By John David Thacker and Annette Brill Bergstresser
ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Cyneatha Millsaps, M.Div., told the 21 candidates for graduation at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary‘s (AMBS) May 1 commencement service “not to take anything for granted in this challenging world — to assume nothing.”
Around 60 people attended the service in person in the Elkhart, Indiana, seminary’s Chapel of the Sermon on the Mount; attendance was limited to follow Elkhart County COVID-19 safety guidelines, and nearly 100 percent of the graduates, faculty and guests were fully vaccinated. People on more than 100 devices from Europe and North and South America viewed the event via livestream.
In her address, Millsaps drew upon the story of Peter (a disciple of Jesus and a Jew) and Cornelius (a Gentile) in Acts 10, noting that while the passage is often titled ‘The conversion of Cornelius,’ “it is much more a conversion of Peter — that is, in his attitude and his opinion towards the Gentiles.”
“Our Scripture passage today shows us that it doesn’t matter how great a pastor or a leader you become, you can miss the mark,” said Millsaps, a 2008 AMBS graduate who serves as executive director of Mennonite Women USA, co-pastor of Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, and chair of the Board of Directors of the new Tolson Center for Community Excellence in Elkhart.
“The church today is stuck, deciding who is clean and unclean,” she said. “For the new leaders, please do not let the systems, traditions and people cause you to miss the people of God.”
Millsaps explained that Peter was so fixated on what he thought he knew that he could no longer see what was possible, adding, “Four-part harmony is great, but you may be called to gospel rap.”
Noting that God prepared both Peter and Cornelius for their meeting, she encouraged the candidates to be prepared to encounter other God-seekers in surprising ways and to watch for what God is doing in the world around them.
“My warning to you is to enter into your new call not trying to be what the people of the church already know and believe, but to enter into the world of Cornelius — looking for people eager to learn, live and worship,” she said. “Spend as much time as you can asking God to show you which way you should go.”
Millsaps drew parallels between Peter’s encounter with the Gentiles and today’s context. Over the last 20 years, she said, the church has been focusing on its dwindling numbers. People have embraced spirituality but avoided religion. People who have been traumatized by the church have fled it.
“You are about to meet those new Gentiles: two generations of unchurched or barely churched people —people God has been watching and preparing for the last 20 or 30 years,” she said. She urged the candidates to “focus on the people of God” — on their journey; their desire to connect with God and others; and on “the love and grace and mercy found in Jesus Christ.”
After the graduates received their degrees and certificates, Jamie Pitts, Ph.D., associate professor of Anabaptist studies, charged them to lead in the tradition of Ursula Jost, a 16th-century Anabaptist and prophet: being captivated by God’s beauty and open to having their imaginations enlarged by God’s Spirit and Word; preaching that God is on the side of the oppressed; retaining steadfast trust in God; and “pursuing communities of creativity and hope rather than of violence and toil.”
“My charge to you is that you would get your hands dirty in the soil of God’s good earth, and with holy dirt in hand, that you would disrupt the powers that capture creation’s abundance, so that all might partake of God’s blessings and give God the highest thanks and praise,” he said.
Rachel Miller Jacobs, D.Min., associate professor of congregational formation, offered the blessing prayer, thanking God for the graduates, the gift they have been to the AMBS community, their accomplishments and future ministries; entrusting each graduate to God’s care; and praying that God would whisper to them every day, “You are my beloved. In you I am well pleased.”
Following the service, an in-person reception following COVID-19 safety protocols was held outdoors in the AMBS courtyard for the seminary community, the graduates and their guests.
The 2021 graduating class
Of the 21 graduates honored during the commencement service, 15 earned a Master of Divinity; two earned a Master of Arts in Christian Formation; and two earned a Master of Arts: Theology and Peace Studies. Two students received a Graduate Certificate in Theological Studies.
The graduating class comprised 13 men and eight women from seven countries — Argentina, Canada, Chile, Ethiopia, France, India and the United States — on five continents. Eight of the graduates completed at least part of their seminary studies at a distance through the Master of Divinity Connect program or the Graduate Certificate.
Eleven of the graduates are serving in pastoral ministry roles or are seeking pastoral assignments; three are discerning future options for ministry, mission or service work; four plan to be involved with education or research; two are engaged in social work; two plan to pursue further studies or training; and one is serving a church agency.
Nine of the graduates are members of Mennonite Church USA; one is from Mennonite Church Canada; and five graduates are from Mennonite denominations around the world. Three graduates are from the United Methodist or Wesleyan tradition; one is from the Evangelical Free Church of America; and two are from nondenominational churches.
Mennonite colleges and universities with graduates in AMBS’s Class of 2021 include Bethel College (Kansas), Bluffton University, Eastern Mennonite University, Goshen College, Hesston College and Meserete Kristos College.
A recording of the commencement service is available at ambs.edu/commencement.
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