New partnership enables global access to Anabaptist theological education

Mennonite World Conference and AMBS enter partnership in “sharing of gifts”

By John David Thacker, Annette Brill Bergstresser (AMBS) and Karla Braun (MWC) | September 2020

ELKHART, Indiana, and KITCHENER, Ontario (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Mennonite World Conference) — Mennonites around the globe yearn for Anabaptist theological education, identity formation and leadership development, but attending an Anabaptist-related college, university or seminary has not been possible for Mennonites in many countries. A new partnership has been designed to respond to this need.

Mennonite World Conference (MWC) and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), Elkhart, Indiana, have forged a new agreement to provide Anabaptist-based theological and church leadership education to Anabaptists around the globe in both for-credit and noncredit formats. Pastors and church leaders will be able to take courses in biblical and theological studies, church history and ministry in their home countries.

A memo of understanding between MWC and AMBS lays out the details of what César García, Ph.D. student, MWC general secretary from Bogotá, Colombia, describes as a response to a 2003 call for “sharing of gifts” among MWC member churches. AMBS is owned by Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA, which are two of 107 member churches (national conferences) of MWC, a “communion of Anabaptist-related churches linked to one another in a worldwide community of faith for fellowship, worship, service and witness” that began in 1925.

“We perceive this relationship with the seminary as a gift that we are receiving from Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA in order to support global Anabaptist churches,” said García.

Rapid growth creates need to equip leaders

While on the whole, membership is declining among Mennonite churches in the U.S. and Canada, many Anabaptist-Mennonite churches in the Global South are growing rapidly. Along with this growth comes a need for leaders grounded in Anabaptist faith and theology.

“After more than a half century, several churches born of Mennonite work do not know who the Mennonites are or what their particularity is within the larger Christian family,” wrote Burkina Faso Mennonite church leader Siaka Traoré in Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts, MWC’s Global Mennonite History volume (Good Books, 2006). This need has become more urgent as the Anabaptist family has expanded around the world, said García.

“Now that most of our Anabaptist member churches are in the Global South, we have a huge need to do theology from an Anabaptist perspective in each context,” García said, noting that opportunities for discipleship training as well as more specialized ministerial leadership training would be embraced.

García said that through their online platforms, the most popular evangelical, fundamentalist and charismatic preachers influence theological development in MWC congregations around the world.

“When we lack Anabaptist identity, it is so easy to absorb the influence of these theologies without entering into a real conversation with them,” García said. “And this affects how we make decisions in our global communion, how we think about the structure of our global church, and how we exercise the responsibility of leadership in our churches. We want to help our churches enter into a discerning dialogue instead of blindly receiving from other traditions.”

Joining gifts to build up the church

AMBS leaders have been working to make Anabaptist educational offerings available to church leaders around the world — in their own contexts. Beginning in 2017–18, former AMBS President Sara Wenger Shenk, Ed.D., led an initiative to recruit participants for seminary courses and certificate programs that students could engage from a distance.

Conversations between García and Wenger Shenk — and subsequently with AMBS’s incoming president, David Boshart, Ph.D. — about working together to strengthen Anabaptist identity in the global communion led to a meeting in January 2020 to formalize a new partnership. The shared memo of understanding was affirmed in March and April by Mennonite Education Agency and Mennonite Church Canada executive leaders, MWC Faith and Life Commission leaders and Executive Committee members, and the AMBS Board of Directors.

According to “points of convergence” outlined in the memo of understanding, both MWC and AMBS are dedicated to strengthening the life and ministry of the churches they serve and to cultivating their rich heritage as Anabaptist organizations. They see their new partnership as a way to join their gifts in building up the church and its ministries together.

Among the gifts that MWC brings to the partnership are an extensive network of international relationships and connections, communication channels and an accountability structure. MWC leaders will help identify professors from around the globe who can offer global perspectives as sessional faculty members at AMBS. They will also promote program and course offerings to member churches.

AMBS brings more than 70 years of experience in educating church leaders from an Anabaptist perspective, including many international students. In 2019–20, international students represented 25 percent of the graduate student body and 29 percent of participants in the seminary’s nondegree Journey Missional Leadership Development Program. Since the launch of AMBS’s distance-friendly Master of Divinity Connect program in 2013, faculty members have gained experience in online instruction. The seminary’s teaching and administrative faculty are creating curricula and curating library resources that are increasingly attuned to global contexts.

