Andrew Suderman teaches theology, peace and mission at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He also serves as secretary of Mennonite World Conference’s Peace Commission. Andrew […]
Name: Michelle Dula
Occupation: Pastor at Blossom Hill Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Member of the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board
Photo: Michelle leads the congregation in a child dedication for baby James, with mother Lisa Cameron in the background. Photo provided.
1. What is your earliest memory of church?
I grew up attending North Lima Mennonite Church in North Lima, Ohio. When I think about early memories, I just have different snapshots that came to mind. I remember our Sunday shoes all lined up on the newspaper after I had polished them on Saturday. There were seven kids in my family, so there were a lot of shoes! I remember the flannel graph stories in Sunday school being sort of mesmerizing. And I remember the four-part singing and my mom’s strong alto voice.
2. When did you first realize that you might be called to pastoral ministry?
I would say that it probably didn’t come until the middle of my seminary program. I entered seminary with this call to go to seminary to learn more about theology and about faith, but I didn’t know what I would do with it after I had a degree. I entered in a very part-time program because I had young children and I knew I couldn’t do it all, so I just started part-time. It was probably about halfway through that I began feeling the nudging toward pastoral ministry.
I kept that to myself for about six months to a year because it felt complicated at that point. I was part of Lancaster Mennonite Conference and our conference wasn’t ordaining women yet. Even though our pastor was a woman and I really credit her with making this an option for me, I think there was still some resistance within me that was wrapped up in that whole question of, How dare you feel the call to ministry as a woman?
But it was just an undeniable call. I was at a United Church of Christ seminary that was very strongly female-oriented and there were some really strong Anabaptist women who were students there at the same time who were walking with me and struggling with the same issues. Discerning together helped me to overcome that fear. I have a distinct memory of a sermon that someone candidating as a homilectics professor at the seminary gave. Her sermon was on the idea of obeying God instead of man and boy did that speak to me. That was a particular turning point.
3. What do you think has been the most surprising part of being a pastor. What has been different than you expected?
I’m amazed at how people let you into the front seat of their lives because of the role you’re in. Soon after I started at Akron Mennonite Church, I visited an older man in the hospital. After we chatted a little bit, he patted his bedside and said, “Pastor will you pray for me?”
I was blown away by that. Here this older man was inviting me in to be his pastor even though he didn’t know me very well. And beyond that you get to visit the newborn babies in the hospital and sit with couples planning to get married and hear their hopes and dreams and you sit with couples having marriage difficulties and you’re one of the first ones called when there’s a death. It’s humbling work and often feels like holy ground.
4. Tell me about Blossom Hill. What’s unique about your congregation?
If you would ask 10 different people in our congregation, you might get 10 different answers to this question. I would say Blossom Hill is unique in its level of openness. There is an invitational spirit here that shows up in creativity or the level of vulnerability and authenticity and willingness to take risks. This also shows up in our care of people on the margins and gives us a global perspective. Over the last 15 years we’ve had some pretty big changes and we’ve managed to ride those changes with minimal upheaval. We have a lot of young families and a lot of young children and some really special older sages. We work really hard to make everyone feel like they are a valued part of the congregation.
One of the phrases that we use a lot in baby dedications is that you are known and loved by God. Recently, when one of our high school students was leaving for college, her father stood up on her last Sunday and said, “This is Erin’s last Sunday and this congregation has been a blessing to our family. We believe that Erin knows that she is known and loved by God as we send her out.” The family had really embraced that knowledge and that was a way that they could let her go.
5. Why did you say yes to the invitation to join the Executive Board?
I would say that I have a deep love for the wider church and even though I knew I was joining at a difficult time and I knew it would be hard. I also felt a sense of hope for what God has in store for the future and felt called to be part of it. I think that’s the main part of it. I’m excited about all the people I can meet and the opportunity to get a wider picture of the church.
6. What are your hopes for the upcoming gathering in Orlando?
My hope is that it would be a time for healing and that there would be a unified spirit as we look ahead to who God is calling us to be. I’m excited about the proposed changes for the Delegate Assembly. I think they will give us new life. I also have a sense that the people who will be there this time will want to be there and are excited about what lies ahead, and it was not necessarily that way in Kansas City.
7. If you could only recommend three texts to someone (books, magazines, articles, songs, poems, etc.), what would they be?
Interview by Hannah Heinzekehr. Read past seven question interviews.
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