by Jeff Wright
Almost 16 months ago, Debbie and I loaded up our SUV, left the sun-soaked, desert beauty of southern California and drove east. We arrived in Souderton, PA to snow.
The call of God I experienced as a young adult, to become a missionary in the US, began anew. After 35 years as an Anabaptist missionary family serving in Southern California, I was now turning a page – from life as an urban Anabaptist missiologist to an interim pastor in a small-town, 270-year-old, Mennonite congregation. The plan was to serve one year – and leave feeling lucky I hadn’t done too much damage.
We make plans…and God laughs.
My interim service has so far been about fulfilling three buckets of work: preaching with zeal and joy, leading the church staff to renew their work with healing and purpose, and aligning the congregational leadership and ministry systems to be more transparent, more faithful to the Gospel, and more effective in expressing love for our neighbors.
Almost immediately, I realized there was a language barrier. My dialect of English, shaped by southern California and lots of different cultures, was often unintelligible to my new friends. I needed to use a dialect of English that paid attention to nuance, to deeply interconnected family systems, to the availability of resources, and to the new landscape that made a 15-minute drive an adventure in trying not to get lost. Learning to speak Pennsylvanian has not been easy.
But God is faithful.
When Speaking Pennsylvanian, Slow Down. It quickly became clear that to be helpful, I would need to accept the urging of leadership to stay longer. The breakneck speed of life in southern California combined with the whipsaw nimbleness required of church life to adapt to new realities wasn’t going to work in southeast Pennsylvania. My one-year assignment became 18 months, and now has been lengthened again. The local pastoral search committee is working hard. I’m glad they are taking their time, even if it means I must keep working at being cautious and slow in this different environment.
When Speaking Pennsylvanian, Speak Up. In my previous life, the role I grew into and was most comfortable involved speaking quietly and behind the scenes, recruiting, equipping, deploying, and supporting pastors. Now, to my constant astonishment, people want to know what I think. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with telling people what I think. It is just that now someone else is initiating the request for me to speak up and speak out. It’s unnerving. When I speak, the people listening are not looking for me to engage in moral mumbling. They want me to speak with clarity, and to sound a call. They want me to proclaim what it really means to follow Jesus within the triple cocktail of contemporary crises: an accelerating post-Christendom, the long game of chronic COVID, and the advent of our culture becoming a digital Babylon.
When Speaking Pennsylvanian, Say It Again (and Again). Mission work in southern California is frequently about finding new ways to say things. I’m learning that the Pennsylvanian dialect of faith is not bored by repetition. “More will be revealed.” “Recruit, equip, deploy, and support.” “You’re either in ministry…or in trouble.” These are all aphorisms that I use regularly in my Pennsylvania ministry. The communication challenge in Pennsylvania isn’t so much to be original – it is to be repetitive without becoming a self-parody.
Most days, when I remember how to speak, it goes well, and I get to see the grace of God flow in Pentecost-shaped forms of the Gospel in new tongues.
Jeff Wright is a Mosaic Leadership Minister serving churches in California and Pennsylvania. He is also serving as the interim Lead Pastor at Blooming Glen (PA) Mennonite Church. Recently, Jeff and Debbie rented a PO Box at the Blooming Glen Post Office to facilitate the flow of mail between Pennsylvania and their permanent home in Riverside, California. This may have been the most cross-cultural thing Jeff has ever done in his life (eating scrapple comes in a distant second).