Tag Archives: Gwen Groff

Staff Meeting Heads to the Margins of Vermont

By John Stoltzfus, Conference Youth Minister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the photo gallery on the Franconia Conference Facebook page.

Retreat Before Moving Forward

by Paula Marolewski, Franconia Conference Board Member and Elder at Perkiomenville Mennonite Church

What characterizes the culture of Franconia Mennonite Conference (FMC) today? How do we respond to the crowded, complex, fast-paced culture of society around us? How do Conference member churches experience being valued and valuing the whole of the larger conference?

The grounds of Fatima House Retreat Center provided a peaceful backdrop for the Board Retreat.

These were some of the many questions the Conference Board discussed on July 28th and 29th as they met together for a retreat at Fatima House in Ottsville, Pennsylvania. All eleven of the board members were present*, representing eleven different congregations – a quarter of all the churches that comprise the conference. Facilitating the meeting was Jeff Wright of Riverside, CA, Executive Consultant for Urban Expression North America.  Jeff had served as a guide for the Conference’s Vision and Financial Plan a decade ago.

During the time together, the Board spent time in spiritual reflection, as three of the board members (Beny Krisbianto, Angela Moyer, and Ken Burkholder) shared devotions on Jesus’ parables and how the parables spoke to various situations and needs within the Conference. The devotional times flowed into discussions about colliding cultures, conflict and hope, and the future of Franconia Conference and Mennonite Church USA.

One of the key conversations centered on three central questions that everyone – individuals, churches, the conference, and the denomination – should answer:

  1. Who is Jesus to us? [Christology]
  2. What does Jesus want us to do? [missiology]
  3. How does Jesus want us to do it? [ecclesiology]

Jeff emphasized that it is critical to approach these questions in this order. For example, we as Franconia Conference need to first determine who Jesus is to us. The answer to that will become the foundation for our shared culture. Only then can we ask what Jesus wants us to do and how to go about it – these are questions of strategy that build on the foundation of culture.

The Board grappled with all these questions and more – and will continue to do so with the goal of advancing the Kingdom of God in our fallen world. That, after all, is the purpose of a retreat: to prepare to move forward.

*The Board is composed of John Goshow, moderator (Blooming Glen), Angela Moyer (Co-Pastor at Ripple), Beny Krisbianto (Pastor at Nations Worship Center), Gwen Groff (Pastor at Bethany), Jim King (Plains), Paula Marolewski (Perkiomenville), Ken Burkholder, interim chair of the Ministerial Committee (Pastor at Deep Run East), Kris Wint (Pastor at Finland), Smita Singh (Whitehall), Merlin Harman (Franconia), and Steve Kriss, Conference Executive Minister (Philadelphia Praise Center).

The Other Statement on Sexuality: Why it’s Important and What it Might Mean

by Gwen Groff

gwen-groffThe Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse is a strong, unequivocal statement about sexual abuse in our families, churches and broader culture. When I first read the other statements about sexuality to be discussed at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City, I internally responded with reservations and disappointments, noticing places where they sound like they were written by a committee struggling to satisfy conflicting interests, places I felt the statements didn’t go far enough or went too far. When I read this statement on sexual abuse I responded with unequivocal affirmation and deep gratitude.

This statement was written in response to the church’s institutional mishandling of the sexual abuse perpetrated by John Howard Yoder. It is part of a process of lament and repentance, but it also addresses the need for actions that will have broad beneficial effects on congregations and other church institutions. The tone of the statement is remarkably positive given that its subject is heinous and anxiety producing. It does not perpetuate an illusion that healing is easy or quick, but it does point to the constructive goals of truth-telling, education, and prevention.

The resolution is beautifully written. It makes simple, clear statements. It declares “human bodies are good.” It commits us to developing and teaching “healthy, wholesome sexuality.” It equates inaction with sin. It acknowledges links between sexism and racism. It draws distinctions between sexual immorality and sexual abuse of power.

The statement identifies the need for concrete action. It reports that 21 percent of women in Mennonite Church USA congregations and 5.6 percent of men reported having experienced sexual abuse or violation. Those who have been sexually abused can hear their voices reflected in this statement. Those who are in leadership in congregations and church institutions can hear this as an explicit call to action.

