Bragging rights (and why Mennonites value humility)

By Byron Rempel-Burkholder

In my weekly phone conversations with my parents, it is almost routine for the conversation to include a little chuckle on the subject of pride. Whether we’re talking about our children getting on the dean’s honour roll, or my excitement about some high-profile endorsements for our upcoming new comic book, Radical Jesus—Dad will inevitably pose that old question that dominated his own upbringing: “Is this making you proud?” He asks it with a twinkle in his eye, because he understands the complicated relationship with pride that Mennonite Christians have had historically.

Mennonites value humility as a pillar of discipleship. You don’t put yourself forward; you serve others and deny yourself. You don’t brag about your achievements, and you even withhold lavish praise from others lest you feed a culture of pride. In some quarters, you don’t wear stylish clothes or jewelry, because that draws attention to yourself.

Dad and I both recognize that humility is a mixed bag. In excess, it can sabotage the self-esteem we all need for our well-being. Restraining our joy over an accomplishment—ours or someone else’s—can undermine gratitude. On the other end of the spectrum, everyone knows how a swelled head can mess up our spirituality and our social life. In the middle somewhere is a humble kind of pride that allows us to celebrate God-given gifts and achievements.

And so it is in our publishing work. As our books go into production, we send the manuscripts to well-known people to endorse. We excerpt the pithiest compliments from their statements and we emblazon them on the back covers, on our website, and in social media. We ask our authors to do the same—to talk and blog about their books, to sign books at launch events, and to gush about how good they are.

Shirley Showalter reads from her soon to be released memoir Blush while Ervin Stutzman looks on.

Shirley Showalter reads from her soon to be released memoir Blush while Ervin Stutzman looks on.

Call it godly bragging if you like—godly because we recognize that our books, curriculum, and periodicals, are ultimately gifts of God to the world, and they deserve to be talked about, praised, and even urged upon the world.

There was a time—just a couple of decades ago— when we didn’t need to do this as a church publisher. Loyal congregations and individuals would buy our products simply because we were their publisher and they trusted us to put out the resources they needed. The annual catalogue and a few simple display ads in church papers were about all we needed to get people buy the product. That was okay, and it fit nicely with the self-effacement we called humility.

Today, to survive, we have to be assertive in getting the word out to the world, including to our own churches. We highlight the good things about what we are publishing. In our promotions we become evangelists of a vision, a message, a gift: a biblical orientation of discipleship and service. We can actually be humble in our “bragging” because we’re carried along by something bigger than our own egos. I hope that’s what we’re doing.

Blush

Shirley Showalter’s soon-to-be released memoir, Blush, shows some of the healthy tension around humility. In her traditional “plain” Mennonite girlhood, Showalter had a desire to be “big” in a world beyond her small, culturally confined community. While she valued Mennonite teachings on humility, her sense of vocation in the glittering world beyond Lititz, Pennsylvania, drew her into a big world of service. Ultimately, it wasn’t self-inflation; it was a call. Shirley went on to become a professor, and eventually president of Goshen (Indiana) College and then a foundation executive with The Fetzer Institute in Michigan.

Blush is to be released on September 30, but the fanfare has been running for some time already. Months ago, Shirley hosted a party in her home to unveil the cover of the book. She keeps updating her vast Facebook network on the progress of the release, and announces launch events on her blog. Like our marketing department, she is getting the word out.

BlushCoverReveal_blogThere is something bigger happening here than mere publicity, though. Shirley has started an electronic network of folks who are also wanting to write their own memoirs, sharing what she has learned and encouraging others. She’ll be teaching a college class on memoir writing this fall. Like a number of our authors, she is donating royalties to a charity.

Shirley’s story is about her, but it’s also about community, and a way of life that celebrates and shares the stuff of our lives. That is what happens when our desire to be “big” is bound up with a larger vision.

Shirley enjoying a watermelon as a child.

Shirley enjoying a watermelon as a child.

I think that is also what the Apostle Paul was getting at in his own frequent reflections on “boasting.” He had much to brag about in his life—including his pedigree as a Pharisee, supernatural revelations, and a dramatic conversion. In 2 Corinthians 11 he does seem to wear his experiences on his sleeve. But he puts it all in perspective by saying: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (2 Corinthians 10:17).

I hope that’s what’s going on when we promote our products. We take these gifts of stories, these blessings of a vigorous Anabaptist theology, and we broadcast them to the world—unabashedly, with confidence. And yet we do so humbly, knowing that these gifts are from God, meant to be shared.

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Byron Rempel-Burkholder is a managing book editor for MennoMedia.

 

God’s Abundance: Inside the MennoMedia Board

By Melissa Miller

MelissaCamping

Earlier this month, I joined my husband and a couple of friends for a few days of camping in the Canadian wilderness. (Nopiming Provincial Park, Manitoba, to be precise.) We canoed the lakes and hiked the trails, fed the mosquitoes and ate the fish we caught. We woke to the call of the loons, and at night, tucked into our tents under a splash of starry lights. A short vacation packed with gratitude for God’s beautiful world and offering deep peace and relaxation.

wildblueberries

On one island, we found a mass of blueberry bushes, loaded with plump juicy fruit. The plentiful sunshine and rain this summer likely contributed to the plants’ productivity, and the island’s isolation meant no humans (or bears) had harvested before us. We gathered lots of berries, eating some and carrying more back to our site, to add to the evening’s bannock. Another example of how God provides – abundantly.

