In the family in which I was raised, going to the theater was not acceptable. The one exception that was granted was to see “Mary Poppins” for a friend’s birthday party. The line, “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” I have never forgotten. As a kid, the idea of taking nasty tasting medicine in order to feel better had little value. However, mix that same medicine with a little sweetness and somehow it was doable.
I grew up using my fair share of sugar. A good bowl of cereal ended with drinking the milk from the bowl with its clumps of sugar. I married into a Mennonite family who loves to bake and sugar was not sprinkled, but rather dumped into the homemade applesauce. Even fresh strawberries needed a little touch of sugar to bring out the flavor. No Mennonite gathering seems complete without food in general and specifically sweet baked goods. It seems many of us have a pretty large sweet tooth.
As much as I love sweets, I draw the line with coffee. I like it black. No sugar and no flavored creams. Though I love ice cream, I do not like any coffee flavors. Coffee is best when bitter. When a friend recently heard of my preference to keep sweetener out of my coffee, he commented that it fits my personality and pastoral approach. Perhaps this should offend me but his explanation seemed accurate. He suggested that I do not sugar-coat my observations and understandings. My friend affirmed me for being bitter and for providing space in which others can share of life’s bitterness.
An old movie, my love of sweets, and coffee preference seems like an odd combination to write about. However, it has given me much to think on. While I do not strive to be bitter, I do wish to be open to the bitter truth God has for me. I want to find ways to lower my defenses regarding what others say about me to hear the truth they offer. I long to expand my palate to those experiences that may not seem sugar-coated. I hope to increase my ability to sit with others in their bitterness without needing to eat shoe fly pie.
I am pretty sure I will keep enjoying sweets. I pray I can grow to embrace bitter as being equally good. I believe it is time for a good cup of coffee!
When Steve Kriss, Conference Executive Minister, invited me to consider being a LEADership Minister, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. I have a LEADership minister and I have been in the conference long enough to remember the early conversations of the role of a LEADership Minister. However, one of my first interactions, a phone call from an elder of a congregation I now serve as a LEADership Minster, caught me by surprise. Steve never warned me of such a call, nor was it listed in the memo of understanding I signed. I attended the training on mandatory reporting; Barbie Fischer, Conference Communication Manager, provided some guidelines for communication protocol so that confidentiality is maintained. I was ready to go, so I thought.
An elder called and began with the following statement, “Randy, I need to apologize to you and ask for your forgiveness.” He went on to explain how he had heard something about me that he allowed to shape his opinion of me. When my name came up at their elders meeting, he raised some questions based on what he had heard about me. The other elders challenged him to speak to me directly rather than to rely on what he had heard. Hence, he began with an apology for not speaking to me first. His sincere apology and request for forgiveness provided a solid foundation for us to discuss his questions. I believe we both ended the conversation grateful for the interaction.
Though grateful, I soon felt a sense of sadness regarding this conversation. Sad, because it made me realize how rarely I have been involved in communication with other believers in which a person requested to be forgiven. In 30 years of pastoral leadership, I can only recall one other time when a person asked for my forgiveness. I wondered why this is so rare in the church that proclaims that reconciliation is the center of our work. At the same time, I have witnessed men with whom I have played basketball with for 15 years apologize to one another on a far more regular basis. Why is it more common for these men, many of whom do not share a faith commitment, to readily apologize to one another?
While I could provide some possible answers, I prefer to let us think on this for ourselves. I do know the positive outcome of one elder’s apology. I was deeply moved and our relationship enhanced by his phone call. It also challenged me to consider what stops me from freely seeking the forgiveness of another. I am grateful for this sad surprise. I pray we all may grow and experience the fruit of forgiveness in our relationships as the norm rather than the exception.
Luke 17:4, “”And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
As the Conference is in a time of transition, it provides an opportunity for reflection and strategic planning for the coming years. With that, the new Executive Minister, Steve Kriss, and the Conference Executive Committee have provided a six-month transitional period that included bringing on three contracted LEADership Ministers, one of whom will also serve as Interim Director of Congregational Resourcing.
