Tag Archives: John Stoltzfus

Journeying In Faith

By Steve Kriss, Executive Minister, and Mary Nitzsche, Associate Executive Minister

Brent, Danilo and Mike

As Conference Youth Minister John Stoltzfus completed six years in that role with Franconia Conference in July, he stated, “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.”

The reality of congregational and conference youth ministry is changing. Conference has been aware of this. Two years ago the Board invited a taskforce to review how conference equips youth ministers, leaders and the youth. John was a part of this process. The task force results and recommendations should be available in the next months.

In August, John and his wife Paula relocated to Harrisonburg, VA where Paula began a pastoral role at Park View Mennonite Church.  Before leaving, John helped to develop an interim plan for continuing Conference youth ministry. Recognizing that youth ministry requires the work of many, three youth pastors have volunteered to serve in the following roles for the next school year: Brent Camilleri, associate pastor of Deep Run East, is assuming leadership for facilitating the ongoing monthly youth pastor gathering; Mike Ford, pastor of youth at Blooming Glen Mennonite Church, is coordinating the Spring Junior High Late Night Blast; Danilo Sanchez, associate pastor of Whitehall and co-pastor of Ripple, will continue to serve on Mennonite Church USA Youth Ministry Council and be a liaison to the denomination.

Conference is grateful for the willingness and readiness of Danilo, Mike and Brent, who bring long histories of service and leadership in our Conference to carry extra responsibilities over the next months ensuring our youth and their leaders continue to be supported and equipped. This interim arrangement gives Conference time to continue the review process and discernment before making any long-term decisions regarding Conference youth ministry.  We value your prayers for continued discernment in next steps as we together imagine Conference-wide youth ministry into the future that is rooted in our shared Anabaptist values and carries out our shared priorities of (trans)formation that is both missional and intercultural in the way of Christ’s peace.

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.

Stoltzfus Resigns Conference and Dock Mennonite Academy Role

John Stoltzfus, Conference Youth Pastor and Campus Pastor for Dock Mennonite Academy, announced his resignation from both roles effective July 31.  John has served in this capacity for six and a half years in a joint appointment between the school and both Franconia and Eastern District Conferences.  He and his wife Paula, along with their children, will relocate later this summer to Harrisonburg, Virginia, where Paula will join the pastoral team of Park View Mennonite Church.

John’s steady work in accompaniment with our Conference youth pastors and acumen in working with the changing context of youth ministry has been key in the ongoing work of Anabaptist faith formation across the generations.  John’s depth of commitment to pastoral presence, thoughtful engagement in our congregations and commitment to bridging the life of our Conference and Dock Mennonite Academy have helped to cultivate healthy relationships and honest open-handed collaboration. 

John was the second person to serve in this joint appointment.  Both the Conference and Dock Mennonite Academy anticipate interim appointments for the upcoming school year for campus ministry and conference ministry roles respectively.  A Conference Youth Ministry Task Force report commissioned by the Franconia Conference Board is expected to shape the future trajectory for the role and responsibilities when released later this summer.  

John wrote in his resignation letter, “This announcement is not an easy one to make as I have deeply appreciated the life and work of both the conference and school environment. It has not been without its challenges but I am so grateful for the privilege of working with a wonderful group of colleagues and friends. I have learned much in this role and I will take with me significant insights and skills learned here.   I am confident of the good work that will continue here and of the way God’s Spirit will continue to raise up new leaders and empower you and the broader community for the work God has called us to do.”

 

An Interfaith Creation Care Journey

by Mike Ford, Associate Pastor of Youth, Blooming Glen Mennonite Church

Philly group send-off

This past month, PA Interfaith Power and Light (PA IPL) organized two groups totaling 18 bicyclists to ride from Philadelphia and State College, PA to Washington, DC. Our cause was to gather as an interfaith group to travel to our nation’s capital to meet with our legislators, to make a moral case for long term environmental care and clean energy legislation.  Riding bikes helped create relationships within the diverse groups, as well as demonstrate to our legislators our commitment to care for the environment in our travel.  Three pastors with ties to Franconia Mennonite Conference participated in Philadelphia to DC ride, including myself, Mike Ford from Blooming Glenn Mennonite, Conference Youth Minister John Stoltzfus, and former Associate Pastor at Salford, now Campus Pastor at 3rd Way Collective at Penn State, Ben Wideman.

