Tag Archives: formational

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.

It’s Not About Me

By Eszter Bentch

I thought I knew that serving, ministry, and most of what I do is not about me. I also thought I knew how to serve others. It turns out, the only person I really think of is myself and I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did about doing ministry.

This summer I was given the opportunity to intern for both Whitehall Mennonite Church and Ripple, as well as Ripple’s non-profit, Ripple Community Inc. in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I wanted to gain experience working in a church setting to explore my potential desire and calling to work as a pastor or in some other form of ministry. These churches, located in and outside of Allentown are not your typical Mennonite Churches. Whitehall is a community of relatively few members, about half of which are Karen people from Myanmar, many of them refugees, and many other people who experience poverty or intellectual differences. Ripple, in inner-city Allentown, is also a small community but with a very big impact. Ripple, as a church and non-profit, worships and works with people experiencing homelessness or in extreme poverty.

Through my time among these communities I learned a lot and gained helpful experiences. I put together many orders of worship, taught Sunday school, led children’s time, led worship services, got to know people, read many books, worked in a garden and even got to preach my first sermon! Through all this, I was trying to figure out what future God was calling me to. I was also trying to navigate balancing work, family, and friends. This meant that I was primarily thinking about myself. Due to the nature of what ministry is, I found that it’s really easy to be pretty self-centered and not realize it. I’m helping and interacting with people experiencing homelessness and other hard situations … all I’m doing is thinking of others! Yet, amidst my supposedly selfless work the thoughts in my brain were ‘what am I learning?’, ‘am I making someone uncomfortable?’, ‘will I still get home in time?’, ‘is this what I want to do in the future?’, and often ‘what does this person think of me?’ Now, I don’t think these questions are wrong to ask and wonder about. It is often important to be aware of how you’re coming across to another person and to be reflective, especially in ministry with people very different from you. However, these thoughts were using up the mental energy I could have used to care well for those I was encountering. God gave me gifts of empathy and being relational, but I wasn’t able to use them for His glory when I was only thinking of how using them would benefit me!

Another thought I often had was ‘How am I serving this person?’ Though that in itself is not necessarily a bad question, I was caught in a serving ‘for’ mentality instead of a serving ‘with’ way of viewing ministry. Though this was something I had heard about, I did not fully understand it until this summer. When we serve ‘for’ other people we might accidentally do it with a ‘better than thou’ attitude. We might not consciously think of ourselves as better than the person we are serving, but it can come across that way to those we help and can even build a savior complex. When I was interacting with people around me with the attitude of ‘how can I help you?’ it put a divide between me and the person: me as the helper, them as the person needing help. It limited the genuine and equal relationship I could have with them. Additionally, nobody wants to be helped by someone who comes charging in without learning about their situation first, without learning how best they could be helped.

Thankfully, God did confront me about the way I was going about ministry. At some point I caught myself thinking ‘will this person’s problem make me have to work late?’ and I was horrified. I wanted to stop thinking about myself and truly serve ‘with’ people. However, I had trouble getting myself out of that habit using only my own strength. It wasn’t until I read one of the most popular Bible stories in the Old Testament during a discernment group that I truly understood the selfless heart of ministry.

Whitehall had set up a discernment group to pray through and talk about the future of the church. At our second meeting we read through the story of Moses and the Burning Bush in Exodus 3. Though I’ve known this story since I was a little kid, though primarily through the animated classic The Prince of Egypt, I realized something brand new. When Moses responds to God’s call to him in verse 11 with “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”, God’s response of “I will be with you” completely ignores Moses’ question. Though God’s response is comforting, He does not acknowledge Moses’ excuse or reassure him by telling him of his gifts or qualifications to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Instead, God talks about Himself. Moses says “Who am I” and God essentially says that who Moses is, whatever qualifications he does or does not have, is completely irrelevant. God could have called somebody else to save His people! What matters is who God is. This helped me realize that not only should I not be thinking of myself as much, but that it’s just not about me. I wasn’t able to shift my focus onto other people well by myself, but God helped me do so once I finally turned towards Him.

Ripple’s annual retreat day at Spruce Lake.

