Thoughts on staying together

At the end of the Virginia Mennonite Conference annual assembly, July 21, 2018, Assistant Moderator Kevin Gasser encouraged us to “stay together.” Spoken from his heart, unrehearsed, and on the spot in front of the delegates, Gasser, pastor of Staunton Mennonite Church, encouraged delegates to “please stay together.” These wise words of counsel from a relatively young Conference leader were much appreciated. Churches have left in the past, but here are my thoughts on why the Virginia Conference has had a reasonably good track record of staying together.

Historical Consciousness: There’s a deep sense of shared history. It’s been over 180 years since the first Conference met and kept minutes, but the first congregation, Trissels, is coming up on its bicentennial in 2022. At the very beginning, in the 1820s, Virginia Mennonites almost divided over whether meetinghouses should be built, and whether revivalist preaching would be allowed. There have been other times in the history of Virginia Conference when we almost split apart, but leaders stepped forward and urged unity, as did Pastor Kevin Gasser, when the Virginia Conference met at Calvary Community Church, Hampton, Va. It is remarkable that in these fractious and difficult times, the Conference is moving steadily ahead with a history book writing project, not even knowing where the Conference will be when the book is completed in 4-5 years.

Cordial Acceptance: Respect for elders has been a historic practice in Virginia Mennonite Conference. In deference to age and experience, older people were called “Aunt” or “Uncle.” Mennonites who have been a part of the Conference for generations accept those who move in from elsewhere, like myself, they seldom object to significant changes, and they roll up their sleeves and help, with little fanfare. The southern attitude of hospitality is a tangible cultural value held by many in the Virginia context, and combined with Christian virtues of love, respect, and understanding, they serve as part of the glue keeping Virginia Mennonite Conference together almost 200 years.

A Mission Board: A wise pastor in another conference of MC USA recently told me that Virginia Conference’s mission agency helps keep our churches together. This was not an overstatement. At our annual meetings, delegates are inspired with stories of mission activities. When times get tough, as they are now, we often find common interest and focus through outreach, service, and evangelism. Virginia Mennonite Missions is part of the Spirit glue that helps keep Virginia Conference churches together.

Good Leadership: In 1947, when difficult times in the Mennonite Church threatened to split the denomination apart, moderate Virginia Bishop Timothy Showalter was asked to preach a sermon at a tense gathering of ninety bishops and over three hundred ministers from across the United States. Showalter urged moderation, respect for those who were different, and cordiality toward others on the divisive nonconformity issues of his day. A stenographer likely copied the sermon and one of this historian’s prized finds was discovering a copy of Bishop Showalter’s sermon in the denominational archives. It felt like Kevin Gasser, outgoing Assistant Moderator, was channeling Bishop Showalter’s counsel to “please stay together.” Wise words indeed.

Where will the next generation of Mennonite leaders come from?

After finishing Donald Kraybill’s fine new history book about Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, I’m left wondering where the next generation of Mennonite church leaders will come from. Kraybill’s centennial book was a fun read for me, but in the midst of his sociological analysis and human-interest stories, it became clear to me that Mennonite leaders in the twenty-first century may not come from Mennonite colleges like they did in the twentieth century.

A question from a returning Goshen (Indiana) College student cut to the heart of the question I had been pondering. On Christmas break from college, we discussed the Mennonite church and his hopes and dreams for the future. I had taught him during all four years of high school, and he finally exclaimed, “Where are the charismatic Mennonite leaders for my generation?”

By charismatic, he meant visionary leaders who can inspire people to join and flow into the Anabaptist-Mennonite theological stream of belief and thought. Kraybill writes about this Goshen freshman’s great-grandfather, minister J. Early Suter, who served on the first faculty at Eastern Mennonite School when the doors opened in 1917. His grandfather was the highly respected Dr. Daniel Suter, also chronicled in the book, who had to make a difficult choice between serving as pastor at Weavers Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg or teaching science at EMC. He chose teaching, and though he was an outstanding science professor, at heart Daniel Suter was a churchman.

As I read Kraybill’s book, it dawned on me that in the coming years, our key Mennonite church leaders may no longer be presidents and administrators in Mennonite colleges.

