Merv Stoltzfus Reflects on 30+ Years of Ministry and Leadership with ACC

Merv Stoltzfus has been in leadership in Atlantic Coast Conference for more than 30 years. In those three-plus decades, our whole society has experienced convulsive change, including the church. How did Merv not lose his way? How did he not get pulled off-base in the middle of many tensions? How did he sort out which were his personal references—and what was appropriate for the church, for the people?

            Unruffled and at ease, Merv answered a series of questions about how he has kept his bearings through the years.—Phyllis Pellman Good

Merv Stoltzfus: I’ve had close personal friends outside of my work. These are peer friends who I seek out. They know ministry and leadership. They treat confidentiality with high regard. They have been neutral. They have created a safe space for me where I can release what I am carrying and be the person I want to be. Humor and laughter are often present when we’re together! We have become mutual assets to each other.

            I also live out of a spiritual foundation. For the last 20 years I’ve pursued a spiritual well, deepening practices with the help of a spiritual director. That has been incredibly helpful and has made it possible for me to disconnect from the difficulties of my day and from my ego. Sometimes humans hurt each other. When that happens, I want to work through those situations as much as possible.

            And for the last 15 years, I have an almost daily practice that begins after dark. During at least three seasons of the year, I sit outdoors on our deck for one to three hours, just being present with the night sky, surrounding roads, the neighboring Sheetz, the nearby airport. I don’t take any books outside with me. I try not to look at my phone.

            It’s kind of a prayer time, although I don’t attempt to focus and think. I’m just present to what is. No words or petitions. People and situations may come to mind, but not always in formed words. I’m preparing for the night with this kind of “being prayer.” I stay out there til I’m ready to come in.

PPG: What changes, shifts, and trends have you observed in the church during these past 30 years, both good and of concern?

MS: From 1982-1984, I was Youth Minister for both the Conference and for Ridgeview Mennonite Church. At that time, our congregations were planting new churches with amazing energy, many of them in urban settings, requiring considerable financial commitments. These were relatively local projects, often four to six hours away, primarily in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York.

            The church was flourishing in interesting ways, including starting nonprofits to meet various needs. Our people got very personally involved, and this benefited the Conference. We took great risks. For example, we bought a building in one of the worst parts of Baltimore, and, in partnership with Eastern Mennonite Missions, turned it into the YES Center. It needed a whole lot of renovation!

            We’ve shifted to not as much church planting today. Now we’re looking at systemic and institutional injustices. With more awareness of these concerns, congregational discussions are leading to giving financial support and taking action to assist change. One such focus is on immigration. Congregations take on resettling immigrant families, helping them with all the processes required to get established here—from learning the language, to setting up banking, to moving the children into school. It is a significant commitment of time and finances. It is a lot of work to help immigrant adults to find work.

            We have also shifted to valuing female voices and female leaders, along with persons from all cultures, and of other sexual identities. We’re recognizing how entrenched oppression is against blacks, Hispanics, and, now with COVID, the demonizing of Asians. This is a large societal situation, but we have taken up the cause of being faithful in this new way.

            In the ’80s, we understood faith formation as teaching about life ethics. We believed in conveying our convictions and expectations by way of a speaker to an audience.

            Now, in a new trend, we’ve shifted to inviting youth into conversation. We’re convinced that they are thinking. We’ve come to understand that learning excels when people are invited to express themselves, especially when they’re young and we do them the honor of listening to them working out their thoughts.

            Our faith-formation style is a lot more conversational now—more invitational, creating safe spaces for young people and older persons to truly talk together.

            Overall faith formation has become much more, too, about having adults share about their differences within a community. Our unity is our faith in Christ—that’s our focus—rather than how that may affect our different perception of particular issues.

            Another change I’ve seen is from growing our church primarily through generational growth, when our children took on our beliefs and practices themselves, to more social growth. By that I mean when we invite persons of differing ecumenical backgrounds, or those without Christian faith, to join us.

PPG: What do you think needs careful and mindful attention in congregations and the Conference, now and in the near future?

MS: So we’re working now at having adults learn how to build capacity for differences—usually cultural differences. Today we’re trying to create capacity to learn from each other, to see what we can openly discover from and share with each other. That’s where I see hope, although we have a long way to go.

            We’re experiencing another related shift. Before, most of our leaders were from generational Mennonite culture. Now we have much more of an increase of pastors from other ecumenical Christian backgrounds who are drawn to Anabaptist ideals.

