Tag Archives: education

Making theological formation and education relevant to urban churches

by Elizabeth M. Miller for Mennonite Education Agency, originally posted in The Mennonite

Kim-Mai Tang and Khoa Ho are part of the Year 1 Cohort (class of 2017) in Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s STEP program. Photo provided by EMU.
Kim-Mai Tang and Khoa Ho are part of the Year 1 Cohort (class of 2017) in Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s STEP program. Photo provided by EMU.

Flexibility is one of the critical ways the various schools associated with Mennonite Education Agency (MEA) are making theological formation and education accessible and relevant to urban churches.

But flexibility alone is not enough. Urban church leaders are also looking for education solidly grounded in a global context and embedded in relational networks, not just institutional structures.

In response a variety of Mennonite educational institutions have developed ser­vices meant to serve and learn from urban Anabaptists, often strongly rooted in a particular geographical center or located within a series of networks and partnerships.
1. Instituto Bíblico Anabautista
At Centro de Alabanza in Philadelphia each week, over 20 percent of the church community gathers to study and discuss courses offered by the Instituto Bíblico Anabautista (IBA, Anabaptist Biblical Institute) and facilitated by the congregation’s pastors, Fernando Loyola and Leticia Cortés.

“The advantage of the courses is that you can start whenever it best suits,” said Cortés in a recent interview. “We can study at any time.”

The IBA courses at Centro de Alabanza are held twice a week. Most of the participants at Centro de Alabanza are married couples, so men study one night and women the next. This way husbands and wives are able to swap child care during their respective class nights.

“[IBA] has total flexibility,” says Rafael Barahona, IBA and the Hispanic Pastoral and Leadership Education office director. “So [the churches] can make it work for them.” IBA provides instruction manuals for students and training for facilitators, but it does not impose an external schedule on church groups using the program.

For Centro de Alabanza, this flexibility has been key. The ability to offer courses on a schedule that equally benefits husbands and wives from within the same households has had a tremendous effect on the congregation. “In my case with the women especially, they have more confidence that they are capable, that they can use their gifts,” said Cortés.

An IBA student retreat. The 2014 retreat took place in Talladega, Ala. Photo by Violeta Ajquejay.
An IBA student retreat. The 2014 retreat took place in Talladega, Ala. Photo by Violeta Ajquejay.

Cortés has observed the women immediately putting into practice what they have been learning in the classes. Some have even started preaching in the worship services.

IBA is one of the longest-running and most expansive programs for urban Mennonite church leaders. Now in its 27th year, there are 42 centers serving around 300 students across the country, from New York City to Miami to Omaha, Neb.

Eastern Mennonite Seminary, a graduate division of Eastern Mennonite University,operates a campus in Lancaster, Pa., that most directly serves the eastern part of the state, including many urban churches in Lancaster and the greater metro area of Philadelphia.

“One of the things unique about the EMS program is that our programs are intended for urban dwellers,” says Steve Kriss, associate director of pastoral studies at EMS Lancaster and LEADership minister for Franconia Conference.

While EMS Lancaster offers an M.Div. track and two graduate certificate programs, they also operate Study and Training for Effective Pastoral Ministry (STEP), an undergraduate-level program for church leaders who wish to strengthen their ministry and leadership experiences.

From the beginning, STEP was designed as a collaborative program, dependent on urban church networks and experience. An advisory committee from Philadelphia-area congregations helped design the original program, and teachers and students came from area Anabaptist congregations.

“It was a very deliberate attempt to connect with the vibrant urban minority [and] recent immigrant congregations in the Philadelphia urban metro area,” says Mark Wenger, director of EMS Lancaster.

STEP is grounded in practical experience and mentoring relationships. Everyone who joins STEP must already serve in a leadership role within his or her congregation, and each student is paired with a ministry mentor.

“[It’s an] embedded model, not an academy model,” says Wenger. “What you study, what you read about, what you write about, you practice right away in your context. That works in an urban setting very well.”

By necessity STEP integrates global realities into the formal education experience.

“Global political realities sometimes come crashing down in the classroom,” says Kriss. “The world does not stay as separated as it might in a more traditional setting.”

The urban congregations that partner with EMS Lancaster include Vietnamese, Latino, Anglo, African-American and Ethiopian ones. The diverse identities of these, combined with their urban context, bring global issues to the fore.

“Urban leaders are asking us to work at ways of telling the Anabaptist story that integrate with urban and global realities. For places like Philly, it’s not just the city that we’re dealing with,” says Kriss. “We’re dealing with global realities. So our coursework needs to reflect those realities.”

It has also been important for traditional Mennonite congregations to be involved in the work that urban congregations and leaders are doing. Kriss calls this “enlivening work.” “Across the board it helps build relationships and give [traditional Mennonite congregations] new ways to look at Anabaptism.”