Kraybill’s book reveals that Mennonite church leaders in the twentieth century were often called into teaching or administrative roles at church colleges. When I attended EMC in the late 1970s, President Myron Augsburger was one of the premier Mennonite Church leaders, and also the academic leader of EMC. I remember his rapid rate of speaking during chapel addresses and his fast-paced gait while walking across campus—Augsburger had both a church and a school to serve, and little time to waste. Augsburger spoke in hundreds of settings across the country and the world during his 15 years of presidency at EMC. My wife and I were EMC students when Augsburger was shown a rope hanging from the ceiling, as Kraybill writes, during his last chapel address as president. In front of a full chapel auditorium, he pulled the rope, which launched a fun prank. We laughed and clapped, relishing our healthy community spirit, and then we sang Augsburger’s favorite hymn. Those were the heady days of the school, as Kraybill writes, when undergraduate enrollment in my freshman year was at 1,100 and required chapels were a valued community event. When I graduated from EMC in 1981, another trusted churchman, Richard Detweiler, was drawn out of church work to lead the college.

Today, as Kraybill writes near the end of his book, presidents and administrators of EMU are hired because of their professional skills and academic credentials. Their involvement in the Mennonite Church, he observes, is a secondary consideration and only tangentially relevant to their position. And so one of my best recent history and Bible graduates from EMHS stood in the library and asked me where the next generation of vibrant and articulate leaders of the Mennonite Church will come from. It’s the right question for the twenty-first century.

As I reflect on the answer, it seems to me that leaders will come from congregations and conferences, which is where they came from before the twentieth century Mennonite college era began.

Kraybill details the way in which EMS had been a “holy experiment” in the early twentieth century, as described by one of its founders. Today that “experiment” has changed and is being acutely tested, as Kraybill details in the last chapter. I studied in the Bible and Religion Department at Eastern Mennonite College as part of my degree program. Since Kraybill finished his book last year, the University has eliminated the philosophy and theology major (although the overall department still exists). That leaves me wondering where our future Mennonite leaders will get their undergraduate theological training in Anabaptist thought. I can quickly list several outstanding Christian universities in the United States, beyond the Mennonite realm, where some of my best EMHS graduates attend.

Nevertheless, I remain guardedly optimistic about the future of Mennonite higher education in terms of its symbiotic relationship to the Mennonite denomination. During days when the EMU Board was large and included representatives from many Conferences in the ‘70s and ‘80s, both my father and my mother-in-law served on the EMU Board of Directors, and I well remember those days of heady optimism for Mennonite higher education. My wife and I and all five of our children are EMU graduates. It was fun to participate in the recent EMU and Eastern Mennonite School Centennial events, celebrated this past fall on the same weekend. While reading Kraybill’s history book I noticed an offer from our local credit union to invest in the lives of children by purchasing savings certificates that mature at age 18. My wife and I bought certificates for our recently born grandchildren, and put them in their Christmas stockings, with the intention to help put a dent in their first semester college costs.

But the question from a Goshen College freshman, one of my outstanding history students, at the library desk I was staffing during semester exams at EMHS, persists: “Where will the next generation of Mennonite leaders come from?”

It is incumbent upon those of us who believe in Mennonite higher education to support our colleges, but also to work in and nurture our local congregations and area conferences, out of which, it seems to me, will come those future Mennonite leaders.

https://themennonite.org/will-next-generation-mennonite-leaders-come/

95 Middle Way Theses

What follows are 95 theses about faith and practice in Mennonite Church USA. Each one comes from my own experience as I’ve pondered what appears to be a shrinking moderate voice in the denomination.

As a high school history teacher for over thirty years, I’ve been pondering the meaning of the five-hundred-year anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, and some months ago I began jotting down my own ideas, which eventually led to the following list.

I write from a moderate’s point of view. I am hopeful for the future of Mennonite Church USA, yet I am also realistic about the nature of church institutions at the end of the reformation age. Perhaps posting these suggestions, musings, and observations on the internet door of our age can help our community discussions. At least that is my hope, so here I stand.

1.      Think before you speak, because attacking a friend causes pain, loss of confidence, and sleepless nights.

2.      Affirm a brother or sister ten times for good things they’ve done, and by then, your theological differences may seem less significant, but if not, at least you will have built a strong foundation for conversation.

3.      Hold to the central historic Christian beliefs of the Creeds, the Councils, and historic mainstream Christian beliefs, recognizing that while these change over time, the core of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is central.

4.      Hesitate trying out the latest novel ideas about faith and new theological discoveries you’ve come up with just for fun—test them against timeless interpretations of Scripture in the Believers Church tradition.

