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graduate studies

Stutzman: understanding the call

Dr. Ervin Stutzman (S 99) draws two circles on the page. They overlap, but not by a lot.

“The church and the academy generally spin in two different orbits,” says Stutzman, dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary since 2000. The church is for everyone, he says; no one is excluded, be they rich or poor, brilliant or less so, old or young. The academy, on the other hand, is defined by qualifications, abilities, achievements, and resources.

Dr. Ervin Stutzman and Family
Long before anyone bought one of the thousands of copies of The Purpose Driven Life, Stutzman (pictured above with his family) had his own life purpose statement.

The statement says, in part: "Since God has called me to be a leader in the church, I shall give priority to the cultivation of a meaningful personal walk with God, the proclamation and demonstration of the kingdom of God, and the equipping of faithful men and women for ministry."

He colors in the union of the two circular sets, the petal-shaped area where they cross. “The seminary lies at the intersection of these two worlds,” Stutzman says. “And the success of the seminary depends on how well we balance these two things.” Stutzman is demonstrating that finding this balance is, indeed, possible.

Stutzman knows something about moving in several spheres that just barely overlap. He was born into an Amish family, and none of his siblings, including his twin sister, graduated from high school. He, on the other hand, holds a masters degree in communication arts from the University of Cincinnati, a Ph.D. in rhetoric and communication from Temple University, and a master of arts in religion from EMS. He has also held church leadership positions since the age of twenty-two, as an elder, minister, bishop, missions worker and administrator, professor, moderator of Lancaster Mennonite Conference, and moderator of Mennonite Church USA.

The balance between the church and the academy is one that the entire university, as a church-owned institution of higher education, must participate in. But, Stutzman says, the beam the seminary walks is even more narrow than that of EMU as a whole. Succeeding at it, he says, requires creating a “culture of call” within the church, providing the means by which those who hear the call can prepare themselves to answer it—and then dealing with the plain facts that while the church needs pastors, and the academy requires scholars, the seminary has to create both, often within the same student.

The Anabaptist understanding of “call” has included an inner element—when the individual responds to the call of God within his or her heart—and an outer aspect, in which the individual must choose to answer the call of the church. Stutzman, who says he never applied for any of the church positions he has held without an external call, seeks to promote the “culture of call” with several joint efforts between the church and the seminary.

The Preaching Institute, which Stutzman directs, has as one of its objectives to “help pastors add to their preaching power, creativity, confidence, and biblical integrity.” Study and Training for Effective Pastoral Ministry (STEP) is a cooperative effort with the Lancaster Conference, where licensed ministers without seminary experience combine spiritual and personal formation with the study of the Bible and theology. LEAP (for Learning, Exploring, and Participating) allows high school juniors and seniors to use their gifts in service of the church during summer cross-cultural travels and study. Thus does the “culture of call” direct the purpose of participants’ lives—and vice versa.

“I am very positive about Ervin’s work as dean. He is a person of boundless energy, clear vision for the seminary, and exceptional administrative ability,” says George R. Brunk III, an EMS professor and Stutzman’s predecessor as dean. “A central feature of his vision for the seminary is the building of close ties between the seminary and the church. This has been the passion of leadership at EMS from the beginning and I am highly appreciative of the conviction and energy that Ervin brings to this task.”

Long before anyone bought one of the thousands of copies of The Purpose Driven Life, Stutzman had his own life purpose statement, which he wrote sometime in the 1980s. A calligraphy version is displayed on the wall of his office. And it seems that he has met both his own call and the church’s in his current position; Stutzman sounds both humbled by that—and moderately amazed. The statement says, in part: “Since God has called me to be a leader in the church, I shall give priority to the cultivation of a meaningful personal walk with God, the proclamation and demonstration of the kingdom of God, and the equipping of faithful men and women for ministry.”

The seminary serves its academic side with rigorous courses in theology and church history, and also tries to develop an emotional intelligence or self-knowledge within its students through six classes called the Formation Series. In those courses, students “see themselves and form themselves,” Stutzman says.

Stutzman’s own experience along those lines resulted in a book about his father. Tobias of the Amish (Herald Press, 2001) is officially subtitled “a true story of tangled strands in faith, family, and community,” but the author says it could really be called “mid-life reflections on family.”

The story is based on research rather than recollection—Tobias Stutzman died when Stutzman was three, and the only memory the son has of his father is that of his casket. The fact that Mr. Stutzman was killed in an accident involving an automobile that he owned is indication that Tobias was not entirely comfortable as an Amishman. He was a craftsman who could make anything out of wood or metal, but had to declare bankruptcy when the dozens of projects on his workbench caught up with him. The book tells the story in novelized form, based on interviews with people who knew Tobias well.

After Tobias’ death in 1956, the family went to live on forty acres in Kansas, where they “lived on a little bit of nothing,” Stutzman says. (He has outlined a sequel to Tobias that narrates his mother’s life from 1956 on, to be written soon.) He worked after high school for several years as a farmer, welder, and truck driver, and says that he was “very much formed as a nonconformist to the world,” something he finds true of many people his age. “I grew up with the sense that I didn’t need to be and wasn’t expected to be like general society,” he says.

Like his father, Stutzman is an expert woodworker. And that’s not the only thing people who know him see in the story of Tobias Stutzman. Seminary professor Nate Yoder calls Stutzman a “high-energy, entrepreneurial administrator, who is willing to try new ways of doing things” and says that “I am among those readers of [Tobias of the Amish] who find his description of his father’s personality as being instructive for understanding how Ervin himself functions.”

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Last Christmas, Stutzman made beautiful wooden pens as gifts for the seminary faculty, and the dining table he made for his tenth wedding anniversary has served the family well, not just as a place to eat, but as the site of every manner of conversation, homework, art projects, and other activities partaken of by his wife, Bonnie; daughter Emma; and sons Daniel and Benjamin. (The table also travelled to the Mennonite Convention in Atlanta as a visual reminder of the theme.) In a related story, the Stutzman family doesn’t own a television—never have. A couple of times the Stutzman parents thought it might be time to get one, the family—also in the nonconformist mold—always voted it down.

Bonnie Stutzman is an ordained minister, a chaplain at Rockingham Memorial Hospital, an artist, and graduated from EMS in 2005 with a masters degree in church leadership. Emma lives in Iowa City now, but the boys still come to eat at least twice a week, the spheres of the family members’ lives intersecting once again at the dining room table.

—Jeremy Nafziger (C 91)