Tag Archives: Emily Ralph Servant

Together Once More

by Sue Conrad Howes, Eastern District Conference (West Swamp congregation), with Emily Ralph Servant, Franconia Conference (Director of Communication)

It was a potentially historic day for two Mennonite conferences that split over 170 years ago. 

Photo by Cindy Angela

On November 2, 2019, delegates from Franconia Mennonite Conference and Eastern District Conference met together at Souderton (PA) Mennonite Church to determine if reconciliation, which seemed unattainable in 1847, would now be possible.

It was hard to imagine that these two groups had been divided at all, as animated conversations and joyful reunions happened throughout the crowded fellowship hall as the delegates arrived. There was even an audible groan when it was announced that the Eastern District Conference delegates needed to move to another gathering room for their morning delegate session.  And so, for the morning, the two groups met separately, with the possibility of reconciliation on the afternoon horizon.

During Eastern District’s morning delegate session, leaders facilitated a discussion over the future and publicly recognized that the vote toward reconciliation was just the beginning of a new journey.  They thanked everyone who had helped to bring them to this point and then led in a time of sharing stories about where delegates were seeing God working in their congregations and ministries. 

Photo by Cindy Angela

Franconia’s morning delegate session included affirming Rose Bender Cook (Whitehall congregation) for a third term and KrisAnne Swartley (Doylestown congregation) for a second term on the Credentials Committee. Chris Nickels (Spring Mount congregation) was affirmed for a third term and Janet Panning (Plains congregation) for a first term on the Ministerial Committee.  Swartley and Panning will serve as committee chairs.  John Goshow (Blooming Glen congregation) and Beny Krisbianto (Nations Worship Center) were thanked for their nine years of service on the Conference Board.

Franconia also welcomed four new Conference Related Ministries: Peace Proclamation Ministries International (out of Plains congregation), Healthy Niños Honduras (birthed out of MAMA Project), Ripple Community Inc (out of Ripple congregation), and Taproot Gap Year (out of Philadelphia Praise Center).  The delegates welcomed a new congregation, Iglesia Menonita Ebenezer (Souderton, PA) and released West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship to transfer to Allegheny Conference.

Photo by Cindy Angela

After a meaningful joint worship in the morning, when credentialed leaders of both conferences who had passed away during the past year were remembered and newly credentialed leaders were introduced, anointed, and then commissioned to anoint others, the two conferences joined together for the afternoon session. Joy Sutter, moderator of Mennonite Church USA (Salford congregation), expressed gratitude to the delegates for demonstrating the path of reconciliation. “You are modeling a new and inspiring path for the future. As you move forward…, may you be blessed,” said Sutter.

The three-year process toward reconciliation, led almost exclusively by conference volunteers, was introduced by the Structure and Identity Task Force.  Sherri Brokopp Binder (Ripple congregation) & Rina Rampogu (Plains congregation) explained the process, the changes proposed, and the next steps, if the delegates voted affirmatively for reconciliation.

The task force had done its work, as few delegates posed questions or expressed any sense of hesitation with the proposal. The two conferences divided, for the last time, to discern and vote.

Photo by Cindy Angela

With the delegates reunited after the vote, John Goshow, Franconia Conference moderator, and Jim Musselman, Eastern District moderator (Zion congregation), shared the results of the historic vote: together, the conferences had voted unanimously for reconciliation.

Spontaneous applause and cheers of affirmation from the delegates erupted while leaders from both conferences shared hugs and broad smiles.  Together, the enthusiastic group sang, “Hosanna, Let Jesus be Lifted Up” and “Praise God from Whom” with gusto and gratitude.

Scott Roth (L) and Steve Kriss (R) lead the Conferences into a time of communion. Photo by Cindy Angela

Following the singing, Steve Kriss, Franconia Conference executive minister, and Scott Roth, Eastern District conference minister, spoke.  “I am rarely speechless,” Kriss admitted. “But we are about to do something that could not happen 150 years ago. We are about to sit together and take communion. For some of you, this split divided families, for some of you this split divided congregations. Today we celebrate the ministry of reconciliation that has been and will continue to be our life’s work.”

Roth reminisced about being charged with the ministry of reconciliation as a youth by adult leaders who knew that the reality of such a merger would be through the work of future generations. Roth shared his joy that the dream he had heard about as a youth was now being realized. “Remember,” Roth said; “although the paperwork is not completed, we are one in the Spirit and we are one in Jesus’ blood.”

