Joanne Gallardo serves Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference as Conference Minister. She had been in the Mennonite Church for over 22 years. Originally from Northwest Ohio, Joanne lives in Goshen, Indiana, with her best friend, Becca, and her dog, Jasper.
My story of transformation is one that begins not too terribly long ago. I was involved in Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference back when I was a student at Goshen (Indiana) College. I don’t remember exactly what brought me to our annual sessions; maybe it was for a presentation or simply for my own information. I always enjoyed our time and felt a part of things but not quite.
There weren’t many people who looked like me attending this annual gathering. Women were present, for sure, but not many people in my millennial generation and not many Latinas. While no one ever made me feel unwelcome, representation matters, and I didn’t quite see the participation from my demographic that might have helped me feel like I belonged.
I grew up, attended seminary, moved away and did ministry. The opportunity came along to come back to this area, to Goshen, and pastor a church that was a part of Indiana-Michigan. I was gone through some of the conference’s formative years. Churches dropped out of the conference, and these were large churches that not only supported the conference with their participation but also with their financial contributions. It wasn’t pretty for a while there, and my predecessors had to weather that. With our adoption of “Renewing a Vision,” which talks about the theological variance in our conference and our plans to work with it, it seems that we may have caused more congregations to leave. Also, it resulted in the addition of congregations. Our current number of churches is 41.
When I returned in 2017, Indiana-Michigan was a different scene. When I was approached about conference minister work, I was interested in the goals, hopes and dreams for the conference. I knew generally what Indiana-Michigan was about, but that was from a bi-vocational pastor standpoint. Many of us can barely keep a foot on the ground, much less have an ear to the ground. During my interview process with Indiana-Michigan, I was pleased to hear about Indiana-Michigan’s goals to become more interculturally competent — a commitment to help church plants and partner with congregations led and attended by historically marginalized communities.
Being a person of color, I can smell tokenism miles away. And honestly, I worried about that in my hiring process. As my interview process progressed, I was so happy to see the transformation that was taking place. Language was centered around anti-racism and inclusion. The search committee for this role was interviewing a wide range of people from all sorts of demographics that had not previously been represented — in my limited experience — in this conference before. The questions that I was asked were good ones, not only about my theology; they weren’t checking my “right doctrine,” but they wanted to know my dream. They wanted to know how in touch I was with God’s dream. That was so appealing, and not something I had experienced previously.
In talking with the consultant who was working with Indiana-Michigan, I asked a lot of questions as to whether the conference was at least “trying” to do the work. I’ve been burned before by a lot of nice words that tick off all the right boxes, but little fruit ends up coming from discernment and conversation. She told me that she would not be wasting her time with a group that was “trying.” She said Indiana-Michigan was “doing.” This further solidified my own discernment in pursuing conference ministry.
I’d be amiss if I were to sit here and write about how nice it is that the conference has changed and moved in a new direction. I have gone through my own transformation process, as well. Over the past four years I’ve learned what the challenges are in pastoring a mostly white congregation and being one of the only people in my exact demographic among the people I am shepherding. It had, and has, its opportunities and challenges. It’s easy to minimize your uniqueness for the sake of getting along. It’s easy to not say anything, or to run away from challenges and conflicts, as opposed to facing them head on. It’s easy to get into the “me and everyone else” mindset. That’s not healthy for anybody.
So, the transformation on my part, of owning who I am, the gifts I bring and what I have to offer, both unapologetically and in a posture of service, has been beneficial — obviously for myself but also for this role in which I’ve entered.
I don’t need to worry about not being “Latina” enough in the ways white people might think that looks. I don’t have to worry about doing or saying the right things at the right times so that everyone is comfortable. I don’t have to worry about pleasing everybody because I’m not for everyone, and that is okay. Many of us ministering persons bend ourselves in pretzels, trying to be all things to all people, and it can pull our focus from furthering God’s kingdom and vocalizing our prophetic edge. What if we allowed ourselves to be ourselves?
I’ve been discussing this transformation in the conference, but really, it’s a transformation both for Indiana-Michigan and myself. I recently learned about “if-formations,” as opposed to “affirmations” that we often tell ourselves. Affirmations are, “I am enough;” “I have everything I need;” “I deserve love;” “I can get through this.” “If-formations” ask, “What if I am enough?” “What if I have everything I need?” “What if I deserve love?” “What if I can get through this?” These sentences feel true, as opposed to me trying to pump myself up to do the job at hand.
I also ask, “What if the conference is enough?” “What if the conference has everything it needs to follow our call?” “What if we can weather whatever happens next?”
I also think of this for our denomination. “What if we’re moving in a positive direction?” “What if we are changing for the better?” “What if God has big plans for us?”
It is my hope and prayer that we all can experience metanoia, transformation and renewal.
Read more about this biennium’s theme, #BeTransformed, here.