On January 1, 2017, the Conference welcomed Emily Ralph Servant, Randy Heacock, and Wayne Nitzsche into the role of Interim LEADership Minister. Emily will also serve as the Interim Director of Congregational Resourcing. Their willingness to serve in these interim roles ensures that all conference congregations have a dedicated Conference Minister available to serve them. In addition, with Emily stepping in as Interim Director of Congregational Resourcing the Conference can expect continued equipping events available to all Conference members and some geared toward credentialed leaders.
“Interim times are valuable for reconsidering and rethinking staffing configurations,” says Steve Kriss, Conference Executive Minister. “With the departures of Ertell and Jenifer, we have an unusual opportunity to reimagine how to lead and serve at the Conference level. While I don’t anticipate changing our model of LEADership Ministry for accompaniment alongside pastors and congregations, this team of interim LEADership Ministers for six months will provide excellent space while also offering clear contacts for Conference ministry. Emily, Randy and Wayne are skilled leaders who have conference level experience. I’m grateful for their availability and willingness to serve in this time of change. I’m grateful too for the flexibility and trust we have found with our congregations in the willingness to embrace each of them in the interim role. As a conference we have a healthy pool of gifted and capable leaders; Emily, Randy and Wayne are evidence of this in their responsiveness to our invitations to serve together.”
Emily has been credentialed with the Conference since 2010, and a member of the conference since her youth. She has served as a worship leader at Bally Mennonite Church, led worship and taught Sunday School while a member at Salford, and conducted interim ministry work with Swamp and Indonesian Light. She also spent time serving Sunnyside congregation in Lancaster, PA. Emily will also serve a number of Congregations as LEADership Minister while working to provide meaningful equipping events over the next six months.
Looking toward this new role, Emily states, “There is a special spirit in Franconia Conference that feels different from other contexts in which I’ve ministered, one that continues to draw me back! I love the way that we celebrate diversity, passionately partner in different types of mission, and support one another in difficult times. I’m so pleased to minister again as part of the staff during this time of transition, walking alongside some really gifted pastors and congregations!”
Randy Heacock steps in to his role as Interim LEADership Minister while continuing as pastor at Doylestown Mennonite Church. Randy was ordained in 1991 through Virginia Conference transferring to Franconia Conference in 2001 when he accepted the position at Doylestown. Randy has a wealth of pastoral experience spanning the last 35 years and has also served on the Virginia Conference Nurture Committee and as Chairperson of the Virginia Peace Committee. He has been noted for his steady presence and ability to walk with congregations through difficult times, holding space with patience as the Spirit moves making discernment possible.
In regards to his new role as Interim LEADership Minister, Randy says, “I am excited for the opportunity to walk alongside other church leaders as they pursue a Kingdom vision.”
Wayne Nitzsche currently serves as pastor at Perkasie Mennonite Church. He will continue in that role as he joins the Interim LEADership Ministry team. Wayne has been a member of Franconia Conference since accepting the role at Perkasie in 2008. Originally, Wayne was ordained in 1989 through Ohio Conference where he would serve as Regional Pastor for 12 years. Throughout his career, Wayne has served in a number of ministry roles including time under Mennonite Board of Missions, now known as Mennonite Mission Network. Wayne has been noted as having exceptional listening skills and truly strives to model Jesus in his everyday life. He will be working in these next six months with three congregations who face transitions themselves.
Wayne states, “God is with all our congregations. Perhaps God’s presence is most keenly experienced in times of pastoral transition. I look forward to walking with Alpha, Bally and Taftsville through their transition. I’m sure I will be enriched by the ways the Spirit is at work in these congregations. I hope to draw on twelve years of conference ministry experience in Ohio Conference, along with present pastoral perspectives from my pastorate at Perkasie Mennonite.”
We welcome these three to their new roles and are grateful for their answer to serve in this capacaity.
“The first duty of love is to listen.”—Paul Tillich
As part of our practices in this summer space in between, we’ve taken our conference staff meetings “to the margins”, which so far has meant meeting at Doylestown and Alpha congregations for an afternoon to eat, pray and learn alongside the pastors who work in those settings before engaging our regular conference staff agendas. We’ll go to Quakertown to learn about the work of Salem congregation’s engagement with partners and neighbors yet for our last of these meetings later this month.
