Becoming Series: Becoming Mennonite
This post, Becoming Mennonite, explores how I found myself in a multifaceted church movement known as the Mennonites. The Becoming Series features blog posts that explore some significant and defining moments in my journey. Most of these moments were surprises along the journey for me, and now they are stories that I have found worth sharing. The first post in this series, Becoming Vineyard, offers information that may be helpful to the start of this post.
The word Mennonite, for many, carries with it the imagery of people in plain clothes, wearing unique head coverings, and living in a way that it seems the progress of time has forgotten them. For many, Mennonites seem to be a strictly rural group of farming families, and they are a group who speak and think backwards, and live within a culture of their own making. This stereotype, which blurs the lines between Amish and Mennonite, is somewhat whimsical and fantasy, but it is also partially accurate and in some contexts it may be fully accurate. It would have mirrored my own understanding of Mennonites as I was growing up.
In my teens, I knew one thing and that one thing was that simply that from the little I knew, I did not care much for what I knew of Mennonites. Though, I had a great-grandmother who was living and was a Mennonite, I didn’t think of her that way. The imagery that came to mind for me was not much different than the stereotypical ones mentioned above. For me it conjured memories of that one boy that throughout elementary school got on the bus with shoes that were covered in a sticky mud that we always suspected was not earthy mud at all. The word Mennonite, for me, came with images of people dressing in plain clothes and flashy white sneakers. Often, the image of a Mennonite was someone who tried to disguise their inevitable German look with expensive shopping trips at Abercrombie and Fitch. Additionally at the time, my interactions with known Mennonites had left me asking questions about integrity. For me, they always appeared to be a cliquish people, with funny accents and historic traditions – who cared little about their neighbors, modernity, and the earth. If you grew up in an area with Mennonites, these images may connect with you as well. In those years, I simply knew that I was not, nor would I become, a Mennonite.
The first post of this series, Becoming Vineyard, shares about the spiritual sojourn of my youth and early adulthood. It was during those unchurched years that I began to not only live into a music scene culture in some countercultural ways; but it was also then that I began to wrestle with faith and my place in the world. I simply knew that my experiences in the church that my parents attended, and many of the ideologies of my parents, were not the same convictions and ideologies of who I was seemingly becoming. In my youth, I had already began to consider many new ideas and convictions for myself, including convictions and ideas around pacifism and nonresistance. Thankfully, in those years that I struggled with the church, I still had a tight group of friends around me that permitted me to process both my angst and many forming social, political, and religious thoughts. Many nights were spent along the bay and in diners, local restaurants, and coffee shops exploring various ideas and arguments.
I have always been an avid reader, reading everything from classics, to books on ethics, anthropology, history, faith and sociology. In the era of my spiritual journey, I would read everything from college textbooks, to Martin Luther, to the writings of Gandhi for fun. As I journeyed back into faith, it was the writings of C.S. Lewis and Brennan Manning that began to connect with where I was at on my spiritual journey. As I journeyed back into the church, it was the writings of James Emery White, George Barna, and Frank Viola that connected with where I was at. As I landed in the Vineyard Movement, the writings of John Wimber, Jack Deere, George Eldon Ladd, Neil Cole, Ed Stetzer and others began to answer some questions about the church that I was asking. As I began to shift, shape and surrender many of the new ideas and convictions that I had formed or began to form on my spiritual journey, my exploration on the Kingdom of God shed new meaning on my forming convictions and ideas around pacifism and nonresistance. Naturally, I picked up a few books to read on this topic, books from Gregory Boyd, John Howard Yoder, early Christian thinkers, and even from Herald Press, which was a publisher from the Mennonite Church.
Outside of my exploration of these ideas through reading, I engaged conversation on these matters with my grandparents were still living at the time. There was always an open ear, homemade cookie, and some Meadow Tea waiting at my maternal grandparents’ door. The truth is that they also had a way of taking complex matters and making them simple truths. In a slight tangent, let me share that I would trade almost anything for one of those conversations again, as they are dearly missed, and I still see their influence in my life, our families, and many individuals that I have encountered in our region. Though they were not Mennonite, my grandparents belong to a small denomination that was started several generations before by one of my grandmother’s forefathers. That network of churches, the Brethren in Christ, was a passionate hybrid of Anabaptism, Pietism, Wesleyanism, and Evangelism. Their early-Anabaptist influence made them a historic peace church, an idea that my grandparents both held. It was in conversations that I had with my grandfather in particular, once while husking corn, that I would too come to be convicted on matters of peace not just from an ethical standpoint, but a theological one, one that believed we were citizens of the Kingdom of God, not of this world, and we were therefore strangers on this land that had been designed to be bearers of God’s love, image, healing, and Shalom. In this conviction, violence, and war in particular, violets and distorts our ability to be ambassadors of God’s love, image, healing, and Shalom. To quote my grandfather, “If I kill, it either sends someone to hell without the possibility of redemption, or it kills my Christian brother, both of whom I have been called to love.” Our conversations led to more reading, but I still was Vineyard through and through. In fact, my grandparents were avid fans of Jack Deere and some Vineyard thought, even coming to visit me when I would preach in the Vineyard. The Vineyard had Quaker roots, and I began to explore these influences with fervor and interest.
