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Name: Merv Stoltzfus
Role: Executive Conference Minister, Atlantic Coast Conference of Mennonite Church USA
1. What is your earliest memory of church?
I remember being in a Sunday school class and having a teacher that I really liked. At that point, I knew that we went to church every Sunday and that this was my church family. I had a teacher I liked because she was warm and friendly.
The church we were attending was Monterrey (now Forest Hills) Mennonite Church.
2. When did you first have a sense that you were called into pastoral ministry?
I didn’t know exactly what kind of ministry, but I first had that sense of call when I was out of high school for two years. At that time, I was in a career that I thought would be mine for a long time.
But this call just came very precisely at a moment in a congregational service. I just felt nudged to abandon that particular career and go to college. It was six months before my marriage and it came as a real shock for myself and my family.
But I was very sure about that sense that I had. Everything else stopped. I was sure enough to actually completely change directions in my life and change what I thought I was going to be.
3. When people ask you what it means to be an Anabaptist or a Mennonite, what do you tell them?
For me being Anabaptist means that Christ is the center of our faith and all Scripture is interpreted through the lens of Christ.
We are a priesthood of all believers. The Spirit is alive and working within each of us and so we do discernment within the context of our worshipping community. Discernment is done among the people, even while there are leaders that have some defined responsibilities.
And then I would also talk about the sense of peacemaking and having the hope and desire to be part of reconciliation with family, neighbors and the broader global world. It’s not wanting to be part of the military and upholding a nonresistant stance as we interact with things that are conflictual. It means treating people as I want to be treated. It also means peacemaking that requires extending beyond yourself to people in your region and paying attention to what’s coming off your tongue in a way that is caring and reconciling.
There’s a sense of community and relationship being of very high importance. Valuing people and understanding that they each breathe and live. We respect and value all, even those who drive us crazy at times.
And part of being Anabaptist for me is that we do spend time together. Maybe at times it’s sacrificial and other times it’s just the joy of being with our community, but this requires that we put in time and invest in relationships. It’s our responsibility as a congregational body to care for one another and to listen, hear and relate to one another on any given day, especially when we disagree.
4. What has been something surprising about this conference minister role?
Well, I was in conference youth and young adult ministry for 25 years before stepping into this role. Over the last 10-15 years, I also was relating to pastors and congregations.
When I stepped into this role, I gave up the youth ministry piece and turned that over to others. I really enjoy seeing people excel and I enjoy encouraging people, so maybe the biggest surprise with this role is that I enjoy it as much as youth ministry. I still pay a lot of attention to youth ministry and it’s a passion of mine! But I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoy this role and have been able to apply so much of youth ministry to the conference ministry role.
In the last 10-15 years as we worked at integration of former MC and GC congregations, the conflicts we’ve experienced really have not been that different than the conflictual situations a person finds themselves in during youth ministry.
In youth ministry, I always knew that I was in a place that was somewhat conflictual, because parents had different dreams and ideas for youth ministry programs and they weren’t always congruent. To please one group of parents would have been to totally offend another. How do you stand at the middle of that and work at youth ministry in a comprehensive way that can invite everyone in? Youth ministry is a great training ground for conference ministry, where there are issues that can divide us, but there’s a whole lot more that really pulls us together and that we hold in common. It’s unfortunate how the negative demands a fair amount of energy. We need to find a better balance.
I’m channeling a similar passion now into this work. I want the best out of each congregation and I’m looking for the best in them. We’re trying to highlight where they are spending their time in ministry and encouraging and supporting that. It gives me a lot of energy to see the different ways people are working and striving to be faithful. It’s all about seeing that vision, along with having to deal with difficulty and challenges. You can’t sweep those under the rug.
But I love seeing the passion people have to be faithful in different ways. Laying down youth ministry hasn’t created a void. I continue to work with congregations and also get to encourage staff and see them blossom and flourish.
5. Tell me about Atlantic Coast Conference. What are some of the things that are distinct about your conference?
I think one of the gifts of ACC was that it was designed from its inception to be flexible to the needs of the congregation. There is a sense that our purpose is to recognize congregations as the central unit and there is a desire to have our congregations be healthy, vibrant communities of faith.
Congregations are where faith happens in the context of ACC. That’s where the life and the energy is.
ACC is a young conference. It began in 1978. The dream and vision was to be flexible to the changing times. As time has gone on, change just happens faster and faster all the time.
The capacity to adjust our structure to meet those challenges as we can is a real asset. It doesn’t solve everything. We’re not the perfect conference. Outcomes aren’t always what we would desire. But it is very true that the sense of flexibility to move and adjust staff time and resources to encourage and support conference life has been helpful again and again over the years.
Another gift that’s not just unique to ACC is that we are structurally set up to work in a way that recognizes the autonomy of congregations. Our polity is such that it allows more freedom in congregations for them to move and flex. Today we would talk about it in missional terms, but in 1978 that wasn’t a term that anybody knew.
As we moved into missional language and relating to local communities around our congregations, the sense of congregational autonomy while being in covenant with each other is helpful. We seldom have a conference-wide vision set by staff. Our work is more about resourcing congregations in their sense of vision and purpose. I think that’s really helped us. It allows congregations to be congregations.
One practical way is that in our history conference leadership has not determined for congregations who can be a member in their congregation and who can’t. That’s been a congregational decision. We’re not unique in that, but it is different than some conferences.
6. What are your hopes for ministry in this context over the next two years?
We actually just started a process to take an in-depth look at our structure and staff time and how we do discernment. We want to be relevant to what is happening around us in society and we want to be effective in a time when people are busy, hurried and tired. The busy pace of life is impacting congregational life and also conference life.
So we’re asking, Is our structure serving us well? How can we be relevant? Moving forward, how can we best resource our congregations?
7. What is your favorite music album of all time?
My favorite music would be jazz. I love music and like many genres. I don’t have specific albums that I could say per se, but I get a lot of life and breath out of sitting on the deck listening to jazz and letting the day go. Many styles of music would do that, but there’s nothing like a good saxophone.
Interview by Hannah Heinzekehr. You can also read past seven question interviews online.
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