5.      Welcome the ideas of young people as, together, we seek to faithfully follow Christ, apply Scripture, and interpret the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.

6.      Learn to live with the tensions that come when two Assembly Resolutions appear to be irreconcilable, since that’s pretty much the way life goes, with unresolvable contradictions that dog us throughout life.

7.      Confess salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, as outlined in Romans 1:17, and add a Latin word in the margin of your Bible, Sola, or “alone.”

8.      Avoid looking to political views or governmental policies for Kingdom ethics, moorings, or instruction for living—look instead to the way your community interprets Scripture.

9.      Come together with bread and wine in Communion at the foot of the cross, accepting the elements with brothers and sisters who are different than you are.

10.  Confess sins when conviction touches your heart, especially in community during worship, and accept cleansing through the power of the Holy Spirit.

11.  Talk about theological and lifestyle differences in reasonable, rational, and calm tones, with truth, candor, and honesty, but without rancor, high-mindedness, or self-righteousness.

12.  Forgive one another, love, and engage brothers and sisters who are different so that we do not create even one more denomination, since the 45,000 denominations in the world are enough already.

13.  Work hard to maintain church unity because anything worth keeping or building is difficult, so roll up your sleeves and dig in.

14.  Cook the best food you can for the next pot-luck at church, since the kitchen at church is a great place to work at unity while flipping pancakes, plugging in crockpots, washing dishes, and laughing with one another.

15.  Respect the central administrative and faith bodies of your Conference, as those groups have highly committed men and women who are seeking to find a middle way between the polarizations of the day.

16.  Challenge the central administrative faith body in your Conference, ask them to become more transparent, and to decide key faith issues of doctrine and practice more out in the open.

17.  Think twice before you post opinions about a pastor or leader in a distant state or place, because you may not know enough about the situation to actually have anything worthwhile to say.

18.  Find brothers and sisters with whom you can pray, often, deeply, and in the very Spirit groans of Christ, who hears our cries even before we utter them.

19.  Encourage your pastors often, because they are walking the vale between competing voices that few of us not in such a holy office ever see or ever feel.

20.  Tell your song leaders at church occasionally that you appreciate their work of choosing and leading songs, because such a task, which is often done on a voluntary basis, is hard work, and is difficult to navigate in an age of competing preferences of musical style.

21.  Stop long enough in your church lobby to build church unity, both on the way into the sanctuary, but also on the way out, where we say hello, check in on each other, and speak a word of encouragement that may go a long way to support a friend.

22.  Listen carefully to the academics in your church and learn from those trained in the biological sciences, medicine, law, psychology, educational administration, and theology.

23.  Discuss your beliefs and opinions at Conference delegate tables, and work at the hard business of creating church unity by listening well and then clearly speaking your own opinions.

24.  Help pay for lay members to get to church conventions, like Mennonite World Conference gatherings, as such an investment can yield good returns toward building church unity.

25.  Consider yourself fortunate if you have family reunions where you can test your ideas and beliefs, give and receive feedback, and heatedly debate those who are different than you are, but still come back the next time ready to talk again.

26.  Understand the peril and promise of posting beliefs about the church in social media networks that can positively impact others for needed change, but may also injure and harm in a screen-time digital environment that does not convey a smile, hug, or handshake.

27.  Appropriate a genuine faith in Christ’s saving mercy and grace in our lives, and an understanding of our need for Spirit-led heart transformation, which can lead the church in the direction of unity.

28.  Attend an alumni reunion or reception at the Mennonite College or University you graduated from, check in with friends you haven’t seen for a while, encourage new administrators, and laugh when folks from long ago tell you a good story or a tale.

29.  Give faithfully out of the abundance you’ve been given as a powerful and God-given gift of the Holy Spirit that builds up, undergirds, and strengthens the staff and ministries in those institutions that count on your giving for their sustenance.

30.  Invite new folks who come to church into your home for Sunday noon dinner, and so partake of the very presence of Christ in our lives.

31.  Crochet sweaters for the babies in your congregation, and so bless those you give them to for a long time, perhaps even into the next generation.

32.  Take time to listen to the student who calls you from the school you graduated from, speak to them cordially, learn about the institution you care about, and at the end of the conversation, make a contribution.

33.  Provide feedback to your Mennonite alma mater when they ask for your opinion, and not later when you complain or grumble after the results of the survey have been posted.

34.  Shed a tear when the tensions of denominational differences tear at your soul, whenever it may come, such as during a lovely song in worship, the beauty of a sunset, or the grasp of a baby’s trusting hand around your finger.

