I attended my first binational conference ministers gathering in December. This meeting happens annually with conference leaders from Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA.
It’s a closed meeting where leaders from coast to coast share the burdens and joys of their work. Conference work is lonely and difficult these days. The forces of postmodernity menace our fragile unions, which cross theological, economic, cultural and geographic boundaries.
Conference ministers gather in these times for prayer and frank conversation. As the new guy in the room, I noticed the high levels of commitment and the near impossibility of the tasks these dedicated men and women are called to do.
I wondered why in the world anyone would want to do this kind of work. I wondered whether I have the faith and fortitude it requires.
In MC USA and MC Canada, the role of conferences is increasingly pinched. Due to economics and sociopolitics, conference systems can struggle to find senses of purpose and voice. It can be hard to speak and act coherently in the midst of near constant discernment. This makes it difficult to be a conference and a cohesive denomination.
Our systems were constructed for different times — before the Internet changed how we organize and relate, before we advocated a missional framework that can encourage congregations and communities to take their contexts so seriously that the voices of the neighborhood play as loud as the voices of the denomination.
As a conference leader, I find myself situated at a perfectly impossible intersection. I work in a voluntary system with mostly decreasing financial resources to do a job that requires an ever-increasing amount of relational investment, coordination and sensitivity.
As we take the call to mission more seriously, what it means to be Mennonite is increasingly shaped locally. Bridging the gap between these localities and the conference is a task filled with tension and interpretation.
I’m writing this article at the airport in Atlanta on my way back from a congregational visit with Georgia Praise Center. It’s a Franconia Conference Indonesian-speaking congregation that meets just north of Atlanta’s Chinatown. It has strong connections to the Philadelphia Indonesian Mennonite community.
I’m here to celebrate the congregation’s third anniversary, which lands intentionally at the onset of Lunar New Year. This year Franconia adjusted a meeting date, recognizing that 10 percent of our congregations celebrate Lunar New Year. It’s these kind of realities that make the role of conferences and conference leadership tricky.
The anniversary celebration featured Chinese dance, a sermon in Indonesian from Franconia’s first Indonesian pastor and solos by high school students with music that plays on Atlanta’s contemporary Christian radio stations. Georgia Praise takes a lot of cues from Jakarta Praise, a Mennonite megachurch in Indonesia.
My job as a conference minister is to be here to bless, celebrate and live alongside the beauty at the intersection of three identities: Mennonite, Sino-Indonesian and Atlantan. For me it’s both overwhelming and invigorating.
What I’ve glimpsed in my work is that our hope is tied up with these points of intersection. It’s the unexpected juxtaposing that offers signs of the Spirit at work. We’re moving into space where God’s Good News can flourish.
My work is sustained by the Spirit in these moments. I trust that in the midst of my own lack of faith and fortitude, the reign of God still comes near.
I have the holy and seemingly impossible opportunity to notice and proclaim the intentions of the Creator. And I remember the words of Jesus, that with God even the impossible can be a reality.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.