Philly group in DC

Ben, who rode in the past with the State College group, initiated this riding group from eastern Pennsylvania.  In addition to the three Mennonite pastors, our Philadelphia group consisted of two Jewish rabbis and a SAG (Support and Gear) wagon driven by a Unitarian Universalist minister.  Sharing with each other about our faith traditions was fascinating and enlightening.  Daily discussion and daybreak rituals mixed Christian prayer, poetry, Jewish blessings, song, scripture, and the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn).  Particularly with our Jewish friends, we found an amazing amount of commonality in the history of our people and their persecution and migration around the world. 

Fixing a flat

Rabbi Nathan Martin summed up the trip well in commenting, “It just seemed to me like a really powerful statement, to bring different people of faith together to do something positive by getting on their bikes, by connecting with faith communities along the way and then bringing their voice to the halls of Congress and making their concerns known about climate change.”

People from various faith communities supported us along the way.  Lodging, meals, and hospitality were provided by a UCC minister’s family, a Presbyterian church, the House of Peace (Baltimore), a Jewish synagogue, and an elderly Quaker couple.  Part of the purpose of our ride was to fundraise to support the work of PA IPL, and over $15,000 was donated.

Meeting with Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick

The ride took us from the oil refineries of South Philadelphia to beautiful countryside, challenging hills, and busy city streets.  The State College crew rode 200 miles over 5 days, while the Philadelphia contingent tallied 180 miles in 3 days.  Our final day was spent off the bikes on Capitol Hill, meeting with Pennsylvania Senators and Representatives to encourage them to work on bipartisan efforts and existing bills that take a long term look at creation care and stewardship through greater support for renewable, clean energy sources.

The trip stirred in all of us a deeper desire to inspire and educate others to heed God’s directive to be good stewards of our common home.  You can read more about the trip here.

Leadership Ministers Reflect and Refine

by Stephen Kriss, Executive Minister

For generations, one of the primary tasks of Franconia Conference was to provide leadership accompaniment with congregations and credentialed leaders.  The call to serve as a bishop was a serious call to lead, serve and offer wisdom and counsel.  It was a weighty role.  I grew up with a bishop in my home community in Allegheny Conference and for some of us in Franconia, we remember those days, too.   Our bishop still wore a plain coat on Sundays and he preached long sermons.  I still remember being surprised to see him visiting his sister one day while working on the garden to pick green beans and he was wearing a flannel shirt, conversing (not preaching) and laughing.

For almost a decade now, our conference has framed this work as leadership ministers.  We have attempted to find footing alongside congregations to invite, provoke and accompany during rapid cultural changes.  Our conference is now served by a team of ten leadership ministers: men and women from different generations, with different cultural backgrounds and different language capacities to continue to cultivate God’s dream among our 45 congregations.  It’s a key task and incarnation of what we do together.

Our leadership ministers met the end of March, during what we hope will be the last heavy snowstorm, at Mariawald Retreat Center near Reading to review and reimagine our work together.  Some of us weren’t able to get there due to the snow, so we used Zoom to connect with these colleagues.  Some colleagues left early and some stayed later to wait out the storm.  In the meantime, we enjoyed the lovely and hospitable space of Mariawald, hosted by Catholic nuns from Africa who are now in Berks County as part of their vocation of serving God and the church.  The snow was stunningly beautiful even though we may have been ready to move onto spring.  It was in some ways metaphoric of the difficulty and possibility of doing our work in this time and space.

Together we began the task of refining our work.  We will continue to work around the Conference’s approach to ministry and leadership which is formational, missional and intercultural.  We will continue to align our ministry staff around those ongoing priorities.  We are beginning to work together to understand how to include congregations at our farthest distances now with a staff representative based in California to serve our congregations there.  And we’re evaluating best practices to serve congregations that are close by to us too, sometimes just blocks from where we live or less than a mile from the Conference office at Dock Mennonite Academy.

Franconia staff: (front) Aldo Siahaan, (L to R) Mary Nitzsche, Wayne Nitzsche, Noel Santiago, John Stoltzfus, Jeff Wright, Mike Clemmer, Randy Heacock and Steve Kriss.

I am grateful now for a full staff team after over a year of navigating through changes.   We are beginning to learn together, to laugh, to build deeper trust.  We are leaning in toward our individual gifts and callings recognizing our invitation to serve God in the way of Christ’s peace through our historic and growing community.   As a Conference, we are privileged to be resourced well through ongoing generosity and wise stewardship.   I continue to be grateful for the sense of care and mutuality that we have together and the divine invitation to continued transformation by the power of the Spirit in this journey of faith, hope and love together.

Are We Ready to Listen?

