All posts by Conference Office

This is My Father

by Holly Meneses Smith

This is my father. Pounding everywhere he goes, his feet to the ground with purpose. As if shaking a fist at the demons underground, “I will defeat you!”  Make no mistake, Michael Meneses is here. I knew it when he would walk across the wooden floorboards upstairs; from bedroom, to bathroom, to office. From office, to bathroom, to kitchen. 

Pastor Mike Meneses serving communion at Wellspring Church of Skippack.

My father is home.  Most of the curls on his head are combed back into greying waves. Quick, forceful combing in the bathroom mirror.  All movement aims towards his purpose.  He keeps his comb in that mirror.  The same mirror on which he would draw secret steamed messages to his children between showers; surprise love notes that would appear and disappear just as quickly.

This is my father. Jam and peanut butter on toast, cream of wheat, cheese and crackers. Simple cravings, really. Simple and unapologetic, like his convictions.  Straightforward, like his certainty.  Clear and sharp edged, like his reasoning.  Our pallets are the same. 

This is my father.  Spontaneous dancing with his children in his office, as if on some Latin dancing show.  If we got too clumsy, stumbling underfoot, he would simply lift us atop them, where we would glide effortlessly across the carpet with his movements. Movements that revealed a spirit of celebration, hidden, often, amidst an all too demanding and, unbeknownst to many, a profoundly wounded life.  When it came to finding light in the darkness, this man taught me how to pray, and how to samba. 

This is my father.  The man who pastors his church with vigor, and grace.  Whose words can be soft while his voice is strong.  The man who calls troops into spiritual battle, while in the same moment inviting his people into eternal peace.  His is a faith to move mountains, and a heart that never doubted that God could. 

This is my father.  Unmatched is the delight that lights up his face in the presence of his grandchildren.  Children, who reminded him of a time in his own innocence, when he could run carefree through the world, the wind at his back, his feet light on the ground.  A time when the smile that cracked upon his face was boundless, when laughter bubbled up from his little belly and split open his little lips.  A time when the elation he felt while chasing a friend or biking down a street had the potential to fill the world.  And it would fill the world, he knew, for God’s unconditional love is evident in the joy of little children.  It was this love that he pointed to every day until the very end.

This is my father.   This determined, faithful, convicted, impassioned, life-loving child of God.  I imagine that his heart pounds in his chest once again; that his laughter fills the chambers of that great kingdom, as he races through the streets and dances on the feet of his Father. In that place where the love notes never disappear from the mirrors and where the demons are utterly defeated.  There, where he is fully known and eternally celebrated.  This is my father.  My father is home.

Together, We’re Still Fans

by Mike Clemmer, Leadership Minister

I am a life-long fan of the Philadelphia Eagles.

This has not always been a joyful endeavor, especially during seasons filled with disappointments, injuries, and without Super Bowl victories. That is, until February 4, 2018, when, in a state of disbelief, I watched as we won Super Bowl LII.

The celebration of that victory still feels like it is alive and ongoing within my heart today, even though this season has already ended without a championship. Yet, as a fan, I am already looking forward to all the great possibilities of the 2019 season. No matter what, I believe in this team and I will always cheer them on.

I am also a fan of the Church.

This has not always been a joyful pursuit. There have been disappointments along the way, people have been hurt, and we have not yet seen the kingdom being fully fulfilled with Christ’s return. We often get side-tracked from pursuing the main purpose of the church by our personal preferences as to how the church should look and what its focus should be.

We are called to proclaim and to be a sign of the kingdom of God through our worship, discipleship, and life together.  I long for the possibility of the church being “all together in one accord” (Acts 2) so that the Spirit can fill us anew. Yet despite its shortcomings, as a fan of the church, I always have hope.