35.  Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.

36.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace, as Paul wrote in Ephesians 4.

37.  Read a church periodical so you know what others are thinking and writing about.

38.  Stay in touch with the banter on church denominational web sites so you understand what a variety of people are thinking about.

39.  Attend a church wide convention to find out what others from across the church believe and to see what they look like.

40.  Sing like crazy when a song leader starts a song at church—it may lead to the redemption of your heart and enliven your spirit for the week ahead.

41.  Invite your pastor to play in the praise band at church—he will be glad for the opportunity to do something different in worship than preach.

42.  Teach your Sunday school class when asked, it will be good for your soul and it will help members learn more about you.

43.  Read church periodicals and exercise judicious responses when you read stuff you don’t agree with.

44.  Rejoice when a high school student you teach shows you an article you wrote in a church periodical, even though she took it from a Mennonite church lobby in a distant state when her choir sang in that church—she may get connected to the magazine and the church through it.

45.  Provide copies of your denominational magazine to everyone at church, like your church used to do.

46.  Invite four generations to your Sunday dinner table, eat outside in the warm weather, and feel free to talk about faith, always taking great care to listen well to the younger generation.

47.  When your Conference administrator asks for help at the regional conference assembly, volunteer without hesitation.

48.  Laugh deeply with your grandkids and instill in them the joy of living before they reach the age of one.

49.  Attend other churches whenever you can and enter into their congregational life as if it were your own—because it sort of is.

50.  Joke with those of another generation around your kitchen dinner table—it may be the very Spirit glue needed to keep the church going well in the years ahead.

51.  When your District officer asks you to pray for another church nearby, do it, and often.

52.  Read Christian theology from other traditions, like so far outside your realm of comfort that you begin to authentically examine your own beliefs.

53.  Help the Sewing Circle at church make their next comforter.

54.  Work at a Relief Sale if you are asked—it’s one of the best inter-Mennonite events anywhere.

55.  Hold your fire when a young adult writes something scurrilous or outrageous on the internet—you probably did such a thing once upon a time.

56.  Accept the premise that change is a regular part of the human condition, and if you try to stop change, it’s like attempting to hold back the incoming waves at the ocean.

57.  Ask a group of adults to go to a classic rock concert and have some fun—it’ll help you when it’s time to talk about faith at church.

58.  Go to a bluegrass jam in your community, and if you play an instrument, string it up, tune it, and chord along with the sounds of heaven.

59.  Sing gospel songs with abandon and so bring the lyrics of faith into your soul, your church, and your heart.

60.  Lift your hands in praise and clap when you feel energized by songs that are led at church.

61.  If you live in a Mennonite college town, listen well to a relative from a distant state who laments the loss of youth from his home church who go off to school and never move back home.

62.  When you teach youth about the church and faith, don’t lecture—show them, encourage them, and allow them to talk about new ideas—you did that once.

63.  Make your house a hospitable setting for talking about faith issues, and take time to sit and listen when young adults wonder, prod, and disagree with you or the church.

64.  Mourn the need to release a conservative congregation when your conference delegate session calls you to do so—and do it just as fervently when a progressive church decides to leave.

65.  Wish young adults happy birthday on social media because you may be one of the few in the church still reaching out to them with God’s love.

66.  Pray for the Executive Conference minister in your area—the job must be one of the most challenging in the church.

67.  Drive to the distant denominational Assembly with folks who believe and think differently than you—the hours of talk and listening in the van just might build a bridge or two.

68.  Volunteer when the Gifts Committee at church asks for your help—do it if you can—serving on a Gifts Committee is hard work when people keep saying no.

69.  Look for the continuities of faith in your denomination while welcoming the inevitable changes that come over time—if you don’t believe it look at your high school yearbook and see how much you’ve changed.

70.  Understand the power of the information age—ignore it to your peril—the world has changed as dramatically as it did when Luther and the Anabaptists began using the printing press.

71.  Realize that the world of information changes everything in the church since we learn about events and decisions in distant places instantly, and the playing field of influence and power has completely changed.

72.  Rejoice that a local congregation is still made up of people in pews and chairs who come together regularly to pray, sing, confess, and listen to one another, in person and without the use of information technology.

73.  Enter into prayer for the church with mutuality in mind, seeking a genuine relatedness in a loving and trusting manner.

