Tag Archives: Biblical Seminary

Becoming an Authentic Pastor

by Ben Walter, Ripple

I grew up attending a Church of the Nazarene congregation every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening, well into my teenage years. Our family was at church whenever the doors were open.  My parents often sang up front, Dad playing the guitar and Mom banging the tambourine against her leg.  They asked me to join, but I was too shy and self-conscious.

I can’t tell you when I became a Christian, or when I was “born again,” because as far as I can remember, I have always looked to Jesus as Lord, savior, teacher, and friend.  Despite my semi-forced dedication to the church, becoming a pastor was not on my to-do list; standing up front, talking, and inviting people to kneel at the altar to get saved for the tenth time wasn’t my idea of a fulfilling job.

As I entered my late teens and early twenties, I drifted away from the church.  I thought about God often, and prayed occasionally, but my faith wasn’t guiding my decisions. 

After spending 3 years in the military, I prepared to start college.  I was thinking about becoming a pastor, but I felt like, if that’s what God wanted for my life, I couldn’t be obedient to that call.  A nagging feeling of guilt began following me around.  So I went to talk to my pastor.

I remember my pastor said, “You will know.”

I didn’t really “know” at the time, so I ran.  I guess I assumed God would get the message to me if I needed to hear it.

During my final year of college, like the prodigal son, I returned.  I started attending church and met some good Christians friends who helped me stay on track.  The youth pastor at my home church asked me to help with the youth.  This turned into seven years of teaching, chaperoning, and mentoring.

Over time, particularly after the start of the Iraq War, I began thinking more deeply about Jesus’ teachings on peace, justice, oppression, and solidarity.  I didn’t have a label for it, but I was on my way to becoming an Anabaptist.

In 2008, I decided to pursue a Masters of Divinity degree from Biblical Theological Seminary. I wasn’t interested in pastoring, but wanted to dedicate a few years to serious study of scripture to help in the ministry I was already doing.  

During my studies, I learned about the Anabaptists and was told by one of my close friends that I was one.  This was news to me, but I embraced the label.  I also had the opportunity to be taught by a Mennonite adjunct professor, Steve Kriss. 

Steve was the teacher for my final class at Biblical Seminary.  As I walked out the door of my last session of that class, marking the end of my seminary education, Steve stopped me to ask a few questions.  He told me that there was a church in Allentown that might interest me and wondered if I’d like to meet Tom Albright, the pastor of Ripple.  I decided I would check it out.

Ben spending time with Ayanna and Angel in Ripple’s Community Garden. Photo credit: Angela Moyer

When I got to Ripple, I saw a church that was dedicated to being a safe, welcoming place of worship for people who have been pushed to the margins of society, those with whom Jesus calls us to solidarity.  A few weeks later, Ripple called me to be one of the pastors, and I “knew.”

I initially thought I couldn’t be obedient to God’s call to be a pastor because the pastors I had known seemed to be straight-laced and uptight.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not me.  At times I still feel pressured to fit a certain pastoral mold, but for the most part, Ripple has allowed me to pastor from a place of authenticity and vulnerability.  I have learned that being a good pastor is simply about being the person God has created me to be.  I don’t have to pretend.

Thank God!

Successful Conference, Seminary partnership concludes

Steve Kriss (top right) and Derek Cooper (second row, fourth from the right) have partnered for five years to take seminary students on intercultural learning trips, including this spring’s trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. Photo by Dennis Dong.

by John Tyson, Salford congregation

Theological educators believe headfirst immersion into unfamiliar cultural terrain is a requirement for preparing church leaders in the context of the twenty-first century. For students at Biblical Theological Seminary (Hatfield, Pa.), a lifelong commitment to intercultural ministry begins at the second year mark of their LEAD Master of Divinity Program.

To meet the complex and unconventional demands of intercultural education, Biblical Seminary and Franconia Conference have partnered together to create the Intercultural Ministry Experience (IME). For the past five years, Franconia’s director of leadership cultivation, Steve Kriss, and Biblical’s director of the LEAD program, Derek Cooper, have led a total of seventy-five students on journeys far and wide, from Israel/Palestine to Italy to Cambodia and Vietnam.

