by Jennie Wintermote, WDC Staff

About 45 people from across Western District Conference gathered at First Mennonite Church in Beatrice, NE for WDC’s Spring Reference Council.

The day’s theme, Held Together in Mission: Being Church in the Rural Context, framed the stories, discussions, and questions shared throughout the day.  After a brief welcome by conference staff and members of the Executive Board, hosting pastors Tim Amor (Beatrice Mennonite) and Brett Klingenberg (First Mennonite) led the group in a short time of worship through song and prayer.

Highlights of the day included table talk focused on the definition of “rural” and on how participants’ congregations and WDC are impacted by current realities in the rural context.  Table groups also discussed answers to these questions:  Where do you see God at work in the rural context? What is your vision for the rural church in the future?  What are the gifts that rural congregations offer to your congregation, to WDC, and to the wider church?

These times of table talk were divided by periods of rich, heartfelt storytelling from pastors and laypeople who live and worship in rural contexts.  Each presentation was memorable for different reasons, from Terry Rediger (Turpin Mennonite) who reminded us that “People are attracted to a church that is having fun together,” to 97-year old business owner, Louis Goossen (First Mennonite, Beatrice) (pictured right), who reflected on the experiences of his life, and on the ways that the Holy Spirit has been present in his life and will be in our lives and congregations “if we only ask.”  Brandon and Kristi Unruh (Tabor) shared about their choice to raise their family in a rural community and reminded the group that “God is around us, working in our lives.”  Harold Thieszen (Bethel College Mennonite) provided an introduction to WDC’s Low German Mennonites from Mexico Task Force and the unique work they do with this undocumented population.

Young pastors Brad Roth (West Zion), Laura Neufeld Goerzen (First Mennonite of Christian), Brett Klingenberg, Phil Schmidt (Tabor), Peter Goerzen (formerly Grace Hill, current Bethel campus pastor), and Katherine Goerzen (Tabor) shared their reflections on pastoring in the rural context and an introduction to an upcoming book project focused on rural ministry.

Brett Klingenberg used the rural geography of Gage County (Beatrice’s location) to describe the physical boundaries of the creeks around the church.  He then compared those “sustaining features” or boundaries to some sustaining features of our Mennonite congregations that can become boundaries to others seeking to join us.  He then challenged the group to not throw out these features because of their sustaining power, and instead to be intentional in creating crossing points or access points for others to cross these boundaries.

The fall Reference Council will be October 22, 2016 in Dallas TX with the theme Held Together in Mission: Being Church in the Urban Context.  Executive Board member, Cynthia Loganbill hopes that those who attended in Beatrice will also make the trip to Dallas.  She says, “WDC is both rural and urban.  If we don’t get to know each other’s contexts and settings, how can we effectively work together?”  She went on to say, “Now the diversity hits home and the rural church has a face.”

The day ended with another time of worship.  These beginning and closing times of worship reminded those present that ultimately we are held together in our common mission of worship, service, and witness as followers of Christ.