These going to the margins meetings have felt like holy disruptions of our routine. We’ve received the gracious hospitality of Krista at Alpha, and Randy, KrisAnne and Sandy at Doylestown. We’ve had great ice cream and burritos. We’ve learned by listening to both the possibilities and struggles for ministry and life in one of the wealthiest communities in Bucks County, as well as what it feels like to work and hope just across the Delaware River.
I’m noticing some things that have been happening through our experiment. Some of these things might encourage our continued journey of “going to the margins” for the sake of the Good News. This is a small disruption, a monthly afternoon staff meeting. But breaking our routines invigorates our conversations and builds our relationships together, differently. We carpool. We talk differently and about different things because we are in different spaces. In navigating the logistics of simply going to a different location, we think differently rather than simply showing up in the same place. Our two meetings at the margins have been times when we’ve been highly engaged with one another, even when dealing with routine tasks and procedures (seriously). I look forward to what we’ll learn later this month. A few staff members have asked if we can continue this kind of meeting alongside congregations’ into the future.
Admittedly, it does cost us some extra time and mileage resources to get to these places, which I’d say is well worth the effort thus far. By eating together, we create a different rhythm of gathering that opens conversation differently. By listening and praying with the pastors in their settings, we’ve had opportunities to both bless and to learn. In going to the margins, we find what happens when we respond to Jesus’s declaration to go and then the transformation that happens when we listen to each other and in the midst, to sense the presence of God and discover our hearts are still strangely warmed together on the way in this time in between.
When people think “urban,” chances are pretty good that Doylestown, Pennsylvania is not a place that comes to mind. Thirty years ago, it was a traditional farming community; now, it’s a well-off, artsy, suburban Philadelphia town. And yet, one congregation, Doylestown Mennonite, is incorporating a program traditionally geared towards urban congregations—the Mennonite Central Committee Summer Service Worker Program—to also reach out to a radically-changed surrounding community.
For the Doylestown congregation, having an MCC summer service worker is one of a number of initiatives they’ve begun in order to meaningfully connect with people in the community, moves that have at times felt stretching, and even risky. Over the last several years, says Pastor Randy Heacock, the church has opened its doors to various local initiatives, including a community garden and a peace camp, taking place this month. Derrick Garrido, who attends Doylestown Mennonite and is a student at Cairn University, spent the summer connecting with artists in the community, working to create space for artistic expression within the community and connect with those who might not have a faith community.
MCC started the summer service program in the ’80s, with the same focus it has today: To work in urban areas and provide employment and leadership opportunities to people of color. The goal, says program coordinator Danilo Sanchez (Whitehall congregation), is to allow people opportunities to stay in their home communities and churches and make a difference where they’re living now. Participants must be a person of color between the ages of 18 and 30, preferably enrolled in a university or college, and be connected with a constituent church of MCC, such as Mennonite Church USA or Brethren in Christ members. Some participants come through Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite colleges. Generally, a congregation submits a proposal first, and regional MCC coordinators review the application. If it is approved, applicants are then invited to apply to the MCC U.S. program. In the past, both Franconia and Lancaster Mennonite conferences have contributed financial support, and a number of congregations, such as Philadelphia Praise Center, have had someone in the program for the last several years.
This year, Mikah Ochieng worked at Philadelphia Praise Center, under the supervision of pastor Aldo Siahaan. Ochieng says he’s grateful for the opportunity to have been both a learner and a teacher in a community that has been so hospitable to him, and the one he calls home. When asked about challenges, Ochieng said that of course there had been obstacles, such as a small number of volunteers, but his experience has been that “what we lack in such resources we make up in our commitment to serve one another.”
“It’s a quality-over-quantity type of thing.”
New Hope Fellowship, in Alexandria, Virginia, has also participated in MCC’s Summer Service Program for many years. This year, Alex Torres worked with the church’s kid’s club, helped a friend of the congregation with a hip hop school, and assisted the Spanish-speaking community in a variety of ways.
