Tag Archives: Bethany Mennonite Church

Congregational Profile: Bethany Mennonite Church

by Brandon Bergey, Bethany Mennonite Church

Photo by Gwen Groff

Bethany Mennonite Church was planted in Bridgewater Corners, Vermont  in 1952 as an initiative by the Franconia Conference. Conference representatives wanted to find a secular location to plant a Mennonite church. Fast forward to 2019 when Vermont is the most secular state in the nation.

We recently finished a sermon series on Anabaptist history and theology. That kind of exploration is so useful in our congregation because we are made up of former Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Mennonites, and “Nones.” Some of us are strongly drawn to Eastern religions, including Christianity’s Eastern Orthodox stream. Having this sort of diversity among 50 or 60 people can be very interesting! It feels necessary to be inclusive. How else would we do ministry in a secular, post-Christian environment? In our adult Christian Education class, we are currently discussing Richard Rohr’s Universal Christ. Many of us are finding that Christ’s presence permeates the whole world.

Bethany members and friends help their neighbors by stacking wood. Photo by Tom Smith.

In our Membership Covenant, which we renew annually, we commit ourselves to welcoming “everyone, without exception.” We affirm that “we embrace our differences as well as our similarities, and we respect and learn from other faith traditions and values.” These commitments have become increasingly important for many of us. On the days I find myself in deep disagreement with a fellow member, I am invited to love my neighbor as myself. A diverse church is one of the hardest places to practice the love Jesus taught!

Bethany has a strong emphasis on lay leadership. We have only one paid staff position and have never had a full-time pastor. Congregants are deeply involved in planning and leading worship, doing pastoral care, working on committees, and connecting with the community.

At times, this was constrained by size and financial limitations, but at times when we could have afforded more professional staff time, we chose not to, in order to retain our lay-led culture and structure.

At the annual outdoor service, members walk the labyrinth together in silence. Photo by Tom Smith.

We have a fairly laid-back worship service. People wear flannel shirts and snow boots. A 2-year-old wanders among the pews, hoping for an unblocked route to the piano or a guitar. An infant quietly nurses. The congregation sings familiar and new songs. The relaxed attitude is especially obvious in the sharing time that follows the sermon. The person bringing the message is understood to be giving only the first half of the message. Our congregational response time is the second half. Our small size and commitment to vulnerability means we are able to weave a shared narrative. Each Sunday that sharing time elicits additional wisdom, truth, and insight that reflects our diverse community.

I am so thankful for that group who studied church planting in the middle of the last century. I am so thankful to be a part of this resulting diverse group, age 2 months to 85 years old. I am so thankful my young family is warmly welcomed in the worship service and Sunday School, even though we currently make the most noise.

Pray with me that we will see Jesus in our relationships, even when, especially when, our honesty about our differences causes tensions. Pray with me that we will embody God’s Spirit in a way that touches all of our neighbors. Pray with me for a family who attends church with us who are attempting a seemingly impossible project to which they feel called. Join me in giving thanks for our pastor who has been a deep source of wisdom for many of us and many beyond our walls in the community.

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.

Staff Meeting Heads to the Margins of Vermont

By John Stoltzfus, Conference Youth Minister

As part of our ongoing practice of going to the “margins,” a contingent of Franconia Conference staff traveled to Vermont last week for a 48 hour working retreat. Of course, going to the margins can be a relative statement depending on where one places the center. Perhaps, going to the margins can actually help re-center us in the saving work of God in this world. By locating ourselves physically in other people’s spaces we are re-placed and invited to see how the Spirit is present and active in communities and people beyond our own.

Our short time in Vermont included many opportunities for centering ourselves in God’s good work in the beautiful hills and valleys of Vermont. For our first meal, we received generous hospitality and delicious food around the table at the home of Gwen Groff, a Franconia Conference Board Member, who is pastor at Bethany Mennonite Church in Bridgewater, Vermont.

The following morning, our first in Vermont, Steve McCloskey who is the new pastor at Taftsville Chapel Mennonite Fellowship led our group in devotions. We were invited to consider our calling in ministry and how we are sustained in that calling. Later we visited Taftsville Chapel, getting a glimpse of the solar panels installed last year on the church roof.

We also heard from Joe Paparone who is an organizer with the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, and the advocacy coordinator with the FOCUS Churches of Albany (NY). Over the past several years he has connected with Bethany Mennonite Church through his work in Albany, including leading a book study for the congregation over video conference. He led the Franconia Staff in a helpful training on Community Organizing Principles for pastoral ministry and the church.

Hearing the stories of call for Joe, Steve and Gwen and learning more about the mission and ministries of their respective communities was an encouraging and hopeful witness of God’s renewing and creative work in our church and world. These communities have many gifts to offer to the broader conference and church.

Of course Vermont has other “gifts” to offer such as cheese, maple syrup and beautiful scenery. Our retreat included a visit to the Sugarbush Cheese and Maple Farm for a delightful cheese and maple syrup tasting and we enjoyed an invigorating walk down the Quechee Gorge.

Jesus’ life and witness consistently re-centered the focus on God’s activity in the world. Henri Nouwen made the observation that “those who are marginal in the world are central in the Church.” How can we as a conference continue to receive the gifts and witness of the Spirit’s presence and activity by those at the “margins”?

See the photo gallery on the Franconia Conference Facebook page.