SDC delegates welcome new churches, fete Sullivan

In July, Tabor College hosted the first in-person SDC convention since the COVID-19 pandemic

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Convention attendees pray over the representatives of the four churches joining the district. Photo: Janae Rempel

More than 120 pastors, delegates, ministry partners and guests gathered at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan., for the 2023 Southern District Conference convention July 27-29, gathering in person for the first time since the pandemic. The SDC held a virtual business session in 2021 in lieu of its biennial convention.

Highlights of the 2023 convention included welcoming four churches into district membership, recognition of District Minister Tim Sullivan who intends to retire in January 2024, and messages from speakers Henri Ngolo and Andy Owen. Delegates also approved a bylaw revision, voted to fill open leadership positions and approved the 2024-25 budget.

Welcoming new churches

With a spirit of celebration, the district received four churches into membership, including two that had applied for membership and were recommended for delegate vote and two church plants, which were automatically received into fellowship for being birthed by Mennonite Brethren churches. The churches were introduced Friday evening and formally received into membership with cheers and applause as the first item of business Saturday morning.

District Minister Tim Sullivan (far right) presents plaques to representatives of the four churches joining the district (from left): Fikre Norcha, Andy Owen, Kevin Creed, Keith Koch, Mekete Sugebo and Tilahun Abera. Photo: Janae Rempel

The two churches that completed the application process for district membership were received into membership by voice vote.

Herold Mennonite Church is a congregation of 50 members in rural Bessie, Oklahoma. Established in 1899, the church shares a pastor with Bible MB Church in Cordell: Kevin Creed. Representative Keith Koch described the congregation as a small but growing country church “10 miles from anything.” The congregation was drawn to join the SDC because of USMB’s “strong Confession of Faith,” Koch said, expressing excitement to partner with district churches. The church has celebrated two baptisms and five new members recently.

New Creation Church of Denver in Aurora, Colorado, began in 2015. This Ethiopian congregation has more than 70 members and offers weekly programs, including foundation classes, Bible studies and a media ministry. On behalf of Pastor Tilahun Abera and the congregation, Elder Mekete Sugebo said he is grateful for acceptance into the district.

Two church plants were automatically received into district membership.

Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Church of Missouri launched in northern Kansas City, Missouri, in April 2022, as a church plant of Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Church of Kansas in Shawnee, Kansas. In 2018, Pastor Fikre Norcha moved to Kansas City to attend seminary and connected with the Shawnee (formerly Olathe) congregation. In 2019, Norcha organized a Bible study closer to his home. Despite the challenges of meeting on Zoom during the pandemic, the group continued to grow and officially launched as a church plant on Palm Sunday 2022. The congregation has 70 members and about 25 children. Norcha expressed gratitude for membership in the district.

SouthLife Church launched in Wichita, Kansas, on Easter Sunday in April 2023 as a plant of Wichita’s Ridgepoint Church. Kevin Friedberg is church planting pastor. Ridgepoint pastor of equipping and multiplication Andy Owen voiceed gratitude for being part of the SDC and said SouthLife hit its highest attendance to date in July at 85.

District minister Sullivan presented each church with a plaque containing the date of district membership and a selected verse.

The celebration concluded with prayer for the four churches and a spontaneous singing of the Doxology.

Sullivan said the district is in conversation with two additional churches exploring the application process: Ethiopian Gospel Believers Church in Austin, Texas, and Siloam Agape Evangelical Church International in Columbia, Missouri.

“The fingers of the Southern District extend a long way,” Sullivan said.

Tabor College presidential couple David and Karen Janzen welcomed convention-goers at Friday’s dinner. President Janzen said Tabor anticipates hitting its budget target and expects 535 undergraduate students this fall, including 12 Tabor 20 Scholarship recipients from MB churches. Photo: Janae Rempel

Other business includes bylaw revision, budget review 

Convention business included a bylaw revision, election of leadership positions and a budget review and approval.

After Executive Committee chair Brad Burkholder introduced a proposed bylaw revision Friday night, delegates voted on and passed the proposal Saturday.

The revision adds a sentence to Section 3 regarding the Executive Committee allowing the outgoing chair to be eligible to serve two full terms as a member of any other elected position after completing a partial or full term serving as vice chair and then chair. After serving two years as vice chair, that individual automatically serves two years as chair. The previous bylaws did not allow an outgoing chair to serve on other committees, and the proposed revision reduces the number of people needed to fill open positions every two years, Sullivan said. The vice chair position is voted on at every convention.

The proposal also extended terms for the secretary and member-at-large from two to four years. The purpose, Burkholder said, is to be consistent with the four-year term length of other SDC committees.