For Dr. Derek Cooper, the ten-day trips abroad produce formative insights and questions that dwell with students well beyond their time in seminary. “It is my favorite component of the LEAD program, and students receive a very concentrated educational experience,” said Cooper. “Students always come away from the trip changed, challenged, and more culturally aware. It’s completely transformative.”

“We also talk a lot about contextualization, and we learn much about how the local Christian community addresses issues relating to history, culture, politics, and world religions,” Cooper added.

Josh Meyer, associate pastor of Franconia congregation (Telford, Pa.), participated in the 2011 trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. Meyer identified practices of learning and listening as the educational core of his experience. “This was not a mission trip where rich, white Americans did a service project and ‘brought Jesus’ to the forgotten corners of the globe,” he said.  “Rather, this was a learning experience where we went as students, not saviors; as listeners, not experts; as those interested in exploring ways in which God was already living and moving and active in the culture, not as those bringing Jesus to a place where, prior to our arrival, God was not present…This approach to cross-cultural study resonated deeply with my own wariness of short-term missions and helped to shape my thinking on how we as people of faith engage with the rest of the world.”

The required IME provided Donna Merow her first opportunity to explore spaces beyond U.S. borders. Now pastor of Ambler (Pa.) congregation, Merow recalled how her trip to Israel/Palestine transformed both her understanding of ancient scripture as well as the present Israeli/Palestinian conflict. “The reality of walking where Jesus did, of visiting his birthplace, the village he called home, the Sea of Galilee, and the site of his death has changed the way I read the Bible,” Merow explained. “Seeing and touching the separation wall, staying in the homes of Palestinian Christians, and visiting one of the multigenerational refugee camps has made me ask hard questions about government policy and church practice.”

For many travelers, encountering weathered, historically nuanced places reveals how tender the balance is between the past and the future. This was one of the major lessons absorbed by KrisAnne Swartley, associate pastor of Doylestown (Pa.) congregation, on her trip to Italy. “I was struck by the history there, and how it is preserved and revered, and how that can be both a strength and a weakness,” Swartley reflected. “The strength is in remembering our story, remembering how the faithful who went before us worked through questions of faithfulness in the midst of change/struggle. The weakness can be that we are so trapped by traditions of the past that we become irrelevant in the present and into the future. I continue to think about this balance, to pray that I remember and learn from the church of the past but also [have courage] to walk into the future bravely, not afraid to let go of what was as the Spirit gives new wisdom.”

While this spring marks the end of the Biblical/Franconia IME partnership, its conclusion is cause for celebration, according to Kriss. “The model proved to be an effective partnership because both the seminary and the Conference benefitted,” he said. The Conference offered resources of intercultural education and global networking, he observed, while the seminary provided students who were positioned to deeply engage.  “The surprising outcome,” Kriss said, “was to build relationships with Anabaptist students on campus which helped Conference congregations to have new connections with potential pastors.   And these new potential pastors had already been shaped somewhat by Anabaptist ways of engaging the world.  It was a fruitful endeavor, not without struggles at times, but one that represents effective and strategic partnering in healthy ways.”

On World Domination and Global Espionage

Derek Cooperby Derek Cooper, Deep Run East

Growing up in the piney woods and ranch-covered hills of East Texas, I deliberated between two potential careers: world domination, that is to say, being a politicking lawyer, and global espionage, perhaps serving as a CIA officer who worked covertly in some ivy-covered medieval castle in Ghent or Prague.

Now snugly in my thirties, it turns out that I have yet to find a way to control the world. Nor have I yet traveled to Ghent or Prague. Instead, my days are comprised of changing dirty diapers on the youngest of my three children, who laughs mockingly every time I mention that toilets are all the rage; leading and participating in a continual cycle of meetings; having lunch at very German-sounding restaurants with local pastors; teaching and counseling seminary students; and writing Christian books whenever I can snatch the time. When I get home after a busy day of work, my wife and I talk about our day and then I play dolls with my two girls. Almost every night, instead of chasing down international gun-smugglers in a black-and-white tuxedo, I run after my son until I fall down from premature middle-age or until I trip over a Barbie Doll who is taking a joyride on a miniature camouflaged jeep.