Jessica Miller (Perkasie congregation). Photo by Cindy Angela

In the front of the fellowship hall, a pile of rocks had sat all morning, without mention. This column was reminiscent of the Old Testament practice of raising an Ebenezer, commemorating God’s help or celebrating memorable events. This rock structure was not to remain, however.  Instead, each church was instructed to take a rock home, paint it, and return with it to next year’s first assembly as a new conference. The rocks will then be formed into a fountain, representing the new conference, flowing with life.

Conference moderators, John Goshow (Franconia) and Jim Musselman (Eastern District) prepare to celebrate the reconciliation! Photo by Cindy Angela

The day’s events closed with a traditional action, which has been spoken by Franconia delegates to conclude their assemblies for more than a hundred years. On this day, however, delegates of both Franconia and Eastern District made the commitment together, as one gathered body:

“We affirm our desire to continue in and witness to the nonresistant and simple faith in Christ, looking for the blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

“Kami menegaskani keinginan untuk terus ikut dan menjadi saksi kesederhanaan iman dalam Kristus dan menjadi pembawa damai, terus mencari kepada berkat pengharapan serta memperlihatkan kemuliaan dari kebesaran Tuhan dan juru selamat kami, Yesus Kristus.”

“Afirmamos nuestro deseo de seguir testificando con la fe de no resistencia y sencilla en Cristo, mirando a la esperanza bendita y la venida gloriosa de nuestro gran Dios y nuestro Salvador Jesucristo.”

“Chúng tôi xin xác nhận nguyện-vọng của chúng tôi là tiếp tục và làm chứng cho giải pháp ôn-hòa và đức-tin chân thật trong Ðấng Christ, tiềm kiếm sự hy-vọng hạnh phước, và sự vinh quang của Ðức Chúa Trời đại quyền hiện ra và Ðấng Cứu Chuộc của chúng tôi là Ðức Chúa Giê-xu Christ.”

”我們重申我們的意願是繼續以和平及純正信仰去見證基督的生命,懷著美好的盼望,等候我們偉大的神及救主耶穌基督的榮耀顯現。”

Looking to the Future of Conference Related Ministries

by Margaret Zook, Living Branches, with Emily Ralph Servant

The Conference Related Ministries (CRMs) Task Force has been charged with proposing a plan for new and improved ways of relating to organizations associated with both Eastern District and Franconia Conferences after the two conferences form a new Conference next year.

Both conferences recognize the wealth of services provided by CRMs and the growth and potential of these ministries.    Now, moving toward reconciliation between these two historic Conferences, there is a recognition that now is time to talk about the future.   CRM leadership were invited to participate in three listening sessions, in which they talked with the task force committee and recommended revisions to what had been proposed by the Structure and Identity Task Force.

Anne Kaufman-Weaver leads a conversation on cultural humility at this summer’s Conference Related Ministries resourcing event. Photo by Emily Ralph Servant.

These gatherings provided space to discuss questions like: How has the relationship with the Conferences helped in nurturing established organizations and empowering new ministries in the past?  How can the relationship between Conference Related Ministries and the broader Conference be mutually beneficial?  What are ways to enhance communication, support leaders in the CRMs, and improve relationships between CRMs and the Conference structure?    

What may prove to be most important moving forward is communication.   There are some CRMs who have been ministering for 100 years and others that are just birthing; renewed communication between CRMs, the Conference, congregations, and the community is desired and needed for the future.   Support can better happen if lines of communication are open and encouraged.

The final proposal, which will be shared in Assembly Scattered gatherings in October, will include a new CRM committee with board representation.  This will allow CRM leadership new avenues for building connections within the conference structure and among conference congregations as well as creating a new space for CRMs to speak into our conference’s life together.

Representatives of diverse Conference Related Ministries share stories of where they see the Spirit working in the many cultures of their ministry contexts. Photo by Emily Ralph Servant.

Each CRM has a unique ministry, each has a community, each has responded to a need and has founders or a board of directors who believe in its mission, and each has developed a unique set of skills, professions, and responses.  Many CRMs offer resourcing, workshops, and services to the wider church community on topics such as aging, memory loss, music, mental health issues, welcoming those with disabilities, and parenting.  Others provide opportunities to serve our communities at home and internationally, spreading the Good News through medicine, dental care, humanitarian aid, peace and justice advocacy, evangelism, microloans, and disaster recovery.  Still others offer space for children (and adults) to meet God in classrooms, around campfires, and in stories from the past.

For the new Conference, this is a valued resource.   These organizations and leaders represent a rich variety of missions to share with the broader community, which provide unique opportunities for our Conference to engage in new and creative ways.    We as Anabaptists have been charged to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.”   Our CRMs have brought these words to life.  May it continue to be so.   