Delegates also affirmed all nominations on the leadership ballot by 95 percent or more, electing to the executive committee Nathan Engleman as secretary and Angela Jost as an at-large member; to the faith and life commission Erica Haude, David Faber, Steve Ensz and Gaylord Goertzen; to the SDC youth commission Dustin Mulkey and Candy Bergman and to the Tabor College board of directors Noelle Jost and Vonda Graf. Open positions needing to be filled include vice chair and positions on the Church Evangelism and Extension Commission and Stewardship Commission.

Executive Committee member Brenda Hamm prays over outgoing, current and new individuals serving in leadership positions in the district. Photo: Janae Rempel

Budget discussion happened both days. With stewardship commission chair LuAlan Willems unable to attend, Bob Ratzlaff reviewed the 2021-2022 budget and proposed budget for 2024-2025. Going line by line, Ratzlaff explained the causes of the $87,969 shortfall for 2021-2022, including a shortfall in anticipated church contributions by more than $93,000, over expenditure on the district minister line as a result of increased insurance expenses and the addition of a part-time administration assistant, and increased spending by the Faith and Life Commission to host a pastors’ gathering after the pandemic.

Endowment funds managed by MB Foundation were used to cover the shortfall. Not having an in-person convention in 2021 significantly decreased executive committee expenses. While Ratzlaff said the numbers do not look good, he encouraged delegates to consider all the conference has done through its ministries.

The proposed budgets of $440,276 for 2024 and $447,276 for 2025 passed unanimously. Changes reflected in the budget include an increase in the district minister line in anticipation of paying two district ministers for a time during the leadership transition, support for USMB’s church planting mobilizer and integrated immigrant coordinator and a decrease in CEEC development and training to attend the Exponential Conference about church multiplication every other year instead of annually.

Investment funds will be used to cover the more than $120,000 per year anticipated shortfall between revenue and expenses, Ratzlaff said. Prior to Saturday’s vote, Ratzlaff addressed a question of whether the district can continue spending more than it brings in. While saying it cannot, Ratzlaff emphasized the district has not overspent by more than its investments are making. It is worth it to invest in youth and pastors, he said, imploring delegates to go back to their churches and thank them for giving and ask for continued giving.

In other business, delegates heard reports from:

  • Church Extension and Evangelism Commission (CEEC) chair Jeremy Jordan, who said CEEC is funding two church plants and three ethnic churches and asked people to give generously to help carry the gospel forward.
  • Outgoing Faith and Life chair Dave Froese, who highlighted the pastoral support at a post-pandemic gathering with author Steve Cuss in April 2022; support given to Lighthouse Church, Denver, Colorado, following a leadership transition; and discernment given to new churches wanting to join the district and to other questions and concerns.
  • Youth Commission member Michael Klaassen who spoke on behalf of district youth minister Russ Claassen. He highlighted five district youth events, the addition of Leah Remboldt as part time administrative assistant, new partnerships with FaithFront and Multiply, an ongoing challenge of finding host churches for the Southern District Youth Conference this fall and a move from a director-led model to team-led for most events.
  • Multiply regional mobilizer Joanna Chapa, who spoke on behalf of Stephen Humber who was unable to attend and who introduced Multiply team members present, highlighted new global mission workers and shared about a new three-day fall event, “Arise,” set for Sept. 29 to Oct. 1 in Augusta, Kansas, to help people of God live with purpose.
  • USMB staff members Don Morris, Brian Harris, Janae Rempel, Henri Ngolo, Donna Sullivan and J.L. Martin, who shared about various conference initiatives and ministries, including LEAD Cohorts, USMB Gathering 2024, church planting resources, the Christian Leader and more.
  • Tabor President David Janzen and his wife, Karen, who welcomed convention-goers at Friday’s dinner. Tabor anticipates hitting its budget target and expects 535 undergraduate students this fall, including 12 Tabor 20 Scholarship recipients from MB churches. Forty students responded to an altar call at the beginning of last school year, the Janzens said. The Janzens highlighted an endowed professor challenge and a remodeling project on campus and called for churches to send students and support.
Fikre Norcha, Brenda Hamm, Russ Claassen and Brad Burkholder (from left) pray over Tim and Donna Sullivan during a time of recognition of their service to the district. Photo: Janae Rempel

Sullivan recognized

Near the end of the convention, Tim Sullivan, who intends to retire in January 2024, was honored for his service as SDC minister since July 2004. Brenda Hamm, outgoing executive committee member, invited Tim and Donna Sullivan to the stage. She said Donna felt as strongly called to the ministry as Tim. Hamm summarized Sullivan’s early district minister reports as characterized by “hope” and “together,” two words he started with and carried out.

