Tailored to fit: “Invite AMBS” program customizes resources for the church

Published: February 22, 2022

By Annette Brill Bergstresser

ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Congregations and organizations are learning directly from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) faculty members on a topic of their choice through the Invite AMBS program — both in person and virtually.

Invite AMBS speakers Nekeisha Alayna Alexis (Credit: Peter Ringenberg) and Drew Strait (Credit: Mennonite Church USA)
Invite AMBS speakers Nekeisha Alayna Alexis (Credit: Peter Ringenberg) and Drew Strait (Credit: Mennonite Church USA)

“I see Invite AMBS as an answer to the requests we’re receiving from congregations to receive education from AMBS and to be in partnership with us,” said Steve Norton, who oversees the program for the Elkhart, Indiana, seminary’s Church Leadership Center. “Invite AMBS is the most direct way this can happen, since faculty members go directly to the churches or conference gatherings.”

The requests come in different forms, Norton said. Invite AMBS speakers have preached for individual congregations, served as plenary presenters for conference gatherings and offered customized workshops or seminars for specific groups. Those who inquire decide which topics they want input on or make suggestions based on their needs, and Norton matches them with a faculty member with knowledge of the subject.

Requests for speaking engagements have come from across the U.S. and Canada, he said: “The program is clearly resonating with churches and conferences, as we’re seeing faculty members continually receive requests.”

Two groups who engaged Invite AMBS speakers in 2021 share about their experiences here:

Antiracism ministry consulting

Faculty member: Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, MA, Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism coordinator

Chrissie Muecke, Rochester (New York) Mennonite Fellowship (RMF):

Our congregation began as a house church in the mid-1970s and has about 50 members. While we now have a building, we maintain elements of a house church. The “priesthood of all believers” is a core value of the fellowship, leading to the decision not to have a pastor. The work of the church is carried out by ministry groups formed each year through a gift pledge process. 

We established an antiracism accountability group in the summer of 2020 following the death of George Floyd. This group of eight people attended protests and rallies, wrote letters and statements in response to local and national racism and violence, facilitated worship services and adult education groups around issues of racism, and coordinated a churchwide retreat led by Nekeisha Alayna Alexis via Zoom called “Becoming the People We Want to Be.” We connected with local organizations to learn more about their work. We met weekly for prayer, discernment, sharing and discussion.

After several months, we realized that much of what we had been doing was reactionary. There would be an incident of violence or police brutality, and we would quickly do something in response. We knew that this was not sustainable and that we needed a more comprehensive plan so that the work would be lasting. We also recognized that focusing a lot of attention outside of ourselves did not address the racism and White supremacy that existed within our mostly White congregation. That’s when we invited Nekeisha to work with us. A grant from the Mennonite Church USA Justice Fund helped pay for our work with her.

We had four two-hour Zoom sessions with Nekeisha, which she developed based on the goals we outlined for her. She provided pre-work in the form of articles, reflection questions and writing prompts for us to complete. She made significant shifts along the way in response to what came up. For example, we originally asked her to facilitate a session about using money in antiracism work, but we discovered it was more important to first address our relationship to the rest of the fellowship. While our group was very enthusiastic and committed, we sometimes moved too quickly for the rest of the congregation and did not communicate clearly and effectively.

During our time with Nekeisha, we developed vision and mission statements to guide our work as a committee, identified roles and tasks to help our group run more effectively, and developed a series of short- and long-term goals for our work. We worked through interpersonal challenges that arose in our small group and with the congregation. We went through a process to change the bylaws of the church so that an antiracism ministry is now one of the permanent ministry groups. We facilitated conversations for the congregation to discuss ways racism shows up in our own lives and in our church.

Going forward, we want to “transform inside” and “engage outside,” to use Nekeisha’s wording. Our antiracism ministry group will meet monthly to continue making progress toward our goals. We are hiring an antiracism trainer to do some further training with our entire church. We are reviewing all manuals and policies in the church using an antiracist lens. Nekeisha provided several assessment tools to help us identify positive changes we are making and areas we still need to address.

