By Ben Parker Sutter and Annette Brill Bergstresser
ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Dennis Miller of Goshen, Indiana, was in his late 50s when he realized it was time for him to explore other vocational possibilities.
“I’ve been in construction my entire working life,” he said. “Working in the church is something I always thought about but at the same time didn’t think was a realistic option for me.”
Miller, who attends Silverwood Mennonite Church in Goshen, took a leap of faith and enrolled in Journey: A Missional Leadership Development Program, a distance-friendly undergraduate-level nondegree program designed to serve as a starting place for Anabaptist pastoral and theological education for Christian leaders. Several persons from the Ohio Conference are now participating in this program.
Offered by the Church Leadership Center of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana, in cooperation with two conferences of Mennonite Church USA — Central District and Indiana-Michigan — Journey pairs online instruction with an ongoing mentoring relationship in which participants discuss their learnings and reflect on their leadership skills. Participants complete introductory studies in Bible, missional leadership, Anabaptist history and theology, pastoral care, preaching and worship planning while also deepening their practice of spiritual disciplines.
The program has given Miller, now in his third year, an opportunity to explore a nudge toward pastoral ministry while continuing to work in his concrete business.
“I am a different person than I was two years ago,” he said. “My interests and priorities have changed. Journey is shaping me into something different, and I can only describe that as, God is working in my life.”
A new design
The Journey curriculum, which was also used for the seminary’s former Pastoral Studies Distance Education program, was recently redesigned to be more flexible and accessible by David B. Miller, D.Min., teaching associate of the Church Leadership Center. It now consists of online classes that incorporate video lectures, assigned readings, brief written essays, and opportunities for participants to interact with each other and their pastoral guides — pastors Donna Mast of Goshen, Indiana, and Duane Beck of Raleigh, North Carolina — through discussion boards and occasional videoconferences.
“[The video lectures] were filled with new ways of looking at things I thought I had known,” said Jan Croyle, a second-year participant from First Mennonite Church of Wadsworth, Ohio. “I found it interesting and helpful to read the other participants’ essays. It seemed we either had a lot in common or else touched on totally different ideas.”
Journey participants meet with a local pastoral mentor every two weeks and gather for face-to-face Weekend Learning Events with other participants and mentors once or twice a year. Upon fulfilling the program requirements — which can take two and a half to three years — participants receive a certificate of completion. Forty-one people have completed the program since it began in 2003.
Journey is now open to anyone in the world, noted Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, dean of Lifelong Learning at AMBS. When the program began, it was jointly owned by AMBS, Central District and Indiana-Michigan Mennonite conferences, and participants came primarily from these conferences.
“Last year, ownership and administrative oversight of the program were transferred to AMBS, with Central District and Indiana-Michigan signing on as the first ‘sponsoring conferences,’” she said. “This change opened up the possibility for participants from any conference or denomination to attend, and for any conference to become a sponsoring conference.”
This year’s 17 participants — 11 men and 6 women — come from five conferences affiliated with Mennonite Church USA (Central District, Illinois, Indiana-Michigan, Ohio, Pacific Southwest); one regional church affiliated with Mennonite Church Canada (Mennonite Church Eastern Canada); and one district of the Missionary Church (North Central). Two participants also identify as Lutheran and Pentecostal.
Mentoring as accompaniment
According to Gingerich Longenecker, the mentoring component of the Journey program plays a significant role in its success.
“Our goal for the mentoring relationships is that participants will experience spiritual and theological reflection on leadership, guidance in wise practice of leadership skills, and a biblical vision of effective leadership for a changing world,” she said.
Keith Kingsley of Fellowship of Hope in Elkhart, Indiana, who has mentored three Journey participants, sees Journey as helping encourage and empower people with ministry gifts who might not otherwise find their way into church ministry.
“More than ‘teacher’ or ‘supervisor,’ I see my role as that of ‘accompanier’ — a privileged position allowing me to experience the work of God in another’s life and surroundings,” he noted. “Insofar as I can be transparent with my mentees, I believe they also experience the benefit of perceiving some of God’s work in my life. There is a mutuality here that graces our journey together.”
‘You’re among friends’
Journey’s Weekend Learning Events — typically held in September and February at or near AMBS — offer a setting for mentors, mentees, conference leaders, AMBS faculty members and other instructors to gather in person for worship, prayer, learning, fellowship and mutual support.
At the September 2018 event at Amigo Centre in Sturgis, Michigan, Miller told those attending, “All you first-time people here, I just want you to know: you’re among friends. These weekends are special, and you’ll never forget them.”
Gingerich Longenecker also spoke of feeling buoyed by the gathering, which brought together people from many different backgrounds. This year’s participants’ home countries include Belize, Bhutan, Congo, Nepal, Nigeria and South Sudan, as well as Canada and the United States. In addition to ministry, their vocations include counseling, insurance sales, health care and personal support, social work, education, piano teaching, administrative support, solar installation, and construction.
“It was truly a feast of delights to experience rich worship, testimonials, learning sessions and meals with such a remarkable cross-section of the church in the U.S. and Canada,” she said.
Participants continue to emphasize how important Journey is to them.
“It is so awesome to know there are still people who care to work with you and to talk to you,” said Claude Flowers, a first-year participant from Family Mennonite Church in Los Angeles, California, during a time of reflection and worship at the September gathering. “The awesomeness is so powerful, I don’t have words to say; all I can say is thank you.”
Tonya Gates, a third-year participant from Church Without Walls in Elkhart, Indiana, agreed: “The Journey program is helping me transform myself into who God wants me to be.”