This fall, my son and I had an opportunity to attend the Eagles/Texans game at Lincoln Financial Field. It was a close game that the Eagles eventually won. But what I noticed, as I sat amidst 65,000 fans, was that we were “all in one accord.” The fans sitting around me were women and men, young and old, and from every ethnic background possible. We did not always agree on what plays the Eagles should call, or what players should be on the field at a certain time, but we cheered together with passion and energy.

We all were seeking the same result—a win.

So we cheered together at good plays, booed together when we felt that the officials were not treating our team well, and sang the Eagles’ fight song together after each touchdown. We even hugged and high-fived complete strangers, because, at that game, the differences between us did not matter at all. We were simply expressing ourselves as fans of the Eagles.

As I think of the new 2019 “season” of the church, I also have the same feeling of positivity. There are many things happening, both in our individual churches as well as within the Franconia Conference—things I am hopeful and excited about.

Of course, there will be some set-backs and disappointments along the way, but each new year is an opportunity for everything to fall together and perhaps even have the opportunity for us to experience what it means to be “in one accord.”

My prayer is that, as fans of the Church, we can spur one another on as we passionately celebrate, together, what God is going to do.

Mennonite Church USA releases video resources on leadership and polity

Joy Sutter, MC USA moderator-elect, hails from Salford Mennonite Church.

(Mennonite Church USA) — People across Mennonite Church USA are invited to take a closer look at the denomination’s structure and healthy ways of functioning with a newly released video series featuring presentations by Michael Danner, associate executive director for Church Vitality and Engagement, David Boshart, MC USA moderator, and Joy Sutter (from Salford congregation), MC USA moderator-elect. Each speaker focuses on different topics for how leaders can understand MC USA polity and engage with one another in healthy and meaningful ways.

“I would highly encourage our church leaders, pastors and board members to watch this videos series,” said Glen Guyton, executive director of MC USA. “For a people who promote simple living, we sure developed a complex way of relating to each other. Michael, Dave, and Joy do an excellent job of pulling back the veil in these videos on how the parts of MC USA work.”

MC USA polity, or organizational way of functioning, developed through the 2002 merger of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church, and this video tool aims to clarify elements of its polity as MC USA faces shifts in membership and questions of how to respond to disagreement.

In the video series, Danner poses several questions for leaders within MC USA, including how to focus on finding a “sweet spot” of involvement. “Given my roles within the structure, what am I responsible for and what am I not responsible for?” he asks.

“Polity is not the most important thing that the church does,” Boshart says in his presentation. “But a good, functional polity will make our life more predictable, enabling us to know what we can expect of one another, and that contributes to a stronger base.”

Sutter’s presentation addresses the function of the Executive Board, the 14-member volunteer board that guides the denomination and is accountable to congregational and area conference delegates, and the function of the Constituency Leaders Council, a group consisting of Executive Board representatives, area conference leaders, constituency group representatives and agency and Executive Board staff that meets semiannually to listen, discern and advise the denomination on issues facing the church. Sutter reviews how each is responsible for contributing to positive functioning for MC USA.

The video series is available in three sessions on MC USA’s YouTube channel, and leaders are invited to watch and share them widely.

“The denomination is here to serve you. Accessing the power and benefits in our system should not be a secret,” said Guyton. “Learn where the power and authority lies in our system, so that you understand how to successfully navigate MC USA and tap into its resources and global network. These videos are a great resource for those seeking to change the church, engage the church or support the church in meaningful and lasting ways.”

Watch the videos.

New Pages in the Old Story

by Steve Kriss, executive minister

In our end is our beginning;
in our time, infinity . . .
unrevealed until its season,
something God alone can see.
—Natalee Sleeth, “In the Bulb There is a Flower”

I like new notebooks and journals.  Fresh, blank pages represent new possibility.  The pages await new thoughts, encounters, and reflections.

The beginning of a year is like that too. New goals, resolutions, and opportunities.  Sometimes, though, we are so busy with the new pages that we don’t reflect on where we have been.

