Building connections as we center our lives on Jesus to engage the world God loves us what IMMC is about. Shalom Mennonite Church in Indianapolis have built strong friendships with the Mara Christian Church of America in Indianapolis. Pastors Frank Kandel (Shalom) and Brian Bither (Shalom) performed Chhakki Khaimi’s (Mara) ordination service earlier this month. Belmont Mennonite and Sunnyside Mennonite in Elkhart, IN connect each year to put on Kids Community Theater (see Oct/Nov/Dec. edition of Gospel Evangel). In Michigan, where the nearest IMMC churches are often a few hours away, pastors are finding beautiful ways to connect and support one another as well.
Bess and Will Fitzgerald, pastors at Kalamazoo Mennonite Church, have been tasked with finding pastors for Maple River Mennonite (Brutus, MI) and Cedar Grove (Cedar Grove, MI). They have been trained by Doug Kaufman to be Search Guides, individuals within IMMC who walk with search committees as they look for a new pastor. In a phone interview with Bess, she expressed the blessing she feels about the new relationships formed through this search process. Bess states, “We’ve been there to visit and before we
visited them we only had contact with those people at conference events. Our impression of those churches were that they were struggling, that they were feeling their smallness, feeling their age. But when we visited them, we’ve found them to be very lively little churches. That has been the most encouraging.”
Bess finds that relationships are strengthened when you meet people where they are. She says, “Our church isn’t very big, we’re about 20. About three years ago, the Lord impressed on my heart that I should meet everybody in their homes and I went around and visited and it was really impactful. The same is true for churches. When you cross the threshold, the depth of understanding of people is deeply improved.”
This type of face to face ministry is a source of encouragement for pastors on the receiving end as well. Heidi Burkhart (Maple River) states, “Will and Bess Fitzgerald from Kalamazoo are working with us in the pastor search and supporting us through prayer.” She went on to say, “It’s nice to have the support and be able to support or encourage other small congregations facing similar issues as we are.”
Congregations are coming together to bear one another’s burdens. Anna Troyer’s husband, James Troyer, was the pastor of Cedar Grove Mennonite (Cedar Grove, MI) until he passed away in 2016. She remembers, “In the case here at Cedar Grove, when my husband was unable to fill the pulpit anymore, we received help here. Rexton, Naubinway, Wildwood and Grand Marais have all been very helpful in helping us fill the pulpit on Sunday mornings.” Cedar Grove is still searching for someone to fill the pastor position, but this is made easier with the help of sister congregations. In a phone interview, she mentioned that Grand Marais is still a source of support as Steve Post, a retired pastor and member of Grand Marais, has been willing to come preach one, sometimes two or three times a month to help fill the pulpit.
Forming connections with an IMMC congregation in another location while also ministering to one’s own community can feel daunting. A normal tension for those in ministerial leadership is how to stay connected with Mennonite brothers and sisters while also have relationships with the local faith community. Both are important. Ecumenical support offers encouragement and there is something significant about Mennonites coming together to celebrate their heritage and their unique perspective on the world.
Bess expresses her hunger for that kind of fellowship, “It would be great if we could know and encourage each other; declaring our Mennonite distinctiveness to each other. Each one of us lives in a circle where we are a little different than the other churches in our area. It’s always refreshing to talk with others from a Mennonite background.” Heidi agrees, “It gives us a better sense/ understanding of belonging, of being a part of the greater Mennonite community. This sense definitely becomes stronger or more ‘real’ when we are actively participating in a conference event. It helps us to feel more connected and not alone.”
Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference is a “community of congregations,” over fifty individual churches connected by a shared vision to be “centered on Jesus, guided by the Holy Spirit, acting through grace, love, and peace; engaging the world God loves.” These pastors and church leaders are being conference to one another by sharing resources, lending support, and encouraging one another. Cultural differences, lack of manpower and the day-to-day tasks that accompany ministry can strain these connections; however, it is precisely those moments when support is needed. As bridges between congregations are built, we see the larger network that makes up the IMMC community.
Bill Scott, pastor at Ninth Street Mennonite Community Church (Saginaw, MI) states, ‘It makes me feel like I am part of a family. That the people that are in my congregation are more, at the least the people in the community, is much more than my congregation. And that we should be there to help each other as the Bible has told us to help one another in order to be all that God wants us to be.”
In preparing for this article, I spoke with a number of Michigan pastors about their experiences. Due to space, I was unable to included all of them. Special thanks to all those who contributed including Denny Heath (Midland) and Janice Wagner (Wildwood).