Around 60 registrants—including delegates representing 23 churches and agency representatives—convened virtually for worship, business and fellowship during the Central District Conference convention Nov. 6-7, utilizing Zoom and YouTube to gather online for the annual convention for the first time in 110 years.
The event was described as “a virtual gathering of our church family,” and the theme was, “The Days Formed for Me,” from Psalm 139:16.
The virtual event was hosted on the new CDC website, www.cdconference.org, and included three business sessions, two pre-recorded worship sessions, a late-night prayer session and four breakout sessions.
In his Friday evening opening welcome, part-time district minister Dan Strutz read from Romans 1, noting that Paul writes of his longing to be with believers. This longing is something Strutz said that convention participants share as they would like to be meeting in person.
As delegates and guests joined the opening Zoom business session, participants talked with one another, including one person who shared she was currently recovering from COVID-19 and others who reported having had and recovered from the virus. The conversation was a reminder about why the CDC convention was held online rather than in person.
Ministry during a pandemic
In his district minister’s report Saturday morning, Rick Eshbaugh spoke of challenges churches and pastors are facing as a result of the coronavirus. Pastors are lonely and isolated and need support, he said, with many struggling to know how to rebuild community in light of the pandemic. Eshbaugh said churches do not know what types of future events to plan for, including Awana and Sunday school.
The nationwide projection, Eshbaugh said, is for the church to see an estimated 20 percent exodus of pastors stepping away from ministry during this time.
This is a time to be training younger leaders, Eshbaugh said, noting the gray hair in the virtual “room,” adding that the district needs to re-examine its bylaws, particularly the phrase in Article II, “To organize and maintain churches,” in order to discern what the district should be about.
“I don’t believe that this is the time for us to be treading water or reinforcing our stronghold, but for us to be on our knees and asking how God would have us move forward with the resources he’s given us,” Eshbaugh said, pointing to Jeremiah 17:7-8.
Although admitting the struggle caused by the pandemic, Eshbaugh expressed excitement for what God has done, mentioning the aid provided both by MB Foundation in the form of the COVID-19 Church Relief Fund and by USMB, who gave a $20,000 gift for two CDC church plants and provided additional resources for doing church virtually.
God is giving churches a chance to continue to move forward, Eshbaugh said, praying for adaptive leaders. Adaptation was evident among district leadership as Strutz, from Mountain Lake, Minn., began his new role earlier as part-time district minister than initially anticipated.
Others expressed pandemic-related disappointments as well.
CDC Board of Faith and Life chair Coalt Robinson shared that the pastors’ retreat did not happen, while Anthony Lind, associate youth pastor at Bethesda MB Church in Huron, S.D., and member of the Central District youth committee, reported the cancellation of the Central District youth summer camp and the upcoming need to decide about the Central District Youth Conference (CDYC) at Inspiration Hills Camp in Iowa. A Nov. 10 message on the CDYC Facebook page shared the committee’s decision to cancel CDYC.
Delegates affirm budget
Following a review by Richard Walter, CDC treasurer, of the 2019-20 budget and the proposed budget for 2020-2021 via Zoom Friday, delegates voted on and unanimously passed a 2020-21 budget of $475,300 as proposed, Saturday morning. The budget reflects a decrease of nearly $20,000 from 2020’s budget of $495,000.
The budget includes $475,300 in income, including $150,000 in church contributions, and $475,300 in expenses, including $283,900 for church planting and $191,400 for the Board of Trustees.
The 2021 budget reflects a nearly 10 percent reduction in the total church planting budget ($283,900, down from $310,100 in 2020) and a one-time medical gift of $10,000 to help defray medical expenses incurred by district minister Eshbaugh as a result of three auto accidents.
Walter highlighted the decrease in travel expenses as a result of the coronavirus ($11,872 of the budgeted $30,000 was spent in 2020), and CDC moderator John Langer said the hope is travel will pick up again, which is reflected in the 2021 travel budget of $30,000.
Langer, Gettysburg, S.D., said more discussion was held regarding the budget this year than in previous years, as pandemic-related decisions were made. The resulting conversation was good and healthy, Langer said, in a year that was a struggle in many ways. Langer welcomed people in the district to share their needs so the district could help.
In the church planting and renewal committee report, chair Daniel Rodriguez invited CDC church planters Jon Fiester and Christian Kohs to share updates from their ministries at Renewal MB Church in Rapid City, S.D., and Redemption Church in Owatonna, Minn., respectively.
Two employees of the arts center in which Renewal meets have begun asking faith-related questions, Fiester said, adding that one of them challenged Fiester to a bet on who would be the first to get 10 new people to church. As a result of the lost bet, Fiester had to shave down to a mustache. The pandemic has opened doors for faith-related conversations, Fiester said.