Abundance and scarcity have been on the minds of MennoMedia board members recently. One of the results of a self-assessment inventory that we completed in the spring identified shortages on the board. We find ourselves wanting to add skills in the areas of new technologies competence, board governance, and financial management. At the same time, we are grateful for the skills and gifts present in the current board.

Recently I sat down with Hilda Hildebrand, moderator of MC Canada and a member of the Joint Executive Committee, which has responsibility for managing the relationship between MennoMedia and our two denominations, Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA. Hilda, who has considerable board experience, brought a grid to help us consider who is currently on the board and the skills they possess. I found the exercise of plotting skills on the grid to be a useful and encouraging one. God has abundantly blessed us with members who have gifts they are willing to share.

For example, there are business people on the board, who bring their experiences with product development, customers, and balance sheets. There are entrepreneurs with vision and a capacity to take risks. Other skills include legal expertise and communication skills. To a person, there is an abundance of good will towards MennoMedia and our churches. Many of us have benefitted from church resources in the past, and serve on the board because we want to ensure such resources continue to be available in the future. The mission statement of MennoMedia – “to engage and shape church and society with resources for living Christian faith from an Anabaptist perspective” – resonates well on the  board.

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Even as we seek new members to strengthen the board and bring additional skills, we declare that God provides. Restful pauses where we contemplate God’s beautiful creation. Astonishing wild blueberries. Faithful and talented people to sit on boards and work in church agencies. Let’s give thanks for gifts that can be put to good creative use, like those wonderful blueberries.

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I’d love to hear from you in a comment here or an email sent to info@mennomedia.org.

Cheers, Melissa Miller, Board President of MennoMedia

Photos by Esther Epp-Tiessen

Invigorating the adult Sunday school program at your church

WilliamsburgMCSSClassHow are your adult Sunday school classes doing?

One of my MennoMedia responsibilities at the Mennonite Church USA convention in Phoenix in July was to lead several workshops—one was on adult Sunday school. It was called “Sunday school or Starbucks?” I had no idea how many people would show up but knew that my own experiences with adult Sunday school have not always been ideal. As I watched the room fill with people, I realized that I was not alone in this.

As you look ahead to fall church school season and focus on getting ready for children’s Sunday school experiences, it’s also wise to pay attention to the adult Sunday school program. Are your adult Sunday school spaces welcoming and accommodating? Are the classes invigorating and challenging? (Coffee/tea helps.)

SSClassDiscussionI was pretty certain that the excellent panel members for our workshop at Phoenix would have good input. The three of them, Marlene Bogard, Barbara Ewey, and Shanna Peachey Boshart, did not disappoint. All are resource advocates for their conference or district. Resource advocates work or volunteer with the churches in their conference to let them know about the many helpful resources put out by the Mennonite Church USA agencies. Resource advocates also have their pulse on the types of resources and programing helpful to the churches in the conferences, and they pass that information along to the MC USA agencies. (In Canada, see Mennonite Church Canada Resource Centre for resource help.)

resourceadvocates
Some Mennonite Church USA resource advocates

In the seminar, Marlene challenged us to take a good look at our Sunday school spaces. Are they inviting? Are they spaces in which people want to spend time? Shanna mentioned that though gathering for Bible study and fellowship can happen at any time, people are already together Sunday mornings and therefore it is one of the best times to have Sunday school. Barbara shared several excellent study resources so that adults will want to gather and study (see partial list below).

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Mary Ann Weber talks with a convention goer at the Mennonite Church USA
gathering in Phoenix about ideas for church school classes.

Following the panel discussion, we divided into small groups to ponder two questions. Participants jotted down responses which I then collected, collated, and emailed to those who requested them.

Here are just a few ideas that came from the workshop participants that you can use in analyzing and improving your own program:

1. How do you support Sunday school leaders?

  • Make the teacher’s guides available
  • Have a half-day prayer retreat to re-energize leaders
  • Offer prayers and send cards
  • Good teachers need to mentor others
  • Early Sunday morning meetings for the purpose of training, discussing topic, etc.

2. What are Sunday school ideas that work at your church?

  • Teaching styles that invite conversation without judgment
  • Find teachers with passion about the subject
  • Coffee, doughnuts, and fellowship are important
  • Fall quarter includes elective and intergenerational classes based on the passion of the leaders
  • Sunday school class outings to build relationships outside of Sunday school
  • Support groups for real-life issues that may not be traditional Bible or Sunday school topics (ex.: parents struggling with parenting, divorce, addictions, women’s group, etc.)
  • Provide opportunities to share stories

Many people have observed a decline in Sunday school attendance in recent years, but the amount of people who showed up for this workshop tells me that there is value in having a Sunday school program, and that people recognize the distractions that pull us away from opportunities to engage in serious Christian education. There is always room for conversations regarding how to update it and make it relevant for daily lives. May the conversations challenge and inspire us.

What has worked well in your congregation or conference for adult classes? Comment, please!

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Here are just a few of the many resources available through MennoMedia for adult classes (click on each one to find out more):

Also, find out who the resource advocate is for your conference and make connections with him or her. Contact your local conference office if you do not know who your resource advocate is, or check this list. Or join the Facebook page group with occasional links from Resource Advocates.

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Mary Ann Weber
MennoMedia Managing editor