Settling into our legacy

by Emily Ralph, associate director of communication

Loren Swartzendruber, president of Eastern Mennonite University.  Photo courtesy of EMU.
Loren Swartzendruber, president of Eastern Mennonite University. Photo courtesy of EMU.

All meaningful conversations should happen around a table filled with good food.    This particular Sunday afternoon, as we laughed together and swapped stories, the conversation inevitably drifted to human sexuality.

“Is this what your legacy is going to be?” I asked Loren Swartzendruber, president of Eastern Mennonite University.  The university has been in the midst of a listening process to discern the future of their hiring practices related to faculty and staff in same-sex relationships.  Just that morning, Loren had visited my congregation to share an update.

“I think it will be,” Loren responded, a little resigned.  As a former pastor of Franconia’s Salford congregation (Harleysville, Pa.) and a former president of Hesston College, Loren’s life has led him through many other challenges of leadership as well as his share of victories.  It’s not that he didn’t feel the issue of human sexuality was important, but, as he went on to explain, he had hoped that he would be remembered for more than just this one issue: as someone who was deeply committed to the Christian education and formation of his students, the development of his institution, and the future of his church.

He’s not alone in his feelings; I have heard many leaders sigh about how this topic is dominating conversation or jokingly wish that they had reached retirement before it had come to a head.  Some are concerned that the conversation is distracting us from the mission of the church while others feel that this decision is essential to our missional understanding.

It’s easy to try to outrun this conversation or to avoid it altogether.  As we look to the future, however, many of us are aware that we will be remembered not only by the decision we make but by how we behaved during this time of discernment: Did we lead toward division or unity?  Did we foster rhetoric or dialogue?  Did we model non-anxious compassion, confident humility?  Were others able to look at us and see a glimpse of Jesus?

Franconia Conference has designated a year in which we are building relationships across congregations, finding ways to share in mission and ministry, and learning to understand one another more clearly.  By investing in the difficult work of relationships, we hope that we will be able to engage in this conversation in 2015 with a deeper respect of and love for one another.

Will the controversy around same-sex orientation define our legacy as leaders?  Perhaps.  But maybe it will also be only one piece of a legacy that includes a new model of relating, a new passion for joining God in God’s mission in the world, a new commitment to unity and discernment.

May we be committed as much to the process as the outcome and may we seek our own formation as followers of Jesus gathered together in a community of faith, a sign to the watching world that we are Christ’s disciples (John 17).

Have a question for Loren Swartzendruber?  Then come out for a conversation sponsored by Eastern Mennonite University on May 15 at 7pm at Towamencin Mennonite Church (Kulpsville, Pa.).  This gathering is for all credentialed leaders in Franconia and Eastern District Conferences.