As I read the statement and its three invaluable appendices, “Actions and commitments,” “Lenses for understanding sexual abuse,” and “Resources,” I recalled working in Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) Peace Office when MCC was drafting a peace statement. As the Peace Office presented a finely wordsmitedh draft, one board member lamented that although all the parts of the statement were sound, the document didn’t “sing.” He wished the words were more resounding and poetic. Reading this document I felt that some sentences of this sexual abuse resolution do in fact sing: “Our spirituality and our sexuality are not disconnected or competing aspects of our lives but express our longing for intimacy with God and with others.” Not quite sing-able, but certainly true and beautiful.

I wondered who wrote this powerful statement on our behalf. Who are these individuals on the “Mennonite Church USA Discernment Group”? The MCUSA web site names them as Carolyn Holderread Heggen, Regina Shands Stoltzfus, Ted Koontz, Chuck Neufeld, Linda Gehman Peachey, Sara Wenger Shenk, and Ervin Stutzman. Their brief bios explain their passion for this work. They represent Mennonite institutions that are committed to necessary change. I look forward to personally thanking some of them in Kansas City.

The work is not finished with drafting and affirming these words. The statement calls us to take very difficult action. It commits us to careful theological work, for example, exploring how our peace theology might contribute to tolerating abuse: “Examine religious teachings that make it difficult for victims to protect themselves or speak up when they have been violated and hurt,” being “especially alert to teachings that advocate … suffering and bearing the cross as signs of discipleship.”

The statement also calls us to tough and sometimes tedious concrete work that might seem contrary to our usual trusting ways of relating in the church. Do we really have to put “windows in all interior doors” of the Sunday school rooms and require “screening for all staff and volunteers”?

Finally the statement calls us to careful, thoughtful work in our institutions. Leaders of institutions often see it as their primary job to protect the institution, sometimes at the expense of victims of abuse committed in the institution. This statement confesses that leaders “have often responded with denial, fear and self-preservation. We have tended to listen to voices who have positional power, rather than to those who have been violated and those who are most vulnerable.” Institutions are good at self-preservation. Doing the patient, transformative work that this statement advocates is the best way to preserve what is worth preserving of our institutions.

Gwen Goff is lead pastor at Bethany Mennonite Church in Bridgewater Corners, VT.  This article is part of a series that the Conference has invited in considering responses to the resolutions for Assembly at Kansas City 2015.


Conference Welcomes Gwen Groff to the Board

by Barbie Fischer, communication manager and administration coordinator

Gwen Groff
Gwen Groff

The Franconia Conference board welcomed Gwen Groff as a new board member at their May 11 meeting. Gwen has served as pastor of Bethany Mennonite Church in Bridgewater Corners, Vermont since 1999.

During that time, she has been very active in the conference, in spite of the distance. She has served as a Franconia Conference delegate or congregational delegate at Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA) conventions and has attended most Franconia Conference assemblies. Gwen’s encouragement also prompted Franconia Conference to start recording pastors and leaders events, so that those who could not attend would still be able to access that resource.

Gwen grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and completed her undergraduate work at Eastern Mennonite College and Franklin & Marshall College. She later received a master’s degree in Theology and Pastoral Counseling from Lancaster Theological Seminary. While in seminary, Gwen interned with and then served part-time at Community Mennonite Church in Lancaster.

Prior to pastoral ministry, Gwen held several roles with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), including working in peace education in the Akron, Pennsylvania office, and at the London Mennonite Center in the United Kingdom. She also served as MCC’s director of women’s concerns.

While in London, Gwen met her husband, Robert Buchan. They have two children, Lilly, 18, and Andrew, 16.

Gwen said what she loves about Vermont is the landscape “summers, springs, and falls, in that order.”

She also loves the people in her congregation, and how they do things with integrity and a lot of intention. Says Gwen, “You don’t accidentally wind up in a Mennonite Church in Vermont. The church had to planted.” (Bethany is one of only two MCUSA churches in Vermont.) What seems to draw Vermonters to Bethany and the Mennonite tradition is the peace witness, the opportunity to sing together, and the community, as the congregation is active in one another’s lives throughout the week.

Gwen brings many strengths to her role as a board member with Franconia Conference: a willingness to listen, to learn from others, and an enthusiasm for the work of the conference. She is most excited about the mission, “Equipping leaders to empower others to embrace God’s mission.”

