Tag Archives: Samantha Lioi

Relationships at the Forefront

by Naveen Singh, Whitehall Mennonite Church

samantha lioi ord 2

I vividly remember when we as a congregation met Samantha for the first time. After having enjoyed a nice potluck meal, we spent an evening together in the church fellowship hall. This was a time to get to know her, so we all took turns asking questions (silly and also important ones). This journey started back in 2010, along the way meaningful relationships developed as we fellowshipped, learned, served and struggled together.

samantha lioi ord 1On September 13, 2015 we gathered around Samantha for a significant milestone, to give her charge and to present her to be set apart for ministry in God’s beloved community.

Growing up in India in a very small church, I wasn’t exposed to big words like commissioning or ordaining someone in the church. Besides, when I think about a person being set apart for serving/leading and taking care of God’s flock – the thought is quite overwhelming. It was only after moving to the United States that I started to realize that these were essential processes that are required in a church, but I saw it as a formality that the conference leaders had to come and perform. In recent years I have found this process more meaningful as I have witnessed the commissioning and ordaining of friends that I have come to know personally.

samantha lioi ord 3Being at Samantha’s ordination service was especially humbling – to be able to see so many faithful and committed friends come by her side as a community to encourage, support and bless her. It was visibly evident that community and relationships were at the center as Samantha was being ordained. God has made us for relationship and it always excites me when I see relationships at the forefront of mission. The beauty there is that the body of Christ was reflected in so many ways throughout the ordination service – each person coming and offering words of encouragement and reminders of what to carry with her into the good work that lies ahead, each were uniquely personal and richly diverse. The singing, the message and prayers were all weaved into a beautiful and meaningful time of worshipping God. The children’s time led by Angela Moyer, a pastor at Ripple, was another element that was particularly memorable from my perspective. The beautiful sight of children sitting around Samantha, laying their hands on her as they prayed. Formation takes place at every stage of life; encouraging participation of our children in these essential elements of our faith, is an important step towards keeping them engaged.

Samantha’s interest in stories of people young and old, near and far, especially stories of people who have been unjustly hurt, her interest in understanding the bigger picture of how injustice has entangled many in hopeless situations and her willingness to give them voice and be an advocate for them is a powerful testimony of God’s ongoing healing and restoration work through her. Living more simply and having more time for relationships is something I have learned from her. Samantha became a part of us (the Whitehall Mennonite Church community) in a very short time and I am very hopeful for the future, having experienced the fresh energy which she brings as a part of this new generation of leadership.

Every Ordination is Miraculous

By Steve Kriss, Director of Leadership Cultivation & Congregational Resourcing

oil lamp 9-24-15
To order a Dancing Flame Oil Lamp handcrafted by June Keener Wink please call 413-258-4243 or e-mail junewink@gmail.com.

The year 2015 has been a year of ordinations in Franconia Conference.   We’ve been celebrating and marking commitments and calling nearly every six weeks . . . Mike Ford at Blooming Glen, Joe Hackman at Salford, Donna Merow at Ambler, Angela Moyer at Ripple, Kris Wint at Finland, Josh Meyer at Franconia, Samantha Lioi at Whitehall and Ubaldo Rodriguez at New Hope Fellowship in Baltimore for mission work in the Philippines.

Ordination is an ancient process of setting apart leaders for public ministry in the way of Jesus.  Within Franconia Conference, we follow a set of procedures that seek to honor both the individual and the community while respecting the work of the Spirit within both settings.  There is coursework for completion, interviews, paperwork that intends to keep our communities both safe and accountable, mental wellness assessments, varieties of continuing education and varying levels of mentoring.   Some of our pastors breeze through the process at a steady and assured pace in the two year minimum waiting and working period of licensing.   Others take much longer to plumb the depths of call both personally and communally and to wrestle it out.   Personal disclosure, it took me six years of working, waiting and wondering in Allegheny Conference before I could wrap my head around the commitments and calling that ordination entails.

We take this process seriously yet the days of ordination have a more celebratory tone. There are few times in our lives when we make commitments that will shape our life like ordination.  In front of a gathered congregation at the request and affirmation of a particular Christian community, we make commitments to serve, lead, pray, study, turn from evil and live into the role of Christian leadership as long as God sustains.

