All posts by Conference Office

Celebrating God’s Gifts in the Season of Building a Budget

by Stephen Kriss, Executive Minister

To whom much is given … much is also expected.  -Jesus of Nazareth

Steve KrissOver the last few weeks we began to project the numbers for our work together at Franconia Conference: next year’s budget. This is an act of faith and commitment together in imagining our shared work for the year. Our budget also tells the stories of our priorities. It was my first time in the role of executive minister working through each of these items to allocate our resources in ways that fit our priorities, particularly in working to equip leaders around our shared values of work that is missional, intercultural and (trans)formational.

Our Conference budget has remained steady over the last few years, though with an increasing percentage contributed by individuals and received through designated funds. With changes in congregational life and demographics, our congregational contributions, though still healthy, have declined over the last decades. The Conference has continued to focus work around leadership development and less on programs; therefore, some giving changes have been appropriate and expected. Also, with the reduction of overseas mission workers, congregations have focused giving internationally in different ways.

This year some important things will emerge in our budget that tell of our changing realities. We will begin to do further collaborative staffing arrangements with Eastern District Conference and expect to provide staff for our new member congregations in California. These are both direct outcomes of the discernment at Conference Assembly this fall.  We will also set aside funds as requested by our Addressing Abuse Taskforce to be available should our Conference need to support survivors in receiving counseling if they suffer clergy abuse, or to help congregations that need assistance in providing counseling for members who suffer abuse by others in their congregation. This is an absolute priority as we seek healing and recovery related to actions of clergy misconduct and work to prevent and heal all forms of abuse in our community.

I hope, as we move forward, that we will be able to seek the Spirit further toward generosity and openness in understanding our gifts, and that in whatever way we have been gifted, we might partake fully in God’s intention for the full redemption of all creation.

As seek further generosity, we can look to the lives of Norm and Alice Rittenhouse, who at the end of November were highlighted by Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) for their generosity and sharing of resources from their life of faith and farming. This is a story that is at the heart of our history as a community, shaped by our work and hope. In working with our newest member congregations, that kind of generosity is vibrant as well. This past fall they joined with many of our existing immigrant congregations to share in assisting Houston Mennonite Church, as they reached out to work alongside immigrants in Houston following Hurricane Harvey.  This was sharing that we helped facilitate as a Conference through our global networks.  Norm said in the article for EMU, “we worked to give.”  This has been and will be what we are about in Franconia Conference.  I look forward to continuing to provoke and steward the ways that we share our gifts, knowing that all that we have been given is from God.

As we approach this season of giving, following Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Giving Tuesday, I feel deeply privileged to be a part of stewarding our gifts toward the call that God has given us as a community and individually. Thanks to your gifts shared through our Conference, from congregations, individuals and ministries, we are able to continue the good work that God has begun in us. I’m glad to talk more, any time, with congregations or leaders on how we can continue to best share our gifts for the sake of mutuality while we continue to live into God’s commission to us, to extend Christ’s peace with neighbors, enemies, friends and all of God’s children both near and far.

 

“Expect the Unexpected” was a Summer to Remember

Franconia Conference is blessed to have several amazing Conference Related Ministries (CRMs) that share the same mission and values in working for God’s Kingdom here on earth. One of those is Bethany Birches Camp in Plymouth, Vermont and in 2017 they had quite the memorable summer.  According to Program Director Dan “Chick” Laubach, this past summer was the most attended season in the history of Bethany Birches Camp.” Not only that, but one of their camp counselors, Liesl “Kiki” Graber,  who expected to find God in a Damascus Road type experience, actually found God while camp counseling — an experience, as she said, that went with the summer’s theme of “Expect the Unexpected.”  Read more from Liesl “Kiki” Graber, and Dan “Chick” Laubach on Bethany Birches’ Blog HERE.

A Synergy of Missional Engagement

by Mike Clemmer, LEADership Minister & Pastor at Towamencin Mennonite Church

Today’s Souderton Mennonite Homes (Living Branches) began as Eastern Mennonite Home of the Franconia District in 1917.

This past week, I had the wonderful opportunity of leading a litany of blessing and rededication for the Souderton Mennonite Homes’ Living Branches 100th Anniversary. This service was the final event of a year-long series of activities that gratefully acknowledged the past 100 years, while also casting a vision for serving the community in the years to come. Living Branches is the first and oldest established partnership in ministry with the Franconia Conference. Currently, there are 18 Conference Related Ministries (CRMs) that represent an array of extensions of the reign of God into local communities through nurture, witness, care and discipling. After my experience at this service, I wondered, how are we doing in supporting our CRMs?

