A Whisper in the Ear

Yesterday, I preached at my home church, Zion Mennonite Church in Souderton, Pennsylvania, as part of the 50th anniversary of the current facility. A new building was constructed at the edge of town in 1968 to accommodate a rapidly growing congregation. During the fall, clergy who went into the ministry from Zion were asked to come back to preach and celebrate with the congregation.

Every time I am at a clergy meeting, preach in a local church, or preside at annual conference, I am amazed at the dedication and commitment of these faithful servants of Jesus Christ who have responded to God’s call to professional ministry. I then begin 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 are large and small; rural, suburban, and urban; African-American, Hispanic, Korean, Congolese, Chinese, Filipino, and white. Yet each one played a significant role in a future pastor’s call.

How does a church actually shape an individual’s call? I have had to share my call to ministry dozens of times over the years, and I usually respond this way, “I was called to ministry as a child because of the Christian example of my parents and the influence of the saints at Zion Mennonite 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 transferred my credentials to The United Methodist Church in 1987.”

In 2010, I was asked to write an introduction to a book that celebrates the history of my home church. After reading A Whisper in the Ear, Hearing God’s Call: A History of Zion Mennonite Church, Souderton Pennsylvania by Jim Musselman, I realized that my story is inextricably linked with Zion’s story. The vision, mission, and values that formed Zion Mennonite Church 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 Zion Mennonite Church were courageous and imaginative change agents. That’s partly because Zion was birthed in 1893 as an innovative “new church plant” from First Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, 35 miles away. This “suburban” congregation cast a vision of a church that gave itself away in mission and service to an ever-changing world.

As a spiritual leader, I, too, seek to guide transformation by building on the strong foundation of the past, claiming the challenge of the present, and working toward a future where God’s reign comes in all its fullness. This 1894 map of Souderton shows the “New Mennonite Church” building on Broad Street, in the top right corner.

  1. From Zion I learned the importance of education, discipleship, mission, and social action, which went hand in hand from the earliest years of the congregation.

A few months before Zion was chartered, congregation leaders invited the Methodist Evangelical Sunday School of Souderton to locate in their new meetinghouse. How amazing that even when relationships between different branches of Mennonites had been strained and had resulted in “New Mennonites” and “Old Mennonites,” 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 and 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.”

As a young girl, I learned that Mennonites and Amish are one the three historic “peace churches,” which also include the Church of the Brethren and Quakers. Although Mennonites did not always agree about how to live out their historic resistance to war, I do remember how prophetic and courageous the leadership at Zion was in engaging important issues of the time.

  1. 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 claiming faith in Jesus Christ. Just as Zion 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.

  1. From Zion I learned the ripple effect of encouragement. Had it not been for the support of countless saints at Zion, my life would have been very different. I was given the opportunity to grow in my faith, attend Bible studies with my grandmother, sing in many different choirs, play one of the most unique pipe organs in the country, take a mission trip to Germany with the senior high youth group, and grow in grace, hope, and love. I was nurtured and supported every step of the way. What a gift!

Today, as a United Methodist bishop, I carry my Mennonite roots with me wherever I go. I have no doubt that Menno Simons (the 16th century former Catholic priest who became an influential Anabaptist religious leader and after whom the Mennonites are named) and John Wesley would have gotten along famously!

What about you?  

  • How has your story been shaped by the saints in the church where you grew up and in the faith community that you are a part of 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 whispered into the ear of 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? 

  • 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 to your community and the world 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 be living examples of justice 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?



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