About 50 Sunday school teachers from Franconia and Eastern District conference churches gathered on August 12 in preparation for the new school year.
Teachers met with other teachers of the same age levels and were led through a sample lesson in the new Shine curriculum, which is co-published by Brethren Press and MennoMedia.
Among the group was one person teaching for the first time, and two people who had taught for over 50 years.
The resourcing event was organized by the Franconia and Eastern District Conferences School for Leadership Formation. Perkiomenville (Pa.) congregation hosted the event and arranged logistics. Feedback from the day was very positive, and Christian educators in both conferences are looking forward to meeting again.
Jessica Hedrick, director of children’s ministry at Souderton (Pa.) congregation, offered a prayer at the event. It is printed here with permission, for all children as they begin a new year.
God, you took the children on your knee and blessed them when everyone else pushed them aside; help us to be fully present with the children in our homes, our churches, and our communities.
As we walk with the children on this journey of faith we know that you will give us everything we need.
Help us to see them with your eyes, so that we are not blind to their strengths or oblivious to their gifts.
Help us to love them with your heart, so that they may trust you more deeply and know you more fully.
Help us to listen to them with your ears, so that we may understand the significance of their thoughts and the value of their voices.
We are weak and imperfect, and we realize sometimes we may feel like we have failed.
Help us remember that you are a God who brings glory from the mess.
Help us to embrace the mess of our ministry.
When we do not have the answers, may the children be inspired by our faith.
When we make mistakes, may they see God’s grace at work in our lives.
When we feel too lost to lead, may they see our trust in your leading.
As we go into the rest or our evening, and then return home to our ministries, fill us with your Holy Spirit and renew our passion for your kingdom.
Surround us with your peace, love, and light so that we may shine brightly igniting the fire of your love in the hearts of the children.
May they see you in us and may we see you in them.
For much of its existence, the small village school in Ndalu had no windows or doors—or even benches for its students. In the evening, goats and pigs took shelter in the building. The elementary and middle school-aged children who studied there during the day used bricks as chairs. They got sick often, and no one knew why. Some blamed witchcraft.
Ndalu is a rural community about 100 miles from the Atlantic coast in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like many African communities, it doesn’t have much money, but it is rich with other resources—in this case, skilled craftsman and thick trees. A small organization known as the Congolese Christian Development Network (CCDN) bought a bench in Kinshasa that was a combo desk and chair, able to fit two students. They met with village elders, got community members to contribute trees from their back yards, and had local carpenters give an estimate for additional benches. After some bartering—nearly everyone is related to a child in the school in one way or another—they settled on the cost and found a donor in Maryland who paid for 100 benches.
A little bit of money, and empowering local leadership: It’s a model that Joel Nsongo, member of Rocky Ridge congregation and co-founder of CCDN, hopes to replicate across the Congo.
Nsongo was raised in a small village not far from Ndalu. He came to the United States in the late ’80s, at the age of 27, as a part of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) visitor exchange program; before that, he had worked as a purchaser for MCC’s Congo office, procuring tools that development workers needed in the field, such as machetes and other basic supplies. While in the States, he did maintenance at Rockhill congregation (Telford, Pa.).
Nsongo returned home, where he worked for a number of years as a computer network technician for Chevron. But a rebellion and regime change in 1997 had created turmoil in the country, and it seemed like a good time to leave, politically and economically. Nsongo brought his wife and two girls—who later attended Christopher Dock Mennonite High School (Lansdale, Pa.) and Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, Va.)—to the United States. He chose to relocate his family to an area he already knew.
In the U.S., Nsongo continued to work in computers, but returned home frequently. He kept seeing things that he knew could be improved, but not much changed. He thought, though, that he had to try.
Nsongo entered Eastern University’s graduate program in international development. When he finished his degree, he went home again—to the Congo—got together with friends, and created the CCDN.