Boshart anticipates that the partnership will further enrich the quality of instruction at AMBS: “Our teaching faculty will be engaged in settings where the church is growing at such a pace that it is outstripping its resources for leadership development. Working with churches and leaders in contexts such as these will enhance their teaching because they’ll gain a much broader exposure to and understanding of the vitality and resilience of the global Anabaptist community, especially in the Global South.”

Opportunities for synergy

In 2019, in the process of developing its first fully online master’s degree — the 46-credit-hour Master of Arts: Theology and Global Anabaptism — AMBS began a partnership with Meserete Kristos College (MKC) in Ethiopia, which is part of Meserete Kristos Church, an MWC member church. In 2019–20, nine MKC graduates in Ethiopia began studying through a cohort version of this degree program, which combines online instruction with short-term classes taught on the MKC campus by visiting professors from AMBS.

Also in 2019, the seminary’s Journey program expanded to include a cohort in Southeast Asia. The two-and-a-half-year distance-friendly leadership development program is designed for church leaders without formal education and lay leaders exploring a call to ministry.

Although these programs are open to participants in MWC member churches, Boshart noted that the educational options made possible by the new MWC-AMBS partnership could take many different forms. International mission and educational leaders have offered strong encouragement to keep the options “as open and flexible as possible,” he said.

Gifts for mutual growth

Both García and Boshart have high hopes for this sharing of gifts for mutual growth.

“These educational opportunities will equip new leaders in the global church with more awareness of the tradition to which they belong — and with the capacity to enrich other traditions with our distinctives while also receiving from others,” said García.

Boshart agreed, saying, “I think this can only be good for a more unified and clarified sense of Anabaptist identity for the global communion as AMBS meets educational institutions around the world to think together about what it means to be Anabaptist in the world today.”

MWC exists to be a global community of faith in the Anabaptist tradition, facilitate relationships between Anabaptist-related churches worldwide, and relate to other Christian world communions and organizations. 

AMBS MLK Jr. Day event addresses exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart and need for repair

By Quinn Brenneke

(l. to r.) Special guest Benjamin J. Tapper, M.P.A., M.Div., facilitates a panel discussion featuring longtime Elkhart residents and leaders Rev. Jean Mayes and Rev. Dr. Plez Lovelady as part of AMBS’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day event at AMBS on Jan. 20, 2020, on the theme, Repairing the Harm: A Community Conversation on the Systemic Exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart. A community conversation followed the discussion. (Credit: Oliver Pettis)

ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Nearly 175 community members, students, faculty and staff gathered to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day on Monday afternoon, Jan. 20, at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana. This year, AMBS’s biennial event centered on the theme, Repairing the Harm: A Community Conversation on the Systemic Exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart.

A panel discussion between Rev. Jean Mayes and Rev. Dr. Plez Lovelady kicked off the free event in the Chapel of the Sermon on the Mount, followed by a community conversation in the Waltner Hall Lounge. Mayes is an ordained local elder to St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Elkhart; she earned a degree in biblical studies from Bethel University in Mishawaka, Indiana. Lovelady is senior pastor at Southside Baptist Church in Elkhart, executive director of S.B.C. Ministries and chancellor of Beulah Bible College and Seminary in Elkhart; he is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute.

Benjamin J. Tapper facilitated the panel discussion and community conversation. An associate for resource consulting with the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis, Indiana, Tapper holds a Master of Public Affairs from Indiana University and a Master of Divinity from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis and hosts the Invisible Truths podcast.

Tapper began the panel discussion by asking Mayes and Lovelady to name one or two specific harms they have seen in the Elkhart community over their lives and to describe the impact of those harms. Mayes recalled growing up in a mostly Black neighborhood located around the railroad tracks on the south side of Elkhart and described the solidarity she experienced there.

“We never knew that we had less. Our community was so small, and pretty much everyone in it had the same thing,” she said. She noted that the Black community was self-sustaining, with its own grocery stores, meat markets, beauty shops, and clothing and furniture stores.

“I watched the city grow up around us,” she said. “I remember a day when — and most people don’t know this — there used to be a Black school here. I attended that Black school; it was called South Side School. It’s very hard to find reference to that school. It’s almost like our history was erased. And I think that’s the problem that is happening all around the country; Black history is being erased.”