Many of us wrestle with the meaning of ordination.   I’ve found this human and historic process of calling, recognizing, working and wrestling and receiving becomes quite holy.   Somewhere in the wrestling and symbols, the questions and the mundane of the paperwork, the Spirit unfailingly shows up.

In this flurry of ordinations in the midst of a turbulent time, I am confident that the Spirit is still at work with us, trying to bring life.   Each person who says yes to the invitation of God and the community strengthens the possibilities of future “yes” responses into the next generation.   This round of ordinations represents our first millennial generation ordained ministers, our first Italian American woman, our first ordination for mission work in the Philippines.  We’ve called at some of our most historic congregations and our newest.  The churches are rural, suburban and urban.  We’re recognizing the sons and daughters of historic Franconia Conference families, as well as persons who were drawn to Mennonite congregations by conviction, relationships and call.  We’ve held events in Episcopal and Lutheran facilities and even at a Lancaster Conference church in Baltimore.  (Interesting side note, a Lancaster Conference African congregation recently used the Towamencin meetinghouse for an ordination worship).

It’s definitely a different time.   The ordination process isn’t what it used to be.  There’s no somber ceremony with Bibles or hymnals and a slip of paper as in Mennonite history.   But the holy moments remain, those wonderful spaces where community and Spirit commingle to cultivate surprising invitations toward ordination and wonderfully amazing continued responses of “yes I am willing.”   Every time we ordain, it’s a sign that the church will go on.   And in these days of turbulence and questions both in the church and in the culture around us, every yes somehow feels miraculous.   And I’m grateful to get to witness it as the Good News still breaks upon us. . . this year about every six weeks.

Memorial Day & Pentecost

by Samantha E. Lioi

candles - webEvery three years or so, Pentecost Sunday falls on Memorial Day weekend in the U.S.  I think it’s an irony worth exploring each time, but this year I had nothing to say. Maybe I didn’t have words for the gaping grief that attends every encounter I have with combat veterans who are willing to trust a room of well-meaning and mostly clueless civilians with a piece of their experiences. No words for my anger at the logic that we have to wreck human lives—our children’s and other people’s children’s—to be free.  I want to believe a new miracle of Pentecost proportions is always just around the bend, ready to answer the latest of creation’s groanings. Yet, the more I learn of the vast caverns of trauma carried in the chest and brain of every veteran…well, the more I know we need transforming power from on high. And I believe it’s none other than the Spirit of Christ who is opening Mennonites to confessional friendships and partnership with veterans.

The prayer below is adapted from one I wrote and prayed as a gathering in worship on Pentecost 2012, the last time it coincided with Memorial Day. May we face the soul wounds of people we don’t understand, and so find the Holy Breath speaking new life in all of us, a wideness of mercy that cannot be contained.

God of wind and fire,
You for whom no language is foreign—
Creator of every people—Creator of friendship among enemies—
we are here to give you praise.
Thank you for keeping us breathing, tasting, touching, seeing;
thank you for your good creation,
for the soil which gives us food,
for the people who help us feel safe and loved. 
We have come with hope,
and also with doubt that anything will be different.
On this day when you sent wind and fire,
we want to welcome you, however you might come near, but
in our waiting we can find it hard to expect very much.  Surprise us. 
Send your Spirit anyway,
through our locked doors.  We are here –
and you are God, and we are not.
And also, on this day families are gathered with food, remembering
soldiers who were sent into desert wind,
who saw and made and felt another kind of fire.
Breathe again new life in mothers and fathers and children and spouses,
and send your healing Spirit among the wounded of mind and body and spirit in Iraq,
in Afghanistan, in the United States, in Syria, in Pakistan—and send us
to participate in healing wounds of war—
send us to sit in silence, open to hear
the memories that return and return.
Keep bringing your new creation:
trust where there was fear, sharing where there was taking…
and let your fire,
which brought new words to the lips of the waiting disciples,
burn in us and open our ears
to practice listening to strangers, still curious about what you might do.
Holy One, we know we are not at the center of things.
If it were not for your Spirit, we would dry up like cracked earth. 
Send too the renewing rain of your abundant love for every kind of person,
every withering plant and trembling creature. 
We ask this because of Jesus,
with hope
and doubt
and gratitude that you stick with us.  Amen.


