Gathering in Groups – Gleaning Gifts

One of the things I love most about autumn is watching trees change colors.  To me, nothing is more beautiful than the sun shining on a tree decked out with fresh autumn leaves, transforming it into a brilliant splash of orange. Maybe it is because I have been working on this article about small groups in churches that I noted something I had never really observed before as I admired the autumn trees this year.  Although we enjoy a tree in its entirety, when you look closely, you notice that the tree is actually made up of “small groups” – clusters of leaves joining with other clumps of leaves. In some ways, that is not unlike small groups in churches.            

In fact, small groups serve many important functions in churches.  Ed Stetzer, a Professor at Wheaton College and contributing editor to Christianity Today suggests that small groups are a “pathway” for “birthing healthy community” within the church that can foster “spiritual growth that changes us individually and as a whole” and encourage “transformation in the communities outside the church walls.” 

Successful church groups can have many different forms and functions. You probably are familiar with the more traditional models of small groups that are common in many churches including First Mennonite–groups of people who meet once or twice a month to support one another, do service projects together, process church business, and socialize.  Andrea Krause has been part of a group like this for several years, maintaining her commitment to the group even though she now spends much of the year living in Germany. She explains, “What I like about our group is that we are all very different. I also value that our friendships have developed and deepened over time.  To me, as a German, relationships are something you tend to over time. You invest in them, and as you spend time together, you come to caring and friendship.  It’s really nice to go into a group where over time people have pieced together each other’s life story because they have listened to each other and spent time together. And ‘dropping back into’ my small group whenever I spend time in Indy feels wonderfully familiar and comforting, almost like I was never gone at all.”  

Kevin Rosner, who is a member of a men’s group at FMC that also fits into this traditional model of gatherings, confirms the value of the relationships that are built through the longevity of a group: “It has given us a close group of friends who feel very close due to our sharing of our life stories with each other.” Joe Longenecker, another member of an FMC men’s group, describes his experience with his group this way: “We try to meet every two weeks on Sunday evenings.  Most weeks, we just talk and share stories and concerns about our lives.  Usually, there is also conversation about ongoing church business.  About once a quarter, there is a more social event, like Frisbee golf at FMC. This is a good group for me.  It is easier to open up and share with a small group.  It is also good to have a group that is accepting of whatever we bring to the group.  I think this group helps the church by making the individual parts stronger.”   Bob Walson also participates in an FMC Men’s Group. He sees the purpose of his group as being “to share our joys, daily needs and daily care concerns, even concerns like how to fix mechanical/electrical problems at our individual homes or at FMC.”  

There is no doubt that groups like this play an important role in many people’s lives and contribute to the larger church in meaningful ways; yet this isn’t the only way to “do groups” in a church.  An alternative approach to small groups is for people to join a group out of interest in a particular topic and commit to making participation in the group a top priority for a short period of time (6 weeks to 6 months).  

An example of this type of group is the “Showing up for Racial Justice” (SURJ) group coordinated by Alison Schumacher.  Using SURJ resources, the 8 members of this group have committed to meeting monthly for 6 months to discuss race, privilege and power in the U.S. Marcy Major describes her experience in this group: “The information puts me more in tune with systemic racism. People in our group share their experiences and thoughts in a safe setting, and we learn from the materials and each other. I’m hoping that being a part of this group will assist me in making a positive difference.”

Transitional pastor Gary Martin initiated additional short-term groups focused on discerning spiritual gifts through the sharing of life stories.  In this model, groups of not more than 8 people are drawn together by interest in a common topic, and group members commit to meeting every other week for a short period of time.  The groups are facilitated by leaders who have gone through the experience, and a key component of this group experience is the sharing of life stories. At each meeting, two group members are given 20 minutes to share their story.  Martin observes, “Walls can be broken down just by telling those stories.”

The value of this alternative model of small groups in churches is evident in the responses of people who have participated in the two “life-story/gift discernment” groups that were formed at FMC.   Marcy Major explains, “Pastor Gary made the invitation to the congregation and we didn’t know who would be interested. Out of the 6 people in the group, I only knew 2 people.  I have gotten to know 6 people at FMC on a deeper level.  I now know some of their interests, passions, and gifts and perhaps I can connect them to others at FMC they may not know.  I can talk with them in a more genuine way, because I actually know what is meaningful or interesting to them.  I may tap them for their thoughts and opinions, because I know some of their story and background.”

Another participant, Alicia Amazon, describes her experiences this way: “I continue to participate in this small group because it has been life giving to me and I feel the spirit is working through this group.  I have loved getting to know my small group members on a deeper level. It has been an honor to hear life stories and share in identifying spiritual gifts. Participating in the group has given me a new sense of community and feeling connected to others in the church. It has affirmed my spiritual gifts and is encouraging me to use them in the church.”  