In learning more about issues of the way the Kingdom of God manifested in peace, citizenship, ethics, shalom and healing - I encountered an organization called Every Church a Peace Church. Every Church a Peace Church was born out of the idea that churches hold the key to turning the world toward peace through the teachings of Jesus Christ. This organization was formed by a radical thinker by the name of John Stoner. John was a Mennonite and he broke the mold of everything I knew about Mennonites. Many conversations were held in local restaurants between us, and at times between us and others. He introduced me to even more ideas, new understandings, a set of new authors (Ched Meyers, Dale Brown, etc.). Though I did not agree with everything that John held as an idea or conviction, his friendship and understandings were invaluable to the journey I was on. My own journey with the scriptures would be the single most transforming element of this conversation, but many signs and signposts along the way were instrumental in this process.
In 2009, I moved out of Pennsylvania. Our Vineyard Church was experiencing a pastoral leadership change and I decided to move for a job and music touring opportunity in Virginia. By this time, Katie and I were married for three years, and together for five. Katie also was on a transformative spiritual journey for herself while attending college. It was obvious that she moving away from the military-proud background in which she was raised when we met and towards pacifism and Spirit-filled convictions. Our journey together had much synergy around our explorations. Katie even shared where she was at on our first official date, and from one spiritual seeker to another, that was encouraging. As we moved to Virginia in 2009, as a married couple, we felt that we would someday return to the Vineyard, but that in this season we wanted to explore Anabaptism and the Mennonite Church. We visited a Mennonite Church in 2009, and we did so with great hesitancy and a forming belief that it was going to be exactly like the stereotype I had of Mennonites growing up. I had thought that perhaps they would even speak more German than English, and so we made a plan to sit near the back, in eye shot of the door, and a planned head nod signal that meant we were skipping out the minute things go weird.
From 2009 to 2010 we attended Daypsring Mennonite Church and we were warmly welcomed. There wasn’t anything strange about it at all. Instantly, we sensed that were to make our home in this congregation for whatever short time we were there. Our ultimate goal was to eventually move to California. Though, after sometime, we were even invited to share on a Sunday night at this Mennonite church, then a Sunday morning. We participated in midweek small groups, and more. There was certainly much that we appreciated about that church, and we still hold connections, friendships, and fond memories there. The stereotypical mold of what a Mennonite was, was certainly cracked by our encounters with John Stoner (mentioned above), but those molds were certainly broken after our encounter in this church. In 2010, our next journey was to move to Southern California, where we felt a passion to move and church plant, and instead of our efforts being done through Vineyard USA, I found myself licensed for ministry in the small denomination of Mennonite Churches that this church belonged to, the Conservative Mennonite Conference. Some other time I might expand on the irony of my involved with an organization that had the word Conservative in it. Sadly, shortly after moving to California, Katie faced some significant health challenges, and she was the first to share that she desired to move back to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In late 2011, we moved back to Pennsylvania and pursued caring for Katie’s health and caring for my grandmother until her passing. That move home was perhaps one of the most challenging and dark moments of my journey, and it still perplexes me in many ways. However, though we visited the Vineyard and a few other church movements upon our return, it seemed spiritually that we had not been released from the Mennonite Church and though we were hurting, we still identified as part of this movement, and settled in helping a Church of the Brethren Church Plant for two short years.
My licensing with Rosedale Mennonite Missions and the Conservative Mennonite Conference ended in 2012, and thanks to the influence and friendship of our then California, and Brethren-in-Christ Church, friend (Jeff Wright), we connected with the Atlantic Coast Conference of Mennonite Church USA. Our overseer Warren Tyson was an encouragement to us and much more connected on a personal level than we had experienced in our previous endeavor. Though our time in this conference of churches would be short, we appreciated their friendship and resourcing. For the next year, we attended a church that was part of the Atlantic Coast Conference of Mennonite Church USA, occasionally preached, and focused on missional communities in South Side of Lancaster City. I think by this time, we realized that we had somehow, along the way, because officially Mennonite. I say this, but I also note that the Vineyard had never lost influence, honor, or fondness in our hearts.