Samantha Lioi is the interim pastor at Taftsville Chapel in Taftsville, VT. 

Credentialed Leaders Gather to Discuss MCUSA Survey

by Lisa Rand, Bally Mennonite Church

lisa rand 2 cropped 3-26-15Last year, Mennonite Church USA surveyed credentialed leaders on a variety of issues and questions, covering demographics, conferences, the denomination, and the currently difficult issue of attitudes toward homosexuality and the status in the church of individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ). The research, led by Last year, Mennonite Church USA surveyed credentialed leaders on a variety of issues and questions … Conrad Kanagy of Elizabethtown College, offered a glimpse into the perspectives of leaders from coast to coast.

Franconia Conference contracted with Kanagy to provide additional analysis of his material for our conference community. On Saturday, March 14, Kanagy delved more deeply into the data with about three dozen conference pastors at Covenant Community Fellowship in Lansdale.

lisa rand 1 3-26-15The morning’s work began with prayerful worship, with music led by Marilyn Bender (of Ripple Allentown) and Samantha Lioi (Whitehall congregation). John Bender, interim associate pastor at Franconia Mennonite Church, led a guiding reflection. He referred to Romans 14:3, where followers of Jesus are advised not to pass judgment on the servant of another: “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.” Bender asked leaders to consider what might result from a daily prayer for oneness, and a concerted effort to see each person as a sister or brother in Christ.

To begin his presentation, Conrad Kanagy invited leaders to consider the wisdom of Paul in Colossians 3:1-15, highlighting Paul’s emphasis on magnanimity, charity, and generosity in relationship with one another. These spiritual values were lifted up throughout the presentation.

“This morning is about understanding what has shaped our differences, the implications of those differences, and where we can go in the future,” said Kanagy. With frankness, he said he was “not even suggesting we can keep living together,” but asserting that we can be kind and gracious.

Leaders recognized this conversation as a beginning, an opening. Even while thanking Kanagy for his time and effort on data analysis, several leaders suggested it might be helpful to invite additional interpretations of the data.

“Surveys are imperfect,” Kanagy acknowledged, “but they bring us around the table together.”

Conference board member Jim Laverty expressed gratitude for Kanagy’s honesty about the cultural differences that separate us.

“He helped me to better appreciate the different worldviews represented in the survey results so that I might better appreciate just how profound these cultural differences are. I felt, overall, that the meeting drew together credentialed leaders from across the spectrum of worldviews and that as we met around round tables that we genuinely desired to listen and understand each other. I was grateful that at my table I could express my concern about how these differences will impact local congregations and how we choose to use or not use our power and influence as leaders to sway the opinion of others,” said Laverty.

Though no specific solutions were proposed, many leaders wondered about Conrad Kanagy’s questions: “What if the Holy Spirit is dismantling the church? What if the structures we have put in place are getting in the way? How can we work with the Holy Spirit?”

Despite the differences among conference leaders, there is critical common ground in the belief that God is active present is in our midst, even in the turmoil caused by feelings of disunity. As we move forward, Laverty suggested “that we equip and train our conference staff especially as they walk with churches who represent a diversity of perspectives. I would also suggest that despite our differences we explore ways to continue to collaborate on our call as a people to participate in God’s mission in the world.”

Conferences end Peace and Justice Minister role

by Stephen Kriss, Franconia director of communication

Samantha LioiAfter a two-and-a-half-year experiment with a new model for peace and justice ministry in Eastern District and Franconia Conferences, conference leaders ended the contract with Samantha Lioi (Whitehall congregation) as Peace and Justice Minister on November 30, 2014 due to lack of funds. The peace and justice role relied on above-budget giving to the two conferences from individuals and congregations.  Contributions did not match ongoing expenses, leading to the position’s termination.

After consulting with leaders from both conferences, Franconia Conference issued a 90-day intent to discontinue Lioi’s contract in August 2014 if sufficient funds were not raised within that timeframe.  According to Franconia executive minister Ertell M. Whigham, there was a strong desire to find a way to keep the position funded and the conferences appreciated a last-ditch effort from numerous congregations to bridge the funding gap.