Both EMS in Harrisonburg, Va., and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Ind., offer courses in their graduate programs specifically focused on urban contexts and ministry. They also regularly receive students from nearby urban centers.

In general, however, the seminaries report that it is the partnerships in urban-based theological education that have most strengthened their programs in this regard.

AMBS, for example, is a long-standing member of the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE). Rather than try to duplicate the courses and experience offered by SCUPE, AMBS encourages students to enroll in SCUPE’s courses in nearby Chicago.

David B. Miller, associate professor of missional leadership development and AMBS-SCUPE program liaison, meets with advisee Martin Navarro. Photo provided by AMBS.


According to Rebecca Slough, academic dean, SCUPE builds on the formation offered at AMBS while introducing students to a wider network of people.

“It puts [students] in a different theological and racial-ethnic environment,” says Slough.

Julia Gingrich, a 2014 AMBS graduate who lives and works in Elkhart, credits her SCUPE courses with giving her the tools to “exegete” her urban context.

“[They] played a significant role in forming me as a missional leader who seeks to be deeply and consciously rooted in my ministry context,” she wrote in an email.

The Urban Peacemaking course Gingrich took through SCUPE was especially helpful in preparing her for her ministry internship at St. James AME, which Gingrich described as “an African-American congregation located in a marginalized Elkhart neighborhood.”

“[In Urban Peacemaking] we studied and discussed gun violence and mass incarceration, issues that are of central concern to the members and neighbors of St. James,” wrote Gingrich. “Studying these issues helped me join St. James in [its] efforts to resist these forms of violence.”

4. Center for Intercultural and International Education
The kind of partnerships and networks that have made IBA, STEP, and SCUPE possible are also crucial to the work of the Center for Intercultural and International Education (CIIE) at Goshen (Ind.) College.

CIIE focuses on welcoming students from multicultural backgrounds—who are also often urban students—as well as working with organizations and churches that work with youth.

“Many times we think urban students are more needy than other students,” says Gilberto Pérez, CIIE director. But he notes that urban students often have a level of resiliency and network navigation skills that is helpful for college. Adjusting to college without the proximity of their home network can be daunting, however, so CIIE pairs them with a student mentor. “The mentoring gives them a place to experience what they had in their home community,” says Pérez.

While CIIE focuses much of its energy on the Goshen College community itself, it also sustains partnerships with 16 different community partners that work with students of color in locations all across the country.

Their goal, Pérez says, is “to be in relationship and offer the resources the church has available.”

5. ReconciliaAsian
ReconciliAsian, an Anabaptist peace center that works mainly with Korean-American churches in Los Angeles, recently began a partnership with CIIE. Like the Philadelphia churches who partner with EMS Lancaster, ReconciliAsian finds their focus to ultimately be a global one.

Their recent partnership with CIIE allows ReconciliAsian to reach what Park-Hur calls “invisible” youth in the Asian-American community who may not fit the “model minority myth” imposed on so many Asian-Americans.

Park-Hur also hopes to speak at more family conferences with her husband, Hyun Hur. Their respective backgrounds as a Korean-American and a Korean immigrant make them uniquely equipped to communicate a message of conflict transformation across generational boundaries.

Like many urban ministries, ReconciliAsian depends on a variety of relational networks and partnerships for its work.

As important as networks and flexibility are to theological formation and education in urban contexts, they alone cannot respond to other challenges. Some urban churches, for example, want their youth to attend Mennonite colleges, but they fear those same young people won’t return after four years away.

“Our undergraduate programs are all outside major urban areas,” says Kriss. “Some Mennonite congregations feel that to raise up good leaders and send them to Mennonite schools means the congregations lose them forever, because they don’t return.”

Cost is another hurdle. Some of the programs, like IBA, keep their costs low by using volunteer instructors. But accreditation comes with a price tag that can be particularly burdensome for urban churches and leaders.

Yet relationships can go a long way toward sharing these challenges and adapting or creating new educational structures that better serve urban churches.

“We need networks of trusted relationships,” says Kriss. “We need to spend time building relationships and being in each other’s space.”

Elizabeth Miller is a member of Berkey Avenue Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind.

Philadelphia Mennonite High School merges: Update from Dr. Barbara Moses

Barbara Mosesby Dr. Barbara Moses, Philadelphia Mennonite High School

It is a joy for me to announce that Philadelphia Mennonite High School has merged with The City School. The City School is a Kindergarten-12 Christian school in the heart of Philadelphia, committed to making a Jesus-honoring, college-preparatory education accessible to families in the city. Our mission is to train students’ minds, disciple their hearts, and bring light to the city—one child at a time. You can see that we are natural partners in ministry; In fact, PMHS and The City School have been serving together since we opened our doors in 1998. We have exchanged best practices, pursued dual-enrollment opportunities together, learned alongside one another at professional development conferences, and prayerfully helped each other through seasons of difficulty. This year it became clear that we could honor God and serve his people better together than we ever did apart. So, after months of prayer, discussion, debate, and careful deliberation, we are pleased to announce to you that PMHS is now The City School.