By John Stoltzfus, Conference Youth Minister

I wonder if the Biblical story of Samuel and Eli provides a glimpse of the need for the intergenerational witness of the church community. In Eli, we have the elder who knows that God has spoken in the past and holds the treasured words of response when God does speak. In Samuel, we have the young whose ears are open to the new words of God and can speak them courageously. Samuel needed Eli and Eli needed Samuel. In their relationship a door was opened to hear and understand the voice of God more clearly.

On Friday, March 16, close to 150 youth and adults representing Conference churches from Allentown to Philadelphia and in between, came together. They gathered together in worship and fun for the annual Junior High Late Night Blast. They played intense games of dodgeball, soccer, bubble soccer and the ever popular gaga pit.

During worship, Dan Occhiogrosso shared a message through story and basketball about how God is calling each of us to offer our gifts and whole selves in service to God. Everyone was in rapt attention as he shared his story of committing his life to God while demonstrating this through some crazy basketball dribbling skills.

Recognizing that they have something to offer the church, our youth were given the opportunity to write responses to three questions throughout the evening:

  1. What is awesome about your church?
  2. If you were a pastor, how would you encourage teenagers to grow in faith?
  3. What change do you hope to see in the church in the next 10 years?

Here are a sampling of their responses:

My church is awesome because … we have people from all over the world; everyone is supportive and loving; we welcome all people, care for them and make them feel at home; we are Christ’s hands and feet; we stay together even though we face obstacles.

If I was pastor … I would create more ministry gatherings besides Sunday mornings; I would encourage them to show love through their actions, meet new people and share God’s love; I would encourage teens to do big things in the community to show God’s love; I would make sure that everyone’s voice is heard.

In ten years I hope my church … becomes more multicultural; grows more followers that love Jesus; goes out into areas that need God’s love and healing; has more children and teens involved.

Are we listening to the Samuels in our midst? Are we open to listening? How are we listening to and investing in the next generation? What might they have to say about how God is moving the church into the future?

A Dose of Humility

By John Stoltzfus, Conference Youth Minister

Life offers many opportunities to learn humility. James Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, said, “Life is a long lesson in humility.” This can be particularly true for those in leadership, whether you are a CEO, pastor or youth sponsor. You are expected to lead by good example. One of the things I have learned as a pastor is that the good example we can provide as a leader does not necessarily mean perfection. Rather, it often means the ability to not think too highly of ourselves, to acknowledge our mistakes, and to learn from our missteps.

In June, I was invited to provide the bible lessons for the high school camp at Laurelville Mennonite Retreat Center. Part of the week included a rafting excursion on the Youghiogheny River.

I take some pride in my ability to engage in wilderness adventure experiences such as white water rafting, so I decided to join the campers in a wild ride through the rapids. It fit with part of my theme for the week in taking risks and living into the adventure of following Jesus in life.

We were split up into groups of five per raft with a designated “captain” in the back. Before the trip, our guides gave us clear instructions on how to work together as a team on our rafts and follow directions from the captain. River guides were in kayaks ahead or on the side of the river to help us navigate the rapids. We were told that it was essential to pay attention to the guides and their directions for the more dangerous rapids.

Confident in my ability to navigate the rapids, I took a turn as captain in my raft. However, as we approached one of the rapids, my ability to follow directions from the guides and give good directions to my crew evaporated. We headed straight for a rock at the point of the rapids that we were instructed to avoid. The disaster that followed still plays like slow motion in my head.

As the accompanying photos illustrate in glorious fashion, while the rest of the crew took cover in the center of the raft, I was launched headfirst into the angry rapids. To make matters worse, I managed to hit the head of one of my raft mates with my knee as I went overboard. Thankfully she had a helmet on although she did suffer a mild headache as a result.

(CLICK IMAGES TO ENLARGE)

My crew was gracious enough to pull me back into the raft after that failure. They even offered for me to captain again. I took it as an opportunity to allow the youth to take the lead for the rest of the trip. They taught me about what it means to work together as a team, showing grace in our mistakes and having the courage to take humble leadership.

On this day, on the rapids of Youghiogheny River, life offered me a healthy dose of humility. I am certain more lessons in humility will follow. I am reminded of a line from T. S. Eliot’s poem “Four Quartets” where he says “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

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.

Story Project: A Faith Nurtured and Renewed

By John Stoltzfus, Conference Youth Minister

How are we doing as a broader faith community in passing on faith to the next generation? Where is faith being lived out loud in such a way that our children and youth are catching a vision of what it means to be follower of Jesus today? The title of John H. Westerhoff’s book Will Our Children Have Faith, first published in 1976, is a question that reverberates with every generation of the church.