Both conferences hope to continue the important work that Lioi began in this experimental position. The role will be further reimagined within both Conference structures and alongside the Peace and Justice Committee serving both conference communities.

Lioi was appreciated by many congregations and leaders in her pastoral presence, work at initiating congregational peace representatives, and collaboration around important issues.  Both Whigham and Eastern District conference minister Warren Tyson expressed words of appreciation for Lioi’s ministry.  “We intend to find another way to extend Samantha’s good work,” said Whigham.  “She contributed passionately toward the ministry of Franconia Conference congregations. Her work is appreciated and her presence among conference staff will be deeply missed.”

Pastors, leaders travel to Israel and Palestine

by Brook Musselman, for the Come and See tour

This week, we are sharing several reflections from participants on the October 2014 “Come and See” tour to Israel and Palestine. The tour is part of a broader initiative by Mennonite Church USA which encourages Mennonite pastors and leaders to travel to the region, to “come and see” what daily life is like for those who live there. 

Our group of 12 pastors and leaders–from Atlantic Coast, Eastern District and Franconia Mennonite Conferences–traveled to the West Bank town of Bethlehem, having intellectually prepared ourselves by reading the history of and various perspectives on the Israel-Palestine conflict. We weren’t prepared for our encounter with the hard realities of life in this country that would shake our hope in humanity and reshape our worldview.

Photo by Sheri Wenger.
The group sits on steps outside of the Damascas gate, Jerusalem. Photo by Sheri Wenger.

One day, we were taken to a shrinking, dusty Palestinian village that sat in the shadow of a recently-built Israeli settlement. Our guide showed us the farm land that had been confiscated from the villagers for the use or disuse of the settlers. We saw the pond where the village children used to swim in the summer heat before they were chased away by armed settlers who came to the pond for their own recreation. We passed the entrance to the village where a checkpoint was often set up that made access to the outside world incredibly difficult.

We heard the perspectives of Jews who are hardened to the suffering they cause by decades and centuries of fear, persecution, and constant threat. They told us of the hope they have because of Zionism and the establishment of their homeland, but we were deeply frustrated to see the harm that this continues to cause nearly 70 years after independence.

Photo by Sheri Wenger.
The group on a tour of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The church is said to be built over the place where Jesus was born. It was site of refuge for Palestinians during recent violence. Photo by Sheri Wenger.

We also met Jews who love their country but cannot support the oppressive actions of their government, so they endure teargas, rubber bullets, beatings, and arrests by the Israeli Army to stand alongside those without power.

In our brief time touring both sides of the dividing wall, we heard stories from the people that were both encouraging and discouraging. At times, we felt like throwing up our hands and admitting that there is no hope for justice or peace in this place. Each of us felt frustrated by the discrimination, inhumanity, and senseless violence inflicted upon the Palestinian people. We also felt anger toward the international community and especially our own government that acknowledges these atrocities but doesn’t take action.

But in spite of the discouragement we so often felt, we heard story after story showing the tenacity of the Palestinian people and their hope for a future. One of our guides was a Palestinian Christian with ancestry tracing back to the earliest disciples, who works tirelessly and daily risks imprisonment to raise awareness and promote peace in the area. Stories like this inspired us to come home and tell the stories of those in need of a voice and to promote shalom at home and abroad by encouraging all to be peacemakers in our broken world.

Franconia congregations partner to fight human trafficking

Franconia pastor Josh Meyer sparked conversation at the February 8 delegate gathering when he asked delegates to partner in issues of justice.  Photo by Emily Ralph.
Franconia pastor Josh Meyer sparked conversation at the February 8 delegate gathering when he asked delegates to partner in issues of justice. Photo by Emily Ralph.

by Sheldon C. Good, for Franconia Conference

As debate around human sexuality continues to leave many church leaders wondering what binds together people with diverse beliefs, at least four Franconia Conference congregations are partnering to advocate for basic human rights, declaring that human beings shouldn’t be abused, raped, and sold.

