Congregational Ministry"But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come."- John 16:13
Five alumni ranging from class years of 1967 to 1999, none of whom majored in religion, tell their stories of the Spirit's call.
Her seminary training and ministerial work led Marie Toews Cross to several places and positions she had never envisioned going.
The first, and not least, of them was the ministry itself.
"At every step along the way, it's been a surprise to me to be called to ministry in these many different ways."
Nearing graduation in 1967 with a bachelor's degree in biology, she was walking into College Hall when she met one of her teachers, religion professor William Keeney. They stopped for a moment, and he asked, "Have you ever thought of going to seminary?" The notion was completely foreign to her, Cross recalls, noting that models for women in the ministry were scarce in the late '60s. She moved on from Bluffton to a first job as a medical technologist at Lima Memorial Hospital.Five years later, still in Lima, she was involved in the community and active in Market Street Presbyterian Church, which the East Petersburg, Pa., native and her husband Steve '69 had started attending while in college.When Steve, then director of Lima's Metropolitan Urban Coalition, heard about a program at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary that combined theology and law, he decided to enroll. After he, his wife and their two young children arrived in Louisville, Marie was in the admissions office one day when the director "looked at me and said, 'Why don't you go into the seminary, too?'"Keeney's question of five years before came back to her, "and I made that connection," remembers Cross, now a Perrysburg, Ohio, resident. "I'm grateful to him for having planted that idea," she adds, saying that when the seminary question was posed the second time, "I hardly had a decision to make."Still, she started her master of divinity degree program with the intention of becoming a teacher. "It took a few years for me to accept the idea of becoming a pastor," she admits. But even before she graduated in 1977, she had a part-time position as minister of education at a Louisville-area church.
Over the next nine years, she served as an associate pastor and twice as an interim
pastor. The second interim job was at Madison (Ind.) Presbyterian Church, about 40
miles northeast of Louisville. That short-term appointment, however, turned into a
seven-year stay, until the first of several opportunities out of the pulpit led her
back to Louisville.
The General Assembly of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—which is headquartered in the city—was seeking an associate for stewardship education, and Marie was ultimately hired to develop educational curricula. She also taught the material and worked with pastors to improve both preaching about stewardship and stewardship campaigns."I became a rabid enthusiast and preacher of stewardship," she notes. Her 2002 book, "The Price of Faith: Exploring Our Choices about Money and Wealth," deals with the theology of financial stewardship. Moving two floors within the national offices, in 1997 she became editor of Horizons, the Presbyterian women's magazine. "It was a whole new direction to be thinking in," says Cross, who transformed the magazine from black and white to a full-color, glossy publication before stepping down in 1999.
The following year, even before becoming interim chaplain and religion professor at Hanover College, she took a three-year post as evaluator of a Lilly Endowment-funded program to measure and aid pastor effectiveness. Developing the evaluation forms and process was "something else I had never done," she says.
By 2003, Cross thought she was easing into early retirement. But then she received a call to serve as executive of the Synod of the Covenant, the Presbyterian body that covers the states of Ohio and Michigan. After applying, she rethought the situation and requested her name be withdrawn from consideration— a request that was turned down. "Much to my surprise, they offered the position and, much to my surprise, I accepted," says Cross, who returned to Ohio for the job she held until retiring in 2009.
"At every step along the way, it's been a surprise to me to be called to ministry in these many different ways," she says. And her early struggle with lack of models and acceptance remains the same for women now, she adds.
Cross, who continues to volunteer in church-related capacities, says the situation is improving "very slowly." While nearly half of all seminarians are women, she notes, "the opportunities aren't always there."
Rich Bucher has come full circle, moving home to Bluffton recently to retire in the community that was instrumental in shaping his decision to become a pastor.
More than four decades after graduating from Bluffton with a degree in social work, he looks back at his college years and subsequent pastorates in three different congregations, and he's not surprised where his calling has taken him.
