Leaders explore reimagining ministry in times of collective trauma

Published: February 23, 2023

Katie Graber (second from right), PhD, and Anneli Loepp Thiessen (at right, seated), MMus, Co-Directors of the Anabaptist Worship Network, lead worship during Pastors & Leaders 2023 along with AMBS students (l. to r.) Ndunge Sefu, Anna Ressler and Stephen Lowe. The conference was held Feb. 13–16 at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. (Credit: Kayla Holdread)
Katie Graber (second from right), PhD, and Anneli Loepp Thiessen (at right, seated), MMus, Co-Directors of the Anabaptist Worship Network, lead worship along with AMBS students (l. to r.) Ndunge Sefu, Anna Ressler and Stephen Lowe. (Credit: Kayla Holdread)

By Virginia A. Hostetler for AMBS

View videos of the conference’s worship and teaching sessions.

ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Stories of trauma, resilience and self-care took center stage at Pastors & Leaders 2023, a conference hosted Feb. 13–16 by Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana. Titled “Reimagining Ministry,” the event brought together approximately 150 people attending in person and 30 online participants for times of worship, learning and inspiration.

Keynote speakers Joni Sancken, PhD, and April Yamasaki, MA, considered some of the troubling realities in the world today — including those brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic — and shared insights from the Bible, scholarly research and their own life experiences. While acknowledging the effects of widespread pain and suffering in both global and local settings, they offered hope based on the powerful work and promises of God.

Nurturing resilience in the face of trauma

Sancken is Professor of Homiletics at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio; a former pastor; and the author of several books on preaching and trauma. She presented her sessions in person at the event.

Joni Sancken, PhD, presents a keynote session during Pastors & Leaders 2023. (Credit: Kayla Holdread)

Pointing to “a tragic array of circumstances and traumatic responses surging through our world,” she described trauma as a wound in response to stress within individuals and communities. Even witnessing violence and violations done to others can affect people removed from the situation, who can experience those acts as “glancing blows” and often don’t know how to respond to them.

“Studying trauma matters, because unattended trauma doesn’t just go away,” she asserted. “Trauma can adversely affect people and groups — physically, socially, spiritually and mentally. Trauma depletes our individual and our collective capacities. Trauma impedes connections.”

Sancken drew from her most recent book, All Our Griefs to Bear: Responding with Resilience after Collective Trauma (Herald, 2022), to explain the effects of individual and collective trauma and to explore practices to help build resilience for leaders and their congregations. She believes that resilience can be nurtured and developed “like a muscle” and that hope can exist alongside doubt, brokenness and despair.

“Ministry in the aftermath of trauma does not seek to forget or somehow move past or get over the pain and suffering that so many have experienced and continue to experience,” she said. “However, the promise of the gospel is that we are not sentenced to be forever stuck. The gospel of Jesus Christ promises to liberate creation from that which binds or harms, and to save us, at times, even from ourselves.” This is good news the church can offer following intense crises and trauma, she noted.

Reflecting on Psalm 30 and the psalmist’s experience of despair “in the pit,” Sancken affirmed that God is in the business of restoration: “The pit is not the final verdict. God restores the psalmist to life beyond the pit, to a life with ‘more.’” As part of God’s expansive redemption, she said, “every part of creation will be renovated and marked by this life-giving sense of ‘more.’”

Sancken suggested three responses leaders and congregations can use when facing trauma to build hope and resilience: lament, storytelling and blessing. At various points in her presentations, she modeled her teaching by sharing prayers and blessings with her listeners. She also explored ways in which individuals and groups can practice “compassionate witness” in the face of traumatic events.

Practicing self-care and reliance on God’s mercy

Yamasaki presented her sessions via Zoom from Abbotsford, British Columbia, where she serves as Resident Author with Valley CrossWay Church and as Editor of MennoMedia’s Rejoice! devotional magazine. Along with teachings from Scripture, she told stories from her previous ministry as a pastor of a Mennonite congregation in British Columbia.

April Yamasaki, MA, presents a keynote session via Zoom from British Columbia during Pastors & Leaders 2023.

Yamasaki highlighted self-care, or soul care, as an important practice for leaders as they respond to new circumstances, reimagine and carry out their ministry. She drew from biblical narratives showing how two leaders — Jesus and Elijah — experienced challenges and pivoted to authentic ways of being and ministering.

She noted that Jesus spent time in the wilderness in prayer and reflection before launching his public ministry, and she recalled a time in the life of the prophet Elijah when, discouraged and alone, he complained to God and accepted God’s provision of rest and nourishment. As Jesus and Elijah wrestled with questions about their identity and mission and faced opposition, they nurtured their spiritual life. Recognizing their own needs, they accepted God’s care and gained strength for other relationships in their contexts of ministry. Elijah’s and Jesus’ examples offer encouragement for when today’s leaders find their “journey is too great,” Yamasaki said.

“Remembering who we are as precious children of God also shapes us and strengthens us for ministry,” she said. “We are created in God’s image, empowered by the Spirit to bear the image of God into our world and into the challenges we face each day. Healthy self-care is a gift from God who loves us and provides for us.” 

Yamasaki pointed to the first chapters of the book of Romans to affirm that — in the midst of bad news and upheaval — believers could rely on God’s mercy. A deeper look at Romans 12:1-8 shows how they are to live together on the basis of God’s mercy to them. In a new, countercultural reality, they are given to God and to each other. She emphasized, “This was not only a new way of thinking; it was a new way of living.”

“In view of God’s mercy, we are to be transformed and live transformed lives, for we are given to God and given to one another in the church and in the wider community,” she continued.

Paul’s letter to the community in Rome reminds believers that when it comes to reimagining ministry for the church, they need to do it together, Yamasaki said. 

“God is with us in whatever storm we face, in spite of whatever boulders are crashing around us,” she said. “And in the body of Christ, we are meant to be faithful followers together. None of us needs to be alone.”

Processing the theme together

Full chapel building with participants talking in small groups at Pastors & Leaders 2023.
Participants at Pastors & Leaders 2023 had frequent opportunities to engage in conversation with each other during the event. (Credit: Kayla Holdread)

Conference planners offered participants the opportunity to be part of small groups to process their experiences with each other, as well as time for journaling, reflection and creative response. Participants also could choose to attend a range of workshops on topics related to the conference’s theme and other faith-based practices, with 17 in-person and 10 virtual workshop options available. 

Also integral to the conference were daily times of worship and singing led by Katie Graber, PhD, and Anneli Loepp Thiessen, MMus, Co-Directors of the Anabaptist Worship Network, with members of the AMBS learning community.

“We got a lot of positive feedback from participants about the conference,” said Julia Schmidt, MDiv, who organized the event. “Many named the times of worship led by Katie and Anneli as a highlight, along with the opportunities to reconnect with other pastors and leaders. Our hope was that pastors would leave renewed with new ideas to take back home, and I believe we accomplished this goal.”

Video recordings of the conference’s worship and teaching sessions can be viewed on the Pastors & Leaders conference page

Pastors & Leaders 2024 will be held Feb. 19–22.

Located in Elkhart, Indiana, on ancestral land of the Potawatomi and Miami peoples, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary is a learning community with an Anabaptist vision, offering theological education for learners both on campus and at a distance as well as a wide array of lifelong learning programs — all with the goal of educating followers of Jesus Christ to be leaders for God’s reconciling mission in the world.

Want to receive AMBS news and updates via email?