“After a sermon like that, I just want to cry,” commented octogenarian Roma Ruth, reflecting on Salford intern John Tyson’s debut sermon on Sunday. John is an Eastern Mennonite University and Christopher Dock High School grad studying now at Princeton Seminary. His internship represents the best of flourishing conference, congregation, and community relationships. He is learning alongside his old high school history teacher, Joe Hackman, who is now Salford’s lead pastor. I’m serving as John’s official supervisor for the year, a role I’m happy to fill as the conference’s director of leadership cultivation.
Roma’s family helped to start the small mission church in Somerset County, Pa., where my family first connected with the Mennonites. Now, almost thirty years later, I am the one cultivating new generations of leaders. In the seven years I have worked for the conference, it has been both a challenge and a joy to do this kind of work, helping a historic community navigate into the realities of next-generation leadership. I’ve worked with dozens of interns, students, pastors. I continue to witness amazing and sometimes disturbing things. It’s not easy to be a next-generation leader in the church. There are lots of bang-ups and bruises. What amazes me, though, is the willingness of young people to invest in our broken but beautiful communities in spite of, and sometimes because of, this very brokenness.
Roma told me that her tears were from the realization that John’s sermon spoke powerfully to issues of the Good News, justice, and peace that are close to her heart. She recognized in the sermon yet another turning of the page. It’s a gracious realization that God continues to call forth new leaders in nearly 300-year-old congregations in a half-millennia-old tradition in ways that are both resonant and discordant with the past, but nonetheless harmonizing with the way of Christ across the generations.
I am becoming more and more aware that the Spirit is increasingly calling leaders across ethnic lines, calling women, calling people born outside of the Mennonite fold into our contexts of worship and ministry. These men and women are highly skilled, highly committed, willing to be vulnerable, willing to contribute without thought of compensation, often living somewhere between patient and zealous, believing in both constancy and change. Of course there are still areas of growth, but overall the gifts of next-generation leaders are like the gifts of the magi—appropriate, overwhelming, full of mystery and grace.
It is fitting that John’s sermon was on Epiphany, a time of celebrating the gifts of those coming from another place, marking the inbreaking of salvation, wise to the ways of the world, bearing with them what they hope will witness to a beautiful new beginning embedded in a real and historic story. Our community’s challenge is to have the courage, wherewithal, and imagination, along with the spiritual rootedness, to understand and celebrate that God is still with us and that, as John said in his sermon and Roma affirmed this last Sunday at Salford, “the good news is still breaking.”