Though being involved in ministry is about other people, it is still mainly about bringing glory to God. God is at the heart of ministry. When we keep our gaze on our Father we will be able to better see and love the people He puts in front of us. Learning this allowed me to love and serve my new friends at Whitehall and Ripple better. I was able to learn how to serve ‘with’ people, not ‘for’ people, when we focused on God together. Then we could come together to work at their and others’ restoration from a place of mutual understanding and friendship. We could truly serve God together. I hope God never lets me forget that ministry is not about me.

Eszter Bentch is a senior at Wheaton College (Illinois) where she is majoring in Psychology with a minor in Biblical and Theological Studies. In addition to her studies she is an Assistant Resident Director of a dorm and works as a supervisor in Wheaton’s fundraising department, Phonathon. While at college she attends College Church near Wheaton. Her home congregation is Souderton Mennonite Church. Her internship this summer was made possible through a partnership of Franconia Conference, Souderton Mennonite Church, Whitehall Mennonite Church and Ripple.  

 

 

Faith and Life Through Communion

By Jerrell Williams, Associate for Leadership Cultivation

On August 8 and 9, around 30 credentialed leaders of both Franconia and Eastern District Conferences assembled for the quarterly Faith and Life gathering organized by the Faith and Life Commission. The group gathered to talk about the Mennonite perspective of communion. Our time began with prayer and introductions. We centered our time by looking at Luke 22:14-20, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, and Article 12 of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.

Different table groups decided to focus on different things within their conversation. Some of us were more concerned with the amount of times our churches participate in communion, also known as the Lord’s Supper, while some were more focused on who was welcomed to partake in communion. Another group focused on the meaning of communion as a way of justice. The table becomes a place where we can all come together, no matter one’s economic class.

The table that I sat at focused heavily on how one is to prepare for communion. We discussed the concepts of confessing our sins before coming to the table for communion, as we are to be at peace with God and our brothers and sisters. We shared our experiences of how we have experienced communion and how that has impacted the way we practice today. We also discussed who could participate in the Lord’s Supper.

As the conversations were happening around the tables, two of the Faith and Life Commission members gleaned from what the tables were saying and as the conversations began to end, they summarized for the large group what they heard from the different tables. As they summarized what had been shared around the room, one of the Commission members asked an important question. They first stated that Article 12 in the Confession of Faith says, “All are invited to the Lord’s table who have been baptized into the community of faith, are living at peace with God and with their brothers and sisters in the faith and are willing to be accountable in their congregation.” The leader then asked how many of us require a person to be baptized before they partake in communion as stated in the Confession of Faith.

We ended our meeting with the unanswered question of what this means for us. Where do we go from here? What is communion and who should be able to partake? This conversation has brought to light new questions that many seemed excited to dig deeper into.

Calling and Shaping Next Generation Leaders

by Stephen Kriss, Executive Minister

Over 25 years ago, I interned through Mennonite Church USA’s Ministry Inquiry Program at my home church in Somerset County, PA.  I loved the experience of working alongside a congregation that had shaped my own decision to follow Jesus and working creatively with a pastor who gave me space to learn, to experiment and to honestly engage life in the church.  At the end of the summer, I declared that I loved the experience, but that I didn’t want to be a pastor because I realized the vastness of the task at hand.   My home church then, four years later, called me as an associate pastor.  It still surprises me that they invited and that I said yes.

This summer, through Souderton Mennonite Church’s Vocation as Mission Program, Mennonite Central Committee’s Summer Service Worker Program, the ongoing Ministry Inquiry Program and a variety of independent initiatives, about a dozen young adults (all under age 30) are finishing up a summer of serving and learning alongside our congregations.  These initiatives are likely some of the best investments of our time and resources into the life and future of the church. 

Not all of them will be called as pastors, but through the mutual time together, the opportunity for shaping and learning  continues to prepare leaders who will engage the church and the world wholeheartedly through the Good News of Christ’s peace.  I am grateful for pastors who make space for those who are learning alongside.  Walking alongside learning leaders takes time, intention and openness.  It’s also being confident and humble enough in your own leadership to realize that other leaders will lead differently, fail differently and that working with next generation leaders can be a constant invitation to learn, for those of us who are more established leaders as well.

