Staying with the denomination

What does a letter buried in an Indiana archive have to do with questions about staying in Mennonite Church USA today? Quite a bit, I’d argue. The letter, which I found in our denominational archives eight years ago, reveals that some of the earliest Virginia Mennonite leaders believed in the value of a church-wide association of congregations. Upon finding the letter, I had a little party of one by the copying machine in the lobby. Since then, I’ve discovered more stories confirming that in each era, Virginia leaders have spoken for, written about, and defended the value of staying with the denomination. Please consider these brief vignettes that I think provide significant direction for today.

1853: That thin and yellowed letter in the Indiana archive came from the pen of Virginia Mennonite Bishop Martin Burkholder. Thirty-six, he wrote a letter to a Pennsylvania Bishop friend, and asked that he and other ministers in Lancaster Conference consider helping him create a general conference of Mennonites. Burkholder and Bishop Samuel Shank Sr. made several circuit trips to Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Canada, asking for a general conference to be formed, but to no avail. After Bishop Martin Burkholder passed away a few months before the Civil War began, it would be decades until his vision for a Mennonite association of area conferences came into being. The great irony of my search in libraries and archives along the east coast, and then finding the letter in Indiana, 157 years after it was written in the Shenandoah Valley, is that having a national archive is one outstanding rationale for staying with a denomination long term.

1897: A year before the Mennonite Church got organized in 1898, Virginia Bishop Lewis J. Heatwole traveled to Elida, Ohio, for preliminary meetings. He and other ministers like Christian Good and Samuel M. Burkholder went to see what was happening, and to report back to leaders in Virginia. L. J. Heatwole faithfully traveled to the early meetings of the Mennonite Church, and kept Virginia Conference informed about wider church developments. With L. J. Heatwole’s clear leadership toward participating, Virginia Conference joined the Mennonite General Conference in 1911.

1919: When Virginia Mennonite Conference met a year after World War I ended, it adopted eighteen fundamentals of faith. Conservative in nature, the articles were adopted, almost word for word, two years later by the Mennonite Church. Virginia Conference’s action, adopted at my home congregation in Broadway, Virginia, October 18, 1919, held significant influence and sway on the Mennonite Church for nearly two generations.

1942: When critical ministers urged Virginia Conference to leave the Mennonite Church during WWII, Bishop John L. Stauffer reacted strongly. Though some thought the broader church had become too liberal, Stauffer stated that Virginia needed to stay and not leave. Bishop Stauffer, then President of Eastern Mennonite College, had significant church wide experience, and he urged the Conference to stay in the denomination. Stauffer’s voice, along with others, won the day.

1981: Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus waited patiently to speak at the Mennonite Church Convention in Bowling Green, Ohio. The hot topic was whether women could be involved in ministry. Her speech at an open microphone stirred many, and helped to create action in the direction of accepting women in leadership. Virginia Bishop Glendon Blosser ably and gladly served as Moderator at the 1981 Bowling Green Conference, the seventh of eleven Virginia Mennonite leaders to serve as moderator of the denomination.

1997: My wife and I took our family to Orlando, Florida, for the Mennonite Church General Assembly in the summer of 1997. While our three young children enjoyed the fun times for kids and we soaked up the Florida warmth, I served as a delegate from Virginia Conference. We took our kids to Disneyland after the Mennonite Church made proactive plans to integrate with the General Conference. Owen Burkholder, from Harrisonburg, served in 1997 as both denominational moderator and as Virginia Conference minister, the lead executive staff position.

2019: Today’s issues are different than in the past, but in other ways quite similar. I teach history and Bible to descendants of Bishop Martin Burkholder, whose letter I found in Indiana. I try to help them understand the high value their ancestor held in organizing a general conference. Further, I will take a bit of Bishop Burkholder’s spirited vision with me when I serve as a delegate at the 2019 Mennonite Church USA Convention in Kansas City. My reading of Virginia Mennonite Conference history is that at each turn in the road of divisive issues, key leaders in Virginia Conference have spoken in favor of participation in the wider denomination. Such is the direction I would urge today.

Harmonia Sacra Singing 2019

On January 1, for the past 117 years, singers from all around come to sing from Joseph Funk’s Harmonia Sacra songbook. On New Year’s day 2019, 360 singers came from six states and Ontario, Canada (see my photo above). We sang twenty-nine songs, led by over a dozen song leaders. Each song was announced in the Legacy Edition of Harmonia Sacra, and the number was announced in the wide-format book.

The Mennonites at this singing came from all kinds of conferences and churches. The three things we can do together across Mennonite boundaries in the Shenandoah Valley include the annual relief sale, working together in disaster relief, and singing together from the 19th century Harmonia Sacra. One can attend a Harmonia Sacra singing once a month in the Shenandoah Valley, they are that popular. Song leaders on January 1 2019 were progressives, leaders in MC USA, and men with plain coats, from the Old Order community in Dayton. In recent years, buggies have been tied outside the church for the singing at Weavers Mennonite Church, west of Harrisonburg.