“You have left bits and pieces and seeds along the way that have been the groundwork for the many things that are yet to come,” Hamm said.

Three others shared words of affirmation and life lessons from serving alongside Tim.

Stephen Humber, Multiply, shared via recording. As a first-time associate pastor, Humber said he learned a lot from Sullivan during their time together at Parkview MB Church in Hillsboro, Kansas, including the importance of being in the community and listening to and praying with people.

Church planter Fikre Norcha, pastor of Ethiopian Christian Fellowship Church of Missouri in Kansas City, Missouri, shared as a representative of Sullivan’s work with immigrant churches. Norcha said working with Sullivan provided his first opportunity to partner in ministry with an American. Norcha said he is impressed by Sullivan’s character, attitude, servant leadership, humble spirit, respect for others, patience, selflessness, how he handles conflict and even his willingness to eat cultural food.

Russ Claassen, district youth minister, also shared words of affirmation, having known Sullivan since Claassen was in high school. Working with youth, Claassen also served alongside Sullivan at Parkview, and he thanked Sullivan for his example, leadership, mentorship and encouragement.

“We’ve been blessed by the two of you, your marriage, your parenting,” Claassen said, thanking Donna as well.

Hamm, Burkholder, Norcha and Claassen offered prayers for the Sullivans. Burkholder said Sullivan has shown the district what it means to be family and to live out its faith. He gave Sullivan a photo of the fly-fishing reel he will receive as a tangible token of appreciation.

“I have loved being part of this family,” Sullivan said.

Andy Owen spoke about the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, saying the text illustrates God as provider. He shared two principles to learn from Jesus, including being mission minded and Father focused. Photo: Janae Rempel

Speakers highlight “See the need, meet the need” 

Henri Ngolo, USMB integrated immigrant coordinator, and Andy Owen, pastor of equipping and multiplication at Ridgepoint Church, Wichita, Kansas, spoke on the theme, “See the Need, Meet the Need,” based on Proverbs 14:23.

Speaking Friday evening, Ngolo shared his story of serving in Rwandan refugee camps despite being sick himself. Ngolo displayed a similar resolve at the convention, not allowing his recently broken hand to prevent him from traveling to Kansas to participate.

Ngolo highlighted needs in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the many immigrants waiting to come to the U.S. Ngolo said the church in the U.S. needs to re-think its mission.

“Are we seeing and meeting needs as a USMB family?” Ngolo asked.

Expressing gratitude for being part of the USMB family, Ngolo shared that 20 immigrant churches are being integrated into USMB and need relationships. Immigrants are the churches of tomorrow, Ngolo said, having immigrants in attendance stand.

“Today, God is redefining the mission,” Ngolo said. “This is your neighbor. God is challenging all of us to work together for the kingdom.”

Ngolo said only $5,000 remains to fund the first church, Christian Center the Hand of God in Hamilton, Ohio, in USMB’s CORD program. CORD partners with immigrant churches to provide training, a stable place to worship, pastoral development and connection.

Ngolo encouraged attendees to have faith and obedience like Abraham.

“Obedience, faith, resilience, courage—this is what we do as MBs,” Ngolo said. “See the need, meet the need.”

Burkholder asked people to pray about what God might be asking of individuals, churches and the district.

Speaking Saturday morning, Owen shared his story of moving with his family from Thailand to the U.S. to serve on staff at Ridgepoint Church.

Admitting that seeing and meeting needs can sound like a recipe for burnout when the needs are overwhelming, Owen directed attendees to Jesus’ example. Jesus calmed a storm, delivered a man from demons and a woman from bleeding and raised a daughter back to life.

“The biggest need that we have in the U.S. and around the world is the need for Jesus,” Owen said. “But where do we start?”

When Jesus fed the 5,000 in Mark 6:30-44, Jesus saw an opportunity, and the exhausted disciples did not get the rest they expected, Owen said. With much talk of burnout in recent years, Owen said balance of work and rest is good but warned against spiritualized laziness.

“There are times where we need Jesus to interrupt,”  he said, making clear he was not advocating for burnout.

The text illustrates God as provider, Owen said. He shared two principles to learn from Jesus, including being mission minded and Father focused. Being mission minded brings clarity in decision-making, he said, adding that when the disciples saw an obstacle, Jesus saw an opportunity. Being Father focused means looking to heaven and relying on God.

Owen invited two pastors to the stage as examples of each principle.

Brent Warkentin, pastor of Ridgepoint Church, shared ways he has sought to be mission minded. This involved admitting and embracing reality, which for Ridgepoint was a need for vision clarity, accountability and follow-through. After deciding to prioritize the 20s to 30s age group, the church devised a seven-year plan to reach that age group and decided to give everything to that vision.