74.  Pray that God would help you change and accept others who are different, not that God will change others to become more like you.

75.  Accept the reality that most will affirm marriage between a man and a woman as God’s intent, but that others will believe differently and that living with such a tension is tenable and possible within a denomination.

76.  Agree that institutions inevitably change, even religious ones, and that’s a normal human process, and actually much to be desired.

77.  Find the courage to speak from a moderate’s point of view in sharing time during worship, both encouraging others but yet clearly calling for faithfulness to God’s kingdom.

78.  Sit down with those on your right and left and listen to them before opening your own mouth—it’ll work much better that way and it will actually reflect God’s intent for human relationships.

79.  Understand that soundbites from the left or right make the news, but the moderate’s diligent work over decades has the greatest long-term impact.

80.  Listen to the left and right, but stand in the middle, because that’s about the only way civil society or church can survive in the long term.

81.  Engage in a meaningful mission that is larger than yourself, and know that it may never be fulfilled in your lifetime, but still, begin and work at it.

82.  Accept that if you’re a moderate you’ll get run over like roadkill in the middle of the highway, but get at it and don’t be afraid of the traffic.

83.  Refuse to allow institutions to lock people into contours of belief and practice that are based on patterns of the past.

84.  Respect Anabaptist groups who hold to practices such as coverings, plain coats, and traditional ways of life, and do not disparage them, as their communities are probably growing faster and may be more faithful to 16th century beliefs than your more progressive group.

85.  Listen to wisdom from gray haired seniors in the church, but bend your ear closely to the voice of young people who have ideas that will change and strengthen the church for the future.

86.  Travel the highway of church history beliefs and practice, and respect the past, but realize that roads change, they get moved, they vanish, and new roads emerge where none had been before.

87.  Respond with wisdom when those on the left attack you, remaining silent if necessary, and when conservatives criticize your common-sense perspectives, reply in calm and charitable ways.

88.  Lament the loss of the moderate middle, and exercise prudent fear for an increasingly divided public forum, be it the church, the state, or the federal government.

89.  Write a letter to a large Capitol newspaper when you observe congressmen and women acting like middle-school children in the halls of power in Washington, D.C., who refuse to actually listen to members on the other side of the aisle.

90.  Turn off the shallow commentators on the radio who make a fabulous income stirring up the fears of the populace.

91.  Use images and music to communicate in this post-Reformation age, but continue to write and speak because sentences and thoughtful words are still the most effective long term means of building unity.

92.  Attend Homecoming at your Mennonite alma mater and find out how others in your class have changed and grown.

93.  Avoid hardline and predictable theological responses to the issues of the day because a refusal to examine another’s position, on the left, right, or middle, digs you in deeper to the rut you’ve created for yourself.

94.  Challenge the fancy new ideologies coming out of academia that sound cute and trendy, because they’ll quickly vanish if not rooted in historic Biblical teaching that has anchored the church for millennia.

95.  Utilize the perspectives of the global Mennonite church, ecumenical bodies, and interfaith discussions that may be productive for unity in MC USA.

 

Traditional Funeral Central Ohio

Uncle Denver S. Yoder, Sr., passed away after 88 years of life and was buried in a traditional Mennonite manner at the Calvary Bible Fellowship, Mt. Perry, Ohio, June 16, 2015.  Denver was married to Emma for years, with 11 children, 64 grandchildren, and 136 great-grandchildren.  The family gathered around and filled in the grave with dirt, shoveling by hand.  Relatives who wanted to help were invited to participate.  Denver S. Yoder, Sr., was a godly man and lived a good life.

Denver Yoder funeral June 16, 2015 Calvary Bible Fellowship Mt Perry Ohio

Northern District Meeting

A middle level adjudicatory body met at the Big Spring Mennonite Church, March 9, 2015.  The Northern District Council, consisting of around 25 representatives from about a dozen churches in the Virginia Mennonite Conference, welcomed a new congregation, heard overseers reports, and listened to a mission worker present new ideas for church growth.

New bridge over Linville Creek replaces 1898 wrought iron truss bridge that many Broadway, Virginia, residents, including Mennonites, used in early 20th century

Mennonites in the Northern District of Virginia Mennonite Conference often used this old iron bridge to head west towards mission stations in the West Virginia highlands. Today a modern bridge over the steady Linville Creek reduces the 1898 bridge to a foot and bike path. The old bridge in Broadway, Virginia, is on the National Register of Historic Places in Virginia.