John A. Esau is a retired pastor and denominational administrator living in North Newton, Kansas.
To change one's mind sounds as if it means to once have thought one way and then to have experienced some kind of intellectual conversion, so that one now thinks the opposite. While there might be elements of such in my life experience, I'd rather believe that what has transpired has been a process of continuing growth. It's been a slow, gradual, and sometimes reluctant process. But mostly it has been a matter of learning new things, and a gaining of a more adequate understanding of issues that have seemed important at the time.
As I pondered these matters, I came to realize that specific issues seemed to dominate extended phases of life. They are somewhat tied to vocational history, but not entirely. And it is not as if I tackled one issue and then went on to the next and the next. Rather, these issues seem to have accumulated over a lifetime so that the progress (if indeed it be that) made on one issue continues. I seem to move on to something new without relinquishing the past.
Much of my formal education occurred within institutions of the church. Within the Mennonite world I have counted it a unique privilege to have finished my high school within a Mennonite Brethren institution Immanuel Academy (now High School) in Reedley, California; I completed my college at an institution of the former Mennonite Church Goshen College, and I finally graduated from a seminary of my own General Conference Mennonite Church denomination Mennonite Biblical Seminary (now Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary).
On the theological right, my first two years of college were at Grace Bible Institute (now Grace University); and on the theological left I did a Master's of Theology degree at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities (United Church of Christ). I am thankful for the experience of each of these, all of them having made significant contributions to my life and faith. I embrace each of these schools as an essential component of my life, even as they are part of the story of the changing of my mind.
Issue One: The Bible. Within the fundamentalist fold of my youth the Bible was persistently held in high regard; it represented divine authority the Word of God. I did not doubt that. As a beginning college student about to embark on formal bible study I remember making a very conscious decision; I would purchase a Bible (KJV of course) with as little additional matter as possible. What I was after was strictly the text of scripture, without other interpretations or anything added. The issues of textual or lower criticism would await courses in Greek. Now I simply wanted to read the text for myself. In retrospect that was a fairly radical act, one which launched me on a path of discovery and change.
Early on, a second principle having to do with biblical interpretation occurred to me. If this text made any sense, it had to first make sense to those who wrote and read it in the first century. It was not sufficient to ask what it means today. Indeed to make any sense in the 20th century, I had to first discover what it meant to the original readers. Without realizing it, I was beginning to ask the questions of higher criticism!
I began to read. Where I began made a difference. If the Christian faith is about Jesus, I reasoned, then I ought to start there. It was an Anabaptist instinct without knowing it. The more I read the gospels, the more I felt the discontinuity with the fundamentalist interpretations that were otherwise part of my world. I chose the Bible instead of my fundamentalist interpreters, and increasingly I felt myself drawn in new and far more interesting directions.
However, leaving behind beliefs so deeply embedded within the soul and psyche is not easy. I remember much of my seminary work as my coming to terms with a new and absolutely refreshing encounter with Scripture. I wrote course papers, trying to come to terms with this new reality. The quest did not end with seminary but continued into the early years of my first pastorate at Faith Mennonite Church in Minneapolis. Throughout I perceived that I was being driven by the Scripture itself to a new and more open understanding of the Bible. It is a journey that persists to the present.
Issue Two: Being Mennonite in America. What a great and good fortune it was that my first pastorate put me into the context of a major urban center, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Furthermore, many of our congregation, Faith Mennonite Church, found their life centered in the University of Minnesota. It was a cultural and educational context that was forever exciting and challenging. It didn't hurt that Minneapolis is also one of the most beautiful and progressive cities of our country.
Mennonites in urban United States seemed like a strange breed. I loved trying to interpret to other ministers at the meetings of the Minneapolis Ministerial Association just who we were and what we were about one small Anabaptist congregation in a sea of Lutherans and others. I connected to the programs and people of both the Minneapolis and Minnesota Council of Churches, finding there a gracious welcome. In the community of our church property Seward neighborhood I became involved with and served a term as President of the Seward Neighborhood Group.