Nsongo says that CCDN is about more than formal schooling or tangible projects like desks, windows, and doors for schools. Instead, they promote “mass education,” which includes informal talks on health, nutrition, sexuality, and renewable energy. The talks, held in the capital city of Kinshasa, have drawn around 100 people to each event, allowing attendees to hear from experts they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. After one speaker came to talk about raising poultry several years ago, local residents started a movement equally popular on this side of the Atlantic: raising chickens in the backyard.
“We realized that education is a base for any kind of development,” says Nsongo. “When people are educated, they are more likely to move forward.”
CCDN describes itself as a “Christ-centered community development and networking effort to … motivate and empower men and women with entrepreneurial drive to fight poverty through job training and creation, by providing individuals with business links, appropriate technology development and guidance to achieve innovation with sound management.” Or, simply put, a platform to launch activities for development.
What is most important to Nsongo is that leadership come from within: “True development for the Congo is going to come from the bottom up,” he says.
The challenge? CCDN has no regular funding. It collaborates with churches in the Congo, and with funders in the United States, as well as Congolese expats living here. When funding comes in for a particular project, says Nsongo, they tackle that project. For the other projects on the table, they pray.
For a two-day health clinic, CCDN recruited doctors who volunteered their time to screen for diabetes and dispensed medical advice and medications to newly-diagnosed diabetics and others. There’s a scholarship fund for 20 children, and projects involving two orphanages in Kinshasa. CCDN hopes to increase the “mass education” talks in Kinshasa to four to six events per year, including Christian topics that will anchor people in their faith.
As for the village school in Ndalu, it now has benches for the students, as well as doors and windows. CCDN is fundraising to build a well for water, and to lay a cement floor in the building.
The Lord works in mysterious ways, and the Spirit leads in mysterious ways: sometimes to faraway lands, sometimes to stretching local ministries—or sometimes, back to the classroom.
This year, two Franconia Conference pastors finished Doctor of Ministry (D.Min) degrees, while several others are pursuing pastoral studies alongside other fulltime jobs. The advantages to them and their congregations are many: For pastors who’ve been in ministry for many years, it can be a time to refocus and re-tool. For congregations, it’s a chance to develop new practices and to see the Gospel in fresh ways, and a gentle nudge to those in maintenance mode.
Throughout Beth Yoder’s congregational ministry, she has interspersed her work with study: a year at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, coursework at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield and Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, and classes at Eastern Mennonite Seminary as well. It was at EMS that Beth re-embraced her passion for worship and preaching—and also at EMS where she remembered her interest in doing a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min) degree at Drew University, a program that would allow her to focus heavily on those areas.
Yoder, associate pastor of Salford congregation, says her studies were invigorating, and brought a sort of freshness for her and her congregation. D.Min. programs are structured around a project that the student commits to doing in her worship setting; Yoder’s focused on embodied worship—using principles of theater and movement to enrich worship. Many—not all—she reports, were appreciated, but it let her examine a hunch about the significance of embodied worship on spiritual formation. A lot of it, she says, wasn’t brand new—but her studies and assignments carved out that space to try something different.
Mike Derstine, pastor of Plains congregation, recently finished a D.Min. at Palmer Theological Seminary in King of Prussia, Pa. He’d always thought about pursuing the degree but with commitments to family and church, the timing never seemed right. When his congregation gave him a three-month sabbatical, it was the encouragement he needed to enter the program.
Palmer’s program focuses on transformational leadership, the missional church, and congregational renewal. Derstine says it’s just what he was looking for, a “key area for congregational pastors who need to think about what the changing context means for ministry.”
Derstine says he’d become so preoccupied with the needs and demands of the day-to-day life of a congregation that he found he wasn’t taking enough time for personal or professional renewal. Programs like this, he says, allow pastors space to cultivate a “deeper spirituality, as well as more disciplined and intentional approach to what we do.”
Beny Krisbianto, pastor of Nations Worship Center in south Philadelphia, is finishing a degree at the Eastern Mennonite Seminary campus in Lancaster. Like many other pastors in Franconia Conference, he takes one or two courses a semester—that’s all he has time for—and appreciates how he is able to daily use what he is studying: “I can balance between learning the principles and theology and applying it to my context.”