The four Pennsylvania congregations – Doylestown, Finland, Franconia, and Philadelphia Praise Center – independently of each other became aware of the issue of human trafficking, commonly defined as the illegal movement of people, often for the purposes of forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation.

These congregations are each comprised of members with diverse theological perspectives, racial makeup, and socio-economic status, making their shared interest in addressing human trafficking unique and important at a time when conversations around homosexuality have polarized many churches.

Each congregation has taken its own steps toward becoming informed about the impact of human trafficking internationally, nationally, and locally, and toward advocating for victims of human trafficking everywhere.  It wasn’t until recently, however, that leaders from the four churches realized their shared conviction at a seemingly surprising location: a delegate meeting.

In February, as Franconia Conference leaders conducted business and wrestled with questions related to homosexuality, Josh Meyer, associate pastor of Franconia congregation, stood up and appealed to church leaders, “What are the more important matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness that we can gather around?”  For example, Meyer suggested, despite differing opinions about homosexuality, doesn’t everyone agree that human beings shouldn’t be abused, raped, and sold into slavery?

IMG_3560“That was the appeal that sparked a quick, on-the-spot poll of pastors and leaders present to ask, ‘which congregations want to be in conversation on this, want to get together to work on this?’” said Samantha Lioi, Franconia Conference minister of peace and justice.

After the delegate meeting, leaders from the four congregations, plus Lioi, formed an informal task force “to explore what it would look like to work together and make responding to human trafficking a priority in our Conference,” Meyer said. The task force organized a resourcing breakfast focused on human trafficking, held in September, and organized an anti-trafficking workshop to be held during Conference Assembly on November 15. The task force is planning a day of public witness, where people will be invited to gather and pray outside popular trafficking spots in southeastern Pennsylvania.

“Moving forward, we’re excited about making more congregations aware of the issue, and providing practical, tangible ways for churches to respond together,” Meyer said.

The Finland congregation has been addressing human trafficking for several years, hosting local speakers including Debbie Wright, an activist who is producing a documentary about sex trafficking in southeastern Pennsylvania. Pastor Kris Wint first encountered trafficking while in Cambodia. “To do nothing is to keep people enslaved and live contrary to the One we claim to follow,” Wint said.

Franconia congregation has focused a Sunday morning service on trafficking, hosted an awareness night, heard from guest speakers, and provided resources on how to get involved in combatting trafficking.  “My sense is many congregations don’t even realize the extent to which human trafficking is a reality in our world,” Meyer said. “There are more slaves in the world today than at any other time in human history.  Churches need to know about this … My other sense is that many churches are aware of the situation but don’t know what to do in response. It seems like such a big issue; it’s hard to know how to engage. If we can find ways to help churches act in practical, tangible ways, that would be a great thing.”

About three years ago, Doylestown staff members KrisAnne Swartley and Sandy Landes began prayer walking around Hilltown. As they walked, they became aware of area businesses that profit from the sex trade: adult bookstores, strip bars, massage parlors.

“It deeply troubled us, but we weren’t sure what we could do about it, other than continue to pray,” said Swartley, Doylestown’s minister for the missional journey.

Eventually, the Doylestown congregation connected with local advocates: Worthwhile Wear and The Well. With this kind of partnering, Swartley sees advocating for an end to human trafficking as missional.

“Individually, we can do very little to end modern day slavery,” she said. “As we partner together, we can accomplish so much more – each person and congregation offering different gifts as we have them, for this ministry.”

Adrian Suryajaya agrees. Some members of his congregation, Philadelphia Praise Center, have been victims of forced labor and wage theft.

“It is important that we work together on this issue because it is such a big, overwhelming issue to tackle alone,” he said. “We need a lot of resources and teamwork.”

The diversity of the Franconia Conference congregations partnering to end modern day slavery shows this teamwork is already happening. Lioi hopes more join in, and hopes the upcoming conference assembly will provide ample opportunity to do so.

“I don’t know why, but it seems this injustice, this oppression in particular, has drawn a more diverse group of leaders together than any other I have seen,” she said. “I believe we can be publicly present in standing against traffickers and standing with survivors, especially since we have information about places close to our congregations that have been centers for trafficking.”

