A lot has changed since I last attended a Women Doing Theology Conference in Bluffton, Ohio in 1994. I was excited to attend “Anabaptist Women Doing Theology Conference: All You Need is Love” in Leesburg, VA on February 20-22 for some theological stimulation as well as to observe how young women are experiencing theology in the church today.
The most refreshing aspect of this conference for me was sharing with women from other ethnic groups, hearing their experiences, joys, and struggles as women leaders in the church. As one of the older attendees, most of whom were young women, I was encouraged by the energy and competency of many women and by their ability to step out and take risks.
I found that racial and ethnic differences are still an issue, although the issues are sometimes more subtle as we have become more sensitized to the long-standing oppression of many women. I was reminded how very difficult it is to overcome historical assumptions, whether related to gender, ethnic, or sexuality biases.
The women I met were strong women, women willing to take risks, while at the same time giving and receiving affirmation and appreciation, as evidenced by many public expressions of thanks and praise of work well done. It reminded me of the difference between a gathering led by men, with brief acknowledgements of thanks (maybe), and a women’s banquet, where everyone gets flowers. Not that one is necessarily better than another, just different.
While I didn’t notice much anger, I did notice a lot of determination. There was also grief and joy; many of us shed tears at different times. There were calls for justice in the face of any kind of oppression, and calls for solidarity among women. While I was sometimes uncomfortable being with so many women because I’ve spent most of my public ministry working with men, it was refreshing to see women learning from one another and being strong supports to one another.
Women being created in the image of God inspired rich experiences of worship and rituals. God’s immanence was emphasized as we sought to find God’s presence within ourselves.
If the conference schedule was an indication, much is expected by and from women today. I returned from the Conference exhausted, missing my own youthfulness, while at the same time feeling that these young women are well-prepared to go beyond those who came before. I’m excited to see where they take us.
Franconia Conference delegates and leaders gathered November 2 at Penn View Christian School in Souderton, Pa. to celebrate God still at work. With a packed auditorium for a third united assembly with Eastern District Conference, representatives gathered to listen and pray, to celebrate newly credentialed and ordained pastoral leaders, and to work alongside one another after an over 150-year rift created two separate Mennonite entities. The theme “God still @ work” was an extension of the 2012 theme, “God @ work.”
With singing in Indonesian, Spanish, and English led by Samantha Lioi (Peace and Justice Minister for both conferences) and Bobby Wibowo (Philadelphia Praise Center) and translation into Franconia Conference’s worshipping languages, delegates and representatives from nearly all of the Conference’s congregations from Georgia to Vermont gathered to confer around a board-crafted statement on the Conference’s increasing diversity in ethnicity, experiences, faith practice, and expression. The gathering was punctuated with points of celebration including testimony from Peaceful Living led by Joe Landis and Louis Cowell from Salford congregation, a youth choir from the revitalizing Garden Chapel in Victory Gardens, NJ, and a moment to mark the upcoming November retirement of Franconia Conference Pastor of Ministerial Leadership Noah Kolb after 45 years of ministry, which was met with rousing applause and a standing ovation.
In a shortened one-day event, delegates spent the morning together around tables with Eastern District Conference to continue to deepen relationships across conference lines. Business sessions were separate, and Franconia’s included a significant amount of time in conversations among table groups, conferring over the board statement and then reporting on those conversations to the whole body. Delegates and representatives were encouraged to mix across congregational lines to better hear and experience the diversity of conference relationships.
For many, including Tami Good, Souderton (Pa.) congregation’s Pastor of Music & Worship, who was attending Conference Assembly for the first time, the table conversations were holy spaces. Each person at her table was from a different congregation. “I saw God at work in the gracious listening, especially in the time when we talked about the conferring statement,” Good reflected. “There were disagreements, but everyone was graciously listening and hearing. Everyone actually wanted to hear each other. It was a beautiful time.”
The conferring time, along with an afternoon workshop led by the Franconia Conference board, focused on prayer and visioning for the Conference into the future. Conference board members Jim Longacre (Bally congregation), Rina Rampogu (Plains congregation), Jim Laverty (Souderton congregation), and Klaudia Smucker (Bally congregation) served as a listening committee for the daylong event. They reported seven themes of consistent and continued conversation: engagement, diversity, shared convictions, authority, polity, the role of conference, and the reality of changing relationships and engagement. Board members noted that there is much response work to do to continue the conversation and discernment process.