Kevin Friedberg, pastor of SouthLife Church, Wichita, Kansas, shared his practice of being immersed in prayer. With all the needs in his congregation and community, he recognizes his limitations and relies on God, sharing examples of praying with people, including hairdressers and fast-food employees.

Owen concluded with his family’s story. Facing an uncertain future, they clarified their mission mandate, prayed and fasted. God is enough, Owen said, closing by inviting attendees to read Ephesians 3:20-21 together.

A band comprised of individuals from the three MB churches in Hillsboro led attendees in singing.

Two tours highlight ministries

Tours of two new facilities bookended Friday’s convention schedule.

Tabor College held a dedication for Jost Hall Friday afternoon of the convention. The newly-finished 86-bed facility will house female students in 2023-24. Two current students were involved in the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Photo: Janae Rempel

On a hot Friday afternoon, Tabor College hosted a dedication, ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house for newly-finished Jost Hall. The 86-bed facility will house female students in 2023-24.

Following speeches by President David Janzen, vice president of philanthropy Ron Braun, executive vice president of academics and compliance Frank Johnson and board chair Susan Franz Koslowsky, attendees toured the building and were treated to kettle corn in honor of the namesake Leroy and Janice Jost family’s corn farming.

MB Foundation hosted a tour and dessert reception Friday in its recently completed two-story addition. Guests were welcomed with signage and balloons printed with “Take Hold of Real Life” and served Coca Cola or Root Beer floats. Photo: Janae Rempel

Friday ended with a tour and dessert reception at the MB Foundation office. MB Foundation recently completed a two-story addition that doubles the size of the agency’s headquarters and includes office space and a catering kitchen. Guests were welcomed with signage and balloons printed with “Take Hold of Real Life” and served Coca Cola or root beer floats. In its written report, MB Foundation reported a record distribution of more than $14 million to various ministries and charities in 2022.

Communion closes convention

The convention closed with communion. In a divided culture, Sullivan expressed a desire to draw people together and create a sense of belonging. Communion, he said, helps people refocus on the center. His heart is for unity in mission and love, not only in the district, but also in the USMB conference and the global Church.

Sullivan invited four of his mentors to serve the communion elements. Attendees came to the front to participate in communion as the worship team sang.

At the end of the convention, Burkholder closed by requesting prayer for the district minister search committee and left attendees with Numbers 6:24-26.

Pastors gather prior to convention

Aaron Hernandez, LAMB district minister and pastor at Grace Point at Grulla, La Grulla, Texas, served as speaker for the pre-convention pastors’ get-together, attended by 70 pastors and spouses, July 27-28.

Speaking with the CL prior to the event, Hernandez gave an overview of his three messages of encouragement, including the importance of intimacy with God and spending time in his presence.

Aaron Hernandez, LAMB district minister and pastor at Grace Point at Grulla, La Grulla, Texas, served as speaker for the pre-convention pastors’ get-together, attended by 70 pastors and spouses, July 27-28. Photo: Don Morris.

“(Pastors are) good at speaking and teaching and dissecting a verse,” Hernandez said. “A lot of times we’re preaching things that we’re not listening in our heart.”

Hernandez admits he went through a season of burnout during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The busyness of learning new things and trying to stay connected to the congregation coupled with conducting more than 20 funerals left him running on fumes.

Hernandez referenced Jesus’ rest in Matthew 11:28 and said that pastors need to be fed, too, but it can be hard for pastors to allow their churches to serve them.

In the third session, Hernandez’s wife, Alejandra, joined him to share about the tension of serving a church while carrying their own burden when their daughter was diagnosed with tumors in her leg. After an initial exam, bloodwork and a sonogram, their daughter had to wait 20 days for a biopsy. The family spent that time praying and choosing to trust God. It took faith to worship and wait on God, trusting him to make a way even if it was cancer, Alejandra says.

On the day of the biopsy, miraculously, the tumors were gone.

“The doctor even said it looked like she had the surgery,” Aaron said, adding later: “We pastors all go through different things, and unfortunately, in some situations there has been death. Having to stand up every Sunday and tell people to have faith and trust is not easy sometimes. It’s part of the calling, but you have to go through a lot of it, too. We want to be very real, very honest. We just want to encourage each other.”

Two outdoor pastors’ events moved indoors because of the heat, according to administrative assistant Amber Harshbarger, who was formally introduced at the convention Friday. Those events were  Thursday evening’s pastors’ social featuring shaved ice from The Igloo, a local snow cone business, and Friday lunch’s outdoor cookout.

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