Online Pastors and Leaders Event at AMBS Explores How to Thrive in the Pandemic

March 31, 2021
by John David Thacker (for AMBS)

Top row (l. to r.): Teaching session presenters at Pastors and Leaders 2021: Cynthia L. Hale, D.Min.; James Nelson Gingerich, M.D.; Marvin Lorenzana, D.Min.
Bottom row (l. to r.): Preachers and worship leaders at Pastors and Leaders 2021: Drew Strait, Ph.D.; Katie Graber, Ph.D.; Anneli Loepp Thiessen, M.M.
(Photos provided)

(Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — A year after the COVID-19 virus reached the shores of North America, leaders of churches and church institutions continue to imagine new ways of ministering amidst the difficulties and demands of living through a pandemic. Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana, sought to give these leaders an opportunity to “get away” and recharge during its annual Pastors and Leaders conference, which was held completely online for the first time.

During the March 1–4 conference, whose theme was “Thriving Together,” nearly 150 participants from across North America, Germany and Kenya logged on to Zoom each day to listen to and engage with speakers, to share in workshops and discussion groups, and to pray and worship with each other. The seminary’s Church Leadership Center, which sponsors the event, offered mini-grants to cover nonregistration expenses such as childcare or access to a quieter workspace to enable people to participate fully in the gathering from a distance.

Conference planners invited speakers to reflect on how to lead well in times of uncertainty and turmoil, and to give insights into what congregations need to thrive in today’s world.

Rev. Cynthia L. Hale, D.Min., founder and senior pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia, opened the conference by encouraging congregations to continue creating a vision for their futures. She noted that all living organisms experience a life cycle of new birth, growth, stagnation and decline — depicted on a graph as an S-curve.

“The world, and everything in it, is somewhere on the S-curve,” she said. “Churches, like people, have a life cycle. In general, a church is born and grows. Eventually, it reaches a plateau, and if nothing is done to move it off that plateau, it begins to decline, and eventually it dies.”

“As a church, we can circumvent decline strategically by starting a new S-curve,” she continued. “The best time for a church to start the second curve is while it is still strong and energetic and growing.”

Hale claimed that one of the most powerful ways to start a new S-curve is to engage in a strategic planning process.

“What it looks like and feels like is a crisis, but it’s really an opportunity to partner with God in taking your church to the next level,” she said. “You have to dare to dream. It’s for this reason that you are called to be a visionary leader. Visionary leaders engage in continual visioning and strategic planning for their ministry. A good leader is not one who simply maintains the status quo but is one who sets the direction for the church.”

She highlighted the role that pastors have in leading strategic vision casting.

“One of the key elements in casting and implementing vision is preaching,” she said. “You have to preach where you want people to go. Never underestimate the power of preaching. Be systematic in your preaching. Preaching develops people, and it develops thriving churches.”

On March 3, James Nelson Gingerich, M.D., a doctor and leader at Maple City Health Care Center (MCHCC) in Goshen, Indiana, shared the story of the center and how it fosters countercultural community — inspired by his vision of the church — to bring affordable and accessible health care to its neighbors. MCHCC offers medical, dental and prenatal care on a sliding scale basis, but Gingerich emphasized that the center is about more than healing the body.

“We try not to think of ourselves as a service-providing agency,” he said. Quoting John Driver, a former MCHCC board member, he clarified, “We are a peace and justice organization that engages in community development whose entry point in this neighborhood is through health care.”

As the organization has grown and developed, group circle processes have become central to its model of care, Nelson Gingerich said. Small groups meet — often around food — to share stories, build trust and work together on problems facing the group.

When the center moved from prenatal classes focused on transmitting information to pregnancy peer support groups using a circle process, they found that participation greatly increased. Now, not only patients but also staff and board members engage in these circle processes. Nelson Gingerich noted that when MCHCC leaders applied the circle process model to their board meetings, it transformed how the board members interacted, functioned and built relationships, and it also helped engage board members who were more representative of the center’s constituents.

On March 4, Marvin Lorenzana, D.Min., of Harrisonburg, Virginia, president of Eastern Mennonite Missions, spoke on the need for Christians to be not only disciples of Jesus, but also disciple makers.

“There is nothing more missional than teaching common believers how to become disciples of Jesus, who in turn master the art of teaching others how to do the same,” he said. “There will never be, and in fact cannot be, a missional church without reproducing missional disciples of Jesus.”

Lorenzana introduced the model of Missional Discipleship Groups — small groups of two to three members who meet once a week to read Scripture, pray together and discuss how they will live out what they are hearing from God. The groups are led by an experienced Christian who provides mentoring for new Christians who then become leaders of new groups.

Following two teaching sessions, participants were invited to take a creative break away from the computer to intentionally reflect on their learning. They then returned for conversation in small groups, followed by Q&A sessions with the speakers.

To foster a sense of community among participants for the online event, planners mailed registrants a package before the conference that contained — among other items — a votive candle, a vial to hold anointing oil, and a miniature plastic communion chalice with grape juice and a wafer. These items were used in breakout groups for shared times of anointing and communion during worship.

Katie Graber, Ph.D., and Anneli Loepp Thiessen, M.M., co-directors of the Anabaptist Worship Network, served as worship leaders for the conference, using resources from the new Voices Together worship book. Drew Strait, Ph.D., assistant professor of New Testament and Christian origins at AMBS, brought the message during the sending worship service on March 4. In connection with the conference, participants and their families were also invited to attend a free live online concert on March 5 featuring the acoustic pop band Girl Named Tom.

Annika Krause (M.A. 2016), pastor of Mennonite Fellowship of Montreal, Canada, found the worship experiences meaningful despite the distance separating the participants.

“I laughed when I first got [the miniature chalice], but it was actually kind of nice to see everyone using it — taking communion with the same thing,” she said. “It’s obviously not as good as if we were in person, but I think that everything was handled very well.”

Participants cited the interactions with other pastors and leaders as highlights of the conference.

“It’s been so life-giving to be able to talk to other pastors who are experiencing similar things as I am during a pandemic,” Krause said. “It’s a very unique way to be doing pastoring these days, and to have people who can relate to my experiences has been great.”

Naún Cerrato (M.A. 2019), pastor of Piedra Viva Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana, agreed.

“One of the best parts for me was to have the breakout rooms after the teaching sessions because then you had the opportunity to share with other people and hear their views, their perspectives and how they understood the message the speakers were delivering,” he said. “Seeing how God works so differently in each person made the event very unique for me.”

Cerrato expressed hope that AMBS will continue to offer the conference online in the future.

“I don’t know if it’s because I belong to a different generation, but I really like the online experience,” he said. “I hope it’s not the last time we do something like that.”

Videos of the Pastors and Leaders 2021 teaching sessions can be accessed at

The planning group for the event included Sophia Austin (M.Div. 2020) of Palmyra, Missouri; Sara Erb (M.Div. 2014) of New Hamburg, Ontario; Barb Good of Wheaton, Illinois; Merle Hostetler of Goshen, Indiana; Haroldo Nunes of Orrville, Ohio; Dwight Stewart of Wheaton; and Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, Ph.D.; Allan Rudy-Froese, Ph.D.; Leah R. Thomas, Ph.D.; and Cheryl Zehr, M.A., of AMBS.
Pastors and Leaders 2022 will be held Feb. 21–24.

Located in Elkhart, Indiana, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary is a learning community with an Anabaptist vision, offering theological education for learners both on campus and at a distance, including a wide array of lifelong learning programs — all with the goal of educating followers of Jesus Christ to be leaders for God’s reconciling mission in the world.

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