By Rich Preheim for AMBS
ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — With contentiousness and fracturing in the body of believers and hostility and injustice all around, these are difficult days for church leaders. They’re supposed to provide guidance for people struggling with the trials of the times while at the same time often wrestling with their own challenges.
“How do we deal with our anxieties and exhaustion?” asked Sara Wenger Shenk, president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, in her welcome to participants at the seminary’s annual Pastors and Leaders conference on Feb. 26. “How do we learn to trust God again?”
Wenger Shenk and other AMBS leaders sought to provide some answers at the event, which was hosted on campus Feb. 26 – March 1 by the seminary’s Church Leadership Center on the theme, “For Such a Time as This.”
“In the midst of the chaos, God calls us to this crucial work of forming the people of God,” she said.
More than 160 registrants from 14 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces — representing 11 denominations — sought renewal from plenary “teaching sessions,” workshops and worship as well as fellowship at the event.
Each of the four plenary speakers provided words of encouragement to help participants sustain their faith while facing adversity.
“This is a frightening time,” admitted Ben Ollenburger, AMBS professor of biblical theology, during his opening-night presentation. “We have much to be anxious about … and we have much to fear.”
“But I want to say, ‘Fear not, for the Lord is with you,’” he continued. “Nothing is impossible with God.”
God is sovereign
Ollenburger drew from the story of the Israelites exiled in Babylon.
“If ever there was a lost cause, it was Israel,” he said.
But that didn’t mean they couldn’t be God’s servants. In fact, Ollenburger suggested, their experiences as a defeated, exiled people made the Israelites better able to serve God.
“That you’re defeated doesn’t mean God is not sovereign,” he said. “For Israel to see, they first had to become blind.”
Ollenburger also cited the story of Pastor André and Magda Trocmé and their congregation in the French town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, who saved thousands of Jewish refugees from the Nazis during World War II. Despite the constant dangers, they were remarkably nonanxious, he said.
“The people of Le Chambon knew who they were and what they had to do,” he said.
The unknown doesn’t change that. “God’s purposes are achieved by hands who know not what they do,” Ollenburger said.
Modeling a response to crisis
Teaching session speaker Janna Hunter-Bowman (MAPS 2011), AMBS assistant professor of peace studies and Christian social ethics, shared from her time as a peace worker with Pentecostal congregations in violence-wracked Colombia, emphasizing the possibilities for faithfulness during anxious times. She told of one community that intervened to save a member targeted for assassination by paramilitary forces, ultimately smuggling him away. When asked why they did so, the local pastor said, “We had nowhere else to go and no one to turn to but God.”
“Such participation with ultimate power allows them … a sense of agency in a situation of terror and chaos,” said Hunter-Bowman. “New avenues of response open up because of the knowledge they possess … of the active working of the Spirit.”
In such situations, the church can be a “point of reference” for others in the community, she said. Because the church members didn’t flee in the face of the paramilitary, others didn’t, either. Hunter-Bowman called it “theopolitical power,” independent of state forms of politics. It’s something she wants to see replicated in the North American church. But it requires becoming part of the politically and socially marginalized, she noted.
“The state has absorbed so much of our imagination of how change happens,” Hunter-Bowman said. “That’s what I want to disabuse.”
“You have to be able to witness to the pain and the hurt,” she said. “We’re going to have to participate in something different. … Mennonites know this: the state will not save us.”
Forgetting our agenda
In his teaching session, Dan Schrock, a spiritual director, pastor and AMBS sessional instructor, introduced “prayer of beholding” as a way to reduce anxiety. He said it employs both one’s physical eyes and the “inner eyes of our spiritual imagination.”
Schrock defined “beholding” as “paying attention.” In practicing such prayers, he said, “We are caught up into something else — it might be a delightful child, a dear friend, an exquisite flower or a prairie that stretches on for miles until it kisses the sky. To say it more theologically, in the prayer of beholding, we are transfixed by the glory of God, which is constantly being refracted into the world around us.”
When that happens, he said, we shift our attention from ourselves and our anxieties.
“In moments of beholding, we forget our agenda … pulled toward awe and wonder and delight in the resplendence of God,” Schrock said.
He cautioned that prayers of beholding don’t resolve or eliminate the issues causing stress.
“Yet beholding does drain away some of the leaders’ anxiety,” Schrock said. “It does reconnect them with God and gives them courage and hope for the future.”
He further advised, “Neither silence nor solitude is necessary for beholding, but slowing down usually is. Because hurry makes it hard to behold.”