Mayes noted that integration of schools came out necessity when the Black school was torn down and the city had to find places for the students to go. She and her two sisters ended up having to go to three different schools. She witnessed a similar division of families across the city.

Lovelady described the discrimination he has seen in Elkhart during his lifetime.

“We were red-lined within a certain area of the community,” he said. “Once we graduated from high school, the real Elkhart came out. You could not get a job here. There was no respect here. A lot of the people we thought were our friends literally didn’t speak to us because we were in that little corner of Elkhart.”

He remembered when the City of Elkhart demolished the Black neighborhood in the 1960s and ’70s.

“One of the saddest parts was when they tore down the ‘village’ — when they told us the land where we lived was contaminated and the banks would not invest money in it,” he said. “They said, ‘However, we will sell you some other houses that are really falling apart, but it’s better than what you have.’ Many people who had been in these homes all of their lives found themselves going out and getting in debt all over again.”

Tapper asked the panelists to imagine what repairs would look like for the harms that they have seen. Mayes pointed to the need to consider all parts of the community in order to repair harm.

“As long as you have one sick part of your neighborhood or community, your whole city is sick,” she said. “Every economic dollar that we spend downtown and on the north [side of Elkhart], 25 cents of it ought to go to the south part of the city, too — not to tear down and vacate homes, but to build them up and repair them. They have historical value just like the downtown has historical value.”

Lovelady described how parks in African American communities are neglected and treated like traps for drug dealers, leading to young Black men and women being charged with felonies that affect their future access to housing, employment, being able to vote, etc.

“We need to understand that we all have worth, and to open opportunities for people in the city,” he advised. “Most of our younger people are moving to Indianapolis because they understand that there’s nothing here for them — no jobs with opportunities for advancement. The money is held in a certain part of the city. To make things better here, we need to look at things holistically and economically. We have to realize that we are coming to the table, and we are coming to the table with worth.”

Lovelady also pointed to the need for personal change: “There has to be a heart change. There has to be a mind change.”

Mayes added, “In order to have a heart change, we have to begin to look at each other as individuals and not as mass groups. And until we look at our community as a whole community and stop dividing ourselves in a caste system type of way, we will never have full community or full peace in Elkhart.”

Singing before and after the panel discussion was led by Clara Hadley, a worship director and church administrator at Kingdom Impact Christian Cultural Center in Elkhart. Jean Robinson, who was previously scheduled as a panelist, was not able to attend.

Tapper facilitated a community conversation after the panel discussion. Attendees gathered in small groups to discuss reflection questions, and Tapper closed with a historical overview of racialized discrimination in the United States. He traced the movement of enslaved people through the Middle Passage to the Americas, where slavery was eventually made illegal centuries later. Reparations were promised but not honored, he said, and legal discrimination was enacted in the Jim Crow laws. Tapper indicated that this historical legacy was challenged by the civil rights movement, but new eras of systemic discrimination — such as mass incarceration — continue to disadvantage Black communities.

“Understand that as we talk about repairing the harm, as much as dialogue is important, we have to put it in context as one small step in a centuries-long process,” he said. “It’s going to take all of us to undo this.”

Rod Roberson, who was elected in November as Elkhart’s first African American mayor, attended the community conversation and shared closing words.

“Whenever someone doesn’t have a voice, I want to give them a fighting chance,” he said. “Thank you for being here; thank you for all that you do.”

AMBS’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day event was hosted and organized by AMBS’s Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism (ICUR) team, led by Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, M.A., Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism coordinator. Event planners included ICUR team members Alexis, Andy Brubacher Kaethler, Ph.D., AMBS Associate Professor of Christian Formation and Culture, and Marisa Smucker, an M.A. in Christian Formation student from Goshen, Indiana.

Alexis spoke of the premise for celebrating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy before the panel discussion began.

“Repair is essential to the work of reconciliation and justice,” she said. “Justice and reconciliation require remedy; they require repair for harm; they require restitution for damage and hurt. But that enables us to be creative together.”

See also the recording of the event online and

— Quinn Brenneke of Fort Wayne, Indiana, is a second-year Master of Divinity student at AMBS, majoring in Theological Studies.


