Keeping the ‘Baptism’ in Anabaptism

 When I applied for the pastoral position at my current congregation, during one interview, I asked the Search Committee when they’d last celebrated a baptism. They thought for a moment. “Years,” they answered.

Many Anabaptist congregations are like my current one, celebrating baptisms only rarely. In five years of ministry, I’ve presided at about one baptism per year, which is more than some of my pastoral peers.

Anabaptist churches are defined by their relationship with baptism: a symbol of voluntary participation, where individuals request a ritual of commitment instead of having one thrust upon them at a mandatory age. Baptism must be a choice, and is only made once, for life. During the Radical Reformation that birthed Anabaptism, many believers made this choice, renouncing the priest’s baptism they’d received at birth and requesting, like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, to be baptized by another believer.

The declining popularity of baptism is linked to the word choice, an almost sacred word in secular Western culture. Everyone wants to choose, to decide, to have control over what and how they consume. Choice is one of the highest cultural values—evident in the many advertisements appealing to customizable products that give you what you want, when you want it.

As choice meets pluralism, baptism becomes a weightier decision. Continue reading

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A New Litany for Ordination

Ordination is a big deal. It only happens once in a lifetime. There is a standard litany for ordination. But, being a writer, as I prepared for my ordination last month, I couldn’t help rewriting the litany.

The standard Mennonite ordination comes from the Minister’s Manual, a handy little book published in 1998. The pocket-sized manual contains the words of institution for all our critical rituals and life transitions.

I believe in the power of a standardized litany, the power of all pastors reciting the same words of commitment at ordination. I also believe in low church, that each of our ordination reflects each of our journeys, and after all as a low church, ordination doesn’t set us spiritually “above” the congregation, but alongside of it in a particular way. Each candidate for ordination can adjust the words and be faithful to the ritual itself.

When I read Form 1 and Form 2 in the Minister’s Manual, neither one fit me well. The words were dry and formal, without imagery, the gospel commitments had no edge, no risk. It asked me to reaffirm the vows of my baptism, but didn’t say what those vows were. The repeated use of “brothers/sisters” excluded my gender nonconforming friends. There was an optional insert for the candidate’s spouse, but no insert for a single pastor to acknowledge the relationships that hold them in ministering work. Even more, the insert called the spouse to deeper commitment of their gifts without acknowledging the stress pastoral work (and helping professions) can put on a relationship and the importance of sabbatical, sabbath, and self-care. All of these seemed like very solvable problems, with a few substitutions and rephrasings. Continue reading

What Does MC USA Want in an Executive Director?

When a congregation goes through a pastoral transition, it has a lot of conversations. What do we want in a pastor? A good preacher? An activist? Someone who is good at visitation? Someone skilled in conflict resolution?

As Mennonite Church USA prepares to welcome a new executive director next spring, we ought to ask the same question: What do we want in an executive director?

We tend to think an executive director should be a pastor or a spiritual leader. But the executive director is not, as I’ve heard some people jokingly describe it, “The Mennonite Pope.” The executive director does not give spiritual mandates, define doctrine or appoint conference ministers. Instead, the job description includes supervising MC USA staff, serving as CEO and primary spokesperson, fundraising and monitoring spending. While many pastors do some of this in their positions, very few pastors go into ministry because they have fundraising, CEO or management skills.

The executive director is a management and business position. While it would be wonderful to find a candidate who is skilled at both management and ministry, the search committee’s primary charge is to find a skilled administrator. In the job description, “theological studies” and “ministerial credentials” are desirable qualities, not essential qualities.

We need church leaders with strong theological backgrounds. We also need church leaders with business skills; who understand strategy and marketing and can articulate strengths in ways that make people excited to be part of this group of peculiar Christians. Those may not overlap with pastoral skills like explaining Scripture through a sermon; greeting everyone on Sunday morning or visiting homes and hospitals.

The wide, clamoring, diverse body of MC USA must also change expectations of the executive director. Outgoing executive director Ervin Stutzman was often called in to keep this or that constituency in the church; to appease this or that group; to shepherd by speaking at conferences and gatherings. He was often expected to be a spiritual leader, to guide through challenging conversations about sexuality and the Confession of Faith. While the executive director has some role in shaping those conversations in a non-anxious way, the executive director is not hired to be the arbiter of orthodoxy.