We plan to join the Rochester Police Accountability Board and help address local issues around policing and violence. We want to deepen our connection with Teen Empowerment, a local organization that hires youth organizers to help build strong communities and work on policy initiatives for institutional and systemic change. The teens created a documentary called Clarissa Uprooted about an African American area of Rochester that once thrived but was displaced.
We hope to screen the film for the community.

Our work with Nekeisha was invaluable. She brought energy, passion and wisdom to our meetings. Her in-depth presentations were insightful and tailored to our specific needs. She created a safe, yet challenging space for honest reflection. We came away with both motivation and tools for continuing this essential work.

Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, on working with RMF:

This group went from not having a clear sense of their mission at the start to being commissioned for their ministry by their congregation. So many people get interested in antiracism and then get stuck, or get fired up and then move on to the next thing. It’s heartening to know that there is a committed group of people who have overcome that hump to enter into another phase of acting.

If you’re stuck in your privilege, you’re not going to be able to get out of it without help. It’s like if I don’t know how to bake. If I sit around in a circle with others who don’t know how to bake a cake, how will we learn to bake a cake together? It’s important to get support. I want people to see that every step forward is a win.

“The Bible and Christian Nationalism” presentation

Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) 2021 Fall Assembly Celebration

Faculty member: Drew Strait, PhD, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins

Brook Musselman, ACC Conference Coordinator, Lancaster, Pennsylvania:

Atlantic Coast Conference is made up of 30 congregations from Boston to Baltimore, clustered mainly around Lancaster and Reading. The conference is made of and strengthened by congregations at all points of the theological spectrum that vary greatly in their practices and styles but find common ground in being centered in Christ. One of ACC’s weaknesses is its lack of much racial diversity, being primarily White congregations.

An ACC pastor returned from Mennonite Church USA’s 2021 convention recommending that we invite Drew Strait — whose workshop on “The Bible and Christian Nationalism” was timely and well received — to share at our Fall Assembly. Christian nationalism is something that quite a few ACC congregations are wrestling with in some way, and we felt the resourcing would be appreciated by pastors.

Our main goal was to resource pastors who are unsure how to address Christian nationalism in their congregations. We had an informal breakfast with Drew and ACC pastors so they could ask questions and interact with Drew on the topic. He then presented two sessions during the assembly gathering.

A major takeaway for many participants was a clear connection between religious and political idolatry. Drew’s action points for interrupting this connection when we see it were very appreciated. He helped participants move towards being comfortable with truth-telling without being hypercritical. Hearing from someone who is an expert on the subject matter was helpful for many who have felt discomfort with what they’ve been experiencing in their communities but didn’t have the tools to respond.

At this point ACC is not planning any next steps, but our hope is that this learning is being shared and presented in congregations and that individuals will use the tools in their contexts. The recordings of Drew’s sessions have been shared through ACC communications channels.

Drew Strait, on working with ACC:

The proliferation of White Christian nationalism around the U.S. has presented pastors and congregations with new challenges for bearing witness to the gospel of peace. The divisive nature of our political moment has divided families and even congregations. While much has been written about what Christian nationalism is, finding safe spaces for pastors to talk about what to do are lacking. My time with ACC pastors deepened this conviction as we shared our corporate wisdom with one another and reflected theologically on how — biblically speaking — Christian nationalism distorts the gospel of Christ and is a form of political idolatry.

Invite AMBS: Schedule a speaker

Let us know the topic or speaker your congregation or organization is interested in, and we’ll develop something for you.

Sample topics

Anabaptist Approaches to Scripture • Antiracist and Intercultural Pastoral Care • Confessional Bible Study • Environmental Concerns in Theological Perspective • Feminist and Womanist Theologies • The Global Church • God’s Shalom and the Church’s Witness • Imperial Rome and the Jesus Movement • Lament in the Bible • Nonviolent Communication • Peace Theology and Group Process • Peacemaking in Early Christianity • Sexualized Violence in the Bible • Trauma and Trauma-informed Caregiving • Women in the Bible

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