Jason Kauffman is the Mennonite Church USA Archives Director. This post originally appeared on the Anabaptist Historians blog. For most of my short time at […]
Over the next few weeks, we will be featuring seven question interviews with individuals who have transitioned into conference minister roles.
Name: Steve Kriss
Role: Executive Conference Minister, Franconia Conference of Mennonite Church USA
Start date: January 2017
Home congregation: Philadelphia Praise Center
1. If someone asks you what it means to be a Mennonite, what would you tell them?
I really have to gauge why they are asking the question. I always work to figure out where their point of reference is and start from there. Sometimes they know nothing about Mennonites and other times they might know a little bit.
I emphasize that we’re Christian. That we are a small global group. I have actually found Palmer Becker’s definition to be a pretty good quick rough outline [In his booklet, What is an Anabaptist Christian?, Becker identifies three key tenets: Jesus is the center of our faith, community is the center of our lives and reconciliation is the center of our work]. If people understand Christianity, I’ll use Harold Bender’s three ideas from the Anabaptist Vision as well [discipleship, voluntary church and a focus on love and nonresistance].
Sometimes I can use things that they know from the local news as a reference point. In Philly there’s always the Amish-Mennonite confusion. I just went through that conversation with someone. So the quick answer depends on who you are and why you’re asking the question.
2. How did you discern your call into this conference minister role?
I’ve been working with Franconia conference for 11 years. Through the nomination process I was asked to consider the [conference minister] role.
It’s a role I do out of great love for the community I’ve worked alongside. The discernment had a lot to do with the current historical moment, my sense of gifts and relationships and this sense of deep love for both the history and contemporary reality of our long 300 year story here in Franconia, including our growing urban congregations.
My work in the past was with developing young leaders, so having opportunities to continue to work with these individuals to move towards a hopeful future was exciting.
I also experienced two distinct mystical experiences during this discernment time. Both had to do with a recognition of how much I loved the 7,000 people of Franconia Conference and how I felt drawn to the role in this current moment, as we are dealing with the external forces of polarities, polities and economics.
3. Tell me about Franconia Mennonite Conference. What are you learning about the gifts and particularities of this conference?
Our conference has this unusual capacity to be globally-minded while also locally-rooted. That helps us have a real sense of connection to the Philly metro area. And Germantown, where the first Mennonite church was planted, is just down the road.
This history helps us recognize the immigrant story that continues to propel us into the future. And our history and location have given us the ability to connect to and really love the places where we’re from, but also to connect beyond ourselves and around the world. I think that’s an unusual gift that comes with our geography, longevity and the resources that are available here because of financial flourishing.
4. What has been the most surprising or unexpected thing about being a conference minister?
My transition has been relatively easy, but very busy, which is not a surprise. The most unexpected thing has been how supportive people have been. It’s been pleasantly surprising. I have just felt really supported by the community overall.
The level of support has been a real gift and has been something I have felt across the diversity of our conference community.
5. What are some of the ways that you are working to build connection across differences?
One of the things we are doing is realizing that it’s not just singular issues that we are facing. There are many issues and also many things that we agree on. We are trying to stay focused on some of those things we agree on, as well as the spaces where we have concerns and differences.
Something that was really healthy for me that happened at a recent board meeting was a recognition that people were shifting all over the place in their responses to a particular justice and economic issue. There were not clear polarities. We don’t always line up perfectly in the ideological ways that someone else expects us to.
We’re giving people the space to say what they actually think and trying hard not to anticipate how we think they will respond.
One of the things that’s been very healthy about Franconia is strong leadership from people of color and ongoing growth and stability in our urban and non-white congregations. The leadership from people of color has helped keep us from polarities and keeps refreshing our conversation. That has been very helpful. We have both leadership and communities across our conference that can keep us from singular issue poles all the time.
6. What are your hopes or dreams for the next year or two of ministry in this context?
My hope is that Franconia can serve as a platform, a community, and a place of creativity, resource and ingenuity to further cultivate a healthy global Anabaptist movement. That’s broad, but I feel like we have such deep roots and so many gifts that we can share open-handedly and collaboratively.
I think that we are unusually situated to do this work. We are linguistically gifted. We are one of the only conferences within Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) that’s really based in a large urban area. There are a number of things that situate us uniquely.
We’re always dealing with questions about MC USA alignments and how we will embrace shifting conference loyalties and congregations looking for a new home. We continue to be challenged to define our own conference position while MC USA’s role and function continues to change. But I’m pretty committed to that conversation about alignment not becoming our only activity for the next two years.
One of the primary metaphors I’m working with is collaboration. We will continue to collaborate across conferences with differences, while being honest and transparent and open-handed as best as we can. For me, it means continuing to work with conferences who have left MC USA and cultivating those relationships because they are our neighbors and partners, as well as contributing to MC USA’s life where it seems strategic.
I actually won’t participate in the CLC [Constituency Leaders Council, a gathering of elders from all MC USA conferences], because I’m a white guy. That’s our decision together as a conference. We have a really good team. I love and trust my colleagues and they can easily represent us at CLC. I trust them to bring information back and forth.
We need to have a diverse team to help us discern our future as a denomination.
7. What does your perfect Saturday look like?
A perfect Saturday is sleeping in. It can be anywhere in the world, but a perfect Saturday starts at about 9:30/10:00. It starts off with coffee and a good hike and a chance to do some writing or reading. And it would end with the chance to have dinner with people that I enjoy. And on an ideal day, I actually like to cook.
Interview by Hannah Heinzekehr. You can also read past seven question interviews online.
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