"I'm a people pe rson," Bucher said. "When I look at all of the things I've done ...everything was people oriented. The social work background really works well in pastoring."Bucher, 67, grew up on a farm near Bluffton. After high school, he didn't take a direct route to college, instead working for a couple of years in a factory in nearby Ottawa.He received his draft notice and a layoff notice from the factory at the same time. While his draft number was fairly high, he decided this was the time to do his 1W service—alternative service for conscientious objectors. He spent two years in Saskatchewan doing a variety of jobs, but all geared to helping people— working in a nursing home, delivering milk door to door and, finally, working in a kitchen—before returning home to Bluffton.
"When I look at all of the things I've done... everything was people oriented."
"That all fit in working with people to considering social work and so when I got to Bluffton, I decided on social work with a religion minor," he recalls, noting he was 22 years old when he started college.With college graduation looming, and newly married, Bucher and his wife, Carol, were considering what was next for them. He considered going for a master's degree in social work or going to seminary.He chose Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., and "after I was at seminary two months I knew I would stay and graduate."
In the nearly 39 years since, he served in three congregations: Topeka Mennonite Church in Topeka, Ind.; Tiefengrund Rosenort Mennonite Church in Laird, Saskatchewan, near where his wife grew up; and finally, North Danvers Mennonite Church, in Danvers, Ill. The Buchers have two sons.
His time at North Danvers, nearly 18 years, allowed him to build strong relationships in the church and in the community. Both are important, he said.Their church, average attendance of 85, has a preschool, which is also sponsored by three other churches. They partner with other churches for a community Bible school and for community Good Friday and Thanksgiving services to name a few."I have quite strong feelings about the community working together," he said. "For our church to be strong, other churches in the community need to be strong. If one church is hurting, we need to be reaching out to them and helping them."He agrees with his peers that being a pastor is ultimately about simply being present with people."My style has been one to walk with people," he said. "I spent lots of time walking with people, whether going to kids' ball games, hospital visiting—just spending time with people in their moments when they have joys and pain."That's where the social work degree he received at Bluffton many years ago "was just invaluable," he said. "In social work you learn to get along with people, assess their needs. You put that together with religion ... Jesus was a social worker in the way he related to people, always gave them respect, listened to their stories."
The call came young for Dave Maurer.
"I felt a call toward the ministry in middle school," he said, reflecting on the process he went through with his pastor in discerning what was next.
"He recommended going to a liberal arts college with a religion major as a foundation for going to seminary," Maurer recalls. "As I was looking at schools with that in mind Bluffton felt like the best match." It offered a religion major and gave the Marion, Ohio, native a chance to play soccer.
"It also had a strong religious life beyond the classroom setting," Maurer said.
He chuckles as he recalls how little he knew of Mennonite theology or community before coming to Bluffton. "I knew it was Mennonite," he said, with the perception that "Mennonites were Amish who drove cars."
"I felt God was calling me to the Mennonite church."
Some 17 years after his first days on campus, Maurer, 35, is now pastor of Bethel Mennonite Church in West Liberty, Ohio. He and his wife, Beth, and four children are firmly established in the community and church life of the Logan County village.
Maurer, who grew up in both the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), said his decision to pursue pastoral ministry was strengthened in his years at Bluffton. "I encountered the theology very deeply and grew spiritually through opportunities on campus to be involved in ministry—chapel planning, hall chaplaincy, being part of Kingdom Seekers, a drama ministry team."
Being part of the team broadened Maurer's view of the Mennonite church. "I got out into the Mennonite congregations, got to know people of the Mennonite church as well and not just their belief system," he said. "By the time I was a senior that really was where I was theologically. ... I felt God was calling me to the Mennonite church."
After Bluffton, he attended seminary full time at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., and worked one-third time in youth ministry at Harrisonburg Mennonite Church. After graduating with his master of divinity degree in 2002, he came home to Ohio, serving as an associate pastor at Grace Mennonite Church in Pandora for six years, before moving to Bethel Mennonite as lead pastor in 2008. A congregation of around 100, the church is a mixture of people with rural and village life roots.
