equity, justice, dismantle systematic oppression, and work towards reconciliation. Drew Hart and Yvonne Platts also shared stories from their lives and ministries as people of color in the Mennonite Church.

We spent time in worship led by Danilo Sanchez. We engaged the story of the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10 to consider the question, “Who is my neighbor?” We ended our time together with an anointing service where we anointed one another to continue the work of reconciliation we each are called to do.

If you have not attended a Youth Ministry Council gathering, you are invited to attend the next one! The invitation is open to any youth worker/sponsor, pastor, agency leader, credentialed or not. It will take place Jan. 29–31, 2016, in Orlando, Florida in anticipation of the Mennonite Church USA convention to be held there in 2017.

John Stoltzfus is the Franconia Conference Youth Minister.

Junior High Youth Have Late Night Blast

by John Stoltzfus, Franconia Conference Youth Minister

Whose job description includes this clause: Must be willing to have face covered in shaving cream and decorated with cheese curls? If you answered, “Junior high youth sponsor,” you are correct! Junior high youth sponsors are some of the bravest people in ministry.

At junior high youth events, helmets are sometimes necessary...
At junior high youth events, helmets are sometimes necessary…

If you were at the Late Night Blast on March 13, you would have witnessed such a scene and a lot more crazy fun. Close to 150 junior high youth and adult sponsors representing 18 churches gathered for this annual event sponsored by Franconia Conference and Eastern District Conference. It was hosted by Christopher Dock Mennonite High School.

Last year, the event was an all-night lock-in; this year it morphed into a “Late Night Blast,” ending at 11:15 p.m. While some youth lamented the loss of staying up all night, most responses to the evening were still very enthusiastic.

Part 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 that makes up our conference churches. This event also gives a wonderful opportunity for our youth workers to partner together in ministry.

... As are Cheetos.
… As are Cheetos.

The evening started off with some mixer gamers led by staff from Spruce Lake and by Brent Camilleri from Deep Run East Mennonite Church. Justin Hange and a band from Calvary Church in Souderton then turned up the noise for the evening and led in a spirited time of singing and worship.

“That was awesome!” remarked one youth following the singing.

Scott Roth, pastor at Perkiomenville Mennonite Church, kept the energy flowing as he shared stories of how he sees God at work in his life and his community bringing hope and healing. He challenged the youth to bring together a knowledge of God’s Word with an active obedience to God’s Word in everyday life.

The rest of the night was full of fun activities to choose from: soccer, basketball, dodge ball, human Dutch Blitz, Wally ball, Gaga Pit ball, Nerf blasters, and more. One of the popular new games introduced this year was Human Hungry Hippos. It’s the classic board game with a much needed upgrade. One of the perks of being a junior high youth sponsor is the freedom to experiment with wild and crazy games. Of course, the policy is always safety first, and helmets were required.

The evening ended with a shower of giveaways from Mennonite colleges and camps. 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. Their commitment was exemplified by one sponsor giving up her shoes to a youth who needed more appropriate athletic shoes to participate in the games.

Conference youth participate in interfaith initiative

by John Stoltzfus, Franconia Conference Youth Minister 

“We pursue peace and tolerance through dialogue and mutual understanding. We want to teach honesty and sincerity of purpose amongst the different religious groups in Nigeria. We want to teach respect of each other’s language, culture, and faith.”

Musa Mambula, who serves as the national spiritual advisor for Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria), spoke these words in a recent chapel at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. He spoke movingly about how Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN) remains committed to nonviolence, peacemaking, and forgiveness while suffering much violence perpetuated by radical groups, specifically Boko Haram.

Despite the violence which has cost many their lives, Mambula’s message is one of healing. He described a coming together of different faiths to face violence with understanding and love. Further, he encouraged the students to pursue peace in their own contexts through building relationships of understanding and compassion with people of other faith traditions.

Youth assemble MCC hygiene kits.
Youth assemble MCC hygiene kits.

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this past January, a group of Mennonite youth representing three conference churches did this very thing by participating in a new initiative of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadephia called “A Day of Walking the Walk.” Nineteen youth and thirteen adults representing four different faith traditions and ten different faith communities came together for a day of building bridges through dialogue, exploration of sacred spaces and community service.

During the day each faith tradition had the opportunity to give a presentation on the values, beliefs and worship practices of their respective communities. When it came time for the Mennonite tradition, many of the questions from the participants of other faith traditions dealt with what is more typically attributed to the Amish such as questions of electricity use and horse and buggies! Evan Moyer, from Souderton Mennonite Church, remarked that he was not expecting to answer questions related to the practice of rumspringa (a term that often refers to an Amish rite of passage when a young person explores the outside world and makes a decision whether or not to remain Amish).

One of the interesting questions that came out of the discussion of whether or not

Emily Rittenhouse and a fellow participant from the interfaith dialogue.
Emily Rittenhouse and a fellow participant from the interfaith dialogue.

Mennonites have a particular style of dress was this: “If you look the same as everyone around you, what distinguishes you as Mennonites?”

Marjorie Scharf, who serves as the director of youth initiatives, remarked that a key impact of these interfaith encounters is an increased appreciation and commitment in one’s own heritage and faith identity.

Another important component of these interfaith encounters is service learning. For this event, the youth provided and put together sixty hygiene kits through the Mennonite Central Committee Material Resource Center in Harleysville. The Mennonite youth gave explanation as to why service and compassion for the poor and needy is a key value to their understanding of what it means to follow in the way of Jesus.

The day ended with participants filling out a sign that read “I will continue to Walk the Walk by…” Responses ranged from “having our church become involved” to “reaching out to other students across faith lines and creating a welcoming environment.” Emily Rittenhouse, from Salford Mennonite Church, was inspired to educate herself more about other faith traditions and to love others unconditionally.