            We ask them to learn and become educated in our history and theology. But they receive an open invitation to be part of our conversation. We want them to minister in our contexts.

PPG: Where do you see hope?

MS: God has always loved people of hope in the church. God will keep restoring the church, even if we’re diminishing for a time. That’s a foundational piece for me. God does restoration. That’s the basis of my hope.

            People are becoming more aware of those who need a place to belong, to be cherished. I see people reaching out to offer this. We’re developing capacity to walk alongside people and together learning a more healthy way of living. It takes energy not to ostracize but to care for those who society has pushed away.

            We’re also welcoming and not as fearful of people who didn’t come with our theology. We’re seeing that they may have something to offer us, to help us.

            Small groups are forming for people who are being drawn back to faith as part of their life foundation. Small groups are a place where they can be safe.

            We were once building bigger buildings. Now we’re growing these multiple groups rather than property size.

            People today continue to have a passion for what they believe. Faith is rooted in Scripture, but their passion runs deep and looks for ways to express itself, whether progressive or conservative. So let’s recognize those differences and be okay with them. The better we do that, the stronger the church will be.

            It’s challenging, and not everyone can do this. But more and more people seem determined not to let one issue disconnect us. We all do something well, and we have much to learn from each other.

PPG: What have you learned about yourself by carrying this responsibility?

MS: I am a learner. I like to learn so I can adjust and move. I’ve worked at being a flexible person. Even if I don’t like what’s going on, I still want to understand it. It might be difficult, but I don’t want to be crazy negative.

            I desire to be hopeful, joyful—so I lean into the fact that change will come.

            Even with my body, I’ve had to give things up earlier than I expected, but that’s life. I want to be positive.

            With my physical disability, I’ve always wanted to live life the best I could—with fun and joy and healthy personhood. I’ve never wanted to be bitter and angry and upset, so I pushed every boundary and worked at being okay with it. I’m grateful for all I have, even though with my limitations I’m always thinking about the actual physical steps I have to navigate. That’s part of who I am, and it’s okay.

            We all have this thing we’re working with and whether we can walk into it and move through it. It has an important impact, but it doesn’t need to steal your joy.

            That has helped me not be thrown by whatever comes before me, believing that the outcome will be full of joy, grace, and God-with-us. John 10:10 is my favorite verse.

PPG: What about your leadership responsibilities have you found most satisfying?

MS: It’s been the perfect job for my personality—the variety, challenges, experiencing the different ways people do things, the way youth groups keep changing.

            I enjoy people—and all their differences.

            I enjoy being an encourager, being part of the cloud of witnesses, observing what I see as people’s strong suits from a safe space.

            What a perfect job! I’m thankful this thing found me, and that I said yes!

PPG: What have you found most difficult?

MS: When congregations need to leave ACC to be faithful. I knew I would miss them and what they had to offer us. I still tried to understand their reasons, but it was always difficult and disappointing.

PPG: What are you looking forward to after March 31?

MS: Taking time to step back from intense engagement.

            Figuring out how I can give of myself and serve now in another stage of life with less energy and fewer hours. How can I find my priorities? I’ll take plenty of time to discern this.

            Taking naps! Sleeping in! Also getting up early since I can take a nap!

            It will be a process since I want to make good choices.

            Jan and I are permitted, according to Conference guidelines, to retain our congregational memberships at Ridgeview, but I’ll give Conference leadership space. I may want to drop in to visit congregations I wasn’t directly responsible for as Executive Conference Minister to learn to know them better.

            I have a lot of interests—vehicles and vehicle repair, landscaping, my model train set. I want to read more; visit other places, including non-church settings, try new recipes, and get back in the wood shop.

PPG: As you reflect, are you surprised that you’ve spent much of your life primarily working in and for the church?

MS: I thought I’d be a cabinet maker and refinisher, re-creating antiques. Although quite a few years ago I knew I’d be in a more formalized ministry. I was sure of God’s nudge toward ministry, and that has been my commitment. 

            I stayed in youth ministry till 2016. I still love it. It’s still an energizing, passionate part of myself. I still love talking to youth and youth leaders! And I continue to be intrigued at how informative youth ministry has been for ministry with all ages in a congregation—and with leadership. 

            Phyllis Pellman Good, a member of East Chestnut St. Mennonite Church in downtown Lancaster, PA, is a book editor and writer.