Why will I go again next year? Because it brings hundreds of Mennonite singers together from among the fifteen or more varieties of Anabaptists in the area. Second, because folks come from great distances, including other states, to celebrate faith through song. I met a woman from Kentucky whom I had only corresponded with by e-mail previously. Third, I’ll go again because my faith is nurtured and bolstered when singers all around joyously proclaim faith through the wonderful art of four-part singing. Fourth, I’ll go again because in our last song, “Fair Haven,” we expressed that in Jesus Christ our faith is one. Perhaps this annual singing, around me whom were basses who made the benches resonate with their low notes, represents a foretaste of heaven itself. At the end of “Fair Haven,” we expressed in music, that “we all shall meet in heaven.” It will be fun when Joseph Funk himself can lead a Harmonia Sacra singing on the other side. I hope to be there for that one too.

“Oh Come, Angel Band”

Like the shepherds, I’ve had angels visit me. Unlike the startling heavenly hosts in Luke’s gospel, however, I’ve felt the presence of angels in the harmonies of great songs. One that stands out is called “Angel Band” and this song has helped me through difficult times, but it has also sparked moments of sheer joy and delight.

First story: In my classroom at school, students come after lunch every Thursday to sing gospel bluegrass music. The joy in performing time-tested and well-known gospel songs with my students has enlivened my classroom.

There’s no credit for students to attend, no requirements, and no tryouts. They just show up and sing or bring a mandolin, guitar, banjo, upright bass, or violin. For a dozen years I’ve done this. We sing old gospel songs, over and over, and they light up, relishing the chance to sing or play a break on their instrument.

Just about every week my angel band will sing the old favorite, “My latest sun is sinking fast.” I look forward to this high point in my week and it thrills my soul with great joy when students sing and perform. Our little angel band is unpolished and does not compare with the fine music performed elsewhere on our Mennonite high school campus, but for the weekly angel band of singers in my classroom, it lifts me near to heaven.

In the third verse, there’s a humorous but haunting phrase when the song writer heard the “noise of wings.” My mother taught me to listen for the noise of wings, to look for angelic visits, and not to discount the odd or extraordinary ways that God meets us through angels. The kids who sing in my room each week bring me deep joy. I have my dear mother to thank for helping me see angelic visitors, right in front of me, every Thursday at the end of lunch.

Sunshine Band EMHS 2018

Second story: A few years ago a young leader in Harrisonburg passed away. In his prime, a great musician, and involved in a number of kingdom enterprises, our community mourned his early death. I took off school to attend his mid-day memorial service at Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg.

The Angel Band song brought tears to my eyes and caused me to weep. Performed by outstanding musicians, I will never forget that moment of being drawn into an angel band of mourners and musicians, all attempting to make sense of a death that we found hard to comprehend. Deep joy trickled into my soul amidst great loss, borne on the wings of an old traditional song with simple lyrics. In that moment of loss, an angel band of great musicians with lilting harmonies bore me away on snow white wings, helping release the grief so deeply embedded in my soul.

Third story: On October 21, 2018, my congregation held a Sunday morning worship service to embrace our grief and loss. In the past fourteen months six adults have passed away. We’re not a large congregation, and these deaths have impacted us. One of those, my father-in-law, passed away seven months ago, and to help me cope with his loss, I chose Angel Band as the offertory song. At his funeral, his sixteen young adult grandchildren sang Angel Band.

During our recent service on grief and loss, I may have learned how the shepherds felt when they were “sore afraid.” It was at the end of the second verse of Praise the lord, sing hallelujah, that I forgot whether we’d sung the last verse. The refrain is long and I had been working on dynamics and tempo, and the congregation followed my directing. Enraptured by the soaring sopranos and the strong bass lines, in the last two measures I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t remember if we had sung the last verse. With my directing arm raised and poised, everyone stopped. Embarrassed, I had to ask, “Have we sung the last verse?” With smiles and shaking heads, they made it clear that we had another verse to sing. I have a new affinity for the terrified shepherds.

Leading music at church gives me great joy, in spite of my mistakes and foibles. Usually I am surrounded by excellent musicians who cover my average musical skills. I am grateful for the weekly “angel band” at church who enter in with joyful songs, ready smiles, and sincere affirmations.

Join me, during this holiday season, to look for angel bands all around. They are not mysterious, ephemeral, or ghost-like. Angels are those in your world who sing heartily, laugh and listen to you, or who help you deal with the loss of a loved one. Heavenly visitors are near if we can see them, just like the shepherds who saw some sort of an angel band so very long ago.