 

Standing in the Gap at the Border and at Home

by Emily Ralph Servant, Director of Communication

For the last month, Philadelphia Praise Center pastor Aldo Siahaan has been reminding his congregation of their rights during each Sunday morning worship service.

In expectation of, and response to, a recent wave of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids, immigrants in Philadelphia and other US cities—both documented and not—are living in fear.  “I’ve been like them,” reflects Siahaan, who migrated to the United States in 1998 after riots in Indonesia: “I know what they feel like, living like this.”

Questions and concern around immigration have become increasingly important for members of Franconia Conference, which has seen a increase in immigrant congregations over the past decade.  Currently, close to fifteen percent of the conference are first-generation immigrants, many coming from Indonesia, Mexico, Tanzania, Myanmar, Hong Kong, and India.

Some of Franconia’s Latin brothers and sisters originally entered the US by way of the southern border.  Recent news reports have highlighted tragic conditions in detention camps there, where some families are separated, and others are turned away before they can even apply for asylum.  Many Franconia congregations have been asking what they can do to help.

A Direct Response

MCC is collecting Immigrant Detainee Care Kits with supplies that will provide immigrants who are being released from detainment centers along the US’ southern border with basic hygiene supplies. Photo provided by MCC Central States.

“Having been to the border several years ago to see key Mennonite partners there, I recognize that there are some basic practical needs that people require after they’ve been released from detention,” reflects Franconia’s executive minister Steve Kriss.  Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is meeting some of these needs by making and distributing Immigrant Detainee Care Kits.  “The kit response feels hands-on and important as the kind of thing Mennonites do to directly respond to human needs,” observes Kriss.

In order to provide additional kits, Franconia’s board has allocated a $5000 grant to match contributions from Franconia and Eastern District congregations to the MCC East Coast’s Material Resource Center (MRC) in Harleysville, PA.   The MRC will make the care kits to send for distribution in Texas and New Mexico through MCC Central States.  The grant will also match gifts given by Franconia congregations to MCC West Coast for transporting kits distributed in California and Arizona.  The deadline for matching is August 31.

Already at Work

Even as Franconia and Eastern District congregations raise financial support around the border crisis, we remember that the struggle continues closer to home. “We ARE immigrant communities,” Kriss acknowledges.  “We are communities that are responding on a regular basis to the challenges of receiving people who are seeking safety and asylum in places across the country.”  Many pastors in our congregations are regularly responding to crises of migration, he observes.  In these cases, these are not programs of the church; they are pastoral responses to real needs in our communities.

The border fence between Tijuana and California adjoins a city neighborhood and is covered in lively artwork and graffiti. Photo by Steve Kriss.

When a large migrant caravan began making its way through Mexico in 2018, the Conferencia de Iglesias Evangélicas Anabautistas Menonitas de México (CIEAMM), a Franconia Partner in Ministry, decided to open their arms and hearts to the “temporary refugees” in Mexico by providing aid.  “We take seriously the teaching of Jesus, who invites us to the [kind of] love and solidarity that feeds the hungry, dresses the naked, gives water to the thirsty, protects the helpless, takes care of the sick, and visits the incarcerated,” described moderator Carlos Martínez García at Mennonite World Conference’s Renewal 2019 event in Costa Rica.  “We did a work of compassion, putting ourselves in the place of needy migrants, and acting to bring some accompaniment and comfort.” (Read his full remarks.)

Fernando Loyola and Letty Cortes pastor Centro de Alabanza de Filadelfia, a congregation of Latinx immigrants, and have seen a recent wave of immigrants from Guatemala arriving in their neighborhood.  Their congregation provides food, clothing, funds, and help navigating the new American culture.  They refer families to immigration lawyers and to Juntos, a community-led immigrant non-profit that fights for human rights in South Philly.

Philadelphia Praise Center has been renovating its building to become a sanctuary church, where immigrants fearing deportation can live safely during ICE raids.  Siahaan has walked with many individuals and families who need help navigating the complex legal channels involved in applying for visas or green cards.  Just this last week, he was called to help someone from the community who was picked up in an ICE raid.

Unfortunately, once someone has been detained by ICE, there isn’t much that can be done, he explains—within a couple of weeks, they’ll be deported.  The need is greater before that happens; what immigrants need most, he suggests, is for their Franconia brothers and sisters to be their voice: “Call or write to your congressperson and say, ‘Hey, you need to do something about this situation, these immigration raids!’”