Redemption lost 30 to 40 percent of people who previously were coming to church, Kohs said. Even if attendance numbers are down, the church is in a season of health, he said, with actively engaged members. One hundred people attended Redemption’s Easter in August service. Some continue to attend. Redemption has also started a recovery group on Friday nights. Associate pastor Mike Petts has started a Bible study in Wells, the location of Redemption’s second campus.
In the trustees report, chair Daryl Toews, Lustre (Mont.) MB Church, thanked people for giving and expressed a desire to help people understand the logic behind the budget. Because the return on endowments is speculative, the budget is out-of-balance, Toews said. Possible solutions include praying the endowments earn a steady interest of more than 9 percent, prioritizing spending and reducing the budget or promoting church giving and requesting an increase of 50 percent, he said.
Toews also reported the sale of the Capehart property in November 2019. The Capehart property was land in Papillion, Neb., purchased by Shadow Lake Community Church with the intention of building a new facility. However, the church left the district in 2013, and the CDC inherited the property and the remaining debt as co-signers on the loan with MB Foundation.
In other business, delegates voted on and elected conference committee members and Tabor College board members, using the polling feature of Zoom. Churches with more than one delegate watching on the same screen were invited to text Dan Strutz with their vote.
Delegates heard a report from USMB national director Don Morris, which included staff updates and the introduction of Luke Haidle, pastor of Living Hope Church, Henderson, Neb., as Leadership Board chair, as well as information about the new national Church Planting Council.
Morris provided an update on Multiply, saying the task force made recommendations intended to regain trust, and that the Church Planting Council will take the place of what was lost as a result of the de-merger of Multiply and C2C.
Morris promoted LEAD Pods, LEAD Cohorts, C-Link and the upcoming National Pastors’ Orientation in March and expressed appreciation for support of churches and for MB Foundation.
Tim Hall, pastor of Butterfield Community Bible Church, Butterfield, Minn., shared a Saturday-morning exhortation to humbly put neighbors and fellow church members first.
Langer spoke on the importance of prayer and about the work the nonprofit Go and Grow Ministries is doing in Kenya.
Hunegnaw Bekele, pastor of Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Church in Sioux Falls, S.D., provided a devotional from Ezekiel, encouraging listeners to trust the Lord in the midst of challenges. The same God who spoke to Ezekiel gives the same message to us, Bekele said, adding that there is hope.
Langer expressed hope that next year the district could meet in person.
Saturday morning, attendees could choose to attend one of four breakout sessions via Zoom.
Wendell Loewen, Tabor College professor of youth, church and culture, explored what it means for the MB family of faith to be both “Anabaptist” and “evangelical.”
Rick Eshbaugh, CDC district minister, shared his personal experience of grief following the deaths of his son-in-law and daughter, as well as sustaining three car accidents. Eshbaugh outlined a framework for lament including turning to God, laying out our complaint or circumstances, asking for God’s help, rehearsing the Scriptures and choosing to trust God.
Jon Wiebe, president and CEO of MB Foundation shared how individuals can grow in generosity to aid in kingdom expansion.
The presenters of the Rural Pastor’s Talk podcast, T.J. Freeman, senior pastor of Wellsboro Bible Church, Wellsboro, Penn.; Joshua MacClaren, Wellsboro Bible Church pastoral assistant; and Joe Wagner, senior pastor of God’s Family Fellowship, used their podcast format to address revitalizing small churches and churches in a rural setting.
Opening and closing sessions
Attendees gathered virtually via YouTube for two, pre-recorded worship sessions—an opening session Friday evening and a closing session Saturday afternoon. Strutz hosted the sessions and welcomed participants from his church in Mountain Lake, Minn. As the services unfolded, attendees affirmed participants using the YouTube chat feature.
The sessions included opening welcomes from missionaries, pastoral testimonies, messages and worship through singing.
Strutz introduced video testimonies provided by CDC church plants and pastors.
Steven Keller, resident pastor at Redemption Church, Owatonna, Minn., was one of two individuals to share a testimony Friday. Keller grew up in the church, but after high school he became involved in using and selling drugs as well as having multiple sex partners. He was arrested in June 2019 for the sale and use of illegal drugs and spent three days in jail. That experience prompted Keller to rededicate his life to God.
He is now married; his wife is the Redemption Church worship leader and has two children (from a previous relationship) and is expecting the couple’s first child. Keller said God is calling him to the ministry and has given him a desire to share his faith, read the Bible and shepherd and lead others. He said Redemption is helping him develop his gifts and that serving as a resident pastor and partnering with Pastor Christian Kohs is helping him to understand his calling.
Jon Fiester, Renewal church planting pastor, reported on the growth of this new congregation. He said that things were “going well” before COVID-19 shut down their services and activities. The congregation meets in an art gallery that is owned by the city, who closed all city-owned buildings due to the pandemic. When the building closed, Fiester and his team were challenged to think creatively about their methods. One unique event they created was an interactive Easter-in-a-box service. When the congregation began meeting again in person in June, they immediately had three baptisms and attendance is now back to pre-COVID-19 numbers.
