Connie Zehr is the moderator and acting conference minister of New York Mennonite Conference. She and her husband, Keith, live in Lowville, New York, and are members of Lowville Mennonite Church. They have three adult children and three granddaughters. Connie graduated from Hesston College.
My experience with conference leadership began in Oct. 2021, when I was named the moderator of New York Mennonite Conference (NYMC). I announced my retirement as the pastor of care and nurture at Lowville Mennonite Church in Jan. 2022, effective at the end of June 2022, and I started a list of things I looked forward to doing. I would finally get around to sorting the piles of miscellany I had been adding to for years. I would not let the weeds take over my gardens. I would enjoy more adventures with our granddaughters. I might not look at my computer for an entire day!
When our previous conference minister resigned in spring of 2022, we began the search for his replacement. Recent conversations within NYMC and Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) have made our future uncertain, making it difficult to continue the search. I had been retired for two weeks when I added “acting conference minister” to my role — I think “acting” is a good way to describe it. I am acting like I know what I am doing. Looking back at my decision to retire, I am reminded of Jeremiah 29:11, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord …” (NRSV). The timing of my retirement made it possible for me to begin conference minister work immediately.
Since I do not have much experience, I sometimes have more questions than answers. Zoom meetings with other conference ministers and moderators have been helpful, yet questions remain and more arise.
When I heard about the gathering of MC USA and Mennonite Church Canada conference ministers in San Francisco, I was excited. What a great opportunity it would be to meet other conference minsters and hear what is going on in their conferences.
Maybe I could get answers to some of my questions. Who wouldn’t want to spend a few days in California, instead of northern New York, in December? The Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop is located a few blocks from the hotel. This was sounding better all the time!
The STAR training (Strategies for Trauma Awareness & Resilience) led by Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding taught us how to recognize trauma and respond more effectively to those who have experienced it. We reviewed a rough first draft of a proposed misconduct policy guide that addresses accountability and prevention of abuse by leaders. We met separately to hear reports and updates pertaining to our respective denominations — the Canadians met at the Ghirardelli Chocolate Shop!
One thing that was clear to me throughout our gathering is the deep love and concern that conference ministers have for those they serve. This is more than a job; it is a calling that is taken very seriously. These are challenging times for our conferences and congregations.
Conference ministers are committed to doing everything they can to help us all “grow as communities of grace, joy and peace, so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world,” as stated in the MC USA vision statement.
At the retreat, I met people I had known in previous contexts, people I had come to know through Zoom meetings and new people. I learned other conferences are dealing with the same issues as NYMC. We seem to be in various stages of discernment, which is difficult and necessary. Reports of good things happening reminded me of positive things going on in NYMC. Some questions were answered. Hearing others’ experiences gave me ideas of how to address situations within NYMC.
My husband, Keith, and I spent a few days exploring. While most days were foggy, rainy and chilly, it was still warmer than northern New York. In addition to the Chocolate Shop, we saw Fisherman’s Wharf, heard the barking seals and rode the streetcar. We worshipped with First Mennonite Church of San Francisco and connected with a member of our congregation before returning home.
After this gathering, I may want to consider extending my time as conference minister!
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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