At their core, Conference Related Ministries have a unique collaborative relationship with Franconia Conference and represent a fruit of faithfulness in the church’s history and future. CRMs have usually been born out of a deep desire to care for people in need, both in church communities as well as the physical community in which they reside. All the CRMs also have their own stories to tell. This is true of Souderton Mennonite Homes.

In the early 1900s there were no local retirement communities. Leaders in the Mennonite community wanted to find a way to care for the aging population in their congregations. They saw a need and collectively asked, how can we care for our community? Prior to this point, care for the aging happened within families. Although there was a heartfelt sense of love and responsibility for their older members, and care was provided for grandparents and parents by the younger generation –  this often meant that the sick or elderly lived out their days confined to a bed, without easy access to proper care.  At this time in our country, making ends meet was hard enough for many families and some simply could not provide adequate care. Much like in Acts 6, Franconia Conference leaders conferred about this great need and the seeds of the possibility of forming this “ministry” together were planted. On October 7, 1915, the Conference approved the project and appointed 12 trustees – all who understood that they would not be creating an institution, but rather, a “home,” embraced by the church. The Conference then looked to its congregations to help support the project financially, and the goal of $6,000 was surpassed as the trustees collected over $19,000. Shortly thereafter, the “Eastern Mennonite Home of the Franconia District” opened its doors in 1917 and the partnership with Franconia Conference has continued.

Stories like this one could be told by many other Conference Related Ministries. Indeed, the Conference has partnered with a variety of ministries in many areas of need including bringing help to disabled or special needs persons, collaborating in areas of aging and mental health, engaging together in camps and retreat centers, as well as working together in creating educational facilities and church plantings.  By ministering together, our churches are achieving a synergy of missional engagement in our communities. We are truly the church when many members are working together to form one body in Christ – a body that shares resources and invites collaboration with many gifted volunteers – as we together exercise mutual care and love in showing hospitality to all those in need. After all, the church exists to benefit others. How are we doing at supporting our Conference related ministries?

New Energy Brings the Community to Celebrate and Remember

By Sandy Drescher Lehman, Pastor at Methacton Mennonite Church

On July 21, 2017, disaster greeted the congregation of Methacton Mennonite Church as we gathered for worship. Our planned liturgy immediately turned into a service of lament, as we witnessed the crash of a huge branch of the 381 year old, white oak at the corner of our cemetery.

The next day, as an arborist — along with many of our neighbors and folks from the Worcester Historical Society — joined us to figure out a way to save the tree, it began to crack.  Everyone ran for their lives, literally, in all directions and watched, as the tree fell – a complete and decisive DO NOT RESUSCITATE! It was totally hollow except for the raccoon family who had made it their home.

The next weeks and months were filled with conversations of lament and inquiries from people who held a strong, and often spiritual, connection to this community landmark all their lives. “Can I have some of the wood?” “That’s the oldest living thing I’ve known”. “I feel like part of me died with that oak!” These were just some of the feeling expressed.

At the same time, our congregation was asking what we could do to reach out to our neighbors. Suddenly the light went on.  Forget the spaghetti dinner idea — that didn’t work anyway. Forget the yard sale that had minimal response from the neighbors. Our community was now coming to us, asking to be part of us!  This was so obviously a gift of God, using the death of “our” tree to bring the community to us!  We jumped on the lightning bolt!

November 5 was the great Community Tree Day. We invited the community to join us in remembering and celebrating the tree that belonged to all of us and to our ancestors. We began with a worship service, singing about the wonder of God’s nature – especially in trees, reading stories and scriptures about our invitation to be Oaks of Righteousness, each holding an acorn of hope in our hands.

After worship, more neighbors joined us for a rich time of story telling and sharing photos of their Methacton Oak memories, followed by soup and cookies in the shape of oak leaves and acorns for more neighbors than had ever entered our Fellowship Hall. Folks from the Worcester Historical Society joined us to offer the community an afternoon of making memories. An activity room was full of projects where people could make things out of pieces of the Old Oak’s wood and leaves. For sale were forest green mugs with an image of the tree on the front, prints and cards from a local painter, and acorn shaped Christmas tree ornaments that Ray Cooper, another neighbor, had turned out of branches from the wood.

Historians John Ruth and Leslie Griffin led a cemetery tour, telling stories about people who have been buried under the Oak since the Revolutionary War, before the day culminated with a double tree planting.  A neighbor, Bayard DeMott, donated and planted a new White Oak, and Paul Felton, a 97 year old forester came with a 3 foot baby of the original Oak that he had planted and nurtured for 6 years, for us to grow across from his Mother Oak. Hubert Swartzentruber blessed the trees and the day with a poem he wrote in response to the news of the fall of the Historic Methacton Oak.

We continue to celebrate the unique and Holy gift that “fell into our laps” to grieve and celebrate with our community. God seems to have no end to giving us ways to nurture our relationships with each other and notice Holiness in our midst.