This year’s “Year in Review” offers a good glimpse of where we were together as a community in 2018.  Upon reflection, it tells the highlights and the transitions.  The things that worked and came to fruition.

But missing, sometimes, is the struggle and the not yet.  The places where things were difficult and hard.  The conversations yet unresolved.  Those, too, are part of our story and part of our ongoing work.

I don’t want to take for granted that just because we’ve been around so long, we’ll always have new years and new pages ahead.  All around us religious institutions, some with histories that are long and deep, continue to wrap up their legacies.  Franconia Conference is also challenged by the cultural changes around us.  Our future cannot be taken for granted. 

Steve Kriss (right) visits with Isai Sanchez, Diana Salinas, and Gama Sanchez along with board members Angela Moyer and Gwen Groff, on a visit to CIEAMM in Oaxaca in 2018.”

Our legacy must not only be stewarded, but also enlivened.  Some things will come to an end and some things will emerge—or even be reborn.  We’ve seen an end of a historic congregation at Rockhill and a re-emergent partnership with CIEAMM.  We’ve come to embrace something we never imagined now with 10% of Conference congregations on the West Coast.  We’re calling leaders, both young and mature, to credentialed leadership.  And we’re being challenged to refine our credentialing processes so that more people who are called by our churches can navigate the process with grace and integrity.

When I look at our future, I know that there are things only known to God.  I know that in our human responses along the way, we have both the possibility of filling the pages of a new year beautifully or with scratch marks and smudges. Sometimes we’ll need practice runs.  We’ll have first drafts that will need improved, articles and ideas that will need translated.

Entering a new year means offering appreciation for what has gone before, all the accumulation upon which we stand and move.  It also means being open to the possibility, the plans yet unfolding, and the unknown events that might yet emerge.  And it means trusting that God—in our ends, in our beginnings, in all of time—sees and is with us through it all: alongside, inspiring, inviting, revealing further glimpses of the dream rooted in the faith, hope, and love that last forever.

With gratitude, we begin to write the pages of a new year as the old, old story unfolds within and around us anew.

2018: The Year in Review (And a Sneak Peek of 2019)

It’s a new year in Franconia Conference, a time to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Joshua So, pastor of San Francisco Chinese Mennonite Church, second from left, along with his wife, Anita So, with Steve Kriss, Leadership Minister Jeff Wright, and Jerrell Williams.

2018 was a year of rejoicing in new and continuing relationships and of saying good-bye to old ones.  Our conference celebrated 100 years of mission in Norristown, PA, and reignited relationships with the Conferencia de Iglesias Evangélicas Anabautistas Menonitas de México (CIEAMM), which was birthed out of Franconia’s mission work in Mexico in the 1950s.  We welcomed a new congregation, San Francisco Chinese Mennonite Church, and saw Rockhill Mennonite Church leave the conference to merge with Ridgeline Community Church.  Four individuals were ordained this year and three were licensed toward ordination, including Franconia’s first credentialed leader from Generation Z.  We said good-bye to six credentialed leaders: one who transferred to another conference, one who retired, and four who passed away.

In 2018, Franconia Conference Board saw the addition of some new members: Kiron Mateti, Yvonne Platts, & Cory Longacre as Members-at-Large and Angela Moyer as Assistant Moderator in anticipation of moderator John Goshow completing his term in 2019.  The conference staff also grew with the addition of a California-based Leadership Minister, Jeff Wright, and the calling of Chantelle Todman Moore as an Intercultural Leadership Coach.  Over the summer, Franconia was joined by a leadership cultivation intern, Jerrell Williams, who traveled around the conference and blogged about his experiences.  Early in the year, Franconia’s new Leadership Minister team took a retreat at Mariawald Retreat Center near Reading, PA, to redefine and clarify their conference work of walking alongside congregations and leaders in a rapidly changing time.

