Panelists at "Leading into the Common Good: An Anabaptist Perspective," an April 7-9 conference at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va. From left to right: Roxy Allen Kioko, Dominique Burgunder-Johnson, Jeff Boodie, Londen Wheeler and Rick Castaneda. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

Three-day conference focuses on Anabaptists and leadership for the common good

What does leadership mean in the Anabaptist tradition today? More than 230 people gathered at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, April 7-9 to explore that question at “Leading into the Common Good: An Anabaptist Perspective.”

The conference, sponsored by a spectrum of Mennonite-related organizations and higher education institutions, brought together viewpoints from inside and outside the Mennonite church. Author and consultant Peter Block and Mother Earth News founder Bryan Welch headlined an array of speakers who shared over the course of six sessions.

Block, addressing the event via a live videoconference from Cincinnati, encouraged participants to seek a “third way of leadership” that overcomes a tendency toward isolation and emphasizes community.

feature-20160408-Leadership Conference Peter Block Keynote-042
Peter Block addresses conference attendees. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

“How do we in small groups come together so that everyone’s voice is heard?” Block asked. “A small circle means you’re facing the people you’re creating a life with.”

He said Mennonites are particularly well-equipped to shift the focus toward dialogue and building something new due to their values.

“Mennonites have the strongest foundation to initiate that conversation in the world because you stand for something,” Block said. “Everywhere I go where I see democracy breaking out—an egalitarian spirit, caring for the whole—one of you is always in the room.”

Melia Watkins, a Goshen (Indiana) College junior, was one of numerous millennials from six Mennonite colleges and universities invited to share reflections during the gathering.

“The most impactful thing I learned was to think about what I really care about,” said Watkins, a marketing major from Cincinnati. “Ever since Peter Block mentioned that phrase I’ve been thinking, ‘What do I really care about?’ I’m really glad I’ve been here to experience that.”

Vernon Jantzi, faculty emeriti and former director of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, said Block also struck a chord for him.

feature-20160409 Leadership Conference Heisey Miller Perez Jr. Keynote-18
Speaker Gilberto Perez Jr. (Photo by Cody Troyer)

“The thing I’ve resonated strongly with is Peter Block’s comment on leadership as convening—creating spaces for new forms to emerge,” Jantzi said. “For those of us who are now in my generation, our task is to be space creators in the world. That’s where the miracle of transformation is going to occur.”

Earlier, Welch—now CEO of B the Change Media, which encourages socially and environmentally responsible business practices—looked at leadership trends through the eye of a business executive.

“One of the most important movements shaping the 21st century is the global movement of people with a passion for using business as a force of good,” Welch said. He also underscored the need for a positive spirit and consensus-building. “No one wants to follow a pessimist,” he said.

Anabaptist entrepreneur and Mennonite Central Committee founder Orie O. Miller received significant attention during the conference as a foundation for discussing leadership. Hesston (Kan.) College professor John Sharp, author of a biography about Miller, shared reflections and noted Miller’s “genius at connecting people.” EMU also dedicated a new, flag-filled Orie O. Miller Hall of Nations in its University Commons.

Speakers underscored the need for new styles of leadership to meet today’s needs, examining values, theology and identity. EMU professors David Brubaker and Roxy Allen Kioko hosted sessions and facilitated discussion, including a closing plenary session that allowed small groups to generate ideas. Five workshop choices provided additional learning opportunities.

Jim Smucker, vice president and dean of graduate studies at EMU and one of the primary organizers of the conference, said he was pleased with the event and hopes similar gatherings happen in the years ahead.

“There’s a lot of polarization today in society in general and in our church,” Smucker said. “The hope of the conference was that we could contribute to new models of leadership and ways we can work together going into the future that are more constructive. We had lots of rich conversation, lots of rich input from a variety of voices; it probably exceeded my expectations in terms of the quality of input.”

Participants seemed to echo that sentiment, closing the conference with a simple unison benediction of “Wow!”

The conference was sponsored by Eastern Mennonite University, Everence, Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Economic Development Associates, Mennonite Health Services, and the Anabaptist Center for Religion and Society. Co-sponsors included Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind.; Bethel (Kan.) College; Bluffton (Ohio) University; Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg; Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario; Goshen (Ind.) College; Hesston College.

Published with permission from The Mennonite