by Sue Conrad Howes, West Swamp congregation
“What excites and gives me hope is the endless possibilities,” says conference board member Yvonne Platts, Nueva Vida Norristown (PA) New Life congregation. “We don’t know what to really expect, which makes us more open to the leading of the Spirit to guide us in the future.”
Platts and the other members of the new Eastern District and Franconia Conference board are looking forward with anticipation as, effective February 1, 2020, Eastern District Conference and Franconia Conference began to operate as one, reconciled conference.
Last week, the board approved a budget of just over $1M. Although this combined total seems like a significant amount, one advantage of forming a joint conference is the gained efficiencies of a shared budget, which will stretch these dollars even further. The staff of both conferences have merged (with Eastern District’s former interim conference minister Scott Roth remaining as a Leadership Minister), while current Leadership Ministers are expanding their responsibilities to include more congregations, and new administrative, communication, and community engagement staff are coming on board in the coming months.
Other changes are on the way as well: there will be a new name sometime this year and, likely, new Conference offices by year’s end. The conference website is experiencing an ongoing facelift (MennoniteConferenceX.org) and new paper- and e-newsletters are in development.
The new conference is beginning to act and operate as one community, putting behind over 173 years of division and conflict.
“The most challenging part of the process is recognizing that it will take time,” reflects executive minister, Steve Kriss. “We won’t have everything done tomorrow or next week. The process of reconciling and taking two historic communities back into one organizational system will not be seamless.”
Assistant Moderator Angela Moyer, Ripple congregation (Allentown, PA), acknowledges that this will take ongoing work. “Can we stay engaged in the process of reconciliation or will we just split over the issues of the current day like we did in the 1800s, especially given our current cultural and secular polarities?” she asks.
“A significant challenge we face is to not allow the differences among us to overshadow the essentials that we hold in common,” says Moderator Ken Burkholder, Deep Run East congregation (Perkasie, PA); “mainly our shared Anabaptist faith in Jesus and our mutual commitment to God’s mission in this world.”
Growing pains are inevitable, acknowledges board member Jim Musselman, Zion congregation (Souderton, PA). He hopes, however, that we will continue to listen. “Reconciliation requires a lot of listening. Listening builds trust and community, which leads to renewal.”
Despite the hard work, conference leaders are amazed at the positive energy coming from so many people. “This has been emotional for both of our conferences,” says Kriss. “There have been tears, but I’ve seen more tears of joy than grief.”
New congregations in several states continue to express interest in joining the Eastern District and Franconia community. By the end of 2020, the new Conference will likely be 20% larger than it is currently. “This is a significant expansion in a year,” says Kriss. “We will need to cultivate a sense of togetherness in the midst of this exciting growth.”
Sue Conrad Howes is working as part of the communication team for Eastern District & Franconia Conference during this time of transition. Sue grew up attending Blooming Glen (PA) congregation. She is an ordained pastor in Mennonite Church USA and currently works as a hospital trauma chaplain. Sue recently moved from Lancaster to Quakertown, PA with her husband, Michael, who serves as pastor at West Swamp congregation, where they are both members.