Leaving well: Six things I’ve learned during my work with Mennonite Church USA

2015 9 28 Hannah HHannah Heinzekehr is director of Communications and Marketing for Mennonite Church USA.

Here’s one thing I know about myself. I am bad at transitions. Especially when those transitions are endings. In our last meeting, my spiritual director reminded me that we all have natural tendencies when it comes to endings and saying goodbye. There are subconscious ways that we start to behave and patterns that we follow that are not always healthy, but if we can elevate these behaviors to the conscious level, we can start to think about healthier ways to take our leave.

My natural tendency when moving from one thing to the next is just to “ghost”: to back out the door quickly without much intentionality or fanfare. So, in an effort to counteract this tendency and to be more intentional about closing this particular chapter of my work with Mennonite Church USA (even though I’m not going very far away – just moving “next door” to work with The Mennonite, Inc.), I offer you a short list things I’ve learned in my last four years of work with the Executive Board staff.

1. Mennonite Church USA does not have one neat, narrative story.

As a denominational communicator, sometimes I’ve longed for a denomination that was a little less messy. I wanted to be able to distill down our beliefs and understandings to a neat list of things that we all held in common and could agree on. Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t it make communicating easy?

But the truth is, as our team has sought to tell the story of who Mennonite Church USA is at this particular moment in time, it’s been clear that there’s no linear, consistent narrative that fits everyone within the church. And that’s really ok. In fact, it’s great. As we entered into the #WeAreMenno storytelling campaign this year, we wanted to highlight all the many diverse ways that Mennonites were seeking to follow God’s call in their lives. And our goal was to showcase a broad range of stories and voices, so that everyone could see themselves or resonate with something they saw on our website, even if everything wasn’t a perfect fit.

2. Mennonite Church USA is full of amazing people.

It may sound cheesy, but the great gift of working for Mennonite Church USA over the course of the last 10 years (10 years, y’all!), has been the chance to get to know so many people all across the church who are seeking to live out a faithful, Christian witness in their own unique context. I’ve become friends with church planters, community organizers, leaders in the movement for LGBTQ justice in Mennonite Church USA, activists, pastors, teachers, bloggers and many more. And without fail, I’ve learned that people – when you get to know them – defy any stereotypical categorizations that we are tempted to apply. And I’ve been enriched by conversations that have stretched and challenged my own perception of what it means to be a Mennonite.

3. Institutional change happens slowly.

I had a lot of good mentors who tried to tell me this many years ago, but I’m not sure that I fully understood what they meant until I lived it and observed these change processes myself. There are lots of jokes out there that make fun of the Mennonite propensity to form committees (i.e. How many Mennonites does it take to change a light bulb? Five. One to screw it in and four to form the committee to set up the process and explore the implications of the new light). At our best, we form these committees and groups to ensure that a diversity of voices are being heard, and at our worst, we do it because we’re not clear who holds the power to actually make change happen and we’re dragging our feet. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel impatient or tired or even angry as I’ve watched some of these processes unfold. I feel like we should be farther down the road in our anti-oppression work. For those of you who follow the Enneagram, I’m a classic “type three” and I value efficiency and “getting things done.” But I also have been reminded that for any change to “stick,” we need to bring people along with us. And I’ve been grateful for process theology, a helpful companion to Anabaptist thought, which reminds me that God’s Spirit is always at work, luring us towards greater wholeness and adventure, sometimes even against all odds.

4. Mentors are important.

It’s tempting sometimes to think that whatever success I’ve enjoyed is simply a reflection on my own gifts and hard work. But the truth is, it’s also about privilege and the support that you receive as you try to navigate the work world. And I’ve had some wonderful mentors. Professors who named gifts in me even when I could not see them. Bosses who have challenged me to take on leadership roles even when I wasn’t confident I could succeed. Co-workers who have been honest and challenged me when I’ve gotten things wrong. And the list could go on.

And I’m well-aware that my privilege also comes with responsibility. I have a duty to understand the ways that power operates in the system I’m a part of and to help make space and offer support for new leaders, too. Too often women and other minority groups wind up pitted against each other in competitive ways in the workplace. This is not inherently the fault of these groups, but it’s an important trend to counteract. I’ve been grateful for social media and blogging, as well as in-person meet-ups that have given me opportunities to connect with people across the church. Whenever possible I try to prioritize taking time to have coffee and conversation or amplify the voices of new “communicators” who are also committed to working within the Mennonite church. It gives me hope to learn from people who have been doing this work a long time and also to encourage and be encouraged by people whose career journeys are just beginning.

5. A little humor goes a long way.

Poet e.e. cummings once said, “The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.” Sometimes I can fall into the trap of being so serious. And earnest. And sometimes even pessimistic. I have been grateful for my co-workers who have been a constant reminder to me that laughter is a good thing, or that sometimes late night dance parties are necessary after days full of meetings. Although there are many things we produced that I’m proud of, one of the pieces that came through our team was this little April Fools’ Day gem, which received more shares than almost anything else we published this year.

6. Never underestimate the power of a good story.

Again, it sounds a little cliché, but it’s true. One of the tasks of our team over the course of the past year has been to make space for diverse Mennonites to tell their story in their own voice. We’ve got a lot of good writers on our team, but there is something particularly powerful about hearing someone describe their own reality and understandings in their own words. Too often we think about communications as the frosting or the “finishing touch,” and not as the meat or the discourses that can change and impact people’s hearts and minds. But this is simply not true.

In the past year, I’ve seen thousands of Mennonites advocate for immigration justice on behalf of Pastor Max Villatoro. Suddenly this “issue” had a face and was a person who sought to follow Jesus and to bring others into the church. I’ve seen congregations get inspired to take on new missional efforts after reading examples of creative work by a sister church across the country and I’ve seen a music composition make the case for radical partnership between two groups who are often pitted against each other.

To hear someone tell their own story in their own voice is an inherently humanizing act.

I don’t think you can be an Anabaptist alone, and sharing our stories is one powerful way of participating in Anabaptist community, even when we can’t occupy the same physical space together.

It has been a gift to get to walk alongside so many people, to hear their stories and to help amplify them. I look forward to continuing this work in a new way as I begin work with The Mennonite, too.

Thanks for the memories!

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2 thoughts on “Leaving well: Six things I’ve learned during my work with Mennonite Church USA

  1. You have been such a Bright Light on the horizon of our faith community for quite some time, Hannah. Thank you for all the ways you have served with compassion and courage. Looking forward to seeing you blossom in this important new leadership role and will keep you in our prayers. Blessings on your sweet family, too.

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