Photo by Jim Bishop
A sense of expectancy pervaded Martin Chapel at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, evidenced in part by the capacity crowd gathered there and the robust singing that opened the annual School for Leadership Training, Jan. 17.
That feeling of anticipation was amplified as guest resource speaker Patrick Keifert mixed wit and keen insight in addressing the conference theme, “Dwelling in God’s Space and Time: Core Practices for Transforming Leaders.”
The capacity crowd of 320 registrants – regrettably, some persons had to be turned away – were invited to “dwell” on the biblical text, Luke 10:1-12 repeatedly during the four-day gathering. The scripture recounts Jesus sending out His followers in pairs to spread the good news of the gospel, declaring that “the Kingdom of God has come near to you.”
Dr. Keifert is president and director of Church Innovations in Minneapolis, Minn., a research and consulting organization that assists congregations in moving from a “maintenance” mode to “a mission-driven” mindset. He has done consulting work for Mennonite Church USA and several regional Mennonite conferences. He is also professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary and adjunct professor of law at Hamline University, St. Paul, Minn.
“We spend too much time as congregations focusing on what we don’t have or how we differ from other groups rather than dwelling on what God has given us and allowing ourselves to be caught up in God’s purposes for us,” Keifert said.
Keifert chided Mennonites for arguing and disagreeing over peace, justice and evangelism and seeing each other as enemies on this point. “They belong together; don’t give up this witness,” he told his audience.
He also cited evidences that today’s Mennonite Church is “thoroughly modern,” as full of anxiety and uncertainty as any other group and turning to resources other than God’s Word and the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Americans are starved for time, doing more now but enjoying it less,” he said, citing research done by two major universities showing that persons actually have more free time today than they did in 1965, only they perceive themselves as having less.
“We’re too concerned about time, and about doing, when we should be concerned about God’s timetable for our lives and congregations,” Keifert stated.
“Transformation is being, not doing,” he declared. “It is tending to the movement of God and going with that flow. It doesn’t happen overnight, but one senses it happening when there is a sense of increased vitality in the congregation and the emphasis shifts from ‘program’ to ‘ministry,’ to an alignment with God’s purposes for the church.”
The “change element” in this process, the speaker said, is “the Holy Spirit, who provides all the gifts a church needs,” along with allowing “God’s imagination” to help turn fantasy into a discovery of reality and truth.
“To become a transformed church we must begin by dwelling in the study of scripture and doing so with people you don’t normally do it with to gain fresh perspectives,” Keifer said.
“Come as a beggar to God’s word and allow it to begin to change you,” he admonished.
“The ‘sent’ church is dependent on the world’s hospitality,” Keifert said. “That’s not a real comforting thought to most Mennonites.”
Keifert pointed out the need to view the church as “a public space that belongs to everyone, not just to those who would see it as a cozy home, a place where ‘strangers’ feel as welcomed and are taken as seriously as members.”
Each of Keifert’s plenary sessions opened with representatives of three Mennonite churches that have undergone significant transformation telling their stories – Calvary Community Church, Hampton, Va.; Capitol Christian Fellowship, Laurel, Md.; and West Union Mennonite Church, Parnell, Iowa. The speaker drew from their experiences in identifying essential practices for becoming transforming leaders and congregations.
Photo by Jim Bishop
Calvary, now one of the largest congregations in Mennonite Church USA with more than 2,000 members, has experienced rapid growth precisely because of its clearly-defined vision for mission that everyone commits to. Calvary Minister Glen Guyton is leading a youth experience to Ghana, Africa this summer as part of the seminary-affiliated LEAP (Learning, Exploring and Participating) program.
“We have a non-traditional leadership style and a multicultural, cutting-edge ministry,” said Steven Brown, a member of the church’s pastoral team. “We seek to be Christ-centered, seeker-friendly, excellence-propelled, community service-oriented and family-focused.
“We are called to be risk-takers, to move beyond the four walls of the church building,” Brown said.
Glen Guyton, the church’s youth pastor added: “We must be vulnerable, lead from outside our comfort zones and trust God to lead the way.
“God has given us a vision, a mission to fulfill,” he told the assembly. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t even be at this conference.”
In classroom settings, representatives of the three congregations gave more details into their leadership styles, how they worked at bringing change and a greater focus on mission outreach. In all, 16 special interest classes were offered – ranging from “The Church and Change in an Age of Anxiety” to “Ministry Teams in Congregations” to “Ways of Praying for Groups and Congregations” – with participants able to attend four over the course of the conference.
David Boshart and Helen Yoder of West Union Mennonite Church told how their rural congregation began undergoing a transformation when the elders developed a mission statement that the congregation heartily endorsed, asking: “How can we be a beacon of hope in this community, a sign of God’s reign in the world?”
From this process, 18 new ministry outreach efforts spontaneously emerged, Boshart noted.
Capitol Christian Fellowship, formerly Cottage City Mennonite Church, built a new facility in a strategic location just off the Capitol Beltway. One of the pastoral leaders, David Eshleman, described the church as “an amazing gathering every week of 16 cultures and 11 languages – God is blessing us in amazing ways.”
Lighter moments came through an evening of comedy with local actors-playwrights Ted (Swartz) and Lee (Eshleman) and “reflections from 30 years on the road” by EMU President
Loren E. Swartzendruber as part of a midweek pastor appreciation banquet.
Worship, a litany of commissioning and a mass chorus of participants closed the conference, as persons left the meeting place two-by-two, just as Jesus sent out the 70 in pairs to go into the world.
Photo by Jim Bishop
Participants were profuse in their praise of this year’s emphasis on being bathed in scripture as basic to transforming leadership.
Mattie Marie Mast, associate pastor of Sonnenberg Mennonite Church, Kidron, Ohio, said that “believing and doing” emphases were kept in balance at the conference. “Key for me was the space given to silence, to reflection and to hearing the key scripture repeated in order to connect our inner spirits with God. The group experience of spiritual reading of the Word will serve as a model to draw from in encouraging small groups and in my ministry,” she added.
“I was moved in our times of worship, as we allowed the words of Jesus from Luke 10 to speak to us in many ways,” said Steve Landis, pastor at Franconia Mennonite Church. “I appreciated Patrick Keifert