Advocacy to Prevent Tragedy

Advocacy work includes contacting representatives on both state and national levels.  Steve Wilburn, teaching pastor at Covenant Community congregation in Lansdale, PA, has been involved with International Justice Mission (IJM) since he traveled to Cambodia and Vietnam in seminary and saw IJM’s work in battling human trafficking.  Currently, he’s partnering with IJM to advocate for the “Central American Women and Children Protection Act of 2019,” which is legislation that commits US funds, in partnership with the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, to help them restore their justice systems in order to protect women and children from abuse.  Several Franconia Conference leaders have signed a letter in support of this legislation.

Most US government efforts in those countries have been focused on drugs and gang violence, Wilburn explains, but that doesn’t help protect children and women: “Those are some of the reasons that people are leaving and trying to escape violence there, becoming refugees,” he says.  Most would rather stay home if home were a safe place for them and their children.

Real People, Real Suffering

Siahaan recently went on an MCC borderlands tour to meet migrants and see the situation for himself.  On his trip, he met a young mother with two children who were waiting to apply for asylum.  They had fled Colombia after her husband had been shot by a gang.

It was eye-opening for Siahaan.  He had read books and heard stories but meeting real people on the border face-to-face affirmed for him that the work the South Philly congregations were doing mattered.  It encouraged him to keep going.

Beny Krisbianto, pastor of Nations Worship Center in Philadelphia, is a member of the conference executive board.  The decision to allocate the funds for the matching grant was easy for him when he considered the children who are daily affected by both the “border crisis” and the local ICE raids.  It’s not a political issue, he emphasizes, but a call to care for real children who had no control over the decision to come in the first place.  “These are real people, who are already here, who are suffering and may die,” he says.  “These kits will help.”

His congregation supports conference advocacy for migrants at the southern border because they, too, are daily experiencing the fear and uncertainty of the country’s broken immigration system.  It’s not just a story you see on CNN or ABC News, he reminds the conference community; for immigrants in South Philadelphia, “It’s our everyday life.”

Ways to Help

  • Pray for migrants on the southern border, for immigrants living in our communities, and for those who are working alongside them for health, healing, and wholeness. Pray for just immigration laws, merciful immigration practices, and a path to citizenship that will keep families together.
  • To receive a matching grant for the making and/or transporting of Immigrant Detainee Care Kits, send checks labeled “Immigrant Detainee Care Kits” directly to the MCC Material Resource Center of Harleysville, 737 Hagey Center Drive, Unit C, Souderton, PA 18964 OR directly to West Coast MCC Office, 1010 G Street, Reedley, CA 93654. For West Coast donations only: email Conrad Martin (ccmartin@franconiaconference.org) at the conference office with the date and amount of the gift.  Deadline for matching funds is August 31.
  • Read the Churchwide Statement on the Abuse of Child Migrants passed at Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City (July 2019) and Carlos Martínez García’s full reflection on CIEAMM’s ministry caring for some of the migrants traveling through Mexico.
  • Advocate with your legislators to support asylum seekers and the American Dream and Promise Act and to restrict ICE raids.
  • Sign a faith leaders’ letter of support for the “Central American Women and Children Protection Act of 2019” or become an IJM volunteer by contacting Steve Wilburn at swilburn@ijmvolunteers.org. Register for a 2-day advocacy summit in Washington D.C. in October.
  • A significant focus of MCC East Coast’s domestic work is related to immigration advocacy: in Miami, through the New York Mennonite Immigration Program, and in direct services to those who have been trying to find a legal pathway to stay in the US. Find out moreWest Coast MCC is in the process of offering “Know Your Rights” trainings for Franconia’s West Coast congregations.

Sparking Joy by Letting Go

by Emily Ralph Servant, Leadership Minister & Interim Director of Communications 

(originally published in The Mennonite)

“Hold each item, one by one,” Marie Kondo instructs families on her Netflix show. Then she says, “Only keep what sparks joy for you.” Everything else can be thanked and let go.

Sparks joy. That concept resonates for me as I have sought to live a whole and abundant life. Yet it’s an idea fraught with danger in a culture that equates happiness with indulgence.

Kondo’s method strikes a chord in me as she practices mindfulness and gratitude. I appreciate the way she gently encourages families to confront their overabundance and to do the hard work of letting go of anything that isn’t life-giving for them.

This technique alone may not be enough to transform American culture, however. I’ve heard stories of people who found the KonMari method life-changing when her book showed up on U.S. bookshelves in 2014 but who discovered that their tidy spaces had already refilled in the years that followed.

Perhaps the act of letting go doesn’t spark enough joy to keep us from accumulating more.