Back in my intern days, my pastor – Marvin Kaufman – gave me space to explore cultivating a sister church relationship with an African American congregation in our area.  That exploratory space culminated in Sunday night worship experiences at each of our meetinghouses.  This experience and our congregation’s willingness to participate and follow me into this relationship-building likely shaped forever the kind of ministering and leading person that I have become and am becoming, on working with the Spirit to cross cultural and ethnic boundaries to express the heart of the Gospel of reconciliation and transformation.

Abigail Shelly with Pastor Aldo Siahaan, leading Summer Peace Camp.

I’m so grateful for each of our next generation leaders who said yes this summer, and for the communities that hosted them and walked alongside them.  Working with Jerrell , who is serving alongside our Conference and The Mennonite this summer, has reminded me of the worthy investment of time and fruitfulness of relational possibilities.  Abigail and Tiffany serving together at Philadelphia Praise has made me smile, as they helped host our Interfaith leaders gathering last month with gracious hospitality.  My interactions with the Vocation as Mission interns, as we talked about intercultural challenges and possibilities, inspired me by their sincerity and questions when we met at Bike and Sol.  I loved hearing how much Rebecca and Ezther are valued at their places of service in Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley.

2018 Vocation as Mission Interns

These experiences are some of the best investments that we make together with our Conference resources.  I’m grateful that we continue to share in this process of calling and shaping next generation leaders together for the sake of the church and the world.   This is our work together, a recognition that calling and shaping next generation leaders is the work of “our village.”   And for me, and hopefully for all of us, this is the kind of work that brings us great joy and hope, a recognition that the Good News goes on, continues to transform and will continue to transform us.

 

Faith Formation of the Next Generation

By John Stoltzfus, Conference Youth Minister

Psalm 133 states, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” My heart felt full and grateful after recently meeting for the last time with some of the youth pastors from both Eastern District and Franconia Conference congregations. This group of persons representing seasoned and new pastors and sponsors invested in youth ministry has met together on a regular basis for many years. To me, they embody the strengths and gifts of God to our broader church collaborating around a unified purpose of passing on a vibrant and living faith to the next generation. We have learned much in our journey together and deeply enjoyed one another’s company along the way.

We have discovered that we can do much more together than on our own. Particularly as the landscape of the church changes, we will need to find more ways to partner together rather than become isolated in ideological or theological siloes. The church has an opportunity to offer a compelling vision of God’s reconciliation to the next generation and beyond if we can find ways to come together in genuine humility and trust. Our youth need to see the church model a way to be authentic community together, when so much in our world is building walls of separation. 

One of the highlights of our monthly gatherings is hosting one another in different churches. We value the opportunity to be stretched and encouraged as we share the challenges and joys of our respective ministry contexts. As our conference continues to expand our borders, we can capitalize on the gifts of our diversity. We have mutual gifts and perspectives to offer in our churches in Philly, Allentown, Souderton, throughout Pennsylvania and beyond — in Vermont, New York, California, and around the globe. These gifts and perspectives can help our youth grow in their understanding of the expansive love and work of God in all people and places. Our youth need the skills of building relationships of understanding and mutual respect that cross boundaries of race, theology, culture and more. Initiatives such as the Walking the Walk program of Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia or Taproot Gap Year birthed from Philadelphia Praise Center can offer transformative faith experiences for our youth and young adults.

As we meet together we are encouraged in the reality that we are not alone in this work. Our task is to initiate young persons into mature Christian faith through relationships with numerous adults who join them in living the way of authentic discipleship. As elders we can offer youth friendship, guidance and listening ears as they make the passage through adolescence into spiritual maturity. This is the work of the whole church and not just a youth pastor or a few youth sponsors in the congregation.

Youth ministry cannot be done in a vacuum. As we consider forming faith in our young people, we cannot think that the process of discipleship begins in ninth grade, or can be relegated to a youth pastor. Youth ministry is only part of the whole life-cycle of faith formation embedded within a multi-faceted approach between home and church and the broader community.