My life – and the silly daydreams I had as a child – changed for the better when I was a young college student. Armed with the dual majors of Political Science and Spanish, I stood barrel-chested before the world, ready to take over the reins of political control and international malevolence once I graduated.

In the meantime, I met the love of my life during my second year of college. At the exact moment I saw her, something inside of me came alive and the first moment I got, I boldly declared to this Bucks County native: “I’m going to marry you.”

Repulsed at my forwardness, I spent the next three years convincing this beautiful young lady, named Barb, that God sent her down to Texas so that she could marry me. Little did I know that God had, indeed, led her to Texas – to serve as a missionary with Youth with a Mission (YWAM). But about this more important matter of fetching a husband, she was not amused. Although I still stand by my statement – who knew that Texans were bold and swaggering? – God was pleased to use this young woman to remove my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh. Within a matter of months, I dropped that world domination and global espionage business, and began to think like a Christian, that is, outwardly and in a Jesus-centered way. I gave my life to Christ, and it has never been the same.

Before I knew it, I was a college graduate and a full-time seminary student. I was now conjugating Greek verbs, preaching at something called a church, reading the Bible (and learning this was far more interesting than political theory), praying, and thinking of a career in missions.

Eventually I learned that God was preparing me for a career in theological education. In the meantime, not only did I convince Barb to marry me, but I even convinced her that God was calling me to get a PhD – which can be translated in the marriage-ese language as: “I will study for the next several years and make no money. Will you support us as I do so?”

While I was earning the last of my three graduate degrees and generating a very meager income-earning power, Barb gave birth to our three wonderful children – currently aged three, four, and five – and also managed to work full-time as an educator.

Did I mention how great my wife is?

Over the years, God has been extraordinarily kind to us. After years of prayer, Barb is now able to stay at home full-time with our kids, just as she has always wanted. And God has provided many wonderful ministry opportunities for me. Most recently, I served on the pastoral teams of two different churches, and I am now a very busy seminary professor and administrator – filling my professional free time with speaking at different churches and writing books.

But the most recent change Barb and I have experienced is joining the Mennonite community. Through the course of key relationships with Mennonite leaders, pastors, and churches, Barb and I have sensed God’s clear leading for us to become Maronites, I mean, Mennonites (I’m still trying to get that down). What can a Southern transplant from gun-slinging and flag-saluting Texas say about being part of the oldest Mennonite community in North America?

In all honesty, I can say that Barb and I clearly sense that God is active in the Mennonite community. God’s Spirit is really alive and poised to do something amazing. We are excited to be a part of this and can’t wait to see how God will bring everything together.

As I think back upon my former dreams, do I have any regrets? Not a one: Christ fashioned my life into something much more than a career in world domination or espionage ever could have given me. Following Jesus has been the most rewarding journey of my life. Of course, if Jesus happened to take a trip and set up shop in Prague or Ghent, I would not complain.

Dr. Derek Cooper is assistant professor of biblical studies and historical theology at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, PA, where he also serves as associate director of the Doctor of Ministry program. He and his wife Barb are members at Deep Run East Mennonite Church. He can be reached at dcooper@biblical.edu.

Sometimes the Spirit shows up

Reflections with Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the Old City Jerusalem.

by Stephen Kriss, skriss@franconiaconference.org

Jerusalem. Photo by Dave Landis.

There were about a dozen of us gathered around fresh squeezed orange juice and a couple of tables just inside the Damascus Gate in the Old City.  Our group had been traveling for a few days in Israel and the Occupied Territories as part of the partnership between Franconia Conference and Biblical Seminary for intercultural education. It was the third time in a few years that I’d been back, engaging with initiatives supported by Conference congregations—Deep Run East, Philly Praise, and Franconia.  In some ways, the once exotic holy land was starting to feel both more familiar and more frustrating.