Kondo suggests that most people need practice to recognize what joy feels like. Christian mystics have long agreed that cultivating our awareness of joy can be a spiritual practice, one that draws us closer to the Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Letting go sparks joy for me because it connects to a deeper sense of purpose. God’s dream for our world is that everyone have enough, yet many of us consume more than our fair share of the world’s resources. What would happen if we took Jesus’ teachings seriously, if we truly lived what we say we believe, if we allowed love to drive us to radical, countercultural choices?

Ryan Servant breaks down an old piano. The family plans to repurpose it outside as a flower planter. Photo provided by author.

For my family, this has led to a journey of mindfulness: finding ways to reduce our waste by limiting what we purchase, avoiding packaging when possible, composting, recycling and reusing; prioritizing second-hand purchases, welcoming hand-me-downs and participating in the “gift economy” through local Buy Nothing groups; choosing to live well within our means in a small house; tapping into our creativity by “upcycling” what we have into what we need; and cultivating a lifestyle that wonders if we can do “more with less.”

And yes, this journey has included simplifying what we own and letting go of things that, a few years ago, we never thought we could release. We’ve found that letting go has grown easier as our motivation has emerged: to make space in our home to expand our family through foster care and adoption. Love for the children we have yet to meet overpowers our sense of loss; we have so much to gain by letting go.

Love motivates and sustains me on this journey. Love for the hurting children in our city and for the children of the world. God’s love compels me to care about how my choices affect the poor, the disenfranchised, the oppressed. We live in an interconnected world where our choices matter.

At the same time, I know our ability to choose is a sign of our privilege. We choose to do more with less. We choose to live in a small house. We choose to buy second-hand items. We can also choose to purchase sustainable products and shop at bulk-food stores. We have an overabundance to give away. We aren’t forced into these choices; we have the privilege of a middle-class income, reliable transportation and free time for hobbies, and we benefit from systems that advantage us at the expense of others.

Letting go also means accepting our responsibility to use our privilege to advocate for and alongside others who don’t have access to those choices. It means allocating part of our grocery budget to bring produce to food deserts in our city. It means advocating for the right to repair and for clean-energy incentives. It means working for safe and walkable neighborhoods. It means opening our home to a child who needs a safe, stable and loving family.

This journey is a long one, and it’s one I’m just beginning. It has led me to let go of my need for speed and embrace patience, to let go of my selfishness and learn kindness and generosity, to let go of my impulsiveness as I practice self-control. It’s a struggle, and I don’t always make good choices. But God’s Spirit is present, shaping me into the image of Jesus, who showed humanity how to let go for the sake of love (Philippians 2).

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a little Marie Kondo on Netflix—I certainly do—but we are called to something more than tidy houses. God’s Spirit is inviting us to commit to our neighborhoods and our world, letting go and embracing so that we love deeply and work for justice.

Only then will we truly spark joy.

If Marie Kondo has inspired you to tidy up this spring, consider these tips from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) … CLICK HERE!

Home for Christmas

by Emily Ralph Servant, Interim Director of Communication

The house sits on Emily Street, a three-story, red-brick townhouse whose stoop rests directly on the sidewalk along a narrow city street.

Bethany House, which sits on Emily Street in South Philadelphia, will serve as a conference-owned parsonage.

The third floor windows look out over the surrounding blocks, where brand new rowhomes, nestled between century-old houses, bear witness to the creeping gentrification of this densely populated and diverse neighborhood.  Dotted between the rows of houses are lots that won’t long be empty, neighborhood parks, and the occasional sidewalk garden planted in clusters of multicolored pots.

Its name is Bethany House, and soon this house will become a home.

For a number of years, members of the conference community have been concerned about the rising cost of housing in South Philadelphia.  As the city has experienced an influx of immigrants and a renewal of its urban core, the neighborhoods surrounding Franconia’s South Philly congregations have seen a quick and dramatic increase in housing costs.

This gentrification makes living and ministering locally more and more difficult, especially for credentialed leaders who don’t have the resources to purchase a home.  In response to growing support among the conference constituency, the board decided that now was the time to act, while the purchase could still be considered an investment in the rapidly growing housing market.

In December, upon the review and recommendation of the Properties and Finances Committees, Franconia Conference purchased the house on Emily Street to be used as a conference-owned parsonage.  This home will be available for conference congregations in South Philadelphia to use when, and for as long as, needed.

Bethany House’s first residents will be Leticia Cortes and Fernando Loyola.  The pastoral couple of Centro de Alabanza de Filadelfia, Cortes and Loyola have been struggling to find a safe and stable living arrangement for their family for eleven years.  Because Bethany House is close to their congregation’s building, Cortes and Loyola anticipate that living there will open up new possibilities for outreach in their community as they get to know their neighbors better.