Bruce Eglinton-Woods, pastor of Salem congregation (Quakertown, Pa.), said, “The challenge is speaking clearly on what we believe and where we are at, which is often a challenge for Mennonite leaders. My hope and prayer is that we can trust God and release the idea of keeping it all together. We need to let God do the holding together.”
According to Rampogu, one of the longest standing Conference board members, “the hardest part about this kind of meeting is that there isn’t enough time. We want to share and to talk together,” she said. “That is a positive sign. People want to connect. My hope and prayer is that we keep our goal in mind, keeping our mission focused on equipping leaders to empower others to embrace God’s mission, with Christ in the center and churches focused on missional activity.”
In business sessions, delegates selected a number of positions by 97% affirmation including a 2nd term for conference moderator John Goshow (Blooming Glen congregation) along with board member Beny Krisbianto (Nations Worship Center), as well as ministerial and credentialing committee members Rose Bender (Whitehall congregation), Ken Burkholder (Deep Run East congregation), Mike Clemmer (Towamencin congregation) and Chris Nickels (Spring Mount congregation). Randy Nyce (Salford congregation) who is completing a term as finance committee chair and board member reported on Conference finances, noting an 11% decrease in financial contributions from congregations.
“I was surprised and pleased that the attendance at Assembly 2013 was so strong; seeing the room filled to capacity was an affirmation of how much the delegates and guests in attendance care for our conference,” Goshow noted. “Franconia Conference is all of us who are members of our 42 churches and our Conference Related Ministries. It is my hope and prayer that together we chart a course that will advance God’s Kingdom in exciting and wonderful ways.”
Bally Mennonite Meetinghouse was built in the 1730s in the Bally Community, which was settled by German Reformed, Catholics, and Mennonites, who have traditionally worked together. At one time, Bally had a number of industries, but currently has just two major industries: Bally Block and Bally Ribbon.
We are a small congregation of about 100 people. Pastor Klaudia Smucker is our minister. Our leadership consists of the church board, and the ministry council, which includes the chairs of all our committees; worship, finance and administration, outreach, and Christian ed.
Our mission statement is to “Grow in faith, Connect as a Community, and to Serve others.” We have a very diverse congregation which loves Scripture, is committed to Anabaptist theology, and values service both at home and abroad as we seek to articulate the good news of Jesus Christ. Vital ministries of our congregation are the Bally Community Center which serves the youth in our community, a community preschool, and a community garden, which just this past year donated 400 lbs of produce in the local community. We are also known for our delicious pancake breakfasts.
Franconia Conference Board members took action to appoint Klaudia Smucker as a new member of the Conference Board at the April 22 board meeting.
Smucker serves as pastor of Bally Mennonite Church, a role she assumed in 2010. She came to Franconia with extensive pastoral and conference leadership experience in Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference. “We are thankful that Klaudia has chosen to use her considerable experience and wisdom on behalf of Franconia Conference,” said Conference Moderator and Board Chair John Goshow.
Conference Board members began discussing the addition of a few board members after Mim Book, who served as Assistant Moderator 2010-2011, resigned from her role 2011 to take an interim pastoral assignment in Nebraska. Marta Castillo, already a board member, was affirmed by delegates to fill this role, leaving the Conference Board short one member and further widening the gap of gender balance. Following a period of discernment, Smucker’s name came forward as a strong candidate. She met with the Conference Board Executive Committee in February and board members acted on the recommendation of the Executive Committee to officially affirm her at their April meeting.
Smucker’s appointment is in alignment with the Conference’s bylaws, which stipulate, “the Conference Assembly shall appoint, by affirmation, a majority of the Conference Board members. The Conference Board may appoint several additional members to the Conference Board for overall board balance and perspective.”
“I am honored to be asked, and looking forward to working on the Franconia Conference Board with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ,” reflected Smucker. “I know that church work at all levels is complex and can be messy. I believe that united in prayer and through the love of Christ, God will continue to do amazing things within Franconia Conference and its churches!”
