Re-published with permission from MAH News and Notes for October 2016.
Author Rich Preheim will speak at the October 15 meeting of Michiana Anabaptist Historians at Yellow Creek Mennonite Church. For more information, see www.michianaanabaptisthistorians.org.
In Pursuit of Faithfulness
Review of Rich Preheim’s New Book
Conference Pastor for LeadershipTransitions, Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference
Pastor on leave of absence, Benton Mennonite Church
How do you tell a narrative history of the single most influential institution in Michiana Anabaptist experience? Rich Preheim tells that story in such an engaging way by focusing on the ongoing conflicts growing out of the enduring convictions of leaders and the congregations they represent. As a conferring body, the conference seeks elusive compromise.
Preheim tells the story of this now Mennonite conference without leaving behind the significant Amish part. He is, like me, something of a champion of the more congregational orientation of the Indiana-Michigan Amish Mennonite Conference which merged with its Mennonite counterpart in 1916. Somehow that congregationalism was submerged in the following decades, and while Preheim traced that it did happen, I would have liked more analysis of how it happened.
One of the trickiest aspects of Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference history is that so much of its history is intertwined with the Mennonite Church denomination, now Mennonite Church USA. In a process that began some 150 years ago, Elkhart County, Indiana has become a denominational base. Preheim ably distinguishes conference and denominational history. He builds on the image of Indiana as a geographic and societal crossroads of America.
John F. Funk moved to Indiana both to connect better with his fellow Mennonites and do it in a place with broad connections. His national Mennonite periodicals drew talent from throughout North America and provided a base for forging denominational institutions. Yet while telling the story of Funk’s influence in the denomination, Preheim is able to stay focused on Funk’s influence, and eventual loss of it, in the conference.
Preheim continues the same careful balance with H.S. Bender, who also had an outsized role in the denomination. As a layperson for much of his life, his direct influence in the conference was not as great as the earlier Funk. But his indirect influence in changing the conference is decisive, especially as a representative of Goshen College, one of the national institutions that was at times most disconcerting to conference leaders.
I would have appreciated a different approach to how Preheim portrayed progressives and conservatives. While I share his bias for the former, I wondered about words like “sanctimonious” and “doctrinaire” to describe the approach of the latter. His treatment of bishops lacked nuance. Certainly bad bishops were authoritarian, imposing their will on their people. But at their best bishops led on behalf of their people, listening more than imposing.
The latter part of the book is a celebration of the conference increasingly representing those Anabaptists most engaged with the broader culture. This is seen in moving towards more racial diversity, more gender equality, and less clergy dominance. This hopefulness is chastened, however, by the most recent conflict on how the church responds to people with same-sex attraction, a conflict that has caused further dissolution. Yet his closing words remind us that the title might have it the wrong way. Perhaps the story of the conference’s pursuit of faithfulness is better understood as God’s faithfulness in pursuit of us.