This dream is shared by the South Philly congregations.  “My hope is that this house can be a blessing for the neighborhood,” said Melky Tirtasaputra, associate pastor at Nations Worship Center, who also served as an advisor during the search.  “We pray that the people of this house will bring change and peace to the people in that area.”

The purchase of this property not only shows conference support of Philadelphia churches, explained conference moderator John Goshow, but also provides an opportunity for the rest of the conference to partner with our South Philly congregations in building God’s kingdom, as “the entire Franconia Conference community works together to point people to Christ.”

The move will also put Cortes and Loyola closer to their church community—this was one of the appeals of the house, Tirtasaputra explained.  Members of Centro de Alabanza are excited about the move and have already been busily at work on the house, making repairs and painting.

Ten percent of Franconia Conference members live and worship in South Philadelphia, which makes it important to start investing in the neighborhood, suggested executive minister Steve Kriss.  While Centro de Alabanza is currently using the parsonage, Tirtasaputra reflected, it’s a gift to all of the South Philly congregations since, in the future, pastors from other congregations may also find themselves in need of a home.

“The Bethany House continues Franconia Conference’s tradition of mutual care for our pastors,” described Kriss.  “It will ensure healthy leadership for what has been a rapidly growing part of our conference community.”  The house was named after the village where Jesus went for rest, care, and friendship (John 12:1-8), Kriss said, “a place of gracious hospitality.”

The Conference’s decision to purchase a Philadelphia parsonage is more than just a financial gift, according to Cortes and Loyola; it also says something about the relationship that the wider conference has with its South Philadelphia brothers and sisters: “We feel like this investment is an affirmation of Franconia Conference’s confidence in our church ministry and in us.”

The pastoral couple’s hope is to move in by the end of the year and, it’s quite possible, they may even be home for Christmas.

Bethany House has been partially funded by estate gifts and individual contributions, but we still have funds to raise!  You or your congregation are invited to participate in this ministry by making a designated contribution to Franconia Conference online or by sending a check with “Bethany House” in the memo line to Franconia Mennonite Conference, 1000 Forty Foot Rd., Lansdale, PA 19446.

A Prophet at the Grocery Store

by Emily Ralph Servant, Leadership Minister

“You are going to make a difference.”

He stood there in the grocery store aisle, pointing at my 8-month-old daughter with a smile on his face.  She looked back at him, her eyes wide and cheeks creased by dimples.

You are going to make this world better.”

I lifted tired eyes to meet his and tried to find words to convey the depth of my gratitude.  The only ones I could find were “Thank you.  Thank you so much.”  But as he nodded at me and went on his way, those words seemed to be enough.

It was a passing encounter with a stranger in an unlikely place.  I was used to people fussing over my baby every time we went out together, but this was entirely different.

This was a prophecy, a blessing, a profound expression of hope from someone who needed a better world. It also resonated with my own heart cry, my longing for who I want, and believe, my daughter will be.  Who I hope she already is.

Our lives are full of these encounters, full of moments when God shows up right in the middle of our tired routines.  God’s Spirit is whispering, calling, shouting through the stranger.  We choose whether we slow down long enough to listen.

“There’s no way to know when [we] might get caught up in the movement of the Spirit,” says Mennonite pastor Isaac Villegas.1 “From Luke’s gospel we learn that we never know when and where the word of the Lord might happen…”  As pastors, suggests Villegas, we spend a lot of time preparing sermons for our congregations; perhaps we might be better situated for that task if we were to “put ourselves in the position of receiving the good news, of welcoming the gospel in unfamiliar settings and from unexpected tongues.”

It’s often easy for Jesus-followers to focus on all the ways that our neighborhoods need us and everything that we could do on behalf of our community.  What would happen if, instead, we would expect to see the gifts we are being offered, if we would search for where, and in whom, we see the image of God staring back at us?

Maybe then we would receive a stranger’s prophecy and accept his challenge: an invitation to join in the struggle.  Maybe then we would receive a new anointing, a pouring out of the Spirit promising that, together, we will make this world better.

1 “Worldly Sermons: Experiencing God’s Word Beyond the Church” in Fully Engaged: Missional Church in an Anabaptist Voice, pp. 210 & 215.

Remembering the Glory Days

by Emily Ralph Servant, Leadership Minister

He was one of my congregation’s “saints,” someone who had been attracted to the church decades ago because he heard that God was doing something there and he wanted to be a part of it.