Smucker joins continuing board members Marta Castillo (Nueva Vida/Norristown New Life), John Goshow (Blooming Glen), Joe Hackman (Salford), Jim King (Plains), Beny Krisbianto (Nations Worship), Jim Laverty (Souderton), Jim Longacre (Bally), Mary Nitzsche (Blooming Glen), Randy Nyce (Salford), Rina Rampogu (Plains). With the exception of Rampogu, all other Conference Board members have been affirmed by Conference Assembly delegates.
Bally Mennonite Church has always been a place where creativity has blossomed, but like many small churches, we have been facing declining numbers of children. Our community preschool, which meets daily in our building ten months out of the year, has continued to flourish, but this growth hasn’t been reflected in our Sunday school program.
We had what looked like two main problems: first, our Sunday school preschool class, which sometimes had just a couple preschoolers, was, for a while, combined with an older class and this wide age range seemed to be daunting for the children as well as the teacher; and second, despite many opportunities, we seemed unable to get our preschool families to come to church.
After one Sunday, when there were only one or two preschoolers, Kathryn Schoenly, the preschool Sunday school teacher, and Connie Jones, a parent of a preschooler and a board member for our community preschool, started brainstorming about what they could do to get more children here.
“The preschoolers do come to our Vacation Bible School in the summer,” Kathryn observed. “I wonder if we could interest some of the parents in bringing their children to our Sunday school?”
“Could we just invite them to drop off their kids on a Sunday morning using the preschool entrance?” Connie wondered.
She mentioned it to the preschool board that same evening and Kathryn asked me what I thought about it.
“Go for it!” I said. “What a great idea!”
Almost immediately, Kathryn made an invitation and sent it home with the preschool children.
The next week, two families accepted our invitation and brought their sign-up forms to preschool. The following week, one more came, and Kathryn now has a regular class of about 7 preschoolers.
It is a win-win situation for us all. Our Bally Community preschoolers get to hear about God’s love for them on Sundays and throughout the summer and preschoolers from our congregation have a full class on the same grade level.
We had a few kinks to work out, but as we recognize them, we try to learn from them. When our worship services go longer, someone needs to remember to go downstairs and be ready to welcome the preschoolers. Overall, it is exciting to see the smiling faces of all the preschoolers as they enthusiastically run into class: a safe, warm, and welcoming space.
And all because a couple of people were willing to think outside the box and let the Spirit move!
“I am not planning on preaching,” I told one of my seminary professors. “I’m more interested in pastoral care and counseling.”
“Ask your minister anyway, and see if he can fit you into the preaching schedule,” he said.
James Waltner, my minister at College Mennonite at the time, said “Of course we can fit you into the preaching schedule.” I remember sitting up front before giving my first sermon, and having the feeling of wanting to run off the platform.
I began my student internship, not planning on being a pastor. But as the year went on, my seminary practicum, “Minister in the Church,” held many surprises. I preached, I led worship, I did pastoral care and counseling, and I loved every minute of it. I remember thinking, “This is the job I always wanted to do. I just didn’t know it.” My spiritual director noticed how enthusiastic and focused I was when I talked about my church work. She encouraged me to continue to seek God, and wait for answers. I prayed that if ministry was the right direction, it would be affirmed by others.
As I finished my practicum, I was sad to be ending something I enjoyed so much, and happy that I discovered something I loved. I decided to continue to work part time at my nursing job, and work my way through seminary, hoping that answers would eventually come. In my last week at the church, Nancy Kauffmann, on the CMC team, took me out to lunch and asked me if I had ever considered pastoral ministry. I said, “Yes. This practicum has opened whole new possibilities for me. I’m just not sure about the timing of it all.” She said, “I can’t promise you anything until we talk to the church board, but James and I believe you have gifts for ministry. We’d like to recommend hiring you to help us fill in some gaps.”
