A whisper in the ear

Last week, as I sat among a hundred plus clergy at the Michigan Area School for Pastoral Ministry, I was struck by the dedication and commitment of these faithful, humble servants of Jesus Christ who have responded to God’s call to professional ministry.  I then began to imagine these clergy as children and youth.  What kinds of congregations nurtured and encouraged them to claim Jesus as their Savior and walk in Christian discipleship?

These churches were large and small; rural, suburban, and urban; African-American, Hispanic-Latino, Korean, Vietnamese, and white.   Some of the churches may not even exist anymore.  Yet each one played a crucial role in a future pastor’s call.

Earlier this year I was asked to write an introduction to a new book, A Whisper in the Ear, which celebrates the history of my home church, Zion Mennonite Church in Souderton, Pennsylvania.  Until I read a draft of the book, I was not fully aware of the extent to which my story is inextricably linked with Zion’s story.

How does a church actually shape an individual’s call?  I’ve been asked to share my call to ministry numerous times over the years, and I always respond this way, “I was called to ministry as a child because of the example of my parents and the influence of Zion Mennonite Church.  I never wanted to do anything else but work in the church.  Because women were not allowed to be pastors when I was growing up, I gravitated toward church music instead.  While pursuing graduate studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, I lived at Yale Divinity School and observed other women preparing to be pastors.  It was then that God’s whisper in my ear turned into a shout, ‘I am calling you to be a pastor, too!’  Because of God’s grace and the support of Zion Mennonite Church, I was ordained in 1982 and have never looked back.”

As I read A Whisper in the Ear, I realized that the vision, mission, and values that formed Zion Mennonite Church when it was chartered in 1893 have also formed me spiritually.

1.         From Zion I learned how to be a creative and risk-taking spiritual leader.  Many of the pastors at ZionMennoniteChurchwere courageous and imaginative change agents.  That’s because Zionwas formed as a result of tension between progressive and traditionalist Mennonites in the 19th century, which produced the Oberholtzer schism and, consequently, the Eastern District Conference.  This new small town congregation cast a vision of a church which gave itself away in mission and service to an ever-changing world.  As a spiritual leader, I, too, seek to effect transformation by building on the strong foundation of the past, claiming the challenge of the present, and working toward a future where God’s kingdom comes in all its fullness.

2.         From Zion I learned the importance of education, mission, discipleship, and social action, which went hand in hand from the earliest years of the congregation.  A few months before Zion was chartered, congregational leaders invited the Methodist Evangelical Sunday School of Souderton to locate in their new meetinghouse.  How amazing that even when relationships between “Old” and “New” Mennonites were strained, Zion was willing to embrace another denomination (which is now my beloved United Methodist Church!) because of their belief that church growth could best take place through the Sunday school.     

Since Romans 12:2 (“do not be conformed to this world”) is a foundational scripture for Mennonites, Zion continually challenged its members to struggle with what it means to live in the world, witness to the world, yet remain countercultural.  My parents, Gerry and Gwen Hartzel, were part of the original “Couples Class,” which was formed in 1951 for the purpose of “becoming more intimately acquainted with the Bible and its message for today.”

Although I was just a young girl, I still remember Rev. Alvin Beachy’s sermons about the Vietnam War and assumed that all Mennonites shared his pacifist views.  Only later did I understand the magnitude of the soul searching that went on during the World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, as Mennonites did not always agree about how to live out their historic resistance to war.  I also remember how prophetic and courageous the leadership at Zion was in addressing pacifism, civil rights, and other social issues.

Coming home for Christmas after my first semester at Yale, I remember sitting in Zion’s parsonage and talking with Alma Mast, wife of Rev. Russell Mast.  When I shared with her my developing call to pastoral ministry, she replied, “Laurie, you know that women can’t be ministers in the General Conference Mennonite Church.  Of course, if all women who wanted to be pastors were like you, I’d be very supportive of the idea.”  I am in ministry today only because 5 years later, in 1982, Rev. Frank Keller ordained me at Zion despite opposition from the rest of the Eastern District Conference.  Because of the example and witness of the faithful at Zion, discipleship – each one of us naming, claiming, and living out our faith – lies at the heart of my ministry.

3.         From Zion I learned about servanthood.  From putting my quarter in the offering envelope every week, to participating in paper drives, to working with Mennonite Disaster Service in Wilkesbarre after Hurricane Agnes in 1972, to serving as a delegate to the triennial session of the General Conference Mennonite Church in 1977, I learned that being a Christian is much more than believing in Jesus.  Just asZion has been described in the book as “a church that gets things done,” so my ministry has revolved around bearing fruit and caring for the very least of God’s children around the world in the name of Jesus Christ.

4.         From Zion I learned the ripple effect of encouragement.  Had it not been for the encouragement of countless saints at Zion, my life would have been very different.  I was given the opportunity to grow in my faith, learn the Bible, sing in many different choirs, play one of the most unique pipe organs in the country, take a trip to Germany with the senior high youth group, travel with a group from church to Washington D.C. in 1969 for a peace march, and grow in grace, hope, and love.  I was nurtured and supported every step of the way.  What a gift!

The most powerful moment in my youth was my believer’s baptism on Pentecost Sunday May 15, 1970, in front of the Holy Spirit window, set aflame by the bright morning sun.  When Rev. Mast laid his hands on my head, I felt the Holy Spirit whisper in my ear and fill me with a passion and fire for ministry that has never abated.  Today, as a United Methodist pastor, I carry my Mennonite roots with me wherever I go.  I have no doubt that Menno Simons and John Wesley would have gotten along famously!

What about you? 

  • How has your story been shaped by the saints in the churches where you grew up?
  • How do you continue to be shaped by God’s servants who are part of your faith community today?
  • How can you shape and influence the lives of others, especially children and youth, whose stories are still being written?
  • When was the last time you said to a child, youth or adult, “I think you have wonderful gifts for ministry.  Have you ever thought about becoming a pastor?”  Who will be the next son or daughter of your local church who is called into professional ministry?
  • When was the last time you heard God whisper in your ear?  Is your heart still open to God’s call, no matter how young or old you are?

And what about your local church? 

  • Do you realize how formative the vision, mission, and values of your church are not only for the congregation as a whole but for each child, and youth and adult within the congregation?
  • Are you finding innovative ways to serve that will strengthen the ministries of your church and will lead to greater spiritual growth, vitality, and congregational health?
  • Are you collectively listening to God’s whisper, calling your congregation to be a channel of grace and thereby fulfilling God’s vision for your unique body of Christ?
  • Do you have the courage to go where God is leading you, so that you can more effectively speak out against injustice, be living examples of peace and reconciliation, and reach out to all those in your community who are yearning to hear the good news of Jesus Christ?
  • Where will the next step take you – and your church?

Blessings, Laurie

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