Torres says he’d known others from the congregation who had participated in the summer service worker program, and wanted to make an impact in his community. He says his favorite part was working with the kids, and that he wanted to show them a different, more positive route than the one that’s laid out for many children in his community.
“Where I come from, there’s always a lot of not-so-good things happening… I pay a lot of attention to the youth around here.”
Over the last seven years, summer service worker participants at New Hope have chosen different areas: One worked in a homeless shelter, in part because that’s where he lived. Others who are bilingual have helped people navigate the system.
For New Hope’s pastor, Kirk Hanger, the one of the many benefits of the program is that the young adults are from the congregation—they know the context, the congregation and the community, and when it’s done, they stay.
“We get to continue to walk with these young adults and mentor them… and experience more of the fruit of what they’ve learned and done.”
Heacock says that his congregation has worked hard to figure out what it means to be missional—both in the community with relationships that already exist, but also, as he puts it, “How do we not just preserve it for us, but also use our space to be an outpost for the kingdom?”
“If the goal is to learn what God has for us in the midst of it, I really think there’s very little failure.”
Writing a call to ministry story is probably the last thing I ever expected to do if you would have asked me fifteen years ago. At that time in my life, I had doubts about the role of women in leadership and yet I was serving in different capacities in my home congregation, Doylestown Mennonite Church. As I look back on that time, I think the call to ministry had been brewing in my life for several years.
After working as an elementary school teacher for four years, my husband Steve and I began having children and my focus changed to homeschooling, which was a natural extension of my love for learning and teaching. I learned some leadership skills in the steering committee of the homeschool group of which we were active members. Being called to ministry in the church, however, was a different kind of leadership for which I was not ready.
Around this time, I read a book entitled Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire by Jim Cymbala, pastor of Brooklyn Tabernacle Church. It ignited a spark in me that had been smoldering for some time. I felt called to begin a prayer time in our congregational setting.
Inviting people to pray during Sunday School, we focused on intentionally praying for our congregation, our community, and persons we knew by name who were not yet followers of Jesus. Out of that prayer time, we learned about prayer, about God and ourselves. Doylestown Mennonite Church graciously allowed this group to develop a prayer room where persons could come to pray together or on their own.
I gradually began inviting the congregation to more and more prayer initiatives as well as connecting with other persons involved in prayer ministry. Randy Heacock, pastor of Doylestown, encouraged and welcomed my involvement in calling the congregation to prayer. He, along, with the Ministry Leadership Team, affirmed my giftings by asking me to serve on staff as Prayer Minister. I sensed the Spirit was opening the door so I stepped in. Since then I have made several more steps into this calling. I served for several years as Prayer Ministry coordinator for Franconia Conference, working alongside staff and pastors in the conference as well as prayer leaders. Being mentored by Noel Santiago in the prayer ministry was also helpful for me.
It was during this time that Steve and I attended a conference at Spruce Lake Retreat. The speaker invited us to ask God what our mission was and I very clearly heard, “You are called to help people pray.” At that time, I did not connect that mission with being called to the ministry as a vocation.
Taking on the identity of a pastor grew gradually as I continued to serve as prayer minister in the congregation but also in other settings. Connecting with persons in my local community, serving on prayer teams in local businesses, and doing more pastoral care visitation in retirement communities have all been important ways for me to grow into the identity of pastor.
The more I think about the mission statement I sensed from the Holy Spirit several years ago, the more I realize that was a call to pastoral work. In Acts 6, we read the story of the apostles discerning their calling in the context of the local church. The apostles declared their priorities to be prayer and the ministry of the word. Randy preached from this text at my licensing on Jan. 5 and the more I ponder this, the more I realize that helping people to pray is a pastoral task. How important it is that pastors teach the word, but also pray and invite, lead, model, and encourage others to pray! When we as followers of Christ are able to grow in our relationship with God through prayer, we will be transformed and changed. Very simply, I see that as a priority for pastors. I am thankful to be called to serve Christ, the church, and the world in this way.