Krisbianto says one thing he learned from seminary is how to care for himself.
“Before I went to seminary I didn’t know about teaching and discipline. After beginning seminary, I grew a lot,” he says. “I know my strength, I know my weakness, I know when to say no, I know when to say stop.”
Krisbianto has two classes left and will graduate in 2015. This week also saw the graduations of Tami Good, Souderton congregation, and Kris Wint, Finland congregation, with M.Divs. from Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, Pa.
Although it may seem impossible while in the midst of classroom demands, life continues after graduation: Derstine took time after he finished his studies to replace the mufflers and exhaust system on his old car, and started seeds for his garden, continuing the balance of daily life and renewal. Both Derstine and Yoder continue in their same congregations.
“I think both formal and informal pastor education are important for pastors and congregational leaders,” says Yoder, “because it gives people an opportunity to engage new material, to learn with new people, and also gives leaders a space to say ‘I don’t have all of the answers,’ when sometimes leadership roles can get us into the practice of feeling like we have to have all the answers.”
“Going back into the classroom invites you to become a learner, to engage humbly, to rethink your own leadership from a different perspective.”
Youth from Franconia Conference and Eastern District gathered on Sunday, June 1, for an afternoon of worship, celebration, and inspiration.
The event, held under tents that had hosted the Mennonite Heritage Center’s Whack & Roll croquet tourney the day before, was the first of what planners hope will become an annual event.
The speaker, Luke Hartman, reflected on John 17 and Jesus’ prayer that believers would recognize their unity with each other and with God. Hartman encouraged those present to make the tent larger, for all God’s people to be a part of the kingdom. He challenged youth to be change agents in the world, and to discover their own sense of worth and calling.
A joyous, embodied worship was led by Peder Eide, a singer-songwriter from the Lutheran tradition who had the group dancing in short order.
John Stoltzfus, Franconia Conference youth minister, says that in the past, there hasn’t been an event for youth from both Franconia and Eastern District to draw together; delegates from both conferences had expressed desire to explore how members of the conferences were relating to one another and building a foundation of trust and intimacy between churches.
The event was planned by conference staff, pastors, youth workers and youth. Mennonite Church USA contributed funding. About 175 youth and adults attended the gathering.
When people think of health coaches, they usually think of Biggest Loser, the television show where participants vie each week to see who can lose the most weight—or someone with a whistle, like that annoying high school gym teacher who made your whole class run timed miles. Trina Stutzman isn’t one of those coaches. Stutzman, of Perkasie, Pa., is a wellness coach with Everence, through an initiative that offers combined support, education, and accountability to help people have more balance in their lives and increase their wellbeing.
Wellness coaching starts with a phone call to Everence, which matches interested participants with wellness coaches. The initial conversation focuses on what the participant hopes to gain from coaching—What’s most important to you? Where do you want to go?—then from there, it’s about establishing small goals and setting up first steps to success. Some people want to check in every week, others every month, but no matter how often, it’s always about working towards the participants’ goals. All coaching is done over the phone, and wellness coaches offer safe, supportive, nonjudgmental, and confidential space for conversation.
Wayne Nitzsche, pastor of Perkasie congregation, decided to take advantage of wellness coaching about two years ago, and stayed with it for a full year. When he first saw it was being offered, Nitzsche didn’t really think it was something he needed, but decided to try it anyway. What he found was a holistic approach to his wellbeing: concern for body and soul, mind and emotions.
For Nitzsche, the process ultimately led to him establishing habits for more balance, practices he still sticks to.
“I’ve come to believe pretty strongly that as we pay attention to our own functioning—be that spiritual or physical or emotional—that we find a deeper, richer life… but the temptation is to always look outside, look to someone else, to make our lives better, instead of looking within,” says Nitzsche.