As we grow, our Mennonite heritage will be honored and will continue to guide our mission. We will continue to cultivate relationships in the Mennonite community and draw inspiration from the rich social and theological distinctives of the Mennonite church. As always, our first love and priority is our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. As The City School, we have adopted five core commitments: to Jesus, the city, shalom, excellence and accessibility. Our commitment to shalom, in particular, is inspired by our Mennonite heritage. The great theme of peacemaking, which was central to our identity as PMHS, lives on in this commitment. Shalom means peace, but it means so much more: harmony, wholeness, justice, unity, and completeness. With these commitments guiding the practical, day-to-day decisions we must make as educators, I believe our school will continue to honor the Mennonite tradition as strongly as it ever has, in new, creative, far-reaching ways.

As The City School, we have been received as members of the Mennonite Education Agency (MEA). In addition to strengthening our relationships in the Mennonite community, MEA’s senior director Elaine Moyer is working closely with us to pilot a program that will allow us to better serve students with learning difficulties. We have hired a full-time learning support coordinator, whose passion for serving students with learning challenges was a driving force in this decision. Through this program we will make an excellent Christian education accessible to more children who have historically not had access to good educational options. This is new territory for us, and it is a testament to the blessings that follow our decision to grow and merge.

Our high school has been a place of joyful learning for 16 years, and I can tell you with full confidence that our students will continue to thrive in The City School community. Our current students will join their City School peers this fall at our Rittenhouse campus, in the heart of Center City Philadelphia. Many of our teachers and administrators will join them in this exciting transition, and I will be serving alongside them as an advisor and community liaison. Our beautiful PMHS building is being transformed into The City School’s second elementary school campus and will house our very first preschool class. Pooling our resources together, we have taken everything excellent about our schools and, in unity, submitted it to our faithful Lord, who continues to bless our mission.

Thank you to our friends at the Franconia Mennonite Conference and everyone who has prayed for and partnered with Philadelphia Mennonite High School over the years. I hope your generosity and faithfulness will follow us into new terrain as The City School. Now, more than ever, we have the opportunity to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth, to our city—one child at a time.

Advocating justice in our education system

by Mikah Ochieng, summer writing team

Maria BylerPhiladelphia Praise Center is located in the heart of South Philadelphia, a neighborhood that captures all four corners of the world into a 20 block radius. If you know anything about South Philly, it’s that it’s constantly prone to social change. For over a century, the community has been heavily influenced by the Italian culture but recently it has become a cultural hub for the Hispanic and Asian communities. Like the 20th century immigrants who came before them, this new generational wave of immigrants have experienced what it’s like to face the specific challenges that culture and language bring to one’s life. That is why there are people like Maria C. M. Byler.

Prior to moving to Harrisonburg, Va. this fall to pursue an M.Div. at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Byler played a tremendous role in the life of Philadelphia Praise Center (PPC) and the lives of countless immigrants who have struggled to acclimate to a new environment.  As PPC’s on-staff social worker and in her position with Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition (SEEMAAC), an education, health, and social services agency, Byler committed to making the lives of others a better reality, both spiritually and economically.

Byler’s passionate and optimistic insight has always been a reliable source of inspiration for her work with students and parents in educational services. SEEMAC exposed her to various social services relating to education and school attendance for truant and absent immigrant students. Yet what Byler later discovered as she became more familiar with the educational system within Philadelphia both shocked and frustrated her in her work with students and parents.

On top of the overbearing obstacles that the Philadelphia school district is constantly facing, there remains the issue of deep discriminatory acts of segregation along economic and social boundaries. Byler discovered early on that the traditional motto of American education being “non-discriminatory and accessible to everyone” was simply not true for the people that she was serving. Commonly, Byler would work with bilingual parents who needed language services and programs in order to sufficiently interact with the schools that their children attended. Although these programs had been properly established, it seemed obvious to Byler that the system of education favored students whose primary language was English—educational equality was not accessible to Byler’s client families.

The problems of inner city education are most evident when comparing the education systems of the metro area and the surrounding suburbs. As one would expect, there are economic differences between the two demographic areas, economic differences that seem to be an injustice perpetuated by America’s oldest original sin: institutional racism. Byler has witnessed first-hand the lack of resources and opportunities that Latino and Asian families fail to receive as compared to families who send their children to schools in more affluent, suburban areas.