(l. to r.) Jake Webster and Tom Butler participate in the community conversation that followed the panel discussion on the topic, Repairing the Harm: A Community Conversation on the Systemic Exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart, at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day event at AMBS on Jan. 20, 2020. (Credit: Oliver Pettis)

Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, M.A., addresses participants at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day event at AMBS on Jan. 20, 2020, on the theme, Repairing the Harm: A Community Conversation on the Systemic Exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart. Alexis is AMBS’s Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism coordinator and an organizer of the biennial event. (Credit: Oliver Pettis)

Clara Hadley leads singing at Repairing the Harm: A Community Conversation on the Systemic Exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart, hosted by the Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism team at AMBS in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day on Jan. 20, 2020. (Credit: Oliver Pettis)

Rod Roberson at Repairing the Harm: A Community Conversation on the Systemic Exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day event hosted by the Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism team at AMBS on Jan. 20, 2020. (Credit: Oliver Pettis)

Seminarians study sustainability

By Jennifer Schrock/Merry Lea

This article was originally published by Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen (Indiana) College and is shared with permission.

Benjamin and Rianna Isaak-Krauss in front of a pocket prairie at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center’s Rieth Village. (Merry Lea photo)

WOLF LAKE, Indiana (Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center) — Benjamin and Rianna Isaak-Krauss bring a unique perspective to the 2018 cohort of the Sustainability Leadership Semester (SLS): they are seminary students rather than undergraduates.

The married couple will graduate from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana, in 2019 with credits from the SLS — an interdisciplinary program designed to provide students with hands-on, experiential learning — on their transcripts. The SLS is a program of Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen (Indiana) College.

Benjamin is pursuing a Master of Divinity with a major in Theological Studies: Peace Studies, and Rianna is working on a Master of Arts in Christian Formation. They are the first AMBS students to incorporate the SLS into their academic programs.

Like the other four SLS students in their cohort, Benjamin and Rianna participated in an eight-day canoe trip and are exploring the local watershed through weekly field trips. They take the same courses on water resources, environmental policy, ethics, sustainability and problem-solving, and they live in Merry Lea’s student housing. The two add a theological bent and a little extra life experience from other parts of the world to group discussions. Benjamin grew up in Bammental, Germany, and Rianna is from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

Benjamin and Rianna say that the SLS does not feel like a “step down” to them even though they are older students. While they may have more to offer in the area of ethics, neither had taken science courses since high school. The opportunity to learn from scientists and other practitioners who work with environmental issues daily was important to them

A framework for tackling complex problems

The articulation agreement between Goshen College and AMBS that made the seminary students’ participation possible grew out of years of collaboration between Merry Lea and the seminary. When Luke Gascho, Merry Lea’s executive director, taught a course on creation care at AMBS in the fall of 2013, he saw firsthand the interest that many seminary students had in sustainability. Rebecca Slough, then academic dean of the seminary, also recognized the ways that both institutions could benefit by making place-based experiential learning on sustainability available to seminary students.

“I think the SLS can be a great experience for pastors,” Gascho remarked. “It would especially benefit seminarians who are interested in leadership roles in other contexts because it provides a framework for working on complex problems in the public square.”

He notes that the experience can help seminarians apply their theology to particular places and contexts. The most likely candidates for the program would be students who are pursuing a Master of Arts: Theology and Peace Studies or a Master of Divinity with a major in Theological Studies: Peace Studies.

Commitment to faith and the earth

In many ways, Benjamin and Rianna typify the kind of seminary students who can benefit most from the SLS. While their future plans are still hazy, both have a longstanding commitment to the earth that intertwines with their faith.

Rianna sees many links between what she describes as “spiritual sustainability” in a post-Christian era and the need for sustainable approaches to natural resources. She has a vision for a series of retreats that could integrate the two. One example is a workshop in which an herb garden also functions as a prayer labyrinth, and the physical tasks of weeding and harvesting become metaphors that embody the tending needed for a healthy spirituality.

Benjamin came to the SLS by way of a formative year on a Christian Palestinian farm in the West Bank. During this gap year following high school, he saw the farmers’ dedication to their land.   

“I learned a lot about water conflicts and land conflicts,” he said. “I learned that the environment can be something that divides us or something that brings us together.”


While he considered studying ecology, Benjamin chose theology as his field because he realized that his faith was what really fueled him. The option of incorporating sustainability into his theological degree was part of what drew him to AMBS.

What new insights have the AMBS students gained from the SLS so far? For Rianna, prior experience as a canoe trip leader for adventure-based youth ministry deepened her encounter with the Elkhart River Watershed during the SLS canoe trip.