History Day

On November 7, 2018, I became the Apostle Paul for a day at Eastern Mennonite School, Harrisonburg, Va., where I work. While working with a team of history teachers, History Day began five years ago at my initiative.  Each year we choose a theme and implement the day-long concept for over 300 K-12 students. Our teachers and students get involved in a variety of ways. I met students on my trailer, parked behind my Jeep, in the school parking lot. We had a fire going in a pit, and we burned scrolls, like converts in Ephesus burned their magic scrolls in the first century, as described in Acts 19. 

History Day 2018

On History Day, November 2017, we celebrated a century of education at Eastern Mennonite School, Harrisonburg, Virginia. We had a host of stations to help students understand 100 years of education. I played the role of Virginia Mennonite Bishop Lewis J. Heatwole, one of the key founders of Eastern Mennonite School in 1917.

History Day 2017 – Centennial of Eastern Mennonite School

History Day 2016 took place at Fort Seybert, West Virginia, where the theme was the French and Indian War era. My role was Thomas Jefferson. One of our history teachers has land where there’s an annual reenactment of the 1758 fort burning by the Indians. It’s part of the annual Treasure Mountain Festival. It was a day for our students and teachers to learn colonial American methods, crafts, and practices.

History Day 2016 – French and Indian War era

History Day 2015 at Eastern Mennonite School focused on the 1950s and ’60s in the United States. I sang in a Peter, Paul, and Mary band. My role for the day was Noel Paul Stookey. We played well known ’60s protest music like “If I had a hammer,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Puff the Magic Dragon.” The faculty helped for the day and our K-12 students learned, in an experiential way, about the ’50s and ’60s.

History Day 2015 – “The Times They are a Changin'” (1950s and 60s)

Our first History Day, October 31, 2014, helped students and teachers understand The Burning of the Shenandoah Valley 150 years earlier during the American Civil War. The Burning was a devastating event for Virginians in 1864, and our small school faculty and staff worked together to make it a history teaching event. I played the role of Union General Philip Sheridan, though the only officer’s outfit I could find to wear was Confederate gray.

History Day 2014
Photos from Eastern Mennonite School archives.

A House Divided Against Itself

Just before the American Civil War Abraham Lincoln declared that the United States could not continue as a divided country–either it would outlaw slavery altogether or slavery would become legal in all the states. Lincoln did not believe the United States could continue as a divided society. Lincoln borrowed his “house divided” phrase from the gospels of Jesus, revealing that Christ’s teachings from two millennia ago are as timely today as they were in the ancient era.

Our houses today cannot remain divided and hope to stand. Our country is as divided as ever, and we must find ways to unite, to speak in civil ways to each other, to build coalitions and bridges among those of very different points of view. Ours is a national crisis of a house divided–let us find leaders who can reach across our aisles that divide and help unite us.

In the church, we need to find ways to seek unity and not division. In the small town of northeast Ohio where I grew up and where I write this blog, we have a Mennonite history of churches dividing when there have been differences, finding that an easier solution than doing the hard work of creating a united house. A denomination, be it conservative or progressive, will need bridge builders to help liberals speak to conservatives, and vice versa, or otherwise the house will divide and collapse. In our congregations there are always differences of belief, opinion, or persuasion. We bring different upbringings, different assumptions, and different theological streams that we drink from. Let us learn to work together.

When I attended college years ago, we students occasionally tried to change things on our campus by speaking to the administration. But my memory is that most of our student energies went outward, challenging the powers beyond our campus. We marched against the production of nuclear weapons, protested the military-industrial complex, and tried to alleviate social injustices. Recently I attended a theological speech at the college I graduated from, where students and faculty greeted me outside the chapel doors with signs of protest for a lecture from a world-renowned theologian. It seemed to me the students were inward-focused, in contrast to my own college days where we mostly directed our energies outward toward the powers. The students who met me with protest signs and sidewalk chalk drawings were speaking into the community, revealing our inside-the-house differences, and trying to make me and others, it seemed to me, to feel concerned about an issue that I believe was an internal debate about ethics. How can a church institution stand when we attack one another from within?

Let us learn from Lincoln’s assessment, first articulated in the dusty towns of Palestine years ago. A house divided against itself cannot stand, be it a country, a denomination, a church school, a congregation, or even our own homes. It took determination for Lincoln to declare his vision in 1858, now eight score years ago. May those who are able to help bridge our current divides be found, enabled, encouraged, voted for, and empowered to cross the chasms that keep us apart. Otherwise we cannot stand.

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.

Grains of Resistance

On April 5, 2018, nine protestors were arrested at the Cargill Poultry plant in Dayton, Virginia. They attempted to take a petition with hundreds of signatures to the Cargill management. The protestors chose the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. They had an agreement to deliver the petition to company management, but the company backed out at the last minute. The petition asked Cargill to give jobs back to three workers who had been unjustly terminated. Ten signatures were folks from my home church, a Virginia Conference congregation. Four of those arrested and released from jail are members of Mennonite Church USA from the Harrisonburg area.