Leadership for conference youth ministry also shifted this fall as Franconia’s Youth Minister, John Stoltzfus, relocated to Virginia and three youth pastors (Brent Camilleri, Mike Ford, and Danilo Sanchez) agreed to share responsibility for planning youth events, equipping youth pastors, and networking with other youth leaders across the denomination.  The conference is currently evaluating how the conference will equip youth leaders in the future.

Participants in the first US Spanish-only Sister Care Retreat hike in the woods around Spruce Lake.

We enjoyed spending time together in 2018.  The conference’s Faith and Life Commission led four conversations around church practice and leadership, focusing on baptism, church membership, communion, and leadership.  Leaders of color met for conversation and brainstorming at the Renewing Nations & Generations gathering and we held the United States’ first all-Spanish Sister Care Retreat.  Credentialed leaders were equipped during a series of boundaries trainings and leadership teams met to learn about and practice God-centered decision-making.

Franconia Conference and Eastern District continued conversations about merging in 2019.  At a joint Conference Assembly in November, delegates discussed some of the sticky issues that will need to be resolved in order to form something new moving forward.

Franconia closed out the year by purchasing a parsonage to be used by South Philadelphia congregations.  This is just one of many examples of partnerships across congregations, geographies, and differences throughout the year.

In 2019, those partnerships will continue as Franconia anticipates additional congregations seeking membership and looks forward to celebrating the 60th anniversary of CIEAMM.  2019 will also be the year that Franconia and Eastern District conferences make the final decision about merging, beginning with discussing some ideas for a new structure at Spring Assembly on May 4 and coming to a final vote at Assembly in November.

Look forward to more resourcing in 2019, including a gathering for retired pastors in the spring and a Boundaries 201 training on confidentiality and pastoral care in the fall.  Faith and Life will continue with three more gatherings focused on leadership: failure in leadership (featuring J.R. Briggs) on February 6 & 7; women in leadership (featuring Carolyn Custis James) on May 8 & 9; and multicultural leadership on August 7 & 8.

March brings its own slate of training events, including “Building Compassion from Love,” a gathering for women on March 30 at Centro de Alabanza, which will explore how God’s love is the foundation which allows us to build on the joy and sorrow of our life stories, experience healing, and show compassion for ourselves and others.  On March 28, a pastors’ breakfast will discuss “Mission as Risky Love,” wrestling with how we talk about and engage in mission so that our risk-taking is grounded in the story of a God who risked everything for the sake of love.

A few other dates to save!

Mennonite Church USA convention will be held in Kansas City on July 2-6.  Registration doesn’t open until February 6 (housing registration opens February 13), but convention staff are already accepting applications for volunteers.

And all credentialed leaders should save the date for our annual appreciation event.  Pencil in August 24, with many more details to come closer to the time!

A response:

“This year’s ‘Year in Review’ offers a good glimpse of where we were together as a community in 2018.  Upon reflection, it tells the highlights and the transitions.  The things that worked and came to fruition.  But missing, sometimes, is the struggle and the not yet.”  –Steve Kriss, executive minister.  Read more…

Joining the Dance: Three Spiritual Disciplines for 2019

by Gwen Groff, pastor of Bethany congregation

I have accumulated spiritual disciplines slowly, over decades. They are a source of joy in times of fear and sorrow.

Spiritual Direction

A monthly discipline that brings me deep joy is spiritual direction. When I began working as director of women’s concerns at Mennonite Central Committee 25 years ago, my wise predecessor told me not to try to work with issues of abuse without being in spiritual direction. At seminary, a professor said something similar about pastoral ministry.  Any work within systems of power, any public role that might distort your own sense of yourself, any role that makes you ask, “Am I crazy, or is it them?” — don’t try to do it without having someone you trust to talk to. Find someone who has no vested interest, who understands but is outside the system, and who has the eyes to see the divine in daily life.

The essence of the role of a spiritual director is to listen and to ask, in various creative ways, “Where is God in this?”