The hesitations I had about women in ministry were changed as I began to understand God’s invitation to all in Acts 2:17 where Peter reminds the crowd of the prophecy in Joel of the Holy Spirit being poured out on all people, sons and daughters, young and old. I see the incredible ways God uses both men and women in the kingdom work and I am grateful for God’s work in all of us. I anticipate growing in hope and joy as I continue to walk this journey of ministry alongside my brothers and sisters.
On Sunday evening November 10th, a group of people from the community and from Doylestown congregation gathered to reflect on the painful parts of life and to seek hope in God’s Presence.
Chaplain George Lindsey of the local VFW, spoke honestly and with vulnerability about the depression he felt while deployed in Iraq, as well as the PTSD he struggled to overcome when he arrived back home. He also spoke with great confidence about God’s comfort and the many ways God has healed and continues to heal him. George led us in singing “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand!”
Ron and Robin Miller also spoke about the hope they find in Jesus as they continue to grieve the loss of their son, Brett. They read from Psalm 22, “from birth I was cast upon you, God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near.”
In the candlelight and silence, with broken pieces of slate in our hands to symbolize how broken we sometimes feel, we waited on God. We could hear one another weeping. And then we prayed that God in Jesus would make all things well, even in the midst of suffering.
After the service was over, many of us stayed to talk and pray with one another. It was a healing time of honesty and hope, this beautiful evening that broke down barriers between “church” and “community.”
When Larry Moyer, pastor of Rockhill congregation, was seriously injured after falling off of the roof of his home in 2011, Randy Heacock, pastor of Doylestown congregation, filled in to preach. Moyer’s recovery was long and difficult, but throughout the following year he was supported by Heacock and the other pastors in his Learning Community—Bruce Eglinton-Woods, pastor of Salem congregation, and Walter Sawatzky, a member of Plains.
“I valued the support of these pastors,” reflected Moyer, “the prayer support from their congregations, and Walter’s ongoing care of me personally and my family. Randy made personal visits to my home as I was not able to attend our monthly meetings and on one occasion, the group met at my house. I felt cared-for during my recovery journey.”
This care and prayer support is only one aspect of the Learning Community that these pastors formed in 2006 in response to conference encouragement to form pastoral support teams. They invited Sawatzky, who was a Conference Minister at that time, to join them for insight and encouragement.
This team of four has met monthly ever since, sharing their challenges and joys of ministry, introducing one another to new resources, and supporting one another with advice and prayer. “We wanted to meet together as we sensed our churches were on similar journeys and we wanted to share in mutual learning and encouragement,” Heacock remembered. “Though each of us are different and have our unique emphasis, we share a common vision for a future church that is about being real with who we are in Jesus Christ before one another.”
Small groups of like-minded pastors is not a new concept in Franconia Conference, Sawatzky observed; support, study, and prayer groups have existed in various forms for years. What has made this particular group successful has been both a commitment to one another and shared vision for what church could be. “They have organized their activities around their immediate shared concerns,” Sawatzky said. “[Then their activities] come out of relationship as these pastors have bonded as friends and in spiritual relationship with one another.”
Their congregations have also benefited from their relationship, both directly and through their growth as leaders, Eglinton-Woods said. “I have greater confidence and ability to lead transformation in our congregation as a result of being with other pastors who are doing the same thing. Continuing to teach, preach, encourage, and lead transformation in the face of comfortable Christianity has a cost but it has become an easier cost to bear [because of] being a part of this group.”
Soon after they formed their Learning Community, the group began working together to provide equipping events for their congregational leadership. These workshops eventually developed into joint worship services where the congregations met to share stories of transformation, including one in February in which the congregations worshiped, shared testimonies of God’s joy, and prayed for each other. This mutual prayer has always been a pivotal part of the pastors’ and congregations’ relationship, Heacock pointed out, because it keeps them from experiencing envy or from developing a sense of competition.
After six years, this Learning Community is still an important support for all three pastors—they rarely miss a meeting. “I look forward to them and receive encouragement, insight, and new life every time,” reflected Eglinton-Woods.