But it doesn’t have to stay this way, suggests Byler. The solution for this injustice is one that would positively revise the method of state and federal funding for education. Big-time legislators and hardworking parents can work together to provide immigrant students with the hope they receive from a good education, regardless of their nationality. All children, says Byler, should be recognized as unique and worthy of opportunity, not just educational opportunity, but opportunity in all of life.

Because God’s Kingdom is a manifestation of this hope, Jesus-followers are called to tear down the walls of institutional racism that seal away our community’s most powerless—our children—from the hope of an equal education.

Congregational leaders discuss Mennonite Education Plan

by Susan Gingerich, Christopher Dock Mennonite High School

Penn View Schoolwide Service Project 002
Students from Penn View Christian School collect baby kits for MAMA Project. Penn View is a participating school in congregational Mennonite Education Plans.

Franconia and Eastern District conference leadership recently joined leaders from 10 congregations to discuss Mennonite education. This annual forum focuses on the Mennonite education support plan (MEP) that congregations provide for students of Quakertown Christian School, Penn View Christian School, Christopher Dock Mennonite High School, and Philadelphia Mennonite High School.

Attendees found this forum helpful as they shared successes, challenges, and opportunities related to mutual aid, accountability, mission, accessibility, and integrity for congregational support plans for students attending the three local Mennonite schools.

Several churches have committees that plan for and oversee the guidelines and financial status of the fund. The Mennonite Education Advocacy Team (MEAT) of Souderton congregation is one such special committee that was formed to advocate for Mennonite education at all levels and for the mission of MEP at Souderton. They have been successful in enhancing respect for informed and intentional choices in both Christian education and public school education. While MEAT looks after the financial piece for the church and families, they also remind the congregation of mutual aid, accountability, and accessibility in order to give the education plan integrity.

Table group discussions affirmed the Mennonite Education Plan as a missional opportunity for congregations to tend the well-being and spiritual development of young children and youth. Church representatives reported that not all congregants see MEP as missional, and a common challenge is meeting the MEP budget in this economic environment.

MEP is an opportunity for churches to invest in young people to raise faithful and radical followers of Christ. Attendees expressed a desire to validate families who choose to support public schools also.

In addition to a time of networking, the principal of each school shared stories of students whose lives are being impacted by MEP support. The schools plan to continue this annual forum to provide encouragement and to assist with programmatic challenges. Churches not involved with MEP that are interested in learning about a support plan may contact any of the participating schools’ principals.

Moved by faith … back to school

Philippiansby Maria Byler, Philadelphia Praise Center

In Matthew 17 Jesus tells the disciples that with faith the size of a mustard seed they could move mountains. But at Philadelphia Praise Center/Centro de Alabanza de Filadelfia, something else is being moved by faith: adults are going to school. And I, as site administrator, get to witness the miraculous results.

This fall, 15 members of PPC/CAF started the certificate program of the Anabaptist Biblical Institute (IBA), an adult Christian education program coordinated by the Mennonite Education Agency and the Hispanic Mennonite Church. It consists of eight 12-week courses. Students complete workbook lessons on their own and meet weekly in group tutoring sessions. Tutors are pastors Leticia Cortés and Fernando Loyola. With God’s help the first course, Introduction to Bible Study, was completed in early December.

Each student is in a very different place with their education. One student is completing postdoctoral work, one dropped out of elementary school over 20 years ago. Most have begun to know Jesus within the last five years. But their varied experiences with school and church were overcome by the strength of their faith and their desire to learn more about God.

At the first class when asked about the homework, most of the students raised their eyebrows and shook their heads sadly. “Me cuesta leer tanto,” – “It’s hard for me to read so much” “No entendí todas las preguntas,” “I didn’t understand all the questions.” We struggled through the literary genres in the Bible and the difference between figurative and literal. But we also had great conversations about Hebrew identity, Creation, and even vegetarianism. Week after week I left the class amazed at what God is doing with these humble but eager followers. And the students left the class feeling as though they had merely scratched the surface of knowledge, and ready to deepen their understanding.

More than what God is doing inside each student is what God is doing with us as a community. We are each (including me) growing so much more than if we just read the lessons individually. IBA has become a very human place where we learn from the reading and also from our sisters’ and brothers’ life views.  This includes experiences of members of the community during the course. We have had to cancel or rearrange classes because of illness or other church events – and those happenings make it into the class conversation. Students often bring their children, who participate in their own way. It’s giving us all practice in being a community of sharing and support as we learn together how to walk this life as Christians.

At the beginning of the New Year we start on the second course: Anabaptist History and Theology. For more information on what we’re studying, check out the Mennonite Education Agency website. Or, if you’d rather, contact me – I love to talk about this exciting work that God is doing in the church!