We were gathering after a long day to meet with two seminary students, both American Jews living awhile in Jerusalem.  I had met one of the students at a coffee shoppe in Philadelphia.  The second guy was his housemate, a Reformed Jew.   Our group had just returned from several days of staying with Palestinian Christians in occupied Bethlehem.  We’d heard their stories and seen the dividing wall.  It had been overwhelming and gut-wrenching, as usual.

It was tough to turn toward a conversation with Jewish students.  I had strategically set it up at a small refreshment stand, owned by a Muslim guy who had spent a lot of time in California.  He agreed to stay open late this night for the conversation.   The two students told their own predicaments, their own call as spiritual leaders, their struggle as Jews in Israel in the midst of injustices.  They told of slipping scared into Palestine, trying to hide their own Jewishness to see the other side of the story.  They admitted that they were a little afraid to come and visit with us in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

The conversation was both beautiful and tough.  The seminary students—both Christian and Jewish—shared openly from their own perspectives.  They asked questions.  They shared perplexities.  There was both wincing and hoping.

But maybe the most remarkable thing that happened that night was as our time was concluding, the shopkeeper chimed into our conversation.

He said, “Listening to you guys gives me hope.”

He said, “We have a long journey together to figure this out.  We have much to overcome.  It will take many years.  But maybe because we gathered tonight it will only take 189 years rather than 200 to move toward peace.”

Our Jewish friends trembled and teared up.  We witnessed something holy and lovely.  It was listening, it was acting, it was hoping, it was sharing space and moving beyond fears. It was next generation leaders receiving a blessing from a Muslim man probably older than their parents in the Muslim Quarter in front of a group of American Christians.

The moment was pretty amazing.  In these kinds of learning experiences, we do a lot of setting up, a lot of planning, but the Spirit shows up wildly and mostly unpredictably in the circumstance.  It’s something we hope for as leaders in our preparing and our journeying, something we wait for, but something unexplainable in the careful question, vulnerability and risk; in the exchange across boundaries, between young and old, in the midst of moving toward understanding.

This is why I believe in intercultural education, in missional movement across the globe. It’s the Spirit’s showing up when we take risks. It’s listening across misgiving.   Sometimes it requires movement and travel across thousands of miles and sometimes it only requires us to walk across the street, where we encounter the Divine in the face of fear, frustration, difference.

Collaborative missional learning task force formed for Indian Valley initiatives

by Stephen Kriss

blooming-glen-bapt-4.jpgLeaders from ministries and organizations connected with Eastern District Conference and Franconia Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA met on April 5 at Dock Woods Community at Lansdale, Pa, to initiate a conversation about future partnerships toward collaborative missional learning. The gathering has implications for broader cooperation and included representatives from Living Branches (an affiliation of Franconia Conference-related retirement communities), Christopher Dock Mennonite High School, Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Pennsylvania and Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, Pa. The meeting included board members, business leaders, pastors, conference staff and organizational leaders in conversation together.

The group met to discuss possibilities and to engage in storytelling on the movement on education and equipping within a variety of contexts, considering from the pew to pulpit as well as later year learning. Though an informal conversation, the group named a task force to continue the conversation toward more practical realities and paths for mutual enhancement of mission and vision for extending the reign of God and missional engagement locally in Bucks and Montgomery Counties in Pennsylvania.

Franconia Conference is undergoing a conference-wide review while regional conferences of Mennonite Church USA, including Harleysville-based Eastern District Conference, continue to explore collaborative equipping and learning opportunities from an Anabaptist perspective. Christopher Dock Mennonite High School is also in the midst of a marketing review along with Penn View Christian School in nearby Souderton, Pa. Both Biblical Seminary and Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Pennsylvania are expanding options to serve emerging congregational leaders in the Philadelphia region considering both urban and suburban constituencies. With the recent affiliation of Souderton Mennonite Homes and the Dock Woods facilities under the name Living Branches, there is a new opportunity to explore lifelong living and learning among a community of 1500 residents.