Stephen Kriss, LEADership minister for Bethany, says, “Gwen is an experienced pastor and trusted leader.  She’ll bring deep wisdom and love for the church with a Vermonter perspective yet as someone who has grown up in Pennsylvania Mennonite contexts and with a connection with Anabaptism in the UK.  Her insights, questions along with her poetic and prophetic voice will help us to keep navigating while listening for God’s in-breaking.”

In her spare time Gwen enjoys walking in the woods, singing in various acapella groups, playing piano, patch work quilting, and “the fascinating role of parenting teenagers.” What energizes her is making connections, storytelling and seeing how pieces connect “to my story and to God’s story.”


Holding joy and sadness in tension: The Lord’s Supper

by Gwen Groff, Bethany

Gwen GroffAt Bethany we share communion at least three times each year. Our first communion service is in January when we renew our annual membership covenant with each other. Our system of membership at Bethany is an odd hybrid. We can become members by taking a membership class and being baptized or by transferring a letter of membership from another congregation, and we can become members by annually affirming our covenant with this congregation. When we renew our membership covenant each January, affirming that we intend to walk with this particular group of people and uphold our commitments to what we state in our covenant, we mark this by celebrating communion together.

This is one of the times that I most feel the difference between the Mennonite congregation in which I grew up and the Mennonite congregation of which I am now a part. I grew up seeing communion as a very somber service in which people wore dark clothes and often wept. I recall preparatory services the week before the communion services in which members filed into a small anteroom and shook hands with the bishop and declared that we were “at peace with God and our fellow men.” Members were warned not to eat and drink “unworthily,” thereby eating and drinking “damnation unto himself.”

By comparison, our communion services at Bethany feel very open, perhaps even lax. I invite people to come forward to receive the bread and cup with the words, “This is the Lord’s table and all are welcome.” I do not ask if someone has been baptized or is a church member. This seems not very Anabaptist. It does however seem to be in keeping with what Jesus did in sharing the table with anyone who wanted to eat with him.

The Bethany communion service that I most enjoy is part of our annual outdoor service. Each summer I mow a labyrinth into the grass in the back lawn and at our outdoor service we take the bread and cup just before we begin walking the the labyrinth together. We walk into the middle of the labyrinth in silence, pause in the center circle, and come back out again. Some people look into the faces of others they pass going the opposite direction, some look down, some are chewing the bread, many are barefoot. Some children are held in their parents’ arms. Most of the children enter the labyrinth at the front of the line and run to the center ahead of the adults. There they receive a spoken blessing from one of the servers, “You are known and loved by God,” and are given grapes and crackers. They run or walk back out, passing the adults who are still on their way in. The adults walk more slowly and contemplatively.

I usually take the bread and cup to the older people who are unable to walk the labyrinth and are seated on the grass that is slightly higher than the labyrinth. I love to look out across the people walking and see our congregation moving as one, like a giant organism on the grass. Sometimes we are a little crowded as we walk but we have not outgrown the practical limits of this ritual. The service is full of laughter and reflection, movement and epiphanies. If the labyrinth symbolizes our spiritual path, the bread and cup represent nourishment for the journey.

Our other communion celebration is part of our Good Friday service. This communion meal seems to be most in the spirit of the first Last Supper. It holds together the joy of the Passover celebration, remembering liberation from slavery, with the grief of the looming death of Jesus.  It focuses on the stated purpose of communion — doing this in remembrance of Jesus — reminding us of his life, death and resurrection. The service is virtually the same every year. We eat a simple meal together in the church basement on Good Friday evening. We read aloud the Passion account from one of the gospels, we sing, we serve one another the bread and cup, and we leave in silence.

I value something about each of these three services. In the January communion service, I appreciate the emphasis on our covenanted commitment to God and one another. I appreciate the symbolism of nourishment for our faith journeys that is part of the summer communion service. And I appreciate the remembrance of the first Lord’s supper that is part of our Good Friday service. What I love about all of them is the way the communion ritual holds in tension joy and sadness. Words can’t make sense of that paradox, “proclaiming the Lord’s death.” But ritual does.

Introducing Bethany Mennonite Church

This mosaic hangs at the front of Bethany’s auditorium and is made from slips of paper that members wrote on as part of one Sunday’s sermon.

Bethany is an intimate ecumenical gathering in Bridgewater Corners, Vermont. We began as a small group of five families who followed a call to move here from PA in the early 1950’s. We are currently led by Gwen Groff.