“We’ve always used the land as a backdrop for relationship-building or Christian formation or another purpose,” she said. “Here on this trip, the focus was on actually paying attention to the land and river. It made me realize how I had previously objectified the landscape for my own purposes.”

Taking an intimate look at one watershed has also given her a desire to put down roots in a particular place, she said.

Benjamin mentioned exercises in the semester’s Faith, Ethics and Ecojustice class that pushed him to wrestle with values.

“We don’t often think about why we care about something. Nor do we spend time thinking about what our place is in making change,” he said. “Luke challenged us to think about what sustains me, what is driving me to do the work I do, and how I relate to others in that.”

A curriculum for youth

A point of integration for Benjamin and Rianna is a problem-solving project they are completing as part of an SLS course. The couple is working together on a curriculum for a weeklong summer experience for church youth groups that will focus on the local community and sustainability. They are fleshing out an idea that originated with a group of local pastors who are committed to bringing the idea to fruition.

Imagine churches all over the country with pastors who see creation care as an integral part of the Christian faith. Imagine leaders of Christian organizations who have a repertoire of ways to connect with their local communities. The AMBS – Merry Lea partnership will continue to work toward this vision.

Learn more about the AMBS-Merry Lea partnership and AMBS’s Environmental Sustainability Leadership concentration.

Image: Students in the 2018 Sustainability Leadership Semester pose with an elk at the Wellfield Botanic Gardens in Elkhart during a field trip. Back row (l. to r.): Joel Pontius, Ph.D.; Rheannon Starr; Dave Ostergren, Ph.D. Front row: Benjamin Isaak-Krauss; Skye McKinnell; Lydia Dyck; Jonathon Schramm, Ph.D.; Rianna Isaak-Krauss; Mandira Panta. (Merry Lea photo)

AMBS professor emeritus remembered for prolific scholarship, faith and humility

By Annette Brill Bergstresser

Willard Swartley, Ph.D., discussed his newest book, Jesus, Deliver Us, on Sept. 7, 2019, during a book signing at Fables Bookshop in Goshen. (Credit: Bekah York)

ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — The Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) community is grieving the sudden loss of a beloved colleague, teacher, mentor and friend. Willard M. Swartley, Ph.D., professor emeritus of New Testament, died of natural causes at age 83 on Nov. 6, 2019, in Goshen, Indiana. He had lived with a heart condition for many years.

Swartley, who retired from the Elkhart, Indiana, seminary in 2004 but continued to be a regular presence on campus, will be remembered for the ways in which he lived out his deeply rooted faith in Jesus — both within and beyond his academic work. Those who knew him speak of his gentle and humble spirit, his pastoral presence and his consistently encouraging nature, in addition to his intellectual curiosity and numerous contributions to biblical and peace scholarship.
“Willard was an exceptional and widely respected biblical scholar and a committed teacher,” said Beverly Lapp, Ed.D., acting president and academic dean. “He lived his faith, looking after those who were struggling in life, and he believed in the work of Christ and the church to increase God’s kingdom here and now. He loved AMBS so very much.”

From 1978 to 2004, Swartley was a professor of New Testament at AMBS. During his tenure, he also served as academic dean (1979–81; 1995–2000), acting president for half a year (1996), and director of AMBS’s Summer School (1990–93; 1995–2000). Swartley was actively involved in fostering scholarship for the church, serving as director of the Institute of Mennonite Studies (IMS), AMBS’s research agency, for more than a decade (1979–88; acting, 1997–99). At IMS, he was also editor of the Occasional Papers series (1981–88) and co-editor with Ben C. Ollenburger, Ph.D., retired professor of biblical theology, of the Studies in Peace and Scripture series (1990–2006). His final book, Jesus, Deliver Us — published earlier this year — is the 16th volume in the latter series.

Mary H. Schertz, Ph.D., professor emerita of New Testament and a longtime colleague of Swartley’s, praised his contributions to the church’s understanding of the Bible. She described his 1982 book Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women as “perhaps the first and certainly the most influential gift toward our recognition that we read the Bible from different perspectives and, for that reason, come to different conclusions about the biblical witness.”

“It would be difficult to imagine how deeply the life of the church and its relationship with the sacred text would have been impoverished and malformed without the tireless devotion and care of Willard Swartley,” she reflected. “As Mennonite biblical scholars, we have so much to thank him for.”