Having voted for Richard Nixon in 1960 I well remember the emotional impact of the first time I pulled the lever to vote in a Democratic (DFL in Minnesota) primary; talk about changing one's mind! It was the height of the Vietnam war, and I began to become more politically involved. I was caught up in the fervor of the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign. I will also never forget one incredible evening in the home of our friends and neighbors, Martin and Sylvia Sabo, when the political powers in Minneapolis gathered to make some informal decisions about a political appointee. Martin Sabo continues today as the long term elected representative of the Fifth Congressional district of Minnesota in the U. S. House of Representatives.
Involvement with social, cultural, and political life within that context was part of our Christian witness. When Frank H. Epp, who had been the first pastor of Faith Mennonite Church, journeyed to Vietnam at the height of the war, we brought him back to Minneapolis and sponsored a lecture at the main public library in downtown Minneapolis.
Despite the euphoria and occasional anxiety about such events, it did cause me to wonder about the proper place of Mennonite faith within American culture. The Christ and culture question began to loom on my personal horizon. A peace movement in opposition to Vietnam did not always remain peaceful. Increasing violence within American society raised new questions.
It was in that context that I re-entered the educational track, working toward a Master's degree in Theology at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. In retrospect, I now perceive a personal agenda of trying to make sense of what it means to be a Mennonite Christian within the context of an American culture that presented so many contrasting and contradictory faces.
I was introduced to the civil religion debate in the writings of Robert Bellah. I soon learned that Mennonites only saw pejorative meanings in the language of civil religion; they never bothered to read the more nuanced and carefully constructed understandings of Bellah. That was and continues to be a disappointment with my colleagues of Anabaptist faith.
What came from the academic program, however, was a conceptual model that enabled me to make sense of Christ and culture, church and state, religion and the social-political order issues. I was able to incorporate another growing interest in apocalyptic religion along with civil religion with a middle ground of prophetic-action religion. It helped me to understand sectarian forms of faith as well as churchly forms of faith. It pushed me to wrestle with the changing nature of religion in another essay by Robert Bellah with the provocative but insightful title: "Religious Evolution." It helped me to move from Old Testament theocratic and Erastian forms of fusion to New Testament and Anabaptist varieties of separation and discontinuity. I began to understand the potential for all movements highly motivated and called by divine imperatives to move either toward violent responses or pacifist responses; examples of this were in the New Testament between the Zealots and Jesus or in the 16th century between the Anabaptists of Münster versus those of nonresistant persuasion. I began to understand my own internal impulses of transcendence pulling me toward differentiation and separation while my counter impulses of relevance pulled me the reverse directions toward accommodation and conciliation. I looked for new ways of speaking about "cooperative separatism" so that there might be an interpenetration of religious faith within an increasingly secular culture.
Mennonites have and always will live with a permanent ambiguity regarding the religion and culture question; it is intrinsic to our faith. But it does not cast us automatically or permanently in the direction of radical separatism as some imagine. In this age of so-called postmodernism, we would do well to search for alternatives to the mutually unhelpful models of secularism and sectarianism which now seem to dominate our American consciousness.
This agenda climaxed for me in an unpublished master's thesis: "Religion and Culture: A New Model for Understanding Their Changing Relationships." It was not so much a piece of scholarly research as it was a personal quest to find my answer to what it means to be a Mennonite within American culture. My mind was changing, accommodating complexity.
Issue Three: Pastoral ministry. While the issues of faith were always important to me (no doubt due in large measure to growing up as the child of a minister/evangelist), I never felt any particular call to pastoral ministry. Even during seminary I never really imagined myself as a pastor. I have no pastoral call stories to tell, except one in the negative. In the senior seminar class at seminary I well remember being told that I should pursue some alternative vocation other than pastoral ministry. I choose not to follow that counsel, but in a very real sense I have always felt that I backed my way into a vocation that lasted a lifetime.