After an appearance in Rockingham County Court on April 27, the judge dropped charges, though they were required to pay court costs, they were put on probation, and they were ordered to stay off the Cargill property for a year. The Cargill Nine includes my 25-year-old son.

The Cargill Nine are helping many in the Shenandoah Valley learn more about the difficult working conditions in poultry factories and the company’s resistance to any kind of organization by workers, who are often recent immigrants.

Part of the significance of the Cargill Nine for me is that my extended family has been reflecting on the story of our grandfather, John J. Yoder, who refused to wear a uniform and cooperate with the US military during WWI. It was a hundred years ago, in March of 1918, that John was drafted by Uncle Sam. He was among some 2,300 Amish, Mennonite, Brethren, and Hutterite men who refused to cooperate with the U.S. government. John was beaten and placed in a sweatbox in order to break his will. An Amish farmer with an 8th grade education, John had learned the way of peace and he stood firm. After the War John and Emma had a dozen children, one of whom is my mother. John and Emma’s sons, my uncles, were conscientious objectors in WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.[1]

In reflecting on the meaning of John J. Yoder’s story a hundred years later, it dawned on me that my son’s courage to step off the sidewalk at the Cargill factory in Dayton, Va., with the police waiting in force, was somewhat like the courage of his great-grandfather John in WWI. Both resisted the powers, and while John J. Yoder’s life was at risk from the officers’ brutality and his great-grandson’s life was not at risk, it also took courage for the petitioners to step off the public sidewalk, confront the powers, and speak for voiceless workers in a giant corporation, knowing that they would be arrested for doing so.

Menno Simons used an ancient metaphor in his Foundation Book that describes the body of Christ as being made up of many grains of wheat.[2] A hundred years ago most conscientious objectors cooperated with the US government, though a small group of men kept the grains of absolutism alive in the bread loaf of Anabaptist community and refused to cooperate with the US military. My grandfather John Yoder bequeathed me the courage to resist the powers when necessary.

My son and the Cargill Nine have given me new resolve, in the twenty-first century, to speak up for the marginalized in the Shenandoah Valley. For what purpose do the grains of resistance in the Anabaptist tradition serve but to speak on behalf of strangers in our midst. As the gospels instruct, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me in.”

[1] John J. Yoder’s story of conscientious objection during WWI can be read in Through Fire and Water, Herald Press, Loewen and Nolt, 2010, pages 15-17.

[2] Complete Writings of Menno Simons, Herald Press, 1984, p. 145.

The Emancipation of Peggy Jones

Recently I received good kidding from faculty friends when I took a day off school to find a single historical document in a distant archive. I teach high school history, but my friends know that historical research is my passion. So they started a texting group, with super-sized emojis and jokes, that trailed me from Harrisonburg to the Historical Society Library in Richmond, Va.

It was during Black History Month, February 2018, that I discovered an online emancipation document for Peggy Jones. Freed in January, 1827, the small 6 x 8-inch document lists her height, age, and distinct scar on her face. Seeing a scan of the document on the Historical Society website was not good enough for me, so I took a day off from teaching and drove to Richmond to investigate.

I kept getting good natured texts from my friends, who really did want to know the results of my trek to the state capital. Twice I pulled off the interstate to respond to them. Finally, the moment of revelation occurred when an archivist brought out an oversized collection folder with the emancipation proclamation for Peggy Jones, a thirty-four-year-old 19th century African American Virginian.

I shall not soon forget when I got to hold and study the aging document, stamped clearly by the Rockingham County Clerk’s seal, officially signed and dated. After January 5, 1827, Peggy Jones was a free woman.

Now I’m on a research journey to discover if more can be known about Peggy Jones. I’m not sure I will succeed, because the databases lead me in several different directions, and a clear record of Peggy’s life seems to fizzle out after that day in the Rockingham County Court house when she received her freedom.

Why does this matter? Because 1827, when Jones was emancipated, is the decade when the first log meetinghouses were built for Mennonite churches in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, historic congregations like Trissels, Weavers, and Springdale. Mennonites started their churches in Virginia in the nest of southern slavery, and Peggy’s story provides detail to the saga. Second, this matters because the Baptist woman who freed Peggy Jones lived in and attended a church in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The old meetinghouse that Peggy’s Baptist owners and a few Mennonites used in the early 19th century had a place for slaves to sit, most likely including Jones.

Black History Month 2018 gave me a new historical pursuit—to see if I can emancipate Peggy Jones from the shadows of history and tell her story. I hope to succeed, because as far as I can determine, her story has not been told before. And to my good teacher friends who encouraged and kidded me all the way to Richmond I say thanks!

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.

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.