According to IMS Managing Editor David C. Cramer, Ph.D., Swartley’s generosity toward colleagues and students elevated the level of scholarship of the entire seminary community.

“He viewed scholarship as a communal rather than a competitive enterprise,” Cramer recalled. “When appointed IMS director, his first act — according to a memo he wrote in 1982 — was ‘to assist the collegiality of the AMBS faculty in research and publication’ by celebrating their work at the end of each semester.”

Cramer added that in May, Swartley was recognized for beginning IMS’s annual book celebration, a cherished seminary tradition. And just last Friday, Nov. 2, he attended a book celebration for Bible faculty members Safwat Marzouk, Ph.D., and Drew Strait, Ph.D., at AMBS.

Swartley’s collaborative spirit and encouragement of colleagues and students alike come through in the tributes and testimonials that have been shared in the seminary community and on social media following his death. Earlier this year, Swartley himself described being encouraged in his faculty and IMS roles at AMBS by one of his predecessors, William (Bill) Klassen, Ph.D., a former New Testament professor. Klassen had also recommended Swartley for membership in the Society for New Testament Studies (SNTS).

Swartley paid it forward. Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, Ph.D., dean of lifelong learning, remembers how warmly Willard welcomed her and her husband to AMBS when she came as a new student in 1990.

“His pastoral qualities and character were striking from the start,” she reflected. “In the days and years that followed, I also saw his enormous intellectual gifts and academic productivity, always interwoven with deep, courageous spirituality. When I returned to AMBS as an employee, he continued to be a key mentor and, along with Mary [his wife], a dear friend to me and my family. We will miss him greatly.”

Assistant Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins Drew Strait, Ph.D., also experienced Swartley’s warm welcome when he joined the AMBS teaching faculty in 2018.

“Willard’s enthusiasm for scholarship and capacity to encourage others are character traits I will long admire and seek to emulate,” he reflected. “He found that narrow way; he was simultaneously a formidable scholar and humble disciple at the foot of the cross. His legacy will inspire us for many years to come.”

Swartley will be remembered not only for helping shape the theology and peacemaking practices of generations of students, but also for the friendships he cultivated over his many years at AMBS.

Daniel Schipani, Dr.Psy., Ph.D., professor emeritus of pastoral care and counseling and a longtime colleague and friend of Swartley’s, shared that he and Swartley enjoyed “countless conversations on Jesus, interpreting the Bible, evil, salvation, the Holy Spirit and much more.”

“He was always supportive and encouraging, even when disagreeing about something,” Schipani said. He also recalled Swartley ministering to him with “prayer, anointing and wise words” when he was once hospitalized, noting, “He had a robust pastoral heart.”

“It’s fitting to apply to his life and work Jesus’ teaching in the parable of the talents: he faithfully and generously invested the gifts he had received, so now he’s blessed with the rewarding words, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy servant … enter into the joy of your master’ (Mt. 25:23),” Schipani concluded.

Swartley earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from Princeton (New Jersey) Theological Seminary in 1973; a Bachelor of Divinity from Goshen (Indiana) Biblical Seminary (now AMBS) in 1962; and a Bachelor of Arts from Eastern Mennonite College (now University) in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in 1959. He spent various summers studying at universities in TübingenHeidelberg and Göttingen, Germany; Union Theological Seminary, New York; and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois; among others. He also was a senior scholar at the University of St. Andrews, United Kingdom (2002), and a research fellow at Cambridge (United Kingdom) University (2002) and Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut (1988–89).

Among his many published works are the books Jesus, Deliver Us: Evil, Exorcism and Exousiai (Cascade, 2019); Living Gift: John’s Gospel in Meditation and Poetry, Art and Song (Evangel, 2013); John (Believers Church Bible Commentary; Herald, 2013); Health, Healing and the Church’s Mission: Biblical Perspectives and Moral Priorities (InterVarsity, 2012); Send Forth Your Light: A Vision for Peace and Mission, and Worship (Herald, 2007); Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics (Eerdmans, 2006); Homosexuality: Biblical Interpretation and Moral Discernment (Herald, 2003); Israel’s Scripture Traditions and the Synoptic Gospels: Story Shaping Story (Hendrickson, 1994); Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Herald, 1983); and Mark: The Way for All Nations (Herald, 1979; rev. ed. 1981).