Nitzsche says the hardest part was setting realistic goals, ones that were both stretching and yet attainable. His coach was good at reminding Nitzsche of his goals and being gracious when he didn’t meet them, celebrating when they were met, and looking deeper when they weren’t.
“To have that encouragement and accountability,” says Nitzsche, “Knowing that you’re going to talk to someone about what you’re doing or not doing—can be pretty helpful.”
Rollin Handrich, who works with Everence in their Goshen, Ind. office, says that sometimes the changes they’ve heard about have been dramatic, other times, incremental. But as he points out, people have often spent a lifetime developing habits that lead to their healthcare problems. The goal of the program, Handrich says, is to get people to rethink some of those habits and set comfortable goals, all the while considering the full picture of their lives: What are your stresses? What is your home life like? “It’s not just eat better, and exercise.”
Stutzman agrees. “[Wellness coaching] is more than just physical health, but really looking at, ‘Do you want to be well?’ And that looks different for every person.”
She says some people set goals like losing weight, but for others, it’s setting healthy boundaries or stress relief. In a way, Stutzman sees her work as helping people bring into balance the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. “What does that look like to love yourself as you love other people?”
So far nearly 400 people—about 10 percent of eligible pastors and employees of Mennonite organizations—have participated in at least an initial phone call. It’s a part of the insurance plan offered to pastors and employees of Mennonite organizations whose plans are managed by Everence. Costs are covered by employers, and there is no charge to those who opt in to the program. Pastors and spouses covered by the Corinthian Plan can receive up to $600 for each filling out the online assessment and a follow-up coaching call to discuss their results. More information on wellness coaching is available at www.everence.com/wellness-coaching or by calling 800-348-7468, ext. 2462.
When I was a child, my teachers in this study came from the farm lands around Kidron, Ohio, where I was raised. They taught in my school, led discussions at church, organized the Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale, pieced quilts and sang solid harmonies. These days, my teachers don’t generally look like me, aren’t related to me and often haven’t heard of shoofly pie. Some of them even have tattoos. But all of them—from the conservative Mennonite women who sell me Swiss cheese to my Colombian pastor friends—are reminding me about what it means to follow the risen Christ.
I was reminded of this richness of the Anabaptist tapestry a few weeks ago when I went to visit Nations Worship Center in south Philadelphia. Nations Worship is an Indonesian-speaking congregation that recently joined Franconia Conference. I had been sent there to write about them in preparation for this move toward membership. At first glance, it seemed as though we had little in common: different ethnicities, different languages and different cultures. The church has a praise band and sings choruses in Bahasa Indonesia. Hands clapped and bodies swayed with the music. Scripture was read aloud together (as is the practice each Sunday). Members are invited to give testimony about God’s movement in their lives. The sermon reflected the realities of being a foreign people in a new land. A meal was served after the service; rice and tofu and a beef soup.
I don’t speak Bahasa Indonesia and my digestive system tolerates neither gluten nor soy, so I couldn’t take communion or partake in the fellowship meal. I’m used to a pretty staid church service, one that generally doesn’t involve raising my hands in the air or anything remotely resembling dancing. Even though I joke that attending a United Methodist seminary in northern New Jersey is a form of exile, I certainly can’t relate to the challenges of being a recent immigrant. But what I found that Sunday morning was a warm grace and hospitality extended from one part of the body of Christ to another. The pastors spoke passionately about a commitment to community, stewardship, simplicity and justice as an expression of their faith. I learned how the church is trying to reach out to the the broader Indonesian community in Philly by (among other things) offering translation services.
When it came time for me to give my testimony, I stood in front of the congregation and told them that even though I could not understand much of what was said, I could feel the Spirit in that place. I waved my hands with everyone else. I declined the bread, but drank the grape juice. While everyone else prayed with words I couldn’t understand, I gave thanks for a theological language we hold in common.
It was the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel who once said, “To be or not to be is not the question. The question is how to be or how not to be.” And that is something which cannot be learned alone; we must strive for it together.