“I am grateful for our learning community,” added Heacock. “I believe God has brought us together…. Larry, Bruce, and Walter are men that are being transformed by and used by God. I am honored to walk and learn with them.”
Due to continued reductions in congregational giving, Franconia Conference has made a number of staffing adjustments, most effective February 1, according to Executive Minister Ertell Whigham. These adjustments are in response to a call by the conference board in May of 2012 to reduce staff FTE (full-time equivalency), stewarding both financial and human resources while better aligning personnel with conference priorities. Over the course of 2013, Conference staff will be reduced from 8.5 to approximately 7.5, a total reduction of about 12%.
“We were blessed to enter this year debt-free, but paying off the mortgage on the Souderton Shopping Center did not change the economic realities we’re facing, including a pattern of decreased giving from conference churches,” Whigham said. “While it will be challenging to provide ministry support with a more limited staff, we will continue to make every effort to meet the needs of our congregations and leaders.”
Both Noah Kolb, director of ministerial leadership, and Conrad Martin, director of finance, will reduce their percentage of time employed through the Conference. Martin will reduce to three-quarters time and Kolb, who began transitioning from a full-time role last year to move toward semi-retirement, will reduce further to half-time. Some of Kolb’s responsibilities will shift to other LEADership ministers including Jenifer Eriksen Morales, who will increase her load to fulltime.
Franconia will partner with Eastern District Conference to increase Carla Ferrier, administrative assistant, from three days a week to fulltime. In addition to the new administrative work for Eastern District, Ferrier will also take over some basic bookkeeping and move into an office manager role.
Sandy Landes, conference prayer coordinator, will step down on February 28 from her conference position to focus on ministry in the Doylestown congregation, where she has been on staff for eight years. “Sandy has brought a contagious and enthusiastic spirit and perspective to prayer ministry that has helped raise prayer awareness and especially intercessory prayer ministry to another level of importance in Franconia Conference,” reflected Franconia’s minister for spiritual transformation Noel Santiago, who has worked closely with Landes since she came on staff in 2007. “Sandy has been invaluable in keeping prayer at the center of Conference work and life. While she will be greatly missed on staff, we are grateful that she will continue in ministry through her local congregation.”
The prayer coordinator position, which was entirely grant-supported, will be discontinued and Santiago will oversee future conference prayer ministry.
Samantha Lioi, who was contracted last year by Franconia and Eastern District conferences as Minister of Peace and Justice, has extended her contract for another two years. Her position is supported by grants—congregations or individuals interested in supporting her work can contact conference Executive Minister Ertell Whigham.
In addition to its paid staff, Franconia Conference also benefits from the wisdom and guidance of volunteer LEADership Ministers. Randy Heacock, lead pastor of Doylestown congregation, has joined the conference’s volunteer staff and is now serving as the LEADership Minister for Wellspring Church of Skippack. Ray Yoder, who has served as one of Franconia’s volunteer LEADership Ministers for several years, will be retiring this spring.
“We’ve appreciated Ray and his work with congregations,” said Whigham, “but more importantly, he’s had a pastoral presence on our team and a level of wisdom and maturity that we all have benefitted from during his time on staff.”
Whigham also anticipates possible additional shifts in job responsibilities in the coming months to further align staff strengths and resources with conference priorities.
“As a board, we recognize the importance, reach, and depth of the work of Conference staff as we strive together to fulfill God’s vision of proclaiming Christ,” said Marta Castillo, assistant moderator, Nueva Vida Norristown New Life congregation. “We thank our staff for their passion, flexibility, and commitment to lead in equipping leaders and congregations to be missional, formational, and intercultural Anabaptist communities of faith through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
The congregation in Doylestown was about at the end of their rope, struggling to find ways to engage their community after years of declining attendance.
Pastor Randy Heacock knew the future didn’t look good: if the congregation continued to do things as they always had, within ten years they could easily die out.
Or, they could try something new and see what happened.
The leadership team began a process of discernment, asking “What does it mean for us, Doylestown Mennonite Church, to lose our life to find the greater life God desires for us?” said Heacock. After six months, they invited the congregation into further prayer and discernment. Heacock began conversations with the congregation’s LEADership Minister, Steve Kriss, and other young and emerging leaders in Franconia Conference.