Research shows that those youth who go off to college and beyond are more likely to hold onto their faith and become involved in church as adults based on the commitment and priority that church and spiritual matters played for their parents. Youth ministry has to include parents by supporting parents in their own faith and by helping parents model and communicate faith to their own teenagers. In addition, one of the most common factors for youth who stick with faith and church into adulthood is that they had at least five significant relationships with adults as a youth. Might the future of youth ministry be less programmatic and become more embedded into the fabric of the overall mission and life of the church?

One of the things my wife and I have appreciated about our time at Plains Mennonite Church is the investment by the whole congregation in the life and faith of our children. When we were looking for a church home, we were not looking for a church with a dynamic youth program as much as we were looking for a community of believers modeling an active faith that incorporated the nurture of children and youth into the whole life of the congregation.

What is the invitation of the church at this time? As a conference we need to continue to ask the question of how we are passing on the faith and work of the church to the next generation. How are we doing as a church in modeling a self-giving faith centered in Jesus Christ? We will need to place our trust and hope in a revealing God who has been faithful for many generations. We trust that the same Spirit that is at work in our lives will continue to live and move in our children and the next generation of the gathered body of Christ.

Teaching Healthy Sexuality for Faithful Living

By Maria Hosler Byler, Pastor for Youth and Family Faith Formation, Salford Mennonite Church

To live out our faith requires helping our children grow into healthy, knowledgeable, and faithful adults – and this is not just for parents; this task is for the whole church. This involves how we use our money, how we treat our neighbors and how we live our lives as sexual people. As Pastor for Youth and Family Faith Formation at Salford, my role is to help families in this task. That meant opening a conversation with parents around sexuality and our human capacity for sexual feelings.

I don’t know if the participants at Salford’s “Beyond the Talk” parents’ gathering were apprehensive before we met, but I sure was. I had planned this conversation for parents about talking with their kids about sexuality with the help of some knowledgeable and experienced congregation members. I was confident we had solid, faith-based resources to offer parents about sexuality and child development. But beyond that, I had so many questions. Were parents even interested in guidance from the church as they teach their kids about sexuality? What was the guidance of the church for parents anyway? Would parents be willing to share, or would we just sit in awkward silence? Would they even come?

We ended up with a spread of parents of kids of all ages, dedicated to raising their kids in healthy sexuality and eager to interact. The night had moments of seriousness and laughter as well as lots of food for thought.

Beth Styer, a congregation member with experience teaching sexuality education, talked about all the different ways kids pick up information about sexuality. We teach them by how we hold them, by how we talk about private parts and human relationships. Then Ron Souder, a pediatrician, brought some sobering statistics about teens and sexuality. He reminded us all that kids learn about sexuality in one way or another, and it’s up to parents what kind of influence they will add to the mix. He also showed a hilariously awkward video clip of parents trying to tell their kids where babies come from – a cringe-worthy reminder that this is a topic lots of people stumble on. He followed that by giving some practical information on developmentally appropriate information for kids as they grow.

Sexuality is anything that has to do with living life as a sexual person. Like anything else in our faith lives, healthy sexuality isn’t a one-time conversation – it’s a way of life that we address over and over again. Can you imagine parents having one conversation with their kids about how to pray, for example, and then checking it off the list with a sigh of relief? Kids learn from our own attitudes and behaviors, so healthy sexuality education starts with us. Thankfully, these little teaching moments happen throughout our kids’ lives, so we have lots of chances to try again.

Throughout the evening, parents shared their own challenges and successes in teaching their kids about sexuality. They shared poignant and off-the-wall comments their toddlers made. They shared moments of confusion and trauma from their own past, and their desires to teach their kids better than they were taught.

My favorite part was when parents shared their hopes for their kids’ sexuality. Some of the hopes that were named: that their kids know deeply God’s love for their bodies and treat their own and others’ bodies with respect; that their sexuality be important to their faith, not something to be scared of but something to discern seriously. Then parents shared ways they help their kids learn these values – giving each other ideas and reminding themselves of the process that is already underway.

That evening barely scratched the surface of the topic. Just like it’s impossible to communicate everything a kid needs to know about sexuality in one talk, it’s impossible to cover everything with parents in an evening. In the end I was left with gratitude for the work that is already happening. Parents are considering where they come from and what we believe, growing in their own sexuality, and intentionally passing on their faith values to their kids. God is already working to heal our places of pain and brokenness and walk with us as the new generation grows up.