Saturday’s testimony time began as Jesse Swiers, pastor at Lake Region Mennonite Church in Detroit Lakes, Minn., shared about pastoring in a pandemic and how hard it was to cancel Sunday school and fellowship dinners for a church who values gathering together. Swiers expressed excitement about an ongoing building project, welcoming two new members and the fact the church has had more visitors in the last two months than in the previous year.
“People are hungry, and they’re wanting a small fellowship—they’re wanting a community feel when they gather together to worship,” he said.
Lake Region’s participation in the broader church continues, as the church gave $5,000 to the Mennonite Central Committee centennial offering and has sent an intern to Renewal MB in Rapid City.
Mike Andrews, pastor of Gospel Fellowship Church in Wolf Point, Mont., reported on the challenges of ministry in a rural area and shared about his cancer diagnosis 11 months ago. Because of the coronavirus, he had to wait until April 2020 to undergo radiation treatment, which went well. Between cancer and COVID-19, Andrews said he has been reminded of his mortality and is learning to live each day for God’s glory. God always provides the resources we need to be obedient, he said.
Samuel Hailemariam, pastor of Grace International Church in Indianapolis, Ind., gave Friday’s message, from Isaiah 6:1-8.
Hailemariam focused on the opening phrase, “In the year that King Uzziah died,” describing the year of his death as a unique year, one that was worth remembering. Uzziah became king at a young age and was a successful king who brought economic prosperity to the nation and fame to himself, said Hailemariam.
Uzziah’s reign brought 50 years of peace, and his death created fear and uncertainty in the people.
In chapter six, Isaiah talks about his personal experience with God.
“Isaiah sees that God is in control over everything,” Hailemariam said. “In God’s kingdom, everything is going as planned. This is the God we are called to worship and serve.”
God was not there to comfort the people, Hailemariam said. He was there to challenge the people to address their spiritual condition. They had enjoyed 50 years of prosperity, peace and security but they had strayed from the will of God.
Hailemariam then shifted to our desire to see God intervene in our lives today, to comfort us and to return us to the life we enjoyed prior to the pandemic. Like the people living in the year following Uzziah’s death, “no one will forget this year, 2020.”
Hailemariam emphasized the importance of fellowship and the Christian community, a priority that is challenged by the pandemic.
“The problems our nation is facing,” Hailemariam said, listing the pandemic, racism, economics and political division, can “only be remedied by the message of the gospel. We have the solution.” The person who is reconciled to God can be peace to those around him.
Galen Wiest, mission mobilizer with Multiply, provided a message on Saturday showing the importance of relationships.
Psalm 139 is a poem about God’s presence, Wiest said, and David reminds us that God has created us for this time and place but also desires personal relationships.
“If you want to tell somebody about Jesus, you have to know him first,” Wiest said, adding later: “God is a God of purposefulness, but more importantly, God is a God of relationship.”
People, too, are looking for genuine relationships, Wiest said, encouraging listeners to invite their friends and family to witness their lives and see what it’s like to walk with Jesus. In a busy world with little margin left for relationships, Wiest said it is important to care about others.
So, too, the church must be strategic in befriending and engaging the lost, opening its doors and demonstrating genuine love and care.
Wiest extended an invitation for attendees to ask God to examine their lives and ask for help to become more like Christ, then create space for relationships with people who don’t yet know Jesus.
The opening and closing sessions began with introductions by missionaries Joanna Chapa and Paul and Sara Raugust, who offered blessings via song and prayer.
Worship teams from various churches—Bethel MB Church, Yale, S.D.; Bethesda Church, Huron, S.D.; Living Hope Church, Henderson, Neb.; Community Bible Church, Mountain Lake, Minn.—led people in song, some from stages and some from living rooms.
Stephen Humber, of the Multiply Midwest team, led a late-night guided prayer time via Zoom.
The CDC collected an offering for the CDC general fund, with some utilizing online giving and others mailing checks.
Three registered attendees won a prize pack from MB Foundation via drawing.
Saturday, Strutz encouraged attendees to watch and read reports from partner agencies, including Christian Leader, MB Foundation, Mennonite Central Committee, Multiply and Tabor College, posted online at www.cdconference.org/partners.
Strutz recapped the convention and offered a call to trust God, before closing the time together with a benediction from Jude.
Session videos were made available after the event at: www.cdconference.org/convention.
with files from Connie Faber
Janae Rempel is the Christian Leader associate editor. She joined the CL staff in September 2017 with six years of experience as a professional journalist. Rempel is an award-winning writer, having received three 2016 Kansas Press Association Awards of Excellence and an Evangelical Press Association Higher Goals award in 2022. Rempel graduated from Tabor College in 2010 with a bachelor of arts in Communications/Journalism and Biblical/Religious Studies. She attends Hillsboro MB Church.