Rebecca Slough (MDiv 1982), AMBS academic dean and the final teaching session speaker, shared about several “roots” that nourish her mind and spirit — such as trust, discernment, hope and the invitation to confront truth — and led the group in singing a hymn connected with each one. She encouraged her listeners to consider which practices nourish them.
In exploring the practice of trust, she reassured her listeners that their identity is “forever secure in Christ,” regardless of tensions they might face in their daily lives.
“Our vocation is always clear: we are disciples, citizens of God’s kingdom and agents of God’s purpose in the world,” she said. “And when we get things wrong — and we will get things wrong — it is this identity as beloved sons and daughters of God that leads us to do the hard work of repentance and reconciliation.”
She encouraged those present to learn from people on society’s margins to have hope in the Lord.
“They know how to hang on, especially to the hope for justice, that many of us have never needed to develop,” she said.
But too often we place our hope in political systems and church structures, Slough said. When they fail us, we become unsettled. Rather, Christians need to challenge the conventional and take risks, just like Jesus Christ, Anabaptist martyr Dirk Willems and religious leaders Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Slough also called for more celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, calling it a ceremony of hope.
“[Jesus Christ] is our hope until the kingdom comes,” she said.
Worship times during the event explored ways of bringing emotions of grief and anger before God as well as seeking shelter and renewal. In their messages, both Safwat Marzouk, AMBS associate professor of Old Testament, and Nancy Rodriguez-Lora, current AMBS Master of Divinity student and pastor of True Vine Tabernacle in Elkhart, emphasized declaring confidence and trust in God and coming truthfully before God with willingness to be transformed.
Allan Rudy-Froese (MDiv 1992), AMBS associate professor of Christian proclamation, cautioned against urging parishioners along a predetermined path “from lament to hallelujah” but noted that they need not only God’s presence but also God’s people to move from death to life. Participants were offered an opportunity to receive anointing with oil, and during the closing worship session, they celebrated the Lord’s Supper together.
Sara Erb (MDiv 2014), part-time pastor at Breslau (Ontario) Mennonite Church, said she makes coming to the annual conference a priority — both for rejuvenation and rest.
“There’s something about the community aspect that draws me back each year,” she said.
“I particularly love when it’s the faculty who are presenting, in part because I have relationships with some of them,” she added. “With newer professors, it’s inspiring to see that AMBS keeps growing and changing. I enjoy getting to reconnect and to learn from the amazing people who are here.”
Those who planned the event included Sophia Austin of Elkhart; Barbara Good of Wheaton, Illinois; Merle Hostetler of Goshen, Indiana; Cyneatha Millsaps (MDiv 2008) of Markham, Illinois; Haroldo Nunes of Orrville, Ohio; Marilyn Rudy-Froese (MDiv 1992) of Kitchener, Ontario; Dwight Stewart of Wheaton; and Jewel Gingerich Longenecker (MATS 1992), Cheryl Zehr and David B. Miller (MDiv 1993) from the AMBS faculty and staff.
Wenger Shenk and Rachel Miller Jacobs (MDiv 2000), AMBS associate professor of congregational formation, served as worship leaders, and members of the AMBS learning community, along with Mennonite Mission Network’s Work in Progress ensemble, were involved in various aspects of worship.
Pastors and Leaders 2019 will be held Feb. 25–28.
During Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s annual Pastors and Leaders conference, mealtimes offer opportunities for participants to connect with and learn from each other. (l. to r.) Jonah Yang, a Master of Arts in Christian Formation student from Cottage Grove, Minnesota; visits with Eleanor Kreider of Goshen, Indiana; and Kevin and Sharon Yoder, co-pastors of Olive Mennonite Church in Elkhart. Sharon is also a Master of Divinity student. (Credit: Jason Bryant)
Janna Hunter-Bowman, AMBS assistant professor of peace studies and Christian social ethics, was one of the teaching session speakers at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Pastors and Leaders conference Feb. 26 – March 1. (Credit: Jason Bryant)
During Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Pastors and Leaders conference Feb. 26 – March 1, Marisa Smucker, a Master of Arts in Christian Formation student from Elkhart, Indiana, and staff member for Mennonite Mission Network; converses with Cyneatha Millsaps (MDiv 2008) of Markham, Illinois, program director for Mennonite Central Committee Great Lakes and pastor of Community Mennonite Church of Markham; and Ann Jacobs, a Master of Divinity student from South Bend, Indiana, and staff member for Mennonite Mission Network. (Credit: Annette Brill Bergstresser)