We foster a healthy awareness of the broader Christian faith as it relates to our global community. We are excited about Jesus Christ. We celebrate the transcendence of his birth. We marvel at the complex grace of his time on Earth. We rejoice in the solemn beauty of his death and resurrection. We are excited about continuing His story of a deep love for the women and men around him, as we live and work here in a quiet corner of the world being the hands, feet, body and blood of the Word-made-Flesh.

We come from all walks of life. We come from all political persuasions. We come from all economic backgrounds. Our common theme is our deep love of the way of Jesus. We love to sing together. We love to eat together. We love to camp together. Our children are important to us. That they have a safe place to seek out their Creator is tantamount to our existence as a body of faith.

In light of all of this, we see ourselves as good soil- no more and no less. Good things grow here.

Pastoring after the Storm

by Gwen Groff, Bethany, bethanym@vermontel.net

Hurricane Irene
Route 100 in Plymouth, Vermont after Tropical Storm Irene tore through the region. Photo by Brandon Bergey.

A friend told me a story about a minister who went down to the train station every morning to watch the trains pass. Finally someone asked why he did this. Was he considering throwing himself in front of one of them? Was he wishing he could hop on one and get out of town? Was he praying for the people as they passed through? The minister said, “I just love to see something moving that I don’t have to push.”

Although I’m not much of a pusher, I can sometimes identify with the desire to see movement for which I’m not responsible. But the community response to Tropical Storm Irene, which hit Vermont on Sunday, August 28, 2011, was a moving train I was not pushing. Instead I felt I was running to catch up with what was already on the move.

I was out of town when the storm hit. My husband Robert and I were at the beach in Maine celebrating our 20th anniversary when Irene poured eight inches of rain on our town and washed away roads, bridges, power lines, homes and land.

In Maine the seas were high but we saw little rain or storm damage. We were oblivious to Irene’s impact until we happened to meet some other Vermonters on the beach who told us that our governor had declared a state of emergency. We started paying attention to the news and trying to phone home. We couldn’t reach the friends who were keeping our kids but our neighbors told us not to bother trying to come home early. The roads to our house were closed and the road between us and our children was washed away.

I called our neighbors to ask how they were doing. When I talked with one member of the family she said, “It’s like a war zone here. No power, boulders in the middle of lawns, houses washed under the bridge up the road . . .” When I talked with her husband, he said, “It’s like a big party here. There’s no power so we’ve got the grill going, there’s lots of stuff thawing in the freezer we need to eat up . . .”

When we got home on Tuesday, we started seeing the damage in our neighborhood and hearing the extent of the damage in our small state. Five people drowned, 1400 were driven from their homes. Two hundred bridges were damaged and 530 miles of roads shut down.

With power still out and roads around us yet closed, we had little to do but walk around to our neighbors and see what needed to be done. Some people immediately got busy coordinating relief supplies and equipment. We were asked if we could use the church vestibule as a distribution point, but it soon became clear we’d need a bigger space, and the Grange (town) hall next door became the local hub of activity.

I was slow to catch up with what my role should be in this situation. I mostly listened a lot as people shared their stories. When electricity was restored I baked bread and took it to neighbors who had been evacuated and people who were cleaning mud out of their basements. Many were sorting and drying out their possessions.

Several people suggested Bethany have a special service. Vermont is a notoriously secular state, and only one other time—after 9/11—did people in this community ask for a worship service. But the week after Irene several people said they would like time to come together and pray. One person from the community suggested that we have a Eucharist but use water instead of the usual elements. Water is what caused us so much trauma. But water is also what we most needed, clean water to drink, water to wash our hands and shower and flush, water to cleanse the contaminated soil.

So we gathered and sang and prayed and had a water ritual. I had planned several readings and songs to follow the ritual, but sharing the water was the start of people sharing stories, and that went on for more than an hour. People didn’t want to leave.

Mennonites are used to being the experts in relief and disaster services. Motivated by our faith, we are good at helping. But after Irene we saw everyone helping their neighbors. Who knew so many Vermonters had heavy equipment stashed in their sheds? People in our town joyfully brought out whatever big rig they had and repaired roads, built makeshift bridges, refortified river banks, and removed debris. One neighbor said, “They’re like boys playing in a sandbox.”