The conversation continues, and the work continues. My prayer is that this gathering be only the start of much thought, prayer, and care for human bodies as we raise up little ones in faith.

For some age appropriate books to talk to kids about sexuality, check out “Talking to Kids About Bodies and Boundaries” by Kris and Ginger Wint from the Spring 2017 issue of Intersections or find the list under the “Books to Use With Children” heading on Franconia Conference’s Church Safety webpage

 

 

Creating Space for All of God’s Children

By Jerrell Williams, Associate for Leadership Cultivation

Autism specialist Stacy McGowan

On June 13 I had the opportunity to attend a workshop offered by Franconia Conference on Sensory Sensitive Sacred Spaces, resourcing people on how churches can create space for those within their congregations who have autism. The workshop was organized by Pastor Chris Nickels of Spring Mount Mennonite Church who recently completed his Master’s Thesis on this topic, in conjunction with Heather Gingrich, Children and Youth Minister at Plains Mennonite Church. Led by Autism Specialist Stacey McGowan from the North Penn School District and Candy Nixon of Joni & Friends Greater Philadelphia, we spent a lot of time not only getting facts about how autism affects the people around us, but also receiving practical tools on how our churches can become more inclusive of those who are autistic, as well as their families.

Stacey McGowan spoke first on the facts about autism and how it affects our communities. We were informed that autism now affects 1 in 88 children. McGowan also mentioned that of the children who have autism, 40% of them cannot speak. These numbers helped me to realize that autism affects more children then I had imagined. McGowan then went into detail on how autism affects each child differently. Some children have meltdowns when there is a sensory overload with noises. Some children need to have toys or blankets to keep their minds busy. Some children need to be able to see colorful visuals to learn effectively. 

McGowan also showed us several tools that she uses within her own classes. We circled around the back of the room as she passed around different items that we could use within our churches with children with autism. There was a wig for children who like to touch and pull hair. There was a weighted blanket and vest for children who like to be bundled and wrapped up. There were even items such as silly putty and slime for children to use. McGowan suggested that we create a box in the back of the sanctuary where these items could reside, for children to use .

Candy Nixon of Joni & Friends Greater Philadelphia

Candy Nixon then helped us tear down some of the common myths around children with autism. Nixon called on us to eliminate our stereotypes and to replace them with different teaching practices. She gave us more practical tools that we could use in our churches that will help to engage children on the autism spectrum. She suggested visual schedules, visual parameters, having children act out Bible stories, etc.

I am happy that I had the chance to attend this workshop. I always advocate for inclusivity within the church, but have fallen short when thinking about how to include those with disabilities. As the church, we must realize that there are those within our congregations that have disabilities that affect them in different ways. We must be open to trying new things so that they are getting the opportunity to participate in worship as well. Whether that be using better visuals while preaching or adding motions or signs while singing hymns, we must be willing to be flexible and figure out how to include all people. As Candy Nixon said, “It takes someone with a willing heart and hands who has the love of Jesus to share.” May our hearts be willing as we try to create space for all of God’s children.

Joni and Friends provided participants with a set of 10 small books to educate and aid in caring for families with disabilities. The Conference office has a limited supply available to anyone interested in having a set for your congregation. If you are interested please email office@FranconiaConference.org. These will be distributed on a first come, first served basis. The Conference will also have one set of the books in our library, available for anyone to sign out.  

 

Does Church Membership Matter?

by Mark R. Wenger – Pastoral Team Leader and Pastor of Administration, Franconia Mennonite Church

How does church membership work in Franconia Conference?  How do you become a church member?  What are the requirements and benefits?  What happens to membership when someone stops attending?  What theological understandings underpin church membership? These questions, and more, formed the center of a Faith and Life Gathering of about 30 Franconia Conference credentialed leaders at Salford Mennonite Church on the morning of May 9, 2018.

Framed by Romans 12:4-5, a panel of three pastors led the way into the maze of membership. Nathan Good from Swamp Mennonite Church described their annual membership Sunday where new members are received after a 10-week preparation class, current members re-affirm a membership covenant, and the congregation shares Communion together. This keeps membership and attendance numbers aligned.