Baptismal class at Haycock Church, circa 1960 (photo courtesy of MHEP)

I asked him about the old days and his eyes lit up as he told me about the boys’ and girls’ clubs, Summer Bible School, and a thriving Sunday School.

Those were the glory days of mission.

I’ve been thinking about this saint often during this past week as I talked with a number of pastors about mission in their context.  It’s so easy for us to get caught up in remembering times past when our congregations had flourishing programs, our institutions were growing by leaps and bounds, and we were sending missionaries to the “ends of the earth.”

By comparison, many of our congregations now feel like Moses, hiding his face behind a veil so that the people of Israel couldn’t see that the glory of his encounter with God was fading (2 Corinthians 3:13).  We feel discouraged, tired, and worried.  We wish that we could think up the next great initiative that will draw hundreds—or at least dozens—of people through our church doors so that our faces will once again shine with God’s glory as our congregations come to life again.

Instead, when we remember the glory days, we feel like we’re dying.  We feel like we have nothing to offer as our numbers are dwindling and our energy is waning.

Perhaps our memories of past mission have taken on a bit of a golden hue, however.  Our stories have been shaped over the years of telling to remember the highlights instead of the everyday acts of love and friendship that drew others to a relationship with God and to participate in our communities.

When I asked people who had grown up in my congregation’s neighborhood about those same years of mission, their eyes lit up when they told me how this gentle man had walked the streets on Saturday mornings, sharing coffee and donuts with them in their homes.  They remembered how he would sit with the teenagers as they smoked and drank on the church steps.

They didn’t just remember the programs; they remembered the people.

As the glory fades away, we are left only with ourselves and what a gift that is!  It’s vulnerable to put ourselves out there and risk rejection, embarrassment, or hurt.  It’s a lot messier and a whole lot more confusing.  Yet you don’t have to form a committee to share a meal (or coffee and donuts!) and you don’t have to be young and energetic to shoot the breeze for a couple hours on a Saturday morning.

It can be scary to stop hiding behind the veil, to show who we really are.  But the Spirit of the Lord is there, and where the Spirit is, there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17).  Freedom to stop trying so hard and just be ourselves.  Freedom to risk building relationships with no strings attached.  Freedom to trust that there may be some glory left after all.

Great Gifts Among Us

Franconia Conference continues to follow God’s call, sharing the Good News of Christ Jesus and empowering and equipping others to, as well. Executive Minister Steve Kriss said, “We have much to do and much possibility.” This work is not possible without the many gifted individuals God has blessed the Conference with.

In January, as Steve Kriss took the reins of Executive Minister, a time of transition was announced that included introducing three interim LEADership Ministers, one even serving as Interim Director of Congregational Resourcing. As the time of transition comes to a close, so too comes some changes.

One of those interim LEADership Ministers has agreed to extend their interim role. Wayne Nitzsche will continue through September in his role as interim LEADership Minister, working with Alpha, Bally and Taftsville congregations. The other two interim LEADership Ministers, Emily Ralph Servant and Randy Heacock, have agreed to stay on as contracted LEADership Ministers. Emily concludes her work as Interim Director of Congregational Equipping and Resourcing this month, but will continue to serve as a LEADership Minister with Ambler, West Philly, Plains, Methacton, Perkasie and Spring Mount congregations. Randy will continue working with Wellspring, Towamencin and Rocky Ridge congregations.

July 1 brought two new faces to the Conference office. As previously announced, Mary Nitzsche began as Associate Executive Minister. Her area of focus will include the ministerial committee, work with retired pastors, women pastors, interim pastors and chaplains.  Mary will serve to represent the Conference in times when Steve is not available and an “executive” presence would be deemed helpful and important.  Per the original announcement, Executive Minister Steve Kriss wrote, “Mary’s gifts will help add depth and care to our ministry and leadership team.  I’ve experienced Mary as someone who genuinely exhibits the fruits of the Spirit in her life and trust that she’ll bring that fruitful presence further into our life together.”

Another new addition to the Conference office in July is Juanita Nyce, who will work as an Engagement Advisor for the Conference.  Juanita will help Conference Leadership and staff look at how to develop connections with their constituency and beyond that help to extend the Conference vision and mission together.  Juanita is part of Salford congregation and previously worked at Rockhill Mennonite Community.

Franconia Conference is a blessing to have so many gifted and talented children of God to work together spreading God’s love and light in the world.

Sharing Breakfast and Life

by Emily Ralph Servant, Interim Director of Congregational Resourcing

“I was not really looking forward to the morning event.  I wasn’t even sure it had much to do with my call and work,” confessed Joy Sawatzky, a chaplain at Living Branches.  “What happened was a nice surprise.  I like surprises.”