I believe in the healing power of thinking out loud. I journal regularly because I learn from unfiltered reflection on my experience. But there is something about speaking and being heard that is different from writing in solitude.

Centering prayer

I have been sitting in silence for 20 minutes a day for more than two decades, and my restless mind is still noisy. But of all spiritual disciplines, I believe my “bad” centering prayer has made the most practical difference in my life.

A walk up the road beside Bethany Mennonite Church. Photo by Gwen Groff.

The practice of centering prayer involves sitting in silence, using a silent word to return my mind to stillness whenever I notice it has wandered off in pursuit of an interesting thought or compelling feeling. It is that practice of noticing and turning back to the silence that is so valuable. I’m reassured by the fact that the more often I get distracted during a time of attempted stillness, the more exercise that returning-to-quiet muscle gets.

That ability to turn away from a shiny distraction, a compulsive thought, an explosive emotion, is useful in daily life. My daughter says I stopped yelling at her when I started meditating. I know centering prayer makes a practical difference in how attached I am to my fleeting emotions and compelling dramas.

Physical movement

I have a mostly sedentary job—I could do a lot of it at home without getting out of bed. I have to be intentional about moving my body, not only for my physical health but also for my spiritual health.

2018 labyrinth behind Bethany Mennonite Church. Photo by Owen Astbury.

I try to do some of my pastoral care on the move. Our rural sanctuary has a labyrinth mowed into the field. Next to our sanctuary is a river and beside the river is a dirt road that leads through the woods to surrounding hills. I often meet congregants at the church and ask whether they would like to sit inside or walk outside. Most people choose to walk while talking.

Bodily movement can bring joy even in times of intense sorrow. Recently, when Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life community experienced a violent massacre, our local rabbi invited clergy and friends to come to their synagogue to be together in prayer and solidarity the following Sunday morning. The songs were often in a minor key, and the words lamented the horrific occasion we marked, but by the closing song people were standing and clapping, holding hands and making a human chain around the sanctuary, dancing in the joy that transcended the sorrow. As a middle-aged woman who grew up in a non-dancing Mennonite culture, I am a late comer to this discipline of finding joy in movement.

I am grateful to learn from others and join in the dance.

This article has been excerpted from “Three spiritual disciplines: A source of joy in times of fear and sorrow” on TheMennonite.org. Financial assistance is available for conference pastors seeking spiritual direction.  For more information, please talk with your Leadership Minister.

An Advent Prayer

by Chris Nickels, Pastor of Spring Mount Mennonite Church

(Originally posted at MennoniteRoad.com; reposted with permission)

Each year my congregation (along with a number of local churches and non-profit organizations) participates in a local witness called the Witting Tree. On a tree in front of the meetinghouse we solemnly hang dog tags to remember and raise awareness that 20+ veterans commit suicide each day. And we recommit to being a compassionate presence for our veteran neighbors and their families, in light of the often unseen burdens of moral injury, traumatic stress, and return from war.

We put the tags up on Veterans Day, and it dawned on me this year that we take them down as the season of Advent begins. The temperature was cold with a slight wind, and each time I removed a metal tag there was a chiming sound as it gently touched the nearest branch. I heard twenty-two chimes as I worked, once again reminding me of twenty-two servicemembers and neighbors who may be struggling.

So I decided to pray through the themes of Advent while I was out at the tree. Hope, peace, joy, and love seemed an appropriate request, as these are longings I have heard as I listened to my veteran friends over the past few years.

If you like, pray with me…

I pray for hope…for those who have lost faith in the promises made to them, and for those who wonder what the next day will bring.

I pray for peace…for a journey home that leads to welcome and healing, and for our nation to break the cycle of endless war.

I pray for moments of joy within the dark nights of the soul. And for friendship and community to share in joyful moments with.

I pray for love…that each one would know that they are loved, both by their Creator and their neighbor, and that we would embody this love in meaningful ways.

Amen.