Nations Worship celebrates new space, all invited

by Samantha Lioi, minister of peace & justice, Franconia Mennonite Conference

Pastor Beny Krisbianto and other leaders of Nations Worship Center in Philadelphia are celebrating a milestone in their long journey toward a new space for worship.

Since the congregation purchased a building a few years ago in an historic Italian neighborhood in South Philly, renovation has been slow and relationships with their new neighbors challenging. Now, Pastor Beny has moved in to the renovated apartment above what will become the congregation’s new worship space, and the tone of interactions in the neighborhood has shifted. On July 19, they will celebrate this next step with a parsonage warming in the new space! Brothers and sisters of Franconia Conference are invited to come tour the building, see the parsonage apartment, and eat and worship  with Nations Worship Center. Tours start at 5:00 p.m., and a light meal and worship will follow.

Members of Nations Worship Center and Salford Mennonite Church share food and worship on Thanksgiving Day, 2012.
Members of Nations Worship Center and Salford Mennonite Church share food and worship on Thanksgiving Day, 2012.

Beny took some time—just after moving in—to talk with me about the changes, hope, and opportunities the congregation is seeing.

Samantha Lioi (S): I hear you’ve moved into your new living space, the “parsonage” section of your new building. How does that affect you, the congregation, and your ministry?

Beny (B): I did move last week; it finally happened, and the congregation is excited. We’ve been waiting and praying for this. We waited longer than we expected, but God always has a perfect time for us. When we moved to the new parsonage, I connected with some nice people in the neighborhood. [Now that I’m living here] I have the chance to know more people and more families—so those are good things that have been happening.

S: Some folks may remember that your neighbors were not excited to welcome you at first. Can you talk a little more about this relationship with your neighbors and how that’s going?

B: We have a saying in Indonesian: “If you don’t know them, you will never love them.” Once the people got to know us—that we are good people, that we are Mennonite, Christian people, then people started responding nicely to us. When we first came, people had false information, or maybe they were just uncomfortable with new people coming to their community. Eventually, people came to us and wanted to know us. Now that they’ve gotten to know us, everything is better.

S: How you have seen God moving throughout this experience?

B: He is faithful. One-and-a-half years ago we were facing a very difficult situation—discrimination, injustice, rejection. But God is faithful when we respond to rejection the right way: we didn’t get mad, we didn’t scream, we just prayed and loved them and showed up and showed them we are good people, not doing anything wrong (and of course we fulfilled all the city codes for the property and construction).  And God opened up the door for us move.

Now I feel the congregation has more energy to finish up the worship space of the building. We have felt God with us the last few months, and that same strength, that same grace will be with us to continue the work.

Last Sunday the congregation was so excited because we moved into the new parsonage, so they were more ready to pledge and give toward finishing the project. We do believe that God will not leave us in the middle of the journey.

S: I know you still have a lot of renovating to do. What are your hopes and dreams for the new space, and what stands in your way at this point?

B: Our dream is to celebrate Christmas in the new space. We want to see more souls come to know Christ. Now we are only able to gather for worship on Sunday morning, but in the new space, we can have youth worship, music practice, midday prayer—many possibilities during the week.

We want to reach out to the neighbors. We have already opened our building for free on Saturdays for music lessons for the local kids—and we have plans to host dancing lessons as well.

S: How did that happen?

B: Three of our youth went to music school, and they found out that their teacher lived a half block away from our building—so we had some conversations about having them use our facility without charge for music lessons. So we can be a blessing to the community as well.

S: And as for what stands in your way…

B: We’re using Kingdom Builders Construction, which is connected with Mennonite Central Committee, for the renovation. They estimate we need an additional $120,000 to finish the worship space. So we have to raise that money.

S: Is there anything else you would like brothers and sisters in Franconia Conference to know or pray about as they think of you and others in Philadelphia? 

B: Please pray for us that God will give us provision in trying to finish. If they have the desire or heart to support us, they could send people, send youth to work in our building—they are very welcome. This summer we hope to be busy with construction—so the more volunteers we have, the more it will help us stick to our budget.