Swartley was also the New Testament editor for the Believers Church Bible Commentary series (Herald) and editor of 20 other books, including Politics of Discipleship and Discipleship in Politics: Jürgen Moltmann Lectures in Dialogue with Mennonite Scholars (Cascade, 2006); The Love of Enemy and Nonretaliation in the New Testament (Westminster/John Knox, 1992); and Perspectives on Feminist Hermeneutics (IMS, 1987), with co-editor Gayle Gerber Koontz, Ph.D., professor emerita of theology and ethics.

Prior to coming to AMBS, Swartley was professor of New Testament at Eastern Mennonite College (now University) (1971–78), where he also served as dean (1976–78). He also taught at Conrad Grebel College (now University College) in Waterloo, Ontario, and Goshen (Indiana) College, as well as seminars and intensive courses in Japan, Taiwan, Swaziland, Nairobi, Botswana and Cairo. He and Mary also enjoyed building relationships with international students at AMBS.

Swartley was baptized in 1945 at Doylestown (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Church and, while still in seminary, became pastor and was ordained at the former Locust Grove Mennonite Church in Elkhart. From 1978 to his death, he was a member of Belmont Mennonite Church in Elkhart, where he served on numerous commissions and teams.

He was born Aug. 6, 1936, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, to William Henry Swartley and Ida Myers Swartley, as the youngest of eight children. He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Mary, of Goshen; their two children, Louisa Renee Swartley Oyer (Gary Oyer) of Hesston, Kansas, and Kenton Eugene Swartley (Emily Hertzler Swartley) of Cedar Falls, Iowa; six grandchildren; and a sister, Dorothy Swartley Martens of Chester, Vermont.

Visitation will take place on Friday, Nov. 8, 3–5 and 6–8 p.m. at Belmont Mennonite Church, 925 Oxford Street, Elkhart, Indiana. The burial will be on Saturday, Nov. 9, at 9 a.m. at Prairie Street Cemetery in Elkhart, followed by visitation at Belmont and an 11 a.m. memorial service at Belmont.


Willard Swartley, Ph.D., AMBS Professor Emeritus of New Testament, in 2002. (Credit: J. Tyler Klassen)

Willard Swartley, Ph.D., visits with his colleague Janeen Bertsche Johnson, M.Div., in Lambright Center in May 2004, when he retired from the AMBS teaching faculty. (AMBS photo)

Willard Swartley, Ph.D., and Ben C. Ollenburger, Ph.D., former co-editors of the Studies in Peace and Scripture series of the Institute of Mennonite Studies, display the first volume in the series, The Gospel of Peace: A Scriptural Message for Today’s World (Westminster/John Knox, 1992), by Ulrich Mauser, in February 1992 at AMBS in Elkhart, Indiana. Swartley was the New Testament editor of the series, and Ollenburger was the Old Testament editor. (Credit: Mark Boyce)

Willard Swartley, Ph.D., professor emeritus of New Testament, teaching a course at AMBS in October 1998. (AMBS photo)

Journey: A real-life story

Leadership development program meets participants where they are

By Marlys Weaver-Stoesz for AMBS

Rebecca Riek (second row, second from left) and Rebecca Yoder Neufeld (next to her) among fellow participants in the September 2018 Journey Weekend Learning Event at Amigo Centre, Sturgis, Michigan. (Credit: Jason Bryant)

ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Thousands of miles from their homeland, a group of about 30 South Sudanese women gathers on Tuesdays in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Meeting in each other’s homes, they pray for their war-torn country and its people, share about their lives and study the Bible together. Rebecca Riek, who came to Canada from South Sudan 16 years ago, helped start the group in 2007 and continues to lead it.

“In my country we are 64 tribes,” she explained. “The two largest tribes started fighting, and it has affected all the people of South Sudan. They’ve become enemies.”

Riek’s group is intentionally intertribal, bringing together people whose families have experienced years of civil war — both when Sudan was one country (before South Sudan’s independence in 2011) and also since South Sudan’s civil war began in December 2013. About 400 South Sudanese families now live in Kitchener-Waterloo, a culturally diverse community of around 300,000 people, Riek said. Tensions between tribes in South Sudan can carry over into immigrants’ lives in Canada, but Riek’s group works to redefine those relationships.

“We try to just talk about peace, love, unity and Christ,” she said, noting that the group is also interdenominational. “We don’t have to talk about siding with our tribe. It’s working, and it is growing in numbers. It’s not only Bible study; it’s also like a healing program.”