Anita Das affirms that it has been a “helpful process to look at individuals with greater depth than simply through social contact.”  She highlights that in addition to getting to know others better, you also get to know yourself better, stating, “I’m motivated to continue engaging in this process to discover what people’s perceptions are of me, versus my desires and own perception.  I am willing to listen to others and receive feedback and mutual support in gaining more self-awareness.”

Linda Dixon summarizes the potential value in these types of groups: “They have a lot of potential to encourage deeper sharing and more meaningful fellowship among church members and participants” and can ultimately be used “to serve our church and to glorify God.”  

Participants in both the traditional model of groups and this alternative format clearly benefit from being part of a small group, and both models are beneficial to the church as well.  It is important to remember that both models can exist simultaneously within a congregation. Gary Martin encourages existing groups to keep doing what they are doing, saying “If you like your group, keep going!”  At the same time, he encourages people to consider participating in one of the special topic, short-term groups when a theme comes up that captures their attention. Marcy Major concurs: “I have been in different small groups over my 22 years at FMC Indianapolis. I understand the different ways small groups can be viewed. Some people switch groups every couple of years so they can get to know a different group of people in a deeper way. Some people wouldn’t imagine changing their small group because of the comfort level they have grown into. I would argue that all FMC participants would benefit from joining a small group of 6 to 8 people for a short duration – and if they wanted to continue meeting in their current small group they could still do that, too.”

So, whether it is participating in a traditional group or in a short-term, topic-focused group, gathering in small groups contributes greatly to the well-being of a church community.  Not all of the branches of leaves on a tree are identical, and not all groups in a church need to be the same either. Returning to the metaphor I began with, if the church is like a tree and a small group is like the different clusters of leaves, all of the groups work together, supported by strong roots, to create the life-giving splendor that is Christ’s church.

Editorial

MennoExpressions has been reflecting the thoughts of Indy’s Mennonite community for 32 years, hearing from those who have connections to either First Mennonite Church or Shalom Mennonite.  We’ve been fortunate to have wonderful editors in that time.  

Founder, Erv Boschmann, started us off, and Shari Wagner took over once he took a step back.  After Shari’s tenure we had Robin Jones, Dean Habegger and then, most recently, Alison Schumacher.  Grace Rhine and Howard Palmatier stepped in for several short terms to tide us over.  

Each Editor brought unique flavor to the process, which allowed us to explore new ideas and consider changing technologies.  The dedication of all our editors has kept many of us on the creative board year after year.

The board meets 3-4 times a year for about 90 minutes.  A lot of brainstorming and idea generation bounces off the walls until we are able to mold what we’ve verbally thrown out in the space into themes that speak to us; themes that we believe would carry meaning for all of you.  Then we talk about sources…potential writers… asking: Who would have an experience that might fit into this theme? Whose voice have we been missing in past issues? What artwork would express the ideas we are discussing?  

It’s invigorating as an issue of MennoExpressions begins to take shape.  

This issue features the theme of Gleaning and Gathering.  The concepts fit in with FMC’s study of Ruth as well as the notion of gaining insight to the way we work and function.  It focuses on First Mennonite’s present transition process – something Shalom did a short while back.  

Over time we’ve delved into difficult subject matter as well as the lighter side.  We’ve been open to new ideas. We’ve asked for feedback and heard both negative and positive responses.  Looking back on the issues over the years, we see a history of Mennonites in Indianapolis since 1987. We aren’t ready to pack up and leave Menno Expressions behind just yet.

This issue is being published without a named editor. We are still looking for someone who would have an interest in filling that slot and are open to creative ways to make that happen.  It’s hard to fill the shoes of Alison Schumacher, we know, but if you are so led, please talk to us. Chat with a board member or ask Alison, Shari or Erv about their experiences. Perhaps this is the time for one of you to Glean and Gather in a new opportunity.

Moving On (spring issue of MennoExpressions)

Last July, inspiration struck during a routine editorial board meeting and we decided all at once on four themes for the whole year. Normally we figure out one, maybe two. But four? We were on a roll! There was an underlying idea of Flow to it, with the summer issue as What We Keep, fall Intersection, winter Together, and spring, Moving On. This final one we felt was appropriate to both to honor the high school graduates in a special issue, as well as nod to stages we each move through as we navigate life.

And here we are. FMC is certainly in a “moving on” phase, whether we want to be or not. Our entire pastoral team has moved on, or is in the process of doing so. We as a church are in a transition that we haven’t anticipated; what are we moving towards? What are we moving away from?

