Listening as a sacred act

Central District Conference members tell what they love about their congregations

Participants in a sacred listening session at Ames Mennonite Church in Iowa on July 24, 2022. — Jane Thorley Roeschley Participants in a sacred listening session at Ames Mennonite Church in Iowa on July 24, 2022. — Jane Thorley Roeschley

In an age of declining church attendance, it seems appropriate to ask: What is church for? What makes a congregation a home?

Doug Luginbill, conference minister for Central District Conference of Mennonite Church USA, found himself asking some of these questions as the pandemic stretched into its second year.

The conference had done a sacred listening process with congregations 20 years ago, after a merger with three other conferences fell through, and Luginbill felt it was time to hear from congregations again, given the changes wrought by the pandemic and with new churches joining the conference.

“What it highlighted for me is space for creativity and ways to think beyond the ways we usually do conference work,” Luginbill said. “I wanted to take advantage of that.”

Over 18 months, ending in the fall of 2023, 34 of the conference’s 45 congregations hosted listening sessions with traveling volunteers. They heard affirmation of the power of the church community in caring for one another.

Participants were asked to tell about a time when they were excited to be part of their church, how the church nurtures gifts and when they have felt God’s love within it, and how it participates in the larger community.

Several themes emerged, including care for one another, the importance of welcome and belonging, being curious and open to change, social justice as a foundation of congregational work and diverse leadership in worship.

Care for those in the church was the most prominent theme. A member of Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Gainesville, Fla., said that when the pastor went beyond expectations to make sure she was included, “I felt so loved that I cried.”

James Rissler, one of the volunteers who visited Emmanuel and is now their interim pastor, said, “I was moved by the emotion people expressed about valuing their congregations. I remember Emmanuel’s sense of being a little congregation that could do big things, as they shared about supporting an asylum-seeking family with two other congregations in Gainesville.”

Another congregant at Emmanuel shared that when her daughter was killed in a car accident and her grandchildren were injured, members sat at the bedside of each child and ensured that everyone was cared for.

Participants told stories of inclusion. Members of First Mennonite Church in Bluffton, Ohio, said young people are welcomed into all aspects of church life and are free to ask questions about their faith. Each year, sixth-grade youth participate in a confirmation class and have a choice to be baptized. Most do, but some don’t feel ready. Regardless of their decision, all are included in planning a service to honor them.

Carrie Mast, associate pastor at First Mennonite in Bluffton, believes congregations could benefit from more opportunities to express thankfulness.

“We don’t spend enough time collectively reflecting in an air of gratitude for what the church family is doing for us,” she said. “We collectively lament or confess during worship, but there’s not space for gratitude naturally in the liturgical traditions we’re part of.”

The sacred listening process was a joyful occasion for many.

St. Paul Mennonite Fellowship in Minnesota and Milwaukee Mennonite Church in Wisconsin are lay-led congregations that rent space. Participants consider lay leadership an asset, allowing them to be collaborative and spontaneous in worship.

Steve Hartman-Keiser of Milwaukee appreciated the chance to “celebrate what we love about being lay-led and that our commitment to it is something that feels like a part of our identity.”

The listening sessions took place just after the worst part of the pandemic, a time of upheaval and creativity. In turbulent times, the church can be an anchor point, and the listening process captured the precarious feeling.

At Grace Mennonite Church in Pandora, Ohio, a participant asked: “How do we continue showing our mission to the community in a somewhat changed reality?”

Sarah Werner

Sarah Werner is the communications coordinator for Central District Conference (Mennonite Church USA) and the facilitator of Olentangy Wild Church Read More

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