As I wrap up more than 14 years as conference executive for Franconia Mennonite Conference I say my farewell by reflecting on these three things: thankfulness, experiences, and hope.
The only way I can begin this farewell reflection is to consider with gratitude the many reasons for which I am thankful about my time with Franconia Conference. With a God-driven zeal my wife Evon and I left a family business in which I had been a partner for a decade and moved our three young sons first to Harrisonburg, Virginia, and then to Goshen, Indiana. This five-year odyssey brought us back to Pennsylvania when Franconia Conference leaders risked by believing in a young business person whose strengths seemed to be high energy, big ideas, many relationships, and an understanding of both Wall Street and Jerusalem.
I’m thankful for the opportunity to have served in this role with considerable latitude for trying new things in this 300-year-old conference. The organizational shift from six commissions that ran broad programs to “Equipping leaders to empower others to embrace God’s mission” has been well-received overall. The creation in 1997 of what would eventually become Mennonite Resources Network was an effort to address some of the realities and trends already emerging in the 90’s. MRN was the beginning of Franconia Conference’s broad use of web-based communication. It was also the start of moving from overseers to conference ministers and consultants. MRN was a catalyst in connecting with Mennonite World Conference, Mesach and Miriam Krisetya, and the Mennonite churches in Indonesia. MRN’s assets and liabilities were purchased in 2002 by Design For Ministry, a move that allowed the conference to continue to shape and influence the new Mennonite Church USA.
I’m grateful for the ways Franconia Conference leaders and constituency tolerated my inexperience in leading a staff team. When I began as team leader in 1993—right out of seminary—I was the youngest person among the 15 or so conference staff. As I leave, only the venerable Claude Good outlasted my efforts. Thanks to all who were patient with me as I learned.
Among the experiences these stand out most:
- When I began as what was then called Conference Coordinator, I was a 34-year-old with high hopes of fulfilling what I was asked to do when I was hired: help transform our aging, historic conference and prepare it for the future. However, upon my arrival in 1993, I was greeted with huge challenges around issues related to sexuality, leadership and church membership along with the normal resistance that goes with organizational shift and change.
- Experiencing international travel on behalf of Franconia Conference—for the purpose of developing and deepening relationships—has both influenced the conference and transformed me. Three trips in particular were transformative. In 2000, I volunteered two weeks to serve as staff for Mennonite World Conference at its meetings in Guatemala City. The importance of committing to global relationships was embedded there. In 2003, I spent six weeks in Indonesia participating in a leadership exchange. One valuable lesson was the role of learning communities as a basis for missional transformation and growth. In 2005, I traveled with Franconia Conference moderator Merrill Moyer to The Netherlands to try to understand the decline of the church in Menno Simons’ homeland. One take-away from that trip was the significant role of Mennonite schools in strengthening the church and home.
- The experience of working alongside leaders of Conference Related Ministries taught me much from those who are among our most talented and committed leaders anywhere in church or business. They navigate difficult political relationships within the church community while working long hours, creating excellent organizations that support the church’s role in our neighborhoods and the world. I am grateful to these leaders who helped shape me.
Of the many things I could say about the future of Franconia Mennonite Conference, three things especially give me hope:
- First, Franconia Conference has modeled willingness to risk for God’s kingdom by being open to make the necessary changes to join God’s redeeming activity in the world. This has been hard work and there is more to come. But the resiliency, faithfulness, and hopefulness that I’ve seen as we together try to transform our congregations, ministries, and conference to respond to God’s grace and activity has been inspiring. Christ’s Good News gives us confidence to face the quickly-changing world in which we live. God has provided the Holy Spirit to walk with us into each day’s uncharted territory. Jesus said many times to the disciples, “Do not be afraid.”
- Second, Franconia Conference has done as well as anyone in the church in providing space for young adults. In a world in which the most influential shapers of our time tend to come from those in their 20’s and 30’s, the church must allow youth and young adults to help shape the church. Franconia Conference believed in me when I was a young adult, and I have attempted to do the same. As I leave, Franconia Conference has numerous young adults already shaping our present and future. I’m grateful to congregations and Conference Related Ministries that do likewise, raising and mentoring young leaders.
- Third, Franconia Conference faces an intercultural future. I say that with joy, fear, and ultimately hope. I say it with joy because God is truly doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:19). Congregations and leaders from a broad spectrum of ethniticites have opened new doors, breathing life into the structures and habits we call Franconia Conference. I say this with fear because I know how hard it is to be open to what God may want to do that will mean adjusting what many of us have held dear. I say it with hope because I see the ways in which leaders from Mexico, Indonesia, and the U.S. are adding unique and needed perspectives and faith. Our two newest congregations (Philadelphia Praise Center – already a member, and Nueva Esperanza/New Hope Fellowship in Alexandria, VA – a Partner in Mission) are already planting half of the number of churches that were lost over the past 20 years! I praise God for colleagues and Conference Board members who bring experiences and ideas from other cultures and traditions, each committed, by choice, to being Anabaptist in the 21st century.
Intercultural relationships, broadly defined, also include rural-suburban-urban and intergenerational. As Franconia Conference invests in young women and men, there is clearly a quickening of these intercultural values.
Thank you for calling me, being patient with me, teaching me, and allowing me to lead among you. I will forever be thankful for the experiences and lessons that have taught me to have hope in the midst of much change in our world. I trust that you will also walk, teach and learn similarly with our brother Noel Santiago as he begins to lead our wonderful conference. To God be the glory.
Top photo by Conrad Erb
Bottom photo by Gay Brunt Miller