A Dose of Humility

By John Stoltzfus, Conference Youth Minister

Life offers many opportunities to learn humility. James Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, said, “Life is a long lesson in humility.” This can be particularly true for those in leadership, whether you are a CEO, pastor or youth sponsor. You are expected to lead by good example. One of the things I have learned as a pastor is that the good example we can provide as a leader does not necessarily mean perfection. Rather, it often means the ability to not think too highly of ourselves, to acknowledge our mistakes, and to learn from our missteps.

In June, I was invited to provide the bible lessons for the high school camp at Laurelville Mennonite Retreat Center. Part of the week included a rafting excursion on the Youghiogheny River.

I take some pride in my ability to engage in wilderness adventure experiences such as white water rafting, so I decided to join the campers in a wild ride through the rapids. It fit with part of my theme for the week in taking risks and living into the adventure of following Jesus in life.

We were split up into groups of five per raft with a designated “captain” in the back. Before the trip, our guides gave us clear instructions on how to work together as a team on our rafts and follow directions from the captain. River guides were in kayaks ahead or on the side of the river to help us navigate the rapids. We were told that it was essential to pay attention to the guides and their directions for the more dangerous rapids.

Confident in my ability to navigate the rapids, I took a turn as captain in my raft. However, as we approached one of the rapids, my ability to follow directions from the guides and give good directions to my crew evaporated. We headed straight for a rock at the point of the rapids that we were instructed to avoid. The disaster that followed still plays like slow motion in my head.

As the accompanying photos illustrate in glorious fashion, while the rest of the crew took cover in the center of the raft, I was launched headfirst into the angry rapids. To make matters worse, I managed to hit the head of one of my raft mates with my knee as I went overboard. Thankfully she had a helmet on although she did suffer a mild headache as a result.

(CLICK IMAGES TO ENLARGE)

My crew was gracious enough to pull me back into the raft after that failure. They even offered for me to captain again. I took it as an opportunity to allow the youth to take the lead for the rest of the trip. They taught me about what it means to work together as a team, showing grace in our mistakes and having the courage to take humble leadership.

On this day, on the rapids of Youghiogheny River, life offered me a healthy dose of humility. I am certain more lessons in humility will follow. I am reminded of a line from T. S. Eliot’s poem “Four Quartets” where he says “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

Teenagers or Screenagers?

by Maria Hosler Byler, Associate Pastor for Youth and Family Faith Formation at Salford Mennonite Church  

On November 25th, 120 people gathered in Salford Mennonite Church’s sanctuary to view Screenagers, a film about teenagers and technology use. Some who walked in the doors were eager to be there, and some came because their parents made them – but all had stories of how technology has affected their lives, and many sensed the urgency of a conversation about screens and faith: How does my faith inform the enormous cultural shift technology has brought on? What actions will help me grow in relationship to God and my neighbor and what actions won’t?

Screenagers was produced by Delaney Ruston, a medical doctor and mother of two teenagers. She shows her own family’s struggles to have a healthy relationship with technology and interviews many other teens and parents. Included in the film is psychological and brain research, as well as information on addiction, multi-tasking, and how technology is affecting academics.

According to the film, the average kid spends around 6.5 hours a day looking at screens. This isn’t just limited to teenagers. During the film I found myself resonating with so much of the research and stories. When I open Facebook for just that one thing and I end up spending 20 minutes scrolling, it doesn’t help my self-esteem or mood. I get distracted from my work when I hear my phone ping. Even as an adult this film offered a chance to assess my own screen use and consider how to use technology in ways that are life-giving – without it taking over my life.

After we watched the film we divided into groups for discussion. The middle schoolers I talked with are aware of the pull of technology. They’re steeped in it from early in their development and it is truly shaping their lives. They reap the benefits as well as the challenges. They’re watching their parents, who are “digital immigrants,” set boundaries for their kids (and sometimes, though not as often, for themselves). And they’re finding their own way as “digital natives.”

Screens are affecting our society in so many ways. There are plenty of tools available to help families set healthy boundaries around screen time, and they’re worth the investment. And even with those, nothing can replace self-control and good communication. Today’s kids (and their caregivers) have to navigate the dangers of their age just as every other generation has, with only a dim picture of the consequences.

Screenagers has prompted many conversations in different settings in the weeks since the screening. In some ways the challenges are totally new. And in other ways, it’s the same question we’ve always faced: How will I live as a follower of Christ in this uncharted territory?

More information about Screenagers is available at www.screenagersmovie.com. There you can find a trailer to the film, view a list of upcoming screenings to find one in your area, and explore hosting a screening yourself. Salford co-hosted their screening of Screenagers with Advent Lutheran Church.