A Culture of Call and Affirmation at Walnut Hill

March 5, 2024

Recently, Walnut Hill Mennonite Church celebrated its seventh ordination ceremony in the last 11 years when co-pastor Carmen Horst was ordained by Indiana Michigan Mennonite Conference minister Sharon Yoder, who told me, “This culture of call and affirmation of ministry leaders is noteworthy; we’d like to hear your reflections about this.” I will give it a try.

The seven, their places of origin, and ordination dates, are: Jane Miller, Goshen, 5/20/12; Randall Miller, South Dakota, 3/03/13; Linda Lehman Thomas, Ohio, 9/08/13; Brent Siegrist, Pennsylvania, 11/08/15; Ben Bouwman, Illinois, 10/27/19; Sharon Norton, Goshen and Walnut Hill, 10/02/22; and Carmen Horst, Argentina, 12/10/23.

First of all, since only one grew up at Walnut Hill, thanks go to the congregations that nurtured these folks in their youth and young adulthoods by letting them do things to develop their gifts. Where Walnut Hill excels in cultivating a “culture of call and affirmation of ministry” is its openness to leaders who have little experience, who may have some uncertainty about their gifts and abilities, and who might even have some flaws and previous failures (yours truly). I will not be surprised to someday hear of current youth who will find affirmation and possible ordination in other congregations.

Until a decade ago, there were fewer ordinations due to the long tenures of the previous pastors: Steve Thomas, 20 years and Jane Stoltzfus Buller, 25 years (even though a few others were ordained for various ministries along the way). When Steve resigned in 2010, I came as the transition pastor after having experimented with pastoral ministry 30 years prior. It didn’t take that first time but Walnut Hill welcomed me anyway. And when I moved on to my second transition assignment, of seven total, the congregation invited me to keep Walnut Hill as my home base and called for my ordination.

Brent then teamed with Jane SB until returning to international mission work after his wife Katrina finished seminary. Ben graduated from seminary and joined Jane. When she retired, Carmen joined Ben, after having served an interim assignment in her home congregation. Thus, four “new” pastors arrived within a decade or so. It helps that the congregation also has a credentialing champion, Rachel Schertz, who readily serves in leadership roles and sees value in recognizing people’s calls to ministry within and beyond the congregation. In addition to the four pastors, Jane M was a Goshen Hospice chaplain, Linda is co-founder and director at Pathways Retreat, and Sharon N is the transition pastor at Fellowship of Hope.

What is remarkable about Walnut Hill could be this–the church is willing to let people fail, help them along, and let them try again. In rejecting perfection as a qualification for ministry (or membership) Walnut Hill encourages both personal and professional growth. Thanks be to God. While it’s nice for Walnut Hill to be noticed, and I’m certainly grateful that the congregation advocated for my ordination, I can’t help but wish we were baptizing new believers at a rate that was noteworthy. That too, it seems to me, would be remarkable.