0519 MennoExpressions MOVING ON

What We Keep (MennoExpressions – Summer 2018)

Reading, especially fiction, is one of my highlights of being alive. Disappearing into a story, mulling it over while I’m away from it, reading far too late into the night because there is just no logical place to possibly stop, sharing the excitement with a fellow reader who was just as caught up in the story—all of these make me feel so grateful to simply know how to read and to be able to be immersed in someone else’s craft, someone else’s story so completely. And yet I rarely retain more from a book than the feeling I had while reading it. I’m often reading books for book club at the very last second because after a week or so, I can’t speak to details, plot points—just the overall feeling of how much I loved it or was completely annoyed by it. I keep the feeling.

There’s a lot of literal “keeping of stuff” in these pages. Somehow lids—you know, lids to yogurt containers—prompted a lively discussion in our planning meeting for this issue. We keep lids because… we’re frugal! They have many uses! You can use them to play kitchen hockey! They are great coasters and popsicle holders! We agreed: just because something has outlived its intended use doesn’t mean it has lost its value.

And yet, we hang on to so many things Just In Case. This goes beyond literal, tangible items: What friendships do you maintain over decades? What have you retained from cross-cultural experiences or international travel? Do you believe everything you’re “supposed” to believe as a Mennonite? Why have you kept certain traditions alive, but not others? What memories or stories are important to you to pass on to loved ones? And—just as important as what we keep—what would we be better off without?

Download MennoExpressions – What We Keep – Summer 2018

Is it God? (MennoExpressions – Spring 2018)

I love the day that submissions are due for each issue. Before that point, the issue (and its theme) is only an idea. The editorial board has hashed out a plan for a theme, we’ve divided up who will ask whom to contribute, usually with a specific prompt in mind – but we don’t know who will actually write and what they will have decided to write about. And so deadline day comes, emails begin to hit my inbox, and I see the issue start to take shape, as reflections of the theme emerge. It’s exciting to see it come to life. Your stories are beautiful, as is the trust you put in the rest of the congregation as you share your truths.

Contributors weighing in on Is it God? include Evonne Swartzendruber, Maggie Girard, Michele West, Ethel Hartman, Dan Hess, Ben Tapper, Shari Wagner, Nancy Fletcher, Julie Monroe, and Beth Goering. They have offered up incredible stories, reflections, experiences, artwork. Which one resonates the most with your own experience of God?

Download MennoExpressions – Is It God? – Spring 2018

Patterns (MennoExpressions – Winter 2018)

The beginning of the year often brings intentions of reviewing habits and patterns in our lives, choosing which to discard, which to begin, which to emphasize. This issue brings reflections from Marcy Major on how her life has changed as her son has grown up and moved on, Erin Rodman on musical patterns, Hollins and Rachel Showalter on adjusting VBS schedules, Marie Harnish on designing quilting patterns, Mary Liechty on some of her life’s disruptions and learnings, Amy Bixler on following a pattern and what that does for her focus, and Heidi Boschmann Amstutz on her ritual of running. Woven through the prose is beautiful photography and artwork by Annabella Habegger, Dan Hess, and Emilie Walson.

Thanks for reading MennoExpressions!

 Download MennoExpressions – Patterns – Winter 2018

Power (MennoExpressions – Fall 2017)

Dovetailing with the theme of Indianapolis’ annual Spirit & Place festival, our fall issue centers on Power. How do power structures in the church help or hinder our faith? How does the power of community help us through difficult situations? What does the power of a Sabbath provide? Stunning photography, poetry, prose – this issue has it all. Thanks for reading MennoExpressions!

Download MennoExpressions – Power – Fall 2017

Thirty years for this pearl

Happy 30th anniversary to MennoExpressions! In celebration of this milestone, this issue centers around the traditional 30th anniversary gift: we started this year with an issue on “dirt,” followed by one on “interruptions,” and now come to our “pearl.” Something potentially pesky and irritating sits in darkness and silence and, over time, is transformed into something beautiful, precious, cherished.

Catherine Swanson offers up a wonderful meditation on what happens when she embraces the silence and trusts that there is something she can listen to and find precious and worthy in that space. Others share reflections on what worth they’ve found in these pages over the last three decades. Our artists each created something specific just for this issue!

Part of what I value so much about MennoExpressions is that it brings out the parts of people that you don’t normally see or find out about on Sunday morning. Such trust that contributors have placed in us, the readers, as they share personal stories and struggles. What a gift that is.

Erv comments that people must often be surprised when they are asked to write, not considering themselves a writer. I agree that it’s a very common answer, and yet more often than not, people push past their hesitation and create something transformative for the rest of us to appreciate. Thank you for trusting us – MennoExpressions, FMC, Shalom – with your stories and your art. Here’s to the next pearls of wisdom and cherished contributions!

Download MennoExpressions – Pearl – August 2017