Ken Burkholder from Deep Run East Mennonite Church highlighted the importance of a public commitment for becoming a member.  His congregation has a Membership Covenant in the By-laws but stated it isn’t referenced much.  Ken observed a “definite trend” of people who are active in the congregation, but don’t become members.  Others remain members on the books but haven’t been active for years.

Danillo Sanchez spoke about commitment patterns at Ripple in Allentown and Whitehall Mennonite Church.  Typical church membership that grants certain privileges doesn’t fit their context.  Yet in each congregation, participants sign a covenant that highlights three Anabaptist church distinctives.  This annual signing intends to keep commitment current and to remind people what it means to be part of the faith community.

Discussion around tables followed the panel presentation.  A recurring theme: Understandings and practices of church membership are changing.  Earlier, more standard patterns have morphed into contextualized and individualized approaches. Questions that were raised included: can someone who lacks an understanding of core Christian beliefs and practices become a member?  How about someone who is engaged in behaviors considered inconsistent with the Bible or the Confession of Faith? Churches with cemeteries face unique challenges.  Can someone listed as a member still claim a burial benefit ten years after ceasing to attend?  What does church membership mean?  Is it a shell without any filling?  Or an antique no longer relevant? Lots of questions.  Not many answers.

As a point of comparison, I recently joined the Souderton-Telford Rotary Club.  I needed a current member to serve as my sponsor.  Membership dues are payable every month.  I must attend at least two Rotary functions each month to remain a member.

I came away from the Faith and Life Gathering discussion on membership feeling muddled, even conflicted. I agreed with the pastor who said: “We are holding to what we believe, but we’ve become more flexible in our practices.”  But, when does changing practice reveal an implicit shift of core theology?

In my view, church membership and a covenant community remain a worthy investment for congregations.  Jesus and leaders of the early church raised expectations of godly living, while also setting people free from bondage.  A liberating gospel on one side, and covenanted discipleship on the other, are not contradictory.

Congregations that expect a lot of their members tend to be more cohesive than free-for-all associations.  When high-demand churches also offer transformation to participants and engage them in a clear mission, congregations flourish.

Church membership today doesn’t look like it did fifty years ago.  Our congregations are less homogenous; we move around more; accountability feels different.  But the human need for healing and hope, for encountering God, for belonging to a group, and for sharing in bigger mission remains the same.  In my opinion, the vision of church where “each member belongs to all the others” (Rom. 12:5) remains worthy of our best creativity and commitment.

The Power of Story

by Mary Nitzsche, Associate Executive Minister

Much research is being done on what makes individuals, families, and pastors resilient in our complex and ever-changing culture. In February, I was sent a link to a New York Times article, “The Stories That Bind Us,” by Bruce Feiler. Based upon research, Feiler noted that the single most important factor in a person’s ability to weather the challenges of life is to develop a strong family narrative.  Children and youth who know a lot about their family history and have a sense of being a part of a larger family, tend to function in healthier ways when facing life’s challenges.  Feiler emphasized the importance of creating, refining and retelling family stories including the ordinary, positive, and difficult experiences of family life.

The biblical story is our foundational narrative giving us instruction, poetry, rituals, prophecy, and stories to talk about our faith in God. Numerous times in scripture, there is mention of telling the story to the children, reenacting a ritual, or giving witness to what is seen and heard (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Joshua 4:6-7, Psalms 44:1, Psalms 78:6, Isaiah 43:10, John 1:7, Matthew 28: 17-20, Luke 24:48, Acts 1:8). The scripture is packed with stories of people living in families and in a faith community dependent on God and each other to live out their faith. These stories remind us of who God is, who we are, how we are a part of a larger family, and how the faith community continues to be called to live God’s mission in the world.

Leadership Ministers and other staff on retreat.

At a retreat in March, Leadership Ministers reflected on past and more recent Franconia Conference stories of ordinary people doing ordinary things to serve God. Our stories reflected themes of generosity of time, talent, and finances; breadth and depth of relationships; lament of congregations being asked to leave conference or choosing to leave; resiliency during internal, national, or international crisis; welcome of people and congregations of color; vision to begin local ministries or ministries beyond our geography.