As pastor he views his role in the congregation as that of a "signpost to point toward God in the midst of life. We can get distracted by everyday things of life.
I encourage people to keep their attention on God and where he's at."
He also focuses on empowering people in the church to use their gifts in ministry in the congregation and the community. "In decision-making, I try to be intentional about listening first and asking questions more than being directive," Maurer said. "They're the ones who have been here for years. They know who they are much better than I do. It feels more authentic for me and more holistic for them to be part of that process, rather than for me as top-down, out-of-the sky trying to convince people I'm right."
Maurer enjoys his calling and profession.
"Whenever I think of what I would like to be doing, I can't think of doing anything else," he said. "That's a comfort and encouragement. If you had told me in high school I would be a Mennonite pastor, I would have had no idea of what you were talking about."
As he thinks about his generation and its ministry in the church, he sees opportunity for the church to be a voice of reason and dialogue. "Relational dynamics are very important," Maurer said. "This country is so divided—the loudest voice wins whether they're right or not. I think the church has a lot of potential to model a different way where we as people of faith can respectfully disagree and still be people of faith together. ...Hopefully, the church can model deeper community."
Jesse Williams undoubtedly dodged his share of would be tacklers as he returned a Bluffton career-record 18 interceptions for 144 yards on college football fields from 1985-88.
Until about 10 years ago, though, he was even better at eluding his calling. "I knew as a boy I was a pastor and ran from it my whole life," admits Williams, who started a career with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction after earning his Bluffton degree in recreation management in 1989.
When he was deputy warden at Mansfield Correctional Institution in the late 1990s, the Akron native began leading Bible studies on a public-access television station. Moving on to Lima in 2001 as warden of the Allen Correctional Institution, he did the same thing on radio. Also feeling he needed to start a church in Lima, however, Williams began holding Bible studies on Tuesdays at a Fairfield Inn.
Ten years and five buildings later, the group of 12 or so people who attended the first study at the hotel has grown into a congregation of roughly 200 at Fresh Word Temple, the church that Williams pastors on Robb Avenue in Lima.
Along the way, the congregation has met in an office building, a recording studio, a former Family Resource Center building and a warehouse, before moving a coupleyears ago into the church building it now occupies.
But Williams, also current director of the north region of the state's Office of Prisons, wouldn't mind moving into yet another building. "I want something bigger," he says. "I want to break ground and build something from the ground up."
His heart says that will be in Lima, according to Williams, who lives with his wife, Lisa, and their three children in the city where he didn't want to come in 2001, but has grown to love. "But we'll see," he adds, explaining that he has reached a point "where I realize it's not Jesse's church; it's God's."
With the motto, "The perfect church for imperfect people," Fresh Word Temple has attracted a multiracial congregation of all ages, Williams says. It's "where we knock down the barriers that keep people from going to church," he notes, citing formal dress as an example. The church doesn't care what visitors wear, he says, as they seek God's presence and share his love.
"I knew as a boy I was a pastor and ran from it my whole life."
Williams grew up in church as part of a close-knit family. His parents, and grandparents, were "very vocal," he recalls, in wanting their children to push "as high as you could go in every aspect of your life."
As a football recruit graduating from Akron East High School, he knew he wanted to attend a small college or university where he could get individual attention in the classroom. After then-Bluffton Head Coach Carlin Carpenter contacted him, Williams came to campus on a recruiting trip.
"I thought that was the smallest place on earth," he remembers. But as he started classes in fall 1985, Bluffton was more than he had expected, he continues, explaining that "you could see really early on that the teachers there and the community really had a love for the students."
An early, and ongoing, influence has been Tami Forbes, now an associate professor of recreation and chair of the Health, Fitness and Sport Science Department. "Tami has been a godsend to my life," says Williams, who, after a brief time as a psychology major, entered the recreation management program.