In some of our churches we are noticing emptier pews and smaller youth groups, decreasing engagement in the life of worship, and greater divides in cross generational life. I hear both anxiety and fear in response to these trends.

The reasons for these trends are as multi-faceted as is the diversity of our conference congregations. We also don’t live in a bubble from larger societal trends. Many studies reveal that more millennials are choosing to opt out of traditional church participation. This drop in traditional religious engagement and identity spans every demographic group.

We often talk about passing on faith to the next generation as if it was a one way street. A more apt metaphor may be one of a journey in which faith comes alive for each one of us in new ways as each generation shares in common experiences and practices of the Christian life. Unless we as adults are growing in our faith how can we expect our children and youth to grow into a faith that lasts and matures in adulthood?

Several years ago in my neighborhood there were several boys who were ringing doorbells late at night and then dashing away. My anger got the best of me one night and I chased them through the streets after they rang our doorbell waking the whole household. Much to my chagrin, my seven year old daughter heard what I did. Thankfully, she showed me a better, and more Christ-like way, to respond. The next evening she suggested that we set out a plate of freshly baked cookies that we had made that day so that the boys could have something to eat if they came again that night.

Our children may have something to teach us about being peacemakers if we as adults are willing to listen!

What is the invitation of the church at this time? What are the deeper questions we need to be asking of ourselves and how we live as disciples of Christ? We may need to look to the edges of our institutions and faith communities to see the Spirit moving. We will need to place our trust and hope in a revealing God who has been faithful for many generations.

I believe we have stories and practices that we can share with one another to spur us on in this grand journey and narrative of God’s revealing salvation. We have signs of hope if we look closely enough. We have a rich heritage of faith that can inspire us to live anew into the emerging shape of the people of God.

Along the way, we may be called to let go of some things. In order for the new to arise some ways of doing things in the church may need to die that the church may be resurrected to new life. Are we willing to allow our church structures to change to support and embrace the new shapes of faith of the next generation? As our demographics change and as our world around us changes we will need to imagine new wineskins. We also may be called to reclaim pieces of our faith heritage that we have neglected.

Over the next year, we want to highlight stories from across our conference of how faith across generations is being renewed and lives transformed. Let’s tell on each other in the best possible way to highlight the good news of God at work in our young and old. What models do we have, both new and old, of renewing faith intergenerationally? Contact me if you have a story to tell of a faith nurtured or renewed in your congregation or larger community.

Would you Rather Be a Bear or a Penguin?

By John Stoltzfus, Conference Youth Minister

A junior high youth sponsor needs to be prepared to answer all kinds of questions; however, I wasn’t prepared for “would you rather be a bear or a penguin”, posed by a curious youth halfway through the recent annual conference wide Junior High Late Night Blast at Dock Mennonite Academy.

One of the keys to developing an enduring faith in our youth is intergenerational relationships in the church. Part of the purpose of this annual event is to give our youth just that: a positive and memorable experience relating to other adults and youth in the broader church. Our youth need to know that they are valued and loved for who they are and that their questions and contributions matter in the life of the church.

This intersection of over 180 youth and adults is a visible representation of the breadth and diversity of our Franconia and Eastern District Conference churches from Philadelphia to Harleysville to Allentown and beyond. This event also gives a wonderful opportunity for our youth workers to partner together in ministry.

Caleb Benner and Emily Grimes, both teachers at Dock Mennonite Academy, along with a band of high school students led a time of engaging worship. Juan Marrero, pastor at Christ Centered Church and director of Crossroads Community Center, challenged the youth to be doers of God’s word. He used the illustration of an athlete who looks at film to make adjustments to their game. So, too, we as Christians need to have a mirror put to our lives so that we can be more faithful to the way of Christ.

The rest of the night was full of activities to choose from … soccer, basketball, dodge ball, human Dutch blitz, wallyball, Gaga Pit ball, and much more. Directing over 150 Junior High youth in a group game might be considered a challenge for most people, but Josh Reichart handled it like a professional as he and other staff from Spruce Lake helped to organize the games.

In addition to getting to answer random fun questions, another perk of being a Junior High youth sponsor is the freedom to experiment with crazy games. A popular new game introduced this year was Bubble Soccer. Picture giant plastic bubbles with legs bouncing off each other and rolling around!

Whether you’d rather be a bear or a penguin, if you are in Junior High or have a heart for kids you’re welcome at our annual Junior High Late Night Blast.