As a nonhierarchical denomination, MC USA must resist the temptation to push a business leader into spiritual leadership. For that, look to the Constituency Leaders’ Council — the representative body of conference ministers, moderators and constituency group leaders who meet to “worship and pray together, encourage faithfulness, share ideas and resources, process concerns and discern direction on issues of faith and life,” according to MC USA resource documents.

The executive director faces a large challenge to navigate and unify the strong, diverse views of MC USA–and to restore trust during and after a major conflict. The new executive director is expected to be faithful to the Anabaptist vision and devout in his or her own spiritual walk. But that does not equate to a pastoral temperament or years behind the pulpit. The next executive director may very well come from the administrative staff of a denominational agency, be an educator in an Anabaptist institution, or an energetic Anabaptist entrepreneur.

The executive director can only be as good as the clarity of MC USA’s vision. Let us use these months of searching to discuss with each other our brightest vision of this beautiful, broken body of Christ.

 

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This post first appeared in the Mennonite World Review.

Is it Too Late to Save Mennonite Voluntary Service?

In 2009 when I graduated from college, I chose to go into Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS). I made the choice independently, only to discover that many of my friends were also choosing a year of service in cities across the country. The program was expanding rapidly. It added two units in 2009-2010, and for some time that spring, had a waitlist of young graduates eager to serve.

In 2015-2016, MVS closed half its units due to declining participation. In spite of downsizing, the program is struggling. This year, after hosting just two participants in a unit designed for eight, one congregation in a popular city is debating a “sabbatical year” in 2018-2019. Continue reading

An Anabaptist Response to Gun Violence

There is a gap in Mennonite response to mass shootings. After a  shooting, when secular headlines buzz with gory details and harrowing survivals, Mennonite news outlets often continue posting business-as-usual news. Over the past few years, as shootings occur, I’ve begun Googling the location + “Anabaptist” or “Mennonite.” When I did it three days after the Sutherland Springs shooting, the first page of search results all read “Missing: Anabaptist.”

Occasionally, a Mennonite publication will carry a call to prayer or brief opinion that restates a general commitment to pacifism, but most often, we are left with the distinct, lonely feeling that pacifism means existing above the fray, and existing above the fray means pretending the violence didn’t happen.

Google Anabaptist mass shooting

A typical Google search after a mass shooting. (The second hit is a newspaper summarizing local headlines, which included coverage of the shooting on the same page where Anabaptists were given a nod during Reformation Day celebrations.)

Congregations in the same state or region may respond by attending a vigil, but often Anabaptist response is based on proximity and the coverage is a summary of the reactive response. It is not a proactive churchwide movement but a rippling in one corner of the fabric.

Days after the shooting in Las Vegas, Chicagoland Mennonite pastors met for our monthly pastors’ meeting. For months, we’d planned to have a speaker from Mennonite Central Committee facilitate a conversation about gun violence. Most of the pastors admitted we’d never talked with our congregations about gun violence. We didn’t know how. Continue reading

FCS Recap: You Can’t Love What You Can’t Imagine

There’s this saying among environmentalists: we won’t save a place we don’t love; we can’t love a place we don’t know; and we can’t know a place we haven’t learned.

With regards to Future Church Summit, conventions in general, and whether or not Mennonite Church USA has any future relevant to anyone outside ourselves, I’ve come to a similar proverb: we won’t create a future we don’t love, we can’t love a future we can’t imagine, and we can’t imagine a future if we need to control it. Continue reading

What to Watch in Orlando: An Unofficial Guide

Ahhh, Orlando. With a biennial convention, it’s easy to lose track of the details. If reading two years of The Mennonite is TL;DR for you, here’s a overview of what will really matter in Orlando. I’m calling it the Gossip Girl Guide because it covers the gap between the institutional view and the ground-level view (also because xoxo, you know you love church polity).

Orlando sunglasses

 

Continue reading