In 2013, I accepted an Associate Pastorate at East Petersburg Mennonite Church, a church in the Lancaster Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA. The conference’s relationship with the denomination was in a turmoil, mirroring in many ways the challenges in the church we were pastoring, and in 2018 our conference of churches left the denomination and became their own fellowship of churches.
Though I was sure I had become officially Mennonite at this point, I realized while pastoring this church that had been through several short pastorates in the past ten years, that there was a noticeable difference between being Mennonite culturally, and being a Mennonite theologically. I was the latter. This difference was first noticed for me in this church, and it became evident when one of the first Sundays, a former pastor who still attended the church, told me that he was glad to have us around, even though we would never be one of them. When I asked what his confusing statement of encouragement meant, he replied that we did not have a “Lancaster County” (German) last name and therefore would never fully be-in. This strange remark is only one of hundreds I would hear and endure in my seven years there. Through this call to ministry, I learned that many attended Mennonite Churches, not because of their passion to the mission of that church or even the theological agreement with Anabaptism, but simply because of historic and family connection. I am sure this is evident in many movements, but this did not match the passionate foundations of faith I had experienced in the Vineyard, where many people were radically transformed by something God did in that church or as a result of that church, such as was my own story. I was licensed for ministry in the Lancaster Mennonite Conference in 2013, and ordained (a lifelong recognition of ministerial credentials) in 2015. In 2017, I became the Lead Pastor of this neighborhood church and for all its struggles, there was many good people and much good that happened during these years. During my time at this church, I was heavily involved not only in the local neighborhood, but with our denomination, serving on a denominational Strategic Direct Task Force, leading several learning cohorts, and even hosting an annual resourcing day for pastoral leaders.
Seven years after being called to that church, I felt God was asking us to move on, and I felt that I had done all that I had the capability and capacity to do and that it was time for someone else, or a group of others, to lead them onward. After East Petersburg Mennonite Church, I started pastoring and serving as the Director of Pastoral Ministry for Water Street Mission, a rescue mission organization that is focused on advancing the Kingdom of God through the gospel of Jesus Christ and doing missionary, relief, and rescue work of all kinds. At the same time, I took a role with Rosedale Bible College, an Evangelical Anabaptist/Mennonite college, where I oversaw an accredited and online distance learning program. As a family, we settled back into the Vineyard, at Sanctuary Church, and it felt good to be back where our story started, this time with our kids, and to be once again serving the Preaching and Leadership Team of this passionate group of Jesus followers. Sadly, post-Covid, the world was transformed in many ways and our small church struggled to survive and ultimately closed in December of 2021.
At the time of this blog series, we have once again found ourselves in a small ruaral Mennonite church, River Corner Church. I still am Ordained in the Lancaster Mennonite Conference (now LMC Churches) for my work with Water Street Mission. I still am serving at an Anabaptist/Mennonite college. I am less convinced we are Mennonite, perhaps we are still becoming Mennonite, as I continue to find myself in contrast with the cultural aspects of Anabaptism. Now, we have invested in an urban Mennonite Church, a suburban Mennonite Church, and now are in a small rural Mennonite church community. We are here, and I do not see God calling us on anytime soon. Like I shared in Becoming Vineyard, I am sure I am not done in the association of churches known as Vineyard USA. I am glad my children have experienced this passionate and laid-back church movement and that they have found their home in it as well. This story will continue someday, and the Vineyard has shaped me and continues to shape much of who I am. However, so has the Mennonite Church shaped me, and we are glad to be where we are at in this season. I hope we are breaking the mold on what it means to be an Anabaptist follower of Jesus for others.
In 2012, there were close to 2 million followers of Jesus who identified themselves as Mennonites. Followers of Jesus, who identify themselves as Mennonite, are found worldwide. Their story stretches as far back as the 16th century in Switzerland. During that century, the reformation brought conflict between the state controlled churches. Anabaptists were common folk who wanted to really understand what it meant to live and love like Jesus. They wanted to follow Jesus without the control of an oppressive government and oppressive government-controlled churches. They called themselves the “free church.” As a symbolic commitment to following Jesus for themselves, these individuals would baptize each other. Others called them, the Anabaptists, which means to “re-baptize.” The government and government-controlled churches saw this symbolic act of baptism as an act of rebellion. In following Jesus, they realized how important it was to be a community together. They also realized the essential importance of following Jesus’ call to love our enemies and our neighbors. It was because of these spiritual practices and disciplines, that the other churches and governments of their martyred thousands of these 16th Century Anabaptists for their beliefs. Mennonites continue to be a multifaceted group of followers of Jesus. There are also now more Mennonites on the continent of Africa than anywhere else in the world. However, our central values of following Jesus in our daily life and peacemaking continue to hold all Mennonites in community, despite our different disciplines and practices. You can learn more about the group I am part of through their website.