Who pastors the pastors?

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During the 2022 USMB national convention, district ministers Jordan Ringhofer, Pacific District, left, Tim Sullivan, Southern District, second from right, and Terry Hunt, Eastern District far right, recognize the ministry of Rick Eshbaugh, center, who served as the Central District minister for 10 years. Photo: Janae Rempel

Pastors are often among the first people church members seek out when they need prayer, support or a listening ear. But who does the pastor go to? For U.S. Mennonite Brethren pastors, the answer is their district minister and one another.

Each of the five USMB district conferences has a district minister (DM) who cares for the pastors, encouraging them as pastors increasingly deal with burnout, connecting pastors with one another and providing information and resources.

Tim Sullivan, Southern District, Terry Hunt, Eastern District, and Aaron Hernandez, Latin America MB (LAMB) Conference, are the veteran district ministers. Sullivan has served 19 years, Hunt, 18 and Hernandez, 16. Jordan Ringhofer has served the Pacific District Conference since October 2020 as the district minister. In August, Daniel Rodriguez begins his second year as the Central District Conference minister.

Training and prayer in CDC
Tim Sullivan listens as Daniel Rodriguez presents at the 2023 National Pastors Orientation. Photo: J.L. Martin

USMB’s newest district minister, Daniel Rodriguez, is facilitating continuing education courses for pastors lacking formal training. A 12-week Hermeneutics course began in late February with 23 students in the English-language class taught by a CDC pastor and nine students in the Spanish-language class taught by Rodriguez. Eleven CDC churches had students participating.

“(Students) have seen that what they are learning is helping them in their ministry in the local church,” Rodriguez says. “We have Sunday school teachers, worship leaders, youth leaders and pastors. They feel like this class is helping them develop better skills at interpreting God’s word.”

An Old Testament Survey is being planned for the fall.

“This training is going to be offered by some of our own CD pastors to create fellowship and more communication among pastors and leaders,” Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez intends to offer courses in Amharic and either French or Swahili.

To foster unity and combat isolation, Rodriguez is inviting people to a quarterly prayer meeting on Zoom including a devotional from a CDC pastor, district news and prayer. Attendance has reached about 30 people, Rodriguez says.

A pastor/spouse retreat is designed for ministry renewal and relationship-strengthening. The June 2023 event, held at Jack Pines Resort in Osage, Minnesota, included sessions and free time.

The Central District Youth Committee hosted its inaugural retreat for youth pastors and leaders at Strawberry Lake Mennonite Church in Ogema, Minnesota, in February, which included training. The next retreat is being planned for February 2024 at SLMC.

A CDC newsletter and website (www.centralmb.org) keep people informed.

PDC utilizes Zoom

PDC’s Jordan Ringhofer is also seeking to foster connection by offering intentional spaces for people to participate.

“Post pandemic there’s a lot more support from my executive board in particular for leaning into using resources to help pastors connect and build relationships,” Ringhofer says, recognizing that a bi-annual district convention does not always meet needs for connection.

A quarterly Zoom meeting, open to anyone, provides district updates and allows people to ask questions of Ringhofer and executive board chair Dennis Fast, who in turn, provide feedback to conference boards. The meetings also involve prayer and sharing. So far around half a dozen people have participated. A summary of the minutes is distributed via email.

“We want to make sure we prioritize opportunity for transparency, accountability and communicating with our district,” Ringhofer says.

Another new opportunity is a monthly Zoom gathering for Lectio Divina, a contemplative Scripture reading led by former USMB pastor Lawrence Smith. The district is also planning quarterly 24-hour spiritual formation retreats by region.

The district has regional pastoral gatherings, either in person or on Zoom, and Ringhofer has taken church staff members to lunch and attended baseball and soccer games with pastors. The goal is recharging and celebrating, he says.

Ringhofer has also begun offering book studies for small groups of pastors. Language can be difficult when providing resources, he says, as there are at least seven languages spoken in district churches.

“Our pastors are incredible resources, and our churches are incredibly gifted and incredible resources,” he says. “We want to build that personal connection between one another rather than promote the idea that we somehow will be able to do it, top down, the big institutional kind of way.”

SDC holds annual retreat, regional events

In the Southern District, pastors gather for a bi-annual retreat preceding the district convention, though the district held a well-attended, post-COVID-19 retreat in 2022 on an “off year,” says District Minister Tim Sullivan. Sullivan is planning a July 2023 event for renewal, refreshment and reconnection.

In addition, pastors meet occasionally for regional events.

“Both retreat and regional gatherings offer an opportunity to get away from the office, laugh, think and pray together,” Sullivan says. “These events can also address educational or professional development needs through reading/studying books together (and) inviting speakers or resource persons.”

EDC focusing on pandemic recovery

In the Eastern District, Terry Hunt hosts a monthly Zoom meeting to check in with pastors, inform them of district and national family news, allow pastors to share needs and pray together. On average, 17 of 22 invitees attend, Hunt says.

Hunt has identified district needs pertaining to pandemic recovery.

“Post-COVID restarts have been very slow in some of the churches,” Hunt says. “These pastors are looking for advice on what is working of other churches and prayer.”

Two Congolese churches in the EDC need buildings to rent or purchase, as well as training on property care and negotiating rental contracts, Hunt says. Additional district needs include building relationships, resourcing vacation Bible school and summer camps and prayer.

LAMB pastors gather annually
LAMB pastors pray together at a pastor’s gathering in late 2022. Photo: Don Morris

In the LAMB District, Aaron Hernandez and the district board meet with pastors annually at South Padre Island for relationship-building, soul renewal and spiritual encouragement.

“These gatherings have resulted in pastors seeking each other throughout the year, independent of district agendas,” Hernandez says. “It’s a time spent reminding (pastors) of how important their ministry is in each community. Our desire is to communicate that they are not alone in ministry.”

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