No longer a rite of passage

Leaders of diverse Anabaptist agencies discuss how to revive an ethic of service

Mennonite Voluntary Service participants Erin McWilliams, Anna Lubbers, Eden George, Polly Carlson, Claire Waidelich, Pamela Ortiz, Ashley Neufeld, Jillian Neufeldt and Elizabeth Breckbill in San Francisco. — Erin McWilliams/MMN Mennonite Voluntary Service participants Erin McWilliams, Anna Lubbers, Eden George, Polly Carlson, Claire Waidelich, Pamela Ortiz, Ashley Neufeld, Jillian Neufeldt and Elizabeth Breckbill in San Francisco. — Erin McWilliams/MMN

What’s the future of service? That was the question on the minds of representatives from 13 Anabaptist-Mennonite organizations who met in Akron, Pa., April 12-13 for a first-ever joint consultation.

The meeting was organized by Kevin King, executive director of Mennonite Disaster Service in the U.S.; Becky Gochnauer, volunteer manager for MDS in the U.S.; Ann Graber Hershberger, executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S.; and Kierston Kreider, mission mobilizer for Virginia Mennonite Missions.

For Graber Hershberger, the meeting raised the question of whether a culture of service is waning in Anabaptist churches.

“We wondered what is happening to the service ethic,” she said. “It doesn’t seem to be the same as it used to be.”

The traditional emphasis on serving came out of the World War II period and postwar reconstruction in Europe and continued during the Vietnam War era of alternative service.

As a result, many people in the 1950s to the ’70s “grew up in an ethos of service,” she said. “There was a major emphasis on it in many churches.”

Demographics also play a role today.

“It seems obvious that if there are fewer white folks in the more progressive Anabaptist churches, and they have fewer children, and many of those children do not stay in church past middle school, there are fewer youth for our traditional VS programs,” Graber Hershberger said.

Groups need to connect with churches to find out what they can do together to promote service to younger generations, she said.

This would include talking to leaders of newcomer and non-white congregations, where traditional ideas of service — taking a week, a month, a year or longer to go away to serve — don’t fit as well with lived realities in those communities.

“In many ways, it’s a privilege to be able to do the kind of service we offer,” Graber Hershberger said. “We need to think of ways we can support service in non-white churches that fit the situations facing their youth.”

For King, the goal of the consultation was to “spark meaningful learning among the various organizations. . . . We all face similar challenges in finding the next generation of volunteers but haven’t met to talk about these issues until now.”

Through the consultation, King said, groups could see “we are not alone in thinking about where future volunteers will come from . . . we punched holes in the silos that have kept us apart.”

Among the Challenges is the decreasing number of young people in many Anabaptist churches. This means “the pool we are fishing in for volunteers is getting smaller,” he said.

At the same time, many young people in Anabaptist churches are graduating from college today with large student loan debt.

“Their main concern after college is finding a job as quickly as possible so they can pay it off,” King said.

King echoed concerns about a ­demographic “cliff” that is coming in the form of a dramatic drop in the traditional, college-aged population as a result of a decline in the U.S. birthrate that began during the Great Recession of 2008.

“We thought the 9-11 bump up in volunteers serving their neighbors in need would continue, but it didn’t last,” he said, adding that the “expected rite of passage” of serving that he and many others experienced as youth isn’t as evident today.

Nancy Heisey, who worked for MCC in the U.S. and taught at Eastern Mennonite University, was on the listening committee for the consultation.

“I thought it was a creative gathering of people who haven’t talked to each other very much,” she said.

Among the ideas floated at the consultation were finding ways for groups to collaborate to promote service; holding joint orientations where youth from different conferences could get to know each other; ensuring involvement by people of color; and finding ways to financially support young people who want to serve.

“Maybe we have to try something new and put some money on the table,” Heisey said. Her work at EMU showed her that students are eager to do things that help them build up their skills and resumes.

Theologically conservative conferences, which put less emphasis on higher education and have stronger group cohesion, are doing better when it comes to youth volunteerism, participants noted.

In addition to MDS in the U.S. and MCC U.S., other groups that participated in the consultation were Beachy Amish Service Units, The Shalom Project, Mennonite Mission Network, Faith Mission Home, Rosedale International, Eastern Mennonite Missions, Church of the Brethren Disaster Ministries, Brethren in Christ U.S. World Missions, Virginia Mennonite Missions, Multiply (Mennonite Brethren) and the Church of the Brethren.

John Longhurst

John Longhurst was formerly Communications Manager at MDS Canada.

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