“Every pastor in Ontario is writing their memoir”–or so I’ve been told.
I hope so, since stories of ministry and of the church are precious and have a lot to teach us. And I hope every memoir is as engaging as The Pastor-Congregation Duet by Gary Harder, a long-time pastor and leader of the Mennonite Church in Canada.
With Gary’s permission, I’m pleased to share the following book excerpt that outlines the start of his pastoral journey. It speaks well of his love for the church, and how one small congregation contributed to his call and formation as a pastor. As Carol Penner (assistant professor of theological studies, Conrad Grebel University College) says in her foreword:
Reading this book feels like sitting down for a heart-to-heart talk with a good friend as he shares about his lifelong calling. Anyone with a love for the church will enjoy this book. . . . It is a faithful story that doesn’t edit out the hard bits. We hear how the work is a calling and how much Gary loved it, even as it sometimes broke his heart.
Here is the beginning of that journey in Gary Harder’s own words.
I was twenty-three years old and barely married when Lydia and i set off in our little Volkswagen “bug,” travelling from Winnipeg to northern Ontario in July of 1965. It wasn’t actually Waters Mennonite Church in Lively, Ontario (near Sudbury), that had invited me to be their pastor. Rather, the Missions Committee of our denomination, the Conference of Mennonites in Canada, with—I assume—the approval of the congregation, had called me, unseen and un-interviewed, to this ministry.
Here everything for me was new and exciting and terrifying. I was totally inexperienced and untrained. I had graduated from Canadian Mennonite Bible College with two degrees: a Bachelor of Christian Education, and a Diploma of Sacred Music. Neither prepared me to be a pastor.
The congregation itself was different from any church I had experienced. It had been started by several families of Swiss Mennonite background who had moved to that area specifically to do mission work. They weren’t pastors, just zealous lay people eager to live out their faith. The church hadn’t been able to get enough financial support from its denomination to sustain it during a building project, so it turned to our denominational body for support. By then the church had also drawn some community folk into its fellowship, people from various backgrounds, including non-church as well as from several different denominations and nationalities.
This small group of thirty to forty people was a genuine community church, something else that was new to me. Its members lived in the community, interacted with the community, and opened their doors and hearts to the community.
The church’s key leaders were more conservative than was I and had a more evangelical theology. None of this seemed to matter. They simply loved us and embraced us, no matter that they found my preaching too academic and my pastoral care too naive. Maybe my age and inexperience mitigated my amateurism. “Hey,” said a middle-aged couple, “why don’t you kids come over for dinner after church.” I wasn’t offended at all that they called me, their pastor, a “kid.” We had a fine time together over dinner.
The greatest challenge for me in those two years at Waters Mennonite was to try to grasp what it meant to be a pastoral leader. I understood, from my immersion in Anabaptism, that the pastor is not the big boss doing all the important things in a church. In the past I had reacted to some ministers who were too authoritarian and too controlling. I recognized that being a pastor is more than doing a certain number of tasks and being in charge of everything. The church did look to me for direction. Passively completing tasks as required was not yet leadership. Trying to understand what kind of leadership a church needs from a pastor was a long journey for me, a journey only begun at Waters Mennonite.
It was becoming clear to me that the relationship between pastor and church is a very intimate and mutual one. On the one hand, the people of Waters Mennonite had many gifts to offer. They did not desperately need a pastor. They were deeply involved in the community. They could quite easily keep the church going on their own. They were a generous, loving, accepting, giving group of people. They embraced me and loved me and affirmed me, despite my youth and inexperience and inadequacies.
But on the other hand, they too needed loving and affirmation and encouragement. They needed to hear and know that despite being a small church, located far from the rest of the Mennonite world and sometimes struggling to stay alive, they were being God’s people there in Lively, Ontario, and they were being faithful to their calling.
I was still a long way from understanding what I was called by God to be as a pastoral leader, but I left Waters Mennonite feeling blessed, affirmed, loved, and encouraged to continue my pastoral journey. And still I was hesitant about my calling, not yet fully convinced that this was where God wanted me to be, or where I wanted to be for the long haul. But my experience there was enough to point me toward going to seminary. If I was going to be a pastor I certainly needed more education. And maybe going to seminary would clarify my calling.
I couldn’t have begun the journey into my calling in a better place than at Waters Mennonite Church. I was learning the first few notes in a career-long ministry duet.
- excerpted with permission from The Pastor-Congregation Duet by Gary Harder (2018)
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