Riek has found support for exploring her call to ministry and leadership through Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s (AMBS) Journey Missional Leadership Development Program, which she joined in the fall of 2017. The two-and-a-half-year distance-friendly certificate program — designed to serve as a starting place for Anabaptist pastoral and theological education for Christian leaders — includes an undergraduate-level online curriculum, biweekly meetings with a mentor, and one or two Weekend Learning Events on or near AMBS’s campus each year.
“The program is opening a new door for my life now,” Riek said, “especially a spiritual part of my life, especially in terms of knowledge about who Mennonites are and where they started, because I was wondering how come I connected with the Mennonite Church.”

“I kept thinking, ‘Yes, God is calling me, but where am I going to start?’” she continued. “But now God is putting it all together. Journey is like a journey with God. It’s not just a name; it’s a real-life story for me.”

Riek learned about Journey in January 2017 while attending an AMBS Pastors Week focused on intercultural congregations. Her friend Rebecca Yoder Neufeld (MDiv 1981) had organized a diverse group of people from their church, First Mennonite in Kitchener, to go. After hearing about Journey from Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, AMBS Dean of Lifelong Learning, Riek was immediately interested and talked to Yoder Neufeld about applying.

Riek did wonder how her speaking English as a third language would affect her involvement, while Yoder Neufeld was concerned about the time commitment for Riek, who works full time as a personal support worker for people with brain injuries and part time at a retirement home, in addition to parenting six children, ministering in her South Sudanese community and volunteering at First Mennonite. Riek said, though, that joining Journey was the right decision.

“I was surrounded by a lot of people and by love,” Riek said. “People pushing behind me, left and right they were telling me, ‘You’ll be alright, Rebecca.’ When you feel somebody supporting you, you are always willing to do it.”

As Riek’s Journey mentor, Yoder Neufeld said she has been inspired by getting to know her at a deeper level.

“We already had a friendship, but doing this together and driving seven hours to Indiana and back together has given me a wonderful opportunity to deepen that relationship and to be inspired both by Rebecca and by the whole Journey group when we go to the Weekend Learning Events,” she said.  

Yoder Neufeld has been active for many years in bridge-building roles, serving as a pastor of Hispanic ministry at First Mennonite in Kitchener, working with refugees, doing immigration advocacy, and serving as interpretation coordinator for Mennonite World Conference. She’s currently retired and enjoys tending to intercultural relationships at First Mennonite. Even though the Journey course material isn’t new to her, for the most part, Yoder Neufeld said it has been good to review. She and Riek also both appreciate the diversity of cultures, professions and backgrounds represented by the Journey participants.

Because of Yoder Neufeld and Riek’s close spiritual work together, the pair asked to preach together at First Mennonite. The process of preparing a joint sermon that respected each of their preaching styles was a rich experience, Yoder Neufeld said. Riek’s seven-year-old son, Isaiah, had also asked if he could lead a prayer with the children, which he did wonderfully, she added, and a feedback group the two had organized was very positive about Riek’s leadership that Sunday.

Yoder Neufeld said, “When Rebecca and I debriefed that later, she said, ‘You know, what matters is not the compliments; what matters is whether people actually heard the message about prayer and whether it made a difference in their lives.’ That to me was also a strong signal that she was clear that this was not about her, but about the message that God wanted to give the congregation. To me that was one of the rich fruits of all of this.”

Yoder Neufeld also added that being able to talk freely about cultural differences with Riek has contributed to her intercultural ministry at First Mennonite: “Learning from Rebecca about appropriate and inappropriate ways to relate to African culture — not that all African cultures are the same — and hearing more about her own life have helped me to be more equipped to come alongside other African women in our congregation.”

Riek recommended anyone feeling a call to ministry or church leadership to find out more about Journey, complimenting Yoder Neufeld as her mentor, the course instructors and the AMBS staff she has interacted with at the Weekend Learning Events.

“When I come back here,” Riek said, “I feel I went for vacation, talked with God and came back full of the Holy Spirit, refreshed to start all over again. It’s a beautiful program.”


Rebecca Riek (at right) shares with Rebecca Yoder Neufeld at a Journey Weekend Learning Event at Amigo Centre in Sturgis, Michigan, in September 2017. (Credit: Jason Bryant)