That was the beginning of my ministry journey, although as I look back, I can see that God’s hand was on me, leading, guiding, and bringing others my way to encourage me in that direction. When I preached a sermon as a 16-year-old on youth Sunday in the early 70’s, a woman came up to me afterwards with tears in her eyes, and said, “If you were a man, you could be a preacher some day.” I remember hearing a woman speak with passion and inspiration and thought, “I want to do that for others.” After I gave a presentation in a committee meeting once, a woman said, “God has something in mind for you.”
Not all of the 12 years that I have been in ministry have been easy. Sometimes it has been hard, sad and all-consuming. I have laughed, cried, and lamented along with people as I’ve walked with them through marriage, births of children, difficult issues, personal illness and loss. All of those things inform my preaching, and remind me that life is uncertain. My faith has been strengthened as I’ve watched people trust and follow faithfully in the midst of extreme difficulty. I have felt God’s hand on me along the way, sometimes through wise and trusted mentors, sometimes after time in prayer, and sometimes in the voice of a stranger at the right place, at the right time. As I continue to walk forward in what God has called me to, my prayer is to keep my heart wide open as I continue to listen for whatever is next on the journey.
When I was a kid I had an imaginary friend, which embarrassed me later because it seemed weird. Maybe it was, but it got me used to being slightly off, like when I have strange dreams that seem to mean something if I can only figure it out. That was the interior life of a farm boy from western PA. Looking back, it seemed like I was always leaning toward something, though I seldom knew exactly what. Somewhere along the way I got the impression that an imagination is something of a call to ministry, if not a qualification.One evening, waiting for a ride to Bible school, I stepped on a garden rake intentionally to see if what happened in cartoons would also happen in real life. That was not the last time I tried something just to see what would happen. Sometimes the result was painful but usually there was an “aha!” and I always learned something. I kept stepping on rakes through college at Eastern Mennonite and voluntary service (MVS). Fortunately there was often more joy and insight than facial injury. Joanne Brenneman and I met in MVS, married the following summer and moved to Richmond, Va., two weeks later. That too was an adventure – we knew almost no one and thought we might be there for two or three years.What fun to marry someone with a similar sense of adventure, who can walk into a rundown house and imagine what we could do. After a semester pilgrimage to Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary I finished my master’s studies at Union Seminary in Richmond. Joanne spied the rake of medical school, then stepped out.We did not need imaginary friends because we made hundreds in Richmond. I became pastor of First Mennonite, a church that accepts being Anabaptist and adventurous as the same thing. I have had the privilege of assuming an ancient Book with stories of God’s people can somehow enlighten our path, and finding that with imagination, it does.We had not envisioned that our two daughters would grow up with southern accents. After 18 years in Richmond, we looked north and spied a land across the Potomac. Joanne accepted a position as radiologist at Doylestown Hospital, where her father had practiced, and we found a place by the Indian Creek near Harleysville, Pa. This too was adventure. It is fair to say that something in our experience and outlook had us feeling both akin to and at odds with a traditional Mennonite setting. We found many people who like to laugh and dream, even though we might look around sometimes to see who is watching.I accepted a call to pastor West Swamp in Quakertown, Pa. The leaders of the congregation and I knew that I might stand alongside the mold of traditional pastor but would not fit into it. There was enough imagination that we could put together the beginnings of a new congregational structure and vision where leadership and responsibility are shared. I count it success that after six years most people would laugh at my humor. They gave me a rock from the oldest foundation of the church as a gift and the thought of that ebenezer still moves me. The foundation of a new core leadership had been laid, both fresh and deeply trusted.Soon after I went to West Swamp, the Eastern District Conference asked me to be moderator. When I was introduced as having also been moderator of Virginia Conference, one colleague murmured that I must be a slow learner. Sometimes it is more fun that way. A third term on the Penn View School board also keeps me among people who like to look beyond what is, who like to learn as much as the students do.A few months between calls brought rest and an adjustment in our family’s identity. Visiting and preaching in other congregations, travel and time to catch up on projects has been a privilege, but there was always the question of “what next?” The Bally congregation had a similar experience. They asked me late this summer to be Interim Preaching Pastor, to provide some continuity while they move through their transition. I have agreed to journey with them while we both discern the next steps. So here in yet another place we get to imagine how the ancient stories are lived today and how God can speak to us in our dreams.