An irony of his life is that during seminary in the early 1960s, his peers told him he wasn’t really suited for pastoral ministry, said John A. Esau last fall. He defied the naysayers and served for the next two and a half decades as a Mennonite pastor.
But he didn’t stop there.
In 1985, he became director of Ministerial Leadership Services for the former General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC). Until his retirement in 1999, Esau helped improve and redefine pastoral ministry for new generations of pastors several years prior to and after the creation of Mennonite Church USA, which was formed from the merger of GC and the former Mennonite Church (MC) in 2002.
Though he could be described as quiet and placid, he stirred the waters by resymbolizing Anabaptist-Mennonite pastoral ministry, according to his ministerial peers.
They say his work evoked positive waves of change that strengthened and empowered pastoral identity and the pastoral office itself by reshaping credentialing policies.
Today, Esau, 78, lives in North Newton, Kan., with Bernice, his wife, who is retired from a 40-year nursing career as an RN. He continues to use his gifts within the church and community, though he enjoys not having to corral the currents of change, he said during a fall 2014 interview at his home.
Yes, he still watches, with caring concern, the struggles of Mennonite Church USA to move forward, he said.
This time, however, it is a new generation who own the responsibility to articulate a new vision for a new age. Nevertheless, his earlier writings and work still inform Mennonite Church USA’s current ministerial policies.
His concepts—shaped together with the work of a joint committee consisting of MC and GCMC representatives from 1987 through 1995—were articulated in the 1996 A Mennonite Polity for Ministerial Leadership. Those concepts are still found largely intact in Mennonite Church USA’s proposed ministerial polity document, A Shared Understanding of Church Leadership.
“I believed then and still believe today that the role of the pastor is very important to the church,” Esau said. “The commitment to seeing pastoral ministry done well—humbly but with authority and with grace—is part of the key to helping the church be the church we want it to be. Our pastors are very central to the life of the church.”
Life of the church shaped his life as a boy
Ever since his boyhood in Ohio, ministry has been part of his life. He is the only child of his late parents, John J. Esau, a pastor and traveling evangelist, and Elvina (Augsburger) Esau, a homemaker.
He is particularly proud of having in his possession a “Certificate of Ordination—as a Christian worker” given to his mother by the GCMC at his father’s ordination to serve in a city church mission in Lima, Ohio.
“This was in 1934,” he said. “We ordained spouses of missionaries.”
Esau’s life view and faith were formed by having a front-row seat to the ways ministry affects the family, the church family, the community and the wider church.
“My father was blind, and everyone knew him and respected him for his ability to serve the church in spite of and sometimes because of his blindness, and all that deeply impacted me,” Esau said.
His father served in several short pastorates but primarily as a traveling evangelist.
In the late 1940s, John J. Esau traveled as an evangelist for Grace Bible Institute (now Grace University) in Omaha, Neb., and served part-time as a pastor for the campus’ United Mennonite Church, where John A. was baptized by his father.
Esau said he was shaped by strains of fundamentalism.
These were found in his boyhood congregation, Ebenezer Mennonite Church, in Bluffton, Ohio, and later at Grace in Omaha, where he lived with his folks during his late elementary and early high school years.
After high school graduation from the Mennonite Brethren Immanuel Academy in Reedley, Calif., he attended his first two years of college at Grace. He said it was formed out of a reaction to the perceived modernism in other parts of the GCMC.
It was at Grace that his earlier understandings were challenged by his reading of Scripture. After two years, he transferred to the MC-supported Goshen (Ind.) College to finish his degree in a liberal arts environment.
“The real crunch came for me when at Grace I began reading the Scripture texts more seriously,” he said. “I bought a King James Version of the Bible, which had only the biblical text, without additional interpretations. What I read, especially in the Gospels, was not matching up to what I had expected. I came to see that Jesus and the kingdom of God [were] not only about being saved for the next world but about God’s grace and love and care for this world—and whatever is beyond.”
After graduation from Goshen in 1959, he and Bernice were married and moved to the former GCMC-supported Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. (now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary). That’s where he earned a B.D. degree in the days before an M.Div. degree was available.
It was in Elkhart during his senior seminar that his first attempts to own a pastoral identity were questioned, he said. “I was basically told that I should look for something other than to become a pastor. But life has its strange ways, and evidently God had other ideas. Even though I got one signal from my peers, I rather naively went into pastoral ministry anyway.”
In 1961, as a 24-year-old, he took his first pastorate at Faith Mennonite Church, a church plant begun in 1960 in Minneapolis. It’s where he and Bernice served for the next decade, as they began to raise their family—two biological children, David and Sheryl, and an adopted son, Keith, now deceased.
During the earlier part of the ministry there, Esau said he perceived a new sense of pastoral calling. “I was driving along in the city somewhere and thought, This is who I really am, and this is good. “I felt that being a pastor was both challenging and rewarding. I continued at Faith for 10 years.”
Facing a fork in the road
Though he didn’t initially pursue pastoral ministry with a strong sense of call, that call deepened over the years. But he came to a fork in the road. His love of the academic process was reawakened when he earned his second graduate degree—a M.Th. in theology—at United Seminary of the Twin Cities.
