Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of five columns written by Ron Byler, Mennonite Central Committee U.S. executive director, to mark 100 […]
Name: David Mishler
Role: Conference Minister for Allegheny Mennonite Conference and Pastor at Scottdale (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Church
1. What is your earliest memory of church?
My earliest memory of church is singing songs as a primary or preschool student group before Sunday school. I loved singing and the upbeat children’s songs are a happy memory.
Along with that early memory, and prior to my actual memory, I have been “haunted” by a photograph taken when I was about three years old. The setting was a mission church in the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, region, Walsall Mennonite Church. The photo was taken from the back of the auditorium, and you could see men on the left, women on the right. I am in the back row, facing to the back and standing on the bench while everyone else was looking forward attentively.
2. If someone asks you what it means to be a Mennonite, what would you tell them?
It means being someone who values walking in the way of Jesus in everyday life.
3. What was the most surprising or unexpected thing about being a pastor?
It’s the wonder of persons’ willingness to share deep and personal things—questions and faith affirmations, joy and pain—as we pursue what it means to live faithfully.
4. How did you discern your call into conference ministry?
I did not plan to become a pastor, although my aunt (on my mother’s side) was not timid about saying that “someone in the family should be a minister, it’s a high calling.”
I entered college intending on a different path, but was affirmed in leadership roles in the church. And as three other college roommates decided to “live off campus and study the Bible” while still going part-time to Goshen (Indiana) College, we tested ministry by teaching Sunday school at a Goshen area Mennonite church. We also formed a traveling worship team that landed in 70 plus Mennonite Churches (mostly in the Midwest) representing Goshen College from 1973-75 and took all the Bible courses we could under Stanley Shenk. I continued to be affirmed in ministry to the point that my pastor in western Pennsylvania invited me to my first pastoral ministry role with a bachelor’s degree in Bible in 1977.
So my call was clearly in the vein of Anabaptist process: a call that developed personally, but with the strong affirmation from the church.
5. Tell me about Allegheny Conference. What are you learning about the gifts and particularities of this conference?
Accepting the role of Conference Minister in Allegheny meant returning to a place of familiarity where I had pastored, was an overseer in 4 congregations and served as moderator and representative to several churchwide boards. I knew that I was returning to a conference where deep divisions were being lived out in withdrawals and transfers to other affiliations and a conference looking to determine its identity, vision for ministry, and survival all at the same time.
Allegheny has strong roots in the (Old) Mennonite Church and bishop models of hierarchical leadership, but alternative values were playing out as the conference delegates were making decisions by small majorities to become a more inclusive MC USA conference. Some congregations withdrew from the conference as part of the MC/GC merger of 2001. More withdrew over the next 15 years, mostly around conversations regarding LGBTQ inclusion. When I arrived in July 2016, Allegheny was 18 congregations, but a number had already declared their intentions to withdraw. Today we are 14 congregations, soon to be 12.
The remaining core congregations are highly committed to a vision of “walking in the way of Jesus” as the central focus for our conference. We highly value a “place-based” ministry approach which affirms congregations making decisions for how to be church in their neighborhoods, with conference being a place of mutual counsel and testing how to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly” in each of our unique contexts.
We are planning to form covenantal relationships among all Allegheny congregations. The covenants will spell out our intentions to meet regularly (and specify what frequency), financial commitments to the endeavor and our values of staying at the table while not imposing our agenda on one another. We are working tenaciously toward clarifying and articulating our vision of what it might mean to be a diverse conference in the emerging realities of MC USA.
6. What are your hopes and dreams for the next two years of ministry in this context?
Allegheny is exploring two options simultaneously to determine our future. First, what it might mean to operate as a smaller MC USA conference, adjusting our staffing arrangements and clarifying our conference identity so that existing congregations and other congregations who might share our vision can make longer term commitments to this MC USA conference. And second, to clarify what it would mean to merge with another MC USA conference, in particular pursuing a relationship with Central District Conference. We are currently exploring this possibility through a “Network Team.”
We are a fairly enthusiastic bunch as we work to envision a new future.
7. What does a perfect Sunday look like for you?
It’s seeking and engaging with the Creator of the universe with fellow believers, good food and fellowship, laughter and thoughtful reflection. Hopefully it’s God’s vision for Sabbath for humans and not the other way around.
And a perfect Saturday would include gardening and a slow morning of good breakfast and spending time with Becky. Perhaps hosting the grandkids from time to time, playing games and sharing stories.
Seven question interviews are conducted by Hannah Heinzekehr.
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