Anabaptist Communicators


Bluffton University hosts Anabaptist Communicators

Media and marketing in a Mennonite context were among the predominant themes discussed by more than 50 members of Anabaptist Communicators at the group’s annual conference Oct. 18 and 19 at Bluffton University.

Titled “Telling Anabaptist Stories: Tools for Engagement with Popular Culture,” the conference included presentations by Bluffton alumni who are working in the communication field.

“Sharing the Vision for Mennonite Church USA” in the Oct. 18 opening session were Marty Lehman, associate executive director of churchwide operations, and Hannah Heinzekehr, director of communications and marketing and a 2007 Bluffton alumna.

Heinzekehr noted the current interest of outsiders in Anabaptism, citing the popularity of Amish-themed romance novels and television shows. Last summer, she pointed out, an MCUSA online statement of lament about the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial went viral, offering evidence of interest beyond the church in what Mennonites have to say about current events.

The curiosity—also including numerous visits to “About Mennonites” on the MCUSA website—opens opportunities to reach others, she said. The question, she added, is “how do we communicate with a culture that’s preoccupied with Anabaptism?”

Some women, Heinzekehr said, have begun blogging about what it means to be a woman in the Mennonite church. She is among them, through her blog, “The Femonite,” which blends her interests in the church, theology and feminism.

Initiated about 18 months ago, the blog has landed her—to her surprise, she said—on the Top Evangelical Bloggers list. But she also views the venture as a way to amplify other people’s voices on issues, such as sexual violence, she explained.

Joining Heinzekehr in an Oct. 19 discussion about storytelling with new tools for popular culture were fellow Bluffton alumni Cody Litwiller, coordinator of social media and online communications for Ten Thousand Villages, and Fred and Mary Pannabecker Steiner, co-owners of the Bluffton Icon and Ada (Ohio) Icon news websites.

Litwiller, a 2011 Bluffton graduate, noted Ten Thousand Villages’ online focus on its “Mosaic” lifestyle blog. The nation’s largest fair trade retailer both pulls in content to the blog from elsewhere and pushes it out to other social media outlets, he said.

Because “everyone’s a publisher” now, “communication is really hard,” he added. “Your fans own your brand, not the other way around.”

The Steiners started the Bluffton Icon in 2009, drawing on desire to do community journalism and their daughters’ advice to be online without charging subscription fees. The Icons—the Ada Icon was launched last year—currently have about 70 advertisers in a four-county area.

Conference participants—communication professionals and representatives of agencies affiliated with Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada—also heard a presentation by Dr. Gerald Mast, a professor of communication at Bluffton, about his fall 2012 sabbatical research, “Plain Communication in a Digital Age: The Case of the Old German Baptist Brethren.”

Mast studied discussions in the Old German Baptist Brethren Church about use of the Internet—discussions that contributed to a significant division in the church in 2009. He wrote an essay on the subject that will be published in the January 2014 issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review, and his work is part of a larger project that examines responses to digital communication technologies among “plain” Anabaptist communities.

Other Bluffton contributors to the conference were representatives of the group that produced the daily Phoenix Flyer news sheet at the Mennonite Church USA convention in July.

Reporting on the experience were Dr. Zachary Walton, an assistant professor of communication who served as editor, and Bluffton senior Kate Ellis, a broadcasting and journalism major who was primarily a reporter for the Flyer. Accompanying them was Karen Bontrager, Walton’s wife and a 2004 Bluffton graduate who was largely responsible for page layout and helped with editing the publication.

Conference keynoters were from NOW Marketing Group in Elida, Ohio. The firm’s founder and president, Jessika Phillips, emphasized the importance of creating relationships and experiences with customers and constituents, while Andrew Rogers, senior website developer, addressed the need for good online content.

Conference participants also met in professional group breakout sessions for writers; web/graphic design/project managers; and managers/directors/administrators.

Organizers hoped one outcome would be “ideas we could take back to our organizations,” said Scott Sundberg, executive director of Anabaptist Communicators. But it’s more than that, he said.

“We have this community of communicators we can share things with,” Sundberg explained. “It’s encouraging to think how we can move forward."

The visit to Bluffton was the first by the group, which was created in 1984 as the Council on Church and Media and adopted its current name in 2007. Since 2010, the annual meetings have been held at Mennonite colleges and universities. “This model enables us to showcase the institutions,” Sundberg said.