Building Connections in Florida

by Mary Nitzsche, Associate Executive Minister, Marta Castillo, Leadership Minister of Intercultural Formation, and Javier Marquez, Intercultural Communication Associate through the International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP)

Spending a long January weekend enjoying 85-degree temperatures was only one benefit conference team members Marta Castillo, Mary Nitzsche, and Javier Marquez experienced during their recent visit to Florida.

Mary & Marta with Florida pastors and family (Photo: Javier Marquez)

The primary purpose of the trip was to learn to know the pastors of eight congregations (formerly all members of Southeast Conference) who are in the process of joining our new conference. Marta, Mary, and Javier joined nine pastors and their Leadership Minister, Marco Güete, at their quarterly cluster meeting in Sarasota, FL. The day was filled with worship, personal and congregational sharing, prayer, fellowship, tasty and abundant Colombian food, laughter, and a review of the transfer of credential process. 

The team was warmly welcomed by the Florida pastors, some who are just beginning ministry and many who have been in ministry for over twenty years. Most of these pastors served in other professions as they began ministry or planted new churches. While their countries of origin varied (Colombia, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Mexico), a unifying spirit of faith, mission, and deep respect permeated their interactions.

During the meetings, pastors shared the pain of their former conference breaking apart and choosing to leave Mennonite Church USA. Desiring to remain in the denomination, the group carefully explored which conference they wished to join. After much prayer and discernment, the pastors felt God leading them to join our new conference. Their discernment process was guided by assessing which conference best aligned with their beliefs and values. Many of the pastors also had prior connections with Steve Kriss, Executive Conference Minister, and other conference leaders, which led to a strong sense of trust as well.  

We ate well! (Photo: Javier Marquez)

On Sunday, our team was also warmly received in local congregations for worship. Mary preached at College Hill Mennonite Church in the morning while Marta preached at Iglesia Evangelica Menonita Shalom in the afternoon. Both congregations are located in Tampa, FL. After the services, we were hosted by church members for a flavorful meal representing their countries of origin.

Monday morning, several Credentials Committee members joined Marta and Mary via Zoom, for a conversation with four of the pastors. Most of the pastors will be transferring their ministry credentials to our conference. When asked about hopes for their interactions with the conference, they expressed a desire to build more connections, foster collegial relationships of mutual respect, give and receive mutual aid, and offer ideas for the growth of God’s kingdom. These congregations have much to share about connecting to the local community, particularly in urban ministry. 

Prayer with the Florida cluster. (Photo: Javier Marquez)

Reflecting on their experiences, Marta and Mary are convinced these pastors and congregations will bless our new conference.  The Spanish-speaking churches and leaders will bring support and new energy to our existing Spanish-speaking churches and leaders.  They also bring church-planting experience and enthusiasm. Geography will continue to be a challenge in keeping connected; Marco Guete will serve as Leadership Minister to the Florida congregations, essential for keeping connections strong despite the geographic distance. 

While Mary and Marta returned home, Javier stayed on in Florida to collect stories and pictures of pastors and congregations. Look for pastor and congregational profiles in our newsletter this year to continue learning to know how the kingdom of God is growing and flourishing in Florida.