The “morning event” was a breakfast sponsored by Living Branches and Franconia Conference exploring questions of spirituality across generations.  On February 14, a panel of leaders answered questions about calling, spiritual practices, and hope.

“What happened was heart-felt sharing from three different generations around call and how that was and is lived out, not just in the lives of those on the panel, but in the table conversations afterwards as well,” reflected Sawatzky.

Panelists Krista Showalter Ehst, John Ruth, Paula Stoltzfus, James Krabill, Josh Meyer, and Ray Hurst expressed curiosity about other generations, pondered over advice they would give to their younger selves, suggested practices that are important in the life of the Church, and confessed how their priorities in ministry have been shaped by their life experiences (listen to the podcast).

After the panelists shared, pastors gathered around tables to share their own stories, challenges, and questions.  The take away—a hope for the future of the church and a hope for more of these conversations.

Living Branches began to explore sponsoring conversations on aging after a pastor told them, “Our church is aging, however our energy is focused on family and youth; we would appreciate thinking and talking together about issues of aging. Help us.”   Living Branches believes that as a member of the community and a participating ministry of the Franconia Conference, they have a calling to connect with and resource their community and churches around the issues of aging, says Margaret Zook, Director of Church & Community Relations at Living Branches.  “We believe that joy and purpose in life is enriched through conversations at all stages of our life.”

Credentialed leaders are invited to two breakfasts this April:

  • April 19, 8-10am, at Souderton Mennonite Homes. Chaplains from Living Branches will present the documentary “Being Mortal” and facilitate a conversation around faith and end of life issues.  (RSVP to Margaret_Zook@LivingBranches.org).
  • April 25, 9-11am, at Blooming Glen Mennonite Church. Anne Kaufman Weaver will lead a conversation around her research in resiliency for women in pastoral leadership (RSVP at franconiaconference.org/events).

“Taking time to be together to learn, to network, to eat together, to drink coffee and tea together helps keep our leadership and relationships vibrant and lively,” says Franconia Conference executive minister Steve Kriss.  “While our schedules are busy, this time apart, even for a few hours, is an important respite and a significant time to strengthen both skills and relationships among us as credentialed leaders in our conference community.”

For questions related to upcoming events or to request resourcing for your congregation, contact Emily (email or 267-932-6050, ext. 117).

The Space in Between: More Than We Can Dream or Imagine

by Stephen Kriss

MiaThis past Sunday, Mia, an elementary-school-aged girl from Indonesian Light Church, told me that she thinks she might want to be a pastor.  Her mom remarked that this is a relatively new development within the last few months.   Though she tagged on that sometimes she wants to be a doctor too.  Both tough jobs, I responded.  And both things that help people, her mom said.  Her mom wondered where the pastoral desire might have originated.  There is no doubt in my mind that having Emily Ralph Servant as the congregation’s interim pastor for the past six months has something to do with it.   This young girl has experienced that women, too, might be pastors and her life is forever changed.  I look forward to the day 30 years or so from now when this young woman might be my pastor, shaped by the city, loved by a congregation, and formed as one who is loved by God.

As Franconia Conference, our focus of energy is around cultivating healthy leaders of all ages, communities and connections.   As staff, board and committees, we regularly work at this in a variety of ways.  We do this in day-to-day correspondence, strategic planning and holy conversations.   Sometimes it’s seemingly well-planned, other times it’s the Spirit’s serendipity.  I’m learning to trust that the Spirit is working out something usually beyond what we can see and often more than we can imagine, as Paul tells the early church (Ephesians 3.10).

Two research initiatives have also begun this summer that involve our Conference pastors.  As part of a project that examines the resiliency of women pastors in several Mennonite Conferences, Anne Kaufman Weaver from Lancaster County is interviewing 11 credentialed women currently serving within congregations. Currently 30% of our active credentialed pastors are women. Josh Meyer, one of the pastors at Franconia congregation, is beginning a longer examination on what sustains millennial Mennonite pastors (those born after 1980’ish).  In his initial round of research, we’ve discovered that Franconia Conference has among the highest percentages of credentialed millennial pastors in Mennonite Church USA.

Steve KrissThe Spirit is truly upon us, calling men and women, stirring the young, and giving dreams to those of us who have been on the journey longer.  May we be able to live into these possibilities that are for sure beyond even our greatest hopes and imagination.   Thanks be to God that the Spirit is undoubtedly still with us and calling among us in the space in between.