In addition, for a year in the late 1960s, he served as an interim instructor at Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg, Manitoba. After leaving the Twin Cities in 1971, he began his second pastorate as a 34-year-old at Bethel College Mennonite Church (BCMC) in North Newton—also in an academic setting.
Despite his love of academic pursuit, pastoral ministry won out.
Fortunately for new generations of pastors in the future, Esau chose the fork he did. It brought him to Kansas, where he later served in the ministerial leadership role for GCMC, headquartered in Newton, Kan.
But before he assumed that role, he served at BCMC from 1971 through 1984.
“This was a tumultuous time for both the church and the college,” he said. “It was a time of student unrest following the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. It was also the beginning awareness of concern for the environment and other issues of the changing cultural experience.”
One of those changes was a growing desire on the part of women to become pastors—a door closed for many women at that point.
But Western District Conference (WDC), to which BCMC belonged, was one of the most progressive area conferences on this issue, he said. That made the congregation a good fit for Esau, who welcomed women as his pastoral peers.
“Bethel College Church never discussed whether we should have women in ministry,” he said. “It was not an issue to debate. We just did it.” During his tenure, he worked with two women colleagues. “After that, our congregation could never go back to the men only paradigm for pastors,” he said.
Field of changes brings new harvest
By the time Esau began his post in the former GCMC, the fields of change were ready for a new harvest.
The reaping of that harvest began in a quiet revolution in Esau’s office as he put pen to paper to express his vision. Esau recalibrated theology on pastoral ministry and forged new policies that helped put them into practice.
His range of concerns were wide—refining credentialing processes, providing sabbatical possibilities, updating salary scales, matching mentors with new pastors and dealing with clergy abuse. He also supported retirement plans and continuing education expectations.
Most pivotal was John’s careful articulation of an Anabaptist-Mennonite theology of pastoral ministry (including ordination) that empowered people to be at home in their sense of call, to be a pastoral person, not only to do pastoral tasks, said Brenda Martin Hurst, pastor at Frazer (Pa.) Mennonite Church, during a fall 2014 telephone interview.
His thoughtful and systematic way of forging into the future endeared him to many grateful, emerging pastors.
Esau encouraged Martin Hurst, a Lancaster Mennonite Conference native who had just graduated from AMBS in 1986, to strike out for new territory. She and Ray, her husband, had been invited by Frank Keller (WDC conference minister) to become co-pastors at Tabor Mennonite Church in rural Newton.
“John supported me as a woman in ministry in the mid-1980s, when that was still a relatively risky thing,” she said. “Also, after being an MC all my life, [I was] asked to be a GCMC representative on the joint polity committee. He had a lot more confidence in me than I did in myself at that point.”
She said Esau helped new generations of pastors shine and grow, and for congregations to honor the office of pastor as well as his or her personhood. But today, his prophetic work is largely unsung, she said.
The reason is this: His greatest thoughts are now so woven into the culture of the church, and the widely accepted salary and benefit guidelines for pastors are taken for granted.
“John cared passionately about our well-being as pastors,” she said. “He wanted us to gain healthier perspectives of who we were and who God had called us to be. He felt that distorted understandings about ‘the priesthood of all believers’ had undermined the authority of pastors and had hamstrung us from truly exercising appropriate leadership. He articulated how authority to serve the congregation is infused into the pastoral office. Part of that pastoral authority arises out of a person’s character and his or her relationship to God. He said that appropriate pastoral authority comes both from what the congregation grants you and also what you earn.”
Marvin Zehr also said Esau greatly aided him during his tenure as WDC conference minister in the 1990s. He helped Zehr discern good fits for pastoral candidates and forge sexual abuse guidelines when ministerial abuses were first exposed. Most importantly, Zehr said, Esau was empowered to greatly increase visibility of pastoral leadership in the church because he had been charged to focus solely on that arena.
“I feel that the role of pastor is being diminished currently in Mennonite Church USA,” Zehr said. “That’s partly a result of limited staffing. Even though some attention is being paid to a broader category of ‘leadership,’ there is no way the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA has quite the same role of tending to pastors specifically.”
Esau said he sensed this shift was coming. “I saw this office was getting drawn more into the integration-merger process and focused less on the welfare of pastors,” he said. “I supported the merger, but my commitment to the job had to do with the enhancement of pastoral ministry, and I didn’t want to go elsewhere.”
Esau has not gone elsewhere.
His passion for seeing the church tend well to its pastors continues to burn bright. For example, from 1988 through 2012, he wrote a column for Mennonite Weekly Review (now Mennonite World Review) that continued to address ministerial leadership issues. In addition he also wrote about biblical interpretation and occasional theological reflections.
Esau said he hopes and prays the wider church can keep relationships strong by moving beyond the sexuality debate. He believes pastors can continue to be provocative, theologically and intellectually alive, rooted in the biblical life and story and open to the experience of God’s Spirit to follow Christ.
“Let’s not expect them to just repeat the same story over and over again in the same old ways,” he said.
The church needs vibrant, healthy pastors in order to quell the temptation to narrow down on itself in times of anxiety and change, he said. “In order for the church to come out of this tough time, it needs not to get so caught up in controversy but to continue reaching for a larger sense of mission that can help us see God’s world in God’s ways.”
What he penned 20 years ago is still relevant today: Healthy pastors who can see and point the way are key to the ongoing journey of a healthy and faithful church.