Biblical, family, congregational, conference, and denominational stories connect us to each other, past and present. They remind us of God’s steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness in all generations; our failures, inaction, learnings, and activities; and our shared identity and mission. Stories remind us of our common commitment to Jesus Christ, to living as followers of Christ, and bearing witness to Christ’s kingdom on earth.

Recently, I viewed a TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story,” presented by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She frankly declares that those in power often determine which stories are told, where a story begins, and what is included or excluded. This power reinforces and perpetuates stereotypes. One single story is incomplete and emphasizes differences. It creates a narrative that shows a people, place or issue as one thing over and over again and that is what they become. Multiple stories enhance understanding and have the power to humanize, empower, and heal.

As we engage in the reconciliation and restructuring process of looking at the possibility of forming a new conference with Eastern District Conference, what stories need to be told? Who determines which stories are told and what is included in the stories? How will these stories guide us in imagining a new future, facilitate healing of past or more recent wounds, form our new identity, and shape our vision for the future? May we continue to share the ordinary, positive and difficult stories with an openness to hearing multiple stories. As we shape the future together, may our stories enhance our understanding, give witness to the Spirit’s activity among us, facilitate healing, and empower us to imagine what the Spirit is calling us to be and do.

Deeper Understanding Through God-Centered Decision-Making

by Bobbi Smisko, spiritual director and member of Methacton Mennonite Church

In hopes of expanding my understanding of our Anabaptist leanings in decision-making process, I attended Franconia Conference’s God-Centered Decision-Making Workshop held on April 21, 2018 at Swamp Mennonite Church. I was certainly not disappointed in the program that day. I found Sherill Hostetter to be an excellent presenter. Her information was meaty and extremely useful, her presentation was well-planned and delivered professionally, yet with a personal touch, and her use of both small group interactions and sharing in the larger group helped the attendees to discuss and practice the methods she presented.

There was a friendly buzz of conversation in the room during breaks that gave testimony to the relationship-building that was taking place. If this group of people moves into their decision-making process with the same generosity of spirit that they welcomed each other and me, a newcomer in their midst, I believe there is high hope for fruitful choices in future days. Surely, this was helped by the welcoming environment provided by the hosting congregations and the tasty snacks and delicious lunch provided by Franconia Conference.

If adopted and internalized, the material Ms. Hostetter presented will certainly help make God-centered decision-making possible. She presented such helpful information that I wish we could continue with monthly round-table discussions using her material. Not only did she talk about how to accomplish making decisions in group settings, but also she explained how folks from different backgrounds and cultures view conflict. For instance, most people do not see conflict as an opportunity but rather look at it as something to solve or manage. She pointed out that folks from some cultures come with evasive methods of interacting and others are more direct. Such differences can cause deep divisions and misunderstandings, so initially working with a group on understanding each other helps the process be more successful.

Ms. Hostetter also emphasized the fact that good planning for the decision-making process is essential for group unity, and added that unity and uniformity are two different things: unity is the Spirit among diversity (we are not all called to be alike, but we are called to be one, prays Jesus in John 17). Hostetter explained the challenge: Conflict is a visible sign of human energy. The greater the interdependence, the greater the potential for conflict; the greater the concern for inclusion in joint decision-making, the more tension is generated by the drive for harmony. For such reasons, preparation ahead of time is of great importance.

Discernment is integral to this process, so a main focus was helping people learn how to move into the spiritual practice of listening prayer. Spending time in silence and opening ourselves up to hear from God helps move people to connectedness in spirit. Ms. Hostetter suggested a book, Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Factor for Leadership Groups by Ruth Haley Barton, as a resource for this practice. She suggested other spiritual practices, such as storytelling, sharing faith stories, using silent prayer throughout discernment meetings, and listening and responding to Scripture readings.  In our roundtable group sharing time, we had an opportunity to practice listening prayer and felt the move of the Spirit as we shared what we had “received” in our silent moments of being vulnerable to the voice of God. Sharing from our hearts brought a deeper level of understanding to a group of people who barely knew each other before meeting on that day. We entered the workshop as strangers and left as friends.  How could that not be good for any family, leadership group, or congregation?