Experience is a powerful teacher. The draw to pastoral ministry or to put it more piously, the call to pastoral ministry came via the experience of the same. In retrospect, I grew to understand what a wonderful gift ministry was to me, far exceeding what I had to offer to the church. God does use strange and surprising ways to gain our attention.
It was my privilege to serve two congregations, Faith Mennonite mentioned above and Bethel College Mennonite Church of North Newton, Kansas. One was newly established; the other celebrating 75 years soon after my arrival. One was small and struggling to survive; the other among the larger congregations of the denomination. One was urban in the center of a major metropolitan complex; the other set next to the wheat fields of rural America. In many other respects these contrasting congregations were more alike than different. Both were strongly related to education and questions of the mind. Both carried a vibrant commitment to peace and the issues of social justice. Both placed a high value on their Mennonite heritage and the contemporary expressions of that faith.
Pastors shape congregations, but it is also true that congregations shape pastors. I learned about pastoral identity on the job. Rather than claiming ministry I came to realize than ministry was claiming me.
But it did not come easily or naturally. At both transition points at the conclusion of ministry with these two congregations I was attracted toward the possible world of academia. In the end ministry proved to be the more powerful attraction.
My third vocational phase came as Director of Ministerial Leadership for the General Conference Mennonite Church. It was the perfect job for an introvert. It was a one person department responsible to the entire denomination for the concerns of pastoral ministry. I could think and write, observe others and recall my own experiences. The telephone became a lifeline of contacts with colleagues across North America, as we responded to multiple issues facing congregations, conferences, chaplains, and pastors.
It occurred to me one day that what was lacking from our understanding of ministry was the traditional component of the pastoral office. We had come to rely strictly upon the so called gifts for ministry evidenced in the person of the pastor, but had forgotten that the ministerial role or office was itself a gift that empowers and enables ministers to function effectively. While there were many issues related to the concerns of ministry, the concept of the pastoral office is one I claimed and with which my tenure has been identified. Ultimately it led to the editing and publication of the book entitled, Understanding Ministerial Leadership: Essays Contributing to a Developing Theology of Ministry, published by the Institute of Mennonite Studies (Elkhart, Ind., 1995).
It was care about the issues of ministry that prompted me to propose a twice monthly column for the Mennonite Weekly Review, to be called: "Congregations and Pastors." With formal retirement, the name of the column was changed to the more generic "Faith Matters;" the column has now run for over 17 years. Through it I have again found myself formed and changed by this special form of journalism. Putting one's thoughts and ideas into the public forum on a sustained basis creates something of a psychic nakedness. Over these years I have heard very, very little from pastors; but what has kept me motivated and gratified are the multitude of comments that I have regularly received from ordinary members of our church. They read.
Other issues. Identifying these three life and ministry shaping issues is not to suggest that nothing else has mattered. Along the way I have been caught up in sustained projects dealing with such things as: the development of Mennonite congregations in urban and university related settings, interpreting the biblical book of Revelation and the apocalyptic tradition, developing a senior retirement community and serving on the board for 16 years, learning about personality disorders particularly as it affects ministerial leadership, playing tennis with a group of colleagues and friends, and now finding joy and meaning in the variety package that we call retirement while still caring about family, the church, and issues of national and international importance.
Has my mind changed? Over the course of a lifetime, experience has been a powerful agent for learning. There are both continuities of mind and heart, and discontinuities of the same. The journey is uneven, but it continues. As I perceive myself I have grown both more liberal and more conservative at the same time, if that be possible.
To reflect over a lifetime of work can create the illusion of importance. A careful reading of Ecclesiastes is a good antidote, coming as it does from the mind and soul of an ancient author who may have been asked to reflect upon his years of service within the community of God's people. His mind is changing even as he writes, from cynicism to cautious affirmation of the divine purposes. "The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouting of a ruler among fools." (Ecclesiastes 9:17)
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