Rachel Ringenberg Miller reminds us that Anabaptist congregational leadership requires collaboration, from the leaders and from the congregation. The process to make changes takes time, but the inclusive nature of the process is worth it.
Rachel Ringenberg Miller serves as denominational minister for ministerial leadership for Mennonite Church USA. She focuses on engaging conferences and congregations, providing resources and services to meet the diverse demands facing congregations today. She graduated from Goshen (Indiana) College and Eastern Mennonite Seminary, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with an MDiv. She served as associate pastor for Portland (Oregon) Mennonite Church and as pastor of Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton, Kansas. Rachel attends Eighth Street Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana, a Central District Conference congregation.
A pastor is called and hired by a congregation. Both the pastor and the congregation are excited for this new relationship to begin. There is creative energy in the air. The possibilities seem endless. And then, the pastor approaches the members of the leadership board with an idea. The members of the leadership board cut the pastor off at the pass, and say, “That’s not how we do things around here.” The pastor is confused. Didn’t the congregation say during the hiring process they were interested in trying new things? Didn’t they say that they wanted to do x, y and z? The pastor revisits the Congregation Information Form that she received during the search process. She reads her job description. She is correct. The congregation did want to try something new and wants to try x, y and z. So she goes back to the leadership board and states the idea again. And again, they say to her, “That’s not how we do things around here.”
The pastor is not sure how to proceed. The leadership board does not understand why she isn’t getting it. Frustration builds between the pastor and the leadership board. The pastor leaves the congregation at the end of her first term, disillusioned. In fact, she leaves ministry altogether. For the congregation, the pastor’s departure came out of nowhere. They don’t understand what went wrong. The congregational leadership, for their part, is not saying much about the pastor’s departure.
This situation happens more often than you would think. When I hear about these situations from pastors and congregational members, I’m curious about what went wrong. I’ve started to think there is a misunderstanding about Anabaptist leadership.
I wonder if we have forgotten that Anabaptist leadership is a collaborative effort.
The pastor and the congregation are collaborators. They discern and work together to further God’s mission in the world. A collaboration might go like this:
The pastor, through prayer, scripture reading, information gathering and informal conversation, comes up with some ideas on how the congregation can show God’s love in their community. The pastor tests these ideas with the congregational leadership. The congregational leadership provides input and feedback. The pastor’s ideas are adjusted and become the ideas of the congregational leadership. The ideas are shared with the congregation ahead of a congregational meeting. The congregation, then, meets to digest and discuss the ideas. Feedback from the congregation is taken into consideration by congregational leadership. The ideas are reshaped to reflect the congregation’s input. The congregation meets again to narrow down which one of the ideas they feel called to pursue as a congregation. Once the way forward has been chosen, the exciting work of implementation begins.
Collaboration takes time and a willingness toward — real — actionable change. In fact, from my experience, it usually takes several months to distill ideas. I understand this kind of process can seem maddening! I mean, wouldn’t it be easier for the pastor, who, in spending time in prayer and Scripture, discerns God’s call on their own and then share their vision with the congregation? Or wouldn’t it be easier for the congregation to continue sailing along as they were before the pastor’s arrival? My response is, “I guess,” but is that the kind of leadership we want in and for our congregations?
When I think about Anabaptist leadership, the word “maybe” comes to mind. “Maybe” moves the idea to collaboration. “Maybe” sparks curiosity, creativity and wonderment. “Maybe” invites people into a conversation, which often leads to discernment.
One of my favorite lines from the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective comes from Article 4. Scripture. It goes like this, “Insights and understandings which we bring to the interpretation of the Scripture are to be tested in the faith community.” Essentially, we collaborate, and we discern.
When ideas are tested within the faith community, the end results are an invitation to the Holy Spirit to join in the process, the congregation and the pastor feeling ownership, leaders being empowered to implement the idea, and the congregation at-large sensing how they are responding to God’s love for them and their community.
 Congregational leadership or the congregation can also be the originator of the ideas. This is simply an example.
 I recommend the book “Getting to Maybe” by Frances Westly, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
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