The group named a task force set to include:

  • Phil Bergstresser, board member Christopher Dock Mennonite High School, broker/owner, Bergstresser Real Estate
  • David Dunbar, President, Biblical Seminary
  • Steve Kriss, Director of Leadership Cultivation for Franconia Conference of Mennonite Church USA
  • Rich McDaniel, board member Biblical Seminary, president of College Retail Alliance
  • Conrad Swartzentruber, Principal, Christopher Dock Mennonite High School
  • Mark Wenger, Director of Pastoral Studies, Eastern Mennonite Seminary at Lancaster (Pa)
  • Warren Tyson, Conference Minister, Eastern District Conference of Mennonite Church USA

A long distance out of the way: Decades of living life lead to a call to pastor

img_2102-copy.jpgDonna Merow, Ambler

Edward Albee wrote, “Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.” This describes my journey to pastoral ministry.

In the seventh grade an aptitude test indicated “nun” as a suitable career choice. This is not what most adolescent girls dream of becoming, especially if they are Protestant. It took me decades to realize that there were few other options available in 1970 to young women with a decidedly religious bent and even longer to answer the call to pastor. I went to college, dropped out, got married, raised two daughters, finished my bachelor’s degree, was diagnosed with early stage cancer, began a teaching career, earned a graduate degree in education and became a grandmother.

All the while I was actively involved in churches—Methodist, Baptist, Mennonite (where I was rebaptized thirty years ago), Episcopalian, Presbyterian—and the communities they served. Many people along the way encouraged me to consider seminary (none more persistently than former Ambler pastor Mel Thomas), but I always had a ready excuse.

For twenty years I was a stay-at-home mom with an incomplete degree and lots of time to invest in the lives of young people through the scouting and Odyssey of the Mind programs. By the time I finished my undergraduate work, my firstborn was beginning her’s; her sister was four years behind. As a first generation college graduate, I wanted this to be the best possible experience for my girls.

Although I had been collecting catalogues from area seminaries, the timing did not seem right. After our youngest graduated, I was able to spend several months trying on a pastoral role when Sharon Wyse Miller was granted a sabbatical. I wanted to see what it was like to prepare and deliver a message each week before I could seriously entertain the idea of attending seminary full-time. It was a wonderfully rich summer for me as I applied many of the pedagogical techniques I had practiced in the classroom to Jesus’ teaching through parables. At its conclusion, I wrestled with God about seminary.

I learned two important lessons from my undergraduate experience that informed my decision. The first was that I could not study in isolation; I needed to have one foot in the “real” world. The other was my desire for face-to-face interaction. I am an introvert by nature, so while distance education was comfortable and rewarding, it did not afford the opportunities for growth that I needed.

I found a good fit with Biblical’s LEAD MDiv degree. An alternative program designed for working adults, this allowed me to continue teaching and to build relationships with the members of cohort 12 with whom I have all of my courses.

I am old enough to be my classmates’ parent, but we enjoy a symbiotic relationship. I have the life experience and they have the tech savvy. It has proved to be a winning combination. With only a year of seminary completed, I did not expect to be looking for a position in a church for several years, but God had other plans. Sharon announced her planned retirement at the end of August at our January congregational meeting. Her announcement prompted me to complete the necessary paperwork to be considered as a candidate.

A month later, I learned that I would not have a job come September. The economic downturn made it necessary to cut my position at school. Unemployment made it necessary for me to trust God’s providence and possible to see the search process through to completion. It also freed me to do many things grading papers never allowed time for—a week at camp with special needs adults, putting siding on a Habitat house, helping to build a playground.

On October 4, the congregation that I have called “home” for a decade called me as its next pastor. It has been a long and convoluted path to pastoral ministry, but my installation service on November 8 confirmed that this is where I belong. I am excited by the possibilities before us as we live out the Gospel and respond to Christ’s missional call here in Ambler and beyond. Thanks be to God!