People became more expressive of their compassion. Neighbors who normally barely waved at each other had conversations and came into each other’s houses and helped sort through one another’s chaos. Neighbors in isolated pockets shared meals and water, sump pumps and generators. In this community of independent, self-sufficient Vermonters, people gave and accepted help.

For some, fear lingers. The sound of water brings anxiety. And many people are exhausted by the process of haggling with insurance companies and FEMA. But the community has become more kind and connected, and there is no turning around that train.

Eastern District and Franconia gather on “holy ground”

by Stephen Kriss, skriss@franconiaconference.org

Gwen Groff, pastor at Bethany Mennonite Church in Bridgewater Corners, Vermont, drove the seven hours south for the joint Franconia and Eastern District Conference Assembly on November 11-12 for what she suggests became a “beautiful cacophony.”

Groff and more than 300 others from across both Conference communities along with Mennonite Church USA representatives gathered Friday night at Penn View Christian School in Souderton, Pa, in the first joint worship service for both Conferences since 1999.   The opening worship, which featured a combined cross-conference, multi-ethnic and multilingual worship team, kicked off the gathering switching swiftly back and forth between Creole, English, Indonesian, Spanish and Vietnamese—the worshipping languages of the 60 congregations that make up both conferences.

Groff describes her experience, “I always look forward to the singing at Conference Assembly worship services.  Coming from a small congregation, I enjoy the big sound, the full harmony. When I come into an Assembly worship space, if I see that we’ll be using the blue Worship Book hymnals I like to sit in the center of it all to be surrounded by the four part harmony. When I see a screen and projector, instruments and microphones, I usually take a seat on the periphery.

“This year I found myself most moved by the kind of singing I usually hang back from. Singing all together, with some singing in Indonesian, some in Spanish, some in Vietnamese, some in English and some in Creole, was disorienting in a way that was challenging, enlightening and beautiful. In worship there is often an invitation to sing or pray each in our own language, but this year the multicultural worship team was leading in all the different languages, switching languages between verses, between lines, singing in different languages at the same time. There was no right language to be singing in at any particular moment. We all could experience how it felt to be singing new words and not knowing if we were pronouncing them correctly. We all knew how it felt to be a little off balance.  It wasn’t about political correctness (or it was what political correctness should be). It was about leveling the ground as we worshipped together, and it was holy ground.”

While energetic music and multiple languages marked the shape of the worship, Rev. Dr. Dennis Edwards, pastor of Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, DC, a Franconia Conference Partner in Mission, focused intensely in an evening message that explored the possibilities of the assembly theme, “Unity and Maturity in Christ” based on Ephesians 4.   The whole of the worship gathering was broadcast in five worshipping languages and available online through a live stream.   Over a dozen persons from a variety of congregations helped to coordinate technology, translating, and communication for the event.

The spirit of gathered worship was framed further through Saturday’s joint delegate session held around tables that considered the further cooperation between both Conferences in a move toward healing the 1847 historic rift between the groups.  Overwhelmingly, representatives from both conferences gave permission by raising green cards that suggested a continuation to explore life together more extensively and collaboratively.  Considering the future of the conferences, Sam Claudio, Jr., associate pastor at Christ Fellowship in Allentown said in a time of reporting, “Hopefully we’ll be able to be a positive witness [in a way that people will say], look how they came together after this long division in love, in peace, in charity, in grace.”

After recognizing the affirming move, Dave Hersh, moderator of Eastern District Conference responded, “I’m really excited about what we’ve accomplished. Your direction to us is loud and clear.  We’re going to continue working together.”

The conferences divided for business sessions, but re-gathered for lunch and a commissioning worship that recognized each person’s role and contribution in both conference communities.  In general business, Eastern District Conference marked the transition of Ron White of Church of the Good Samaritan (Holland, Pa) into the moderator role succeeding Hersh of Grace Mennonite Church (Lansdale, Pa).   Marta Castillo of Nueva Vida Norristown (Pa) Mennonite Church was affirmed as assistant moderator for Franconia Conference for a special one year term.

First time Franconia Conference delegate Derek Cooper of the Doylestown (Pa) congregation said, “I appreciated the worshipful tone. Beginning and ending the assembly in worship united the community and guided our interaction throughout the weekend.  I also appreciated the prayer ministry. It created a Spirit-led presence that saturated the building.”

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