Through that program, he gained opportunities to help provide recreation in juvenile facilities, which "began to kindle a fire within me," he says. His first job after graduation was as a juvenile corrections officer at Indian River School in Massillon, before moving on to adultpopulation positions at Lorain Correctional Institution, Mansfield and Lima, where he was also warden of Oakwood Correctional Facility for two years.
In his current job as a regional prison director, Williams is responsible for 12 prisons from Lima to Lebanon. "When I was a deputy warden, one of my goals was to be a regional director," he says. "I'm enjoying what I'm doing now."
In February, he was inducted into the Athletics Hall of Fame at Bluffton, where he says several people—current Athletics Director Phill Talavinia as well as Forbes, Carpenter and his wife Sharon—truly cared about him, and not only because of football. "Those folks are family," Williams says.
Jane Roeschley recalls her first step onto Bluffton's campus in the fall of 1972 as "one of those storybook days, colored leaves and blue sky. It was a welcoming experience."
That introduction, she said, was "love at first sight because of the sense of friendliness, sense of smaller community and Christian context." She came to check out the college, which offered the home economics degree she sought in the context of a Christian focus.
Roeschley, who grew up in the United Church of Christ (Disciples of Christ), admits she didn't have a clue at the time about Mennonite theology. "When I became a student that became instrumental in my life," she said. "I didn't know it, but I was a conscientious objector. ... I realized I had discovered my faith family because of the peace emphasis. That began really what's turned into three decades of being a student of biblical nonviolence."
Now associate pastor of lay ministries and worship at Mennonite Church of Normal (Ill.), Roeschley looks back on her years at Bluffton as building the foundation for her life's calling and profession.
"I found my faith family at Bluffton."
A 1977 graduate with a degree in home economics, she met her husband, Mark '75, who comes from a Mennonite background, at Bluffton. They have three children, Anna '07, Leah '11, and Ben who will be a junior this fall.
Following graduation, the Roeschleys served for three years in Jamaica under Mennonite Central Committee. They moved to Mark's family farm in 1980 and have lived in Graymont, Ill., ever since, some 35 miles from the church she now serves in Normal.
"I think that with my first career in home economics, the inspiration for me was to help people have healthy and full lives, paying attention to nutrition, healthy living, family life that's healthy and whole. The common thread between my two career paths is that desire for people to have healthy, whole lives."
She was active as a lay person in her local Mennonite church, leading a Bible study and serving on a search committee for a new pastor. "I thought I'd like to take a seminary class and do a better job of leading a Bible study," she said. "Being a member of the search committee put me in touch with issues surrounding finding a pastor."
What followed were years of taking seminary classes at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. She used every method available: distance learning, online courses, intensive weekend classes, January interterm classes, summer-term classes and independent study. While taking classes, the first of which she took in 1989, she also served for a short time as a part-time conference pastor for some Iowa churches and was interim pastor at Oak Park (Ill.) Mennonite Church for six months in 1999.
In 2000, she assumed her current duties at Normal, a congregation with an attendance of around 200. The position is part time.
At the time she joined the team at Normal, she had not completed her seminary degree, but said accepting the job gave her a "new focus and impetus over the next six years with help of the congregation in terms of tuition and time off."
She graduated with a master's degree in Christian formation in May 2007. While finishing her seminary degree and pastoring part time, "I found myself falling in love with being a pastor of that congregation," she said. "I still love it."
She sees her role as "someone called by God to join with people on a journey—the journey to know God, to grow more into the likeness of Jesus and then doing God's work in the world."
The pastor, she said, "has a unique function in that journey. It's a call to pay attention to where we see God guiding and calling ... The pastor is specifically called to pay attention to that and to help equip people to find their place in a caring community. That's the lay ministry part of my job. Where are people who are good teachers, good at offering compassion, empathy, good at fundraising? Where are there places in the congregation and community that those fit?"
Reflecting on her journey, Roeschley comes back to the beginning. "I found my faith family at Bluffton. It planted a passion for peace for me. ...It made explicit the connection that whatever I prepared for vocationally was going to contribute to good things for God in the world."