One Foot on a Pew…

by Mark R. Wenger, Franconia congregation

I grew up as a “missionary kid” in Ethiopia, attending boarding school through grade five.  I cannot recall a time when spiritual concerns and values were not part of the landscape of my life and the air that I breathed.

I did not experience a dramatic conversion to faith in Jesus Christ.  In fact, I speak of many conversions, repentances and believings.  My baptism into Christ, age 12, is much more important to me now than it was at the time.

My call to Christian ministry gained direction through personal interests in Bible, history, theology, geography and music.  But when I graduated from college, the railroad tracks of education and growing-up ran out. Looking back, I’ve named this season in my 20s as “lost years” with lots of vocational, personal, and relational confusion.

After stumbling through seminary, I looked without success for a teaching job.  Forest Hills Mennonite Church (Leola, PA) contacted me about becoming an assistant pastor.  I was very dubious.  How could I be a pastor and be a real person?  I was willing to give it a try, part-time. 

I am forever grateful to God and to Forest Hills for extending a pastoral call to me.  I discovered and heard my divine call to ministry through my experience pastoring for nine years at Forest Hills.  The outer call from the congregation blossomed through God’s grace into an inner call of deep joy.  Frederick Buechner expresses it well: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

At Forest Hills, I became a fan of what congregations can offer for Christian community and witness.  This love of congregational life fed into my Ph.D. studies in Practical Theology – Preaching & Worship, and extended to Springdale Mennonite Church in Waynesboro, VA where my wife Kathy and I pastored together for 10 years.

I liked congregations, and I liked study & school.  Over time, this matured into a vocation of building bridges between congregations and church-related colleges & seminaries.  I began to see myself standing with one foot on a pew and the other on a school desk.  I also gradually came to embrace gifts of administration that others affirmed in me.  Administration, I came to see, is really about people first, not structures.

In 2005, I shifted my weight from the congregation to the academy, but my calling remained the same: to be a bridge.  Kathy and I moved from Virginia back to Pennsylvania where I served 12 years as Director of Pastoral Studies for Eastern Mennonite University at their extension in Lancaster.  Being a seminary administrator and professor was a privilege and wonderful fit.  I found it deeply satisfying to walk alongside men and women exploring and applying their ministry calling.

But, at age 61, I returned to congregational pastoral ministry at Franconia congregation (Telford, PA).  The Bible often speaks about the “right time.” That is not clock time; it is God’s time, and pregnant with divine possibility – risk and promise.  It was the right time to return to church.

At this stage of life, a big part of my sense of call is focused on cultivating healthy congregational life and witness.  The call also includes leading and mentoring ministry leaders younger and better at connecting with this generation than I am. 

 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14).