Lots of people from Asia and other parts of the world have come to Philadelphia. Many different nations have come to the city—pray they will come to worship and come to know Christ. That’s why we called ourselves Nations Worship.

You’re invited!

  • What: Tours of Nations Worship’s new space, a light meal and worship service.
  • When: Saturday, July 19, 2014. Tours start at 5, and a light meal and worship service will follow.
  • Where: Nations Worship Center, 1506 Ritner St., Philadelphia

Franconia Conference gathers to celebrate, pray, confer, listen

Garden Chapel Children's Choir
Garden Chapel’s children’s choir led a rousing rendition of “Our God” at Conference Assembly 2013. Photo by Bam Tribuwono.

Franconia Conference delegates and leaders gathered November 2 at Penn View Christian School in Souderton, Pa. to celebrate God still at work.   With a packed auditorium for a third united assembly with Eastern District Conference, representatives gathered to listen and pray, to celebrate newly credentialed and ordained pastoral leaders, and to work alongside one another after an over 150-year rift created two separate Mennonite entities.  The theme “God still @ work” was an extension of the 2012 theme, “God @ work.”

With singing in Indonesian, Spanish, and English led by Samantha Lioi (Peace and Justice Minister for both conferences) and Bobby Wibowo (Philadelphia Praise Center) and translation into Franconia Conference’s worshipping languages, delegates and representatives from nearly all of the Conference’s congregations from Georgia to Vermont gathered to confer around a board-crafted statement on the Conference’s increasing diversity in ethnicity, experiences, faith practice, and expression.   The gathering was punctuated with points of celebration including testimony from Peaceful Living led by Joe Landis and Louis Cowell from Salford congregation, a youth choir from the revitalizing Garden Chapel in Victory Gardens, NJ, and a moment to mark the upcoming November retirement of Franconia Conference Pastor of Ministerial Leadership Noah Kolb after 45 years of ministry, which was met with rousing applause and a standing ovation.

Noah blessing 2013
Noah Kolb was recognized and blessed for 45 years of ministry. He will retire in November. Photo by Bam Tribuwono.

In a shortened one-day event, delegates spent the morning together around tables with Eastern District Conference to continue to deepen relationships across conference lines.  Business sessions were separate, and Franconia’s included a significant amount of time in conversations among table groups, conferring over the board statement and then reporting on those conversations to the whole body.  Delegates and representatives were encouraged to mix across congregational lines to better hear and experience the diversity of conference relationships.

For many, including Tami Good, Souderton (Pa.) congregation’s Pastor of Music & Worship, who was attending Conference Assembly for the first time, the table conversations were holy spaces.  Each person at her table was from a different congregation.   “I saw God at work in the gracious listening, especially in the time when we talked about the conferring statement,” Good reflected. “There were disagreements, but everyone was graciously listening and hearing.  Everyone actually wanted to hear each other.  It was a beautiful time.”

The conferring time, along with an afternoon workshop led by the Franconia Conference board, focused on prayer and visioning for the Conference into the future.   Conference board members Jim Longacre (Bally congregation), Rina Rampogu (Plains congregation), Jim Laverty (Souderton congregation), and Klaudia Smucker (Bally congregation) served as a listening committee for the daylong event.  They reported seven themes of consistent and continued conversation: engagement, diversity, shared convictions, authority, polity, the role of conference, and the reality of changing relationships and engagement.  Board members noted that there is much response work to do to continue the conversation and discernment process.

Bruce Eglinton-Woods, pastor of Salem congregation (Quakertown, Pa.), said, “The challenge is speaking clearly on what we believe and where we are at, which is often a challenge for Mennonite leaders. My hope and prayer is that we can trust God and release the idea of keeping it all together. We need to let God do the holding together.”

Franconia Conference delegates spent time conferring and praying together.  Photo by Bam Tribuwono.
Franconia Conference delegates spent time conferring and praying together. Photo by Bam Tribuwono.

According to Rampogu, one of the longest standing Conference board members, “the hardest part about this kind of meeting is that there isn’t enough time. We want to share and to talk together,” she said.  “That is a positive sign.  People want to connect.  My hope and prayer is that we keep our goal in mind, keeping our mission focused on equipping leaders to empower others to embrace God’s mission, with Christ in the center and churches focused on missional activity.”