Slowly they began to develop a plan. Less than a plan, actually, according to Scott Hackman and KrisAnne Swartley, who, along with founding team member Derek Cooper, were hired in April of 2011 to give leadership to this new congregational direction. “KrisAnne and I are organizing on the fly,” said Hackman, “we’re cultivating as we go!”
The new missional team was given flexibility and the support of the congregation as they plunged into the world of their Doylestown community, a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia that rarely allows its deeper needs to show above its suburban chic surface. They took prayer walks, hung out at coffee shops, developed relationships with the church’s neighbors.
Around the same time, a member of the community approached the leadership at Doylestown to ask if they were open to allowing unused land behind their facility to be cultivated as a community garden. Out of that partnership, the Sandy Ridge Community Garden was born.
As the missional team watched the congregation enthusiastically join the gardening project, they began to wonder what it would be like to create a Christian community with a variety of entry points, where people could belong even if they didn’t connect with or commit to Sunday morning attendance.
They were particularly inspired by the life cycle of the garden—every season has life and death, and that’s ok, they realized. Acknowledging those cycles allowed the congregation to join in where they wanted to, to back off when they needed to, to connect and release. They decided to call their new ministry “The Garden.”
By September, The Garden was ready for its first official experiment: a peace walk through Doylestown to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and proclaim a counter-cultural witness.
Only one community family joined them.
Since this family had been 30-year residents of Doylestown, Swartley asked them to lead the prayer walk. The family guided the missional team around town, eventually leading them to the cemetery where their daughter was buried. In tears, they told the story of their daughter’s murder and shared how much it meant to them that someone was working in the community to build hope.
It was a turning point for The Garden. Although numbers were small, the missional team caught a glimpse of the importance of The Garden’s presence and ministry in Doylestown. “We need to reimagine what failure is in post-Christendom witness,” Hackman explained.
The “failures” have also opened up doors of connection with members of the congregation as the missional team shared their stories on Sunday mornings or through their blog. Members could participate in Garden Groups—home gatherings over food and conversation—or partner with the community garden and other Garden initiatives without pressure or expectations.
Some of the expectations they have surrendered have been formed by years of stories about what “mission” really is, like “we need more young people or a better worship band or a more charismatic pastor,” said Hackman. They came to realize these stories aren’t true. “What we need is to be more of what we are in spaces where people are already,” he added.
As a result of this developing culture, the Doylestown congregation is experiencing new life and vitality. For years, there was a sense of low self-esteem at the church, a sense of failure, said Swartley. “Now there’s a renewing of their identity as loved people of God. And that makes room for other people!” It’s been inspiring to watch, she added. “They’re awaking once again to what they are and how beautiful they are and their potential.”
Doylestown has not seen a dramatic growth in their Sunday morning attendance, but they have seen an increase in the number of people who call the church their own. From community gardeners at Sandy Ridge to men and women who attend AA meetings in the church’s fellowship hall, members of the Doylestown community will say, “That’s my church!” even if they have never entered the sanctuary on a Sunday morning.
“The agenda is creating space for people to belong to each other and God,” said Hackman. It’s not a church growth plan. “And how does that result in more people coming to your church? I have no idea. But we have more people coming to Doylestown.”
The Doylestown congregation committed to a minimum of three years for this new initiative; Hackman and Swartley have high hopes for the next two years and beyond. “[My dream is] that more than half of the present congregation would try at least one experiment in the next year in their neighborhood. Any experiment,” said Swartley. “That would be super fun and then we’d get together and tell those stories—what we’ve learned, who we’ve met, how we’ve seen God at work.”
And Hackman hopes for growth, but not in the traditional sense. “Whether that growth is Sunday morning, through groups, events, I don’t care,” he said. “Our identity as Christians keeps growing and that creates more room for people looking for God.”
It’s been three years since Heacock realized that something needed to change. And something has. “While I certainly don’t know where all this is heading, I do know God is present, people are open, and lives are being transformed,” he reflected. “That is good enough for me.”