In business sessions, delegates selected a number of positions by 97% affirmation including a 2nd term for conference moderator John Goshow (Blooming Glen congregation) along with board member Beny Krisbianto (Nations Worship Center), as well as ministerial and credentialing committee members Rose Bender (Whitehall congregation), Ken Burkholder (Deep Run East congregation), Mike Clemmer (Towamencin congregation) and Chris Nickels (Spring Mount congregation).   Randy Nyce (Salford congregation) who is completing a term as finance committee chair and board member reported on Conference finances, noting an 11% decrease in financial contributions from congregations.

“I was surprised and pleased that the attendance at Assembly 2013 was so strong; seeing the room filled to capacity was an affirmation of how much the delegates and guests in attendance care for our conference,” Goshow noted.  “Franconia Conference is all of us who are members of our 42 churches and our Conference Related Ministries.  It is my hope and prayer that together we chart a course that will advance God’s Kingdom in exciting and wonderful ways.”

Listen to the podcast.

Conference Assembly 2013 Highlight Video from Franconia Conference on Vimeo.

Taking time for justice: learning from Samantha Lioi

Samantha Lioiby John Tyson, summer writing team

In a recent book, Mennonite Church USA executive director Ervin Stutzman noted that the peace rhetoric of the Mennonite church has shifted focus away from nonresistance and toward justice. This significant change in language suggests that urban, suburban, and rural congregations are undergoing an attitude adjustment toward the neighborhood. Unlike nonresistance, the work of justice is naturally outward-oriented, concerned with the common good and the overall health of the local community.

One reason that congregations have altered their posture toward their local contexts is the influence of missional theology. It has birthed a generation of Christians ready to join what God is already doing in neighborhood, beyond the church walls. Finding ways to merge living the Gospel (justice) and spreading the Good News (mission), though, requires more than an attitude adjustment: it requires time.

This is the humbling lesson that I learn over coffee with Samantha Lioi, minister of peace and justice for both Franconia and Eastern District conferences. Among other things, Lioi’s role includes preaching and teaching and organizing congregational peace representatives, but the essence of her time is spent broadening our common conceptions of the complicated relationship between living out Anabaptist Christianity and seeking justice.

Lioi is passionate about helping congregations see justice in less abstract terms. For Lioi, justice is less about the business of law and politics and more about creating spaces in our busyness to share our lives with unexpected people. Following in Jesus’ footsteps, justice can be as ordinary as sharing mutual food and fellowship across socially-constructed lines of race, religious, or class divisions. A member of the Allentown intentional community known as Zume House, Lioi has seen these practices slowly begin to have a transformational impact on the community. “We’re all so busy that we sometimes lack the attentiveness that is critical to entering mutual relationships with others. It’s important to be reminded that doing justice can’t only be seen as ‘doing for others’ but ‘doing with others’ too,” says Lioi.

Transitioning from ‘doing for’ to ‘doing with’ often proves to be a challenging paradigm shift for congregations in affluent contexts. One reason is due to the reality that injustice and inequality is murkier and less dramatic in suburban, affluent settings. But the bigger reason involves a paradox, one that has to do with time. Affluent congregations are often so busy working to maintain a well-oiled church that they miss opportunities to vulnerably be with their neighbors, to sit among them with Jesus. “Being with others, learning from others, openness to being changed by real human encounters,” Lioi says, “is time consuming and outside our comfort zones.”

For Lioi, Christian faith from an Anabaptist perspective is patiently cultivated in the presence of others. Only from within diverse relationships do we begin to grasp a better sense of our own shortcomings and need for spiritual transformation. Lioi is hopeful that congregations in Eastern District and Franconia Conferences continue to seek encounters which lead us to “become more honest with ourselves, cultivate courage to face our fears, and display a greater willingness to be changed by our neighbors.”

Growing in honesty, courage, and openness is a long journey. It leads toward outbreaks and glimmers of what life in God’s kingdom looks like, what justice in all its fullest is, but it takes time. As the Mennonite church continues conversion about becoming a missional community, seeking to find ways to merge mission and justice, Lioi’s work of shepherding congregations is a true gift.