This column originally appeared in the summer 2016 issue of Timbrel magazine. To stay up to date, subscribe to Timbrel here.
With the waters of baptism still moist on my brow and freshly commissioned by the band of Jesus Freaks who nurtured me in my outspoken faith, I decided to step away from a secure nest of Mennonite thought and practice and from my home community of Mountain Lake, Minnesota.
After high school, I searched for an evangelical college, tag-teamed with my Youth for Christ friends and decided on Bethel College (now Bethel University) in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Here I discovered professors who spoke unabashedly about their faith. Daily chapel services and weekend prayer groups. The Psalms were read at the beginning of every biology class. My friends and I spoke freely of our faith, our longings to be in God’s will and we worked hard to be holy and consistent in our daily quiet time. I was in the best place possible. Plus, I was preparing through my studies to be a missionary!
But then, I met this guy who asked me many questions and then I started remembering.
A conservative Christian, he was questioning faith, affluence, and his worldview. He asked me about what I believed and how I was raised. He wondered about the Mennonites, Anabaptists and discipleship. In our ever-deepening conversations, I realized I was missing some things that had become dormant in my years away from home. I loved my life as an evangelical, but where were the conversations about peacemaking and social justice?
Together we read books that turned both of us on our heads. I remembered how I was raised, the theology of my family, church and tradition; a theology that went beyond personal piety to whole-life discipleship. I once again claimed my Anabaptist, Christian, Mennonite faith. Our friendship blossomed, we fell in love and have now been married almost 40 years.
Since then, Mike has remained committed to the church he was convinced was the right fit for his faith: the Mennonite Church. His path of seminary, pastoring and teaching has been honorable and steadfastly faithful. For me, I have served the Mennonite church as a camp director, area-conference minister, administrator, librarian and presently in my role as executive director of Mennonite Women USA. We have given our adult lives to this church, what is now Mennonite Church USA, but it was not what either of us imagined at age 18.
The stepping away from what is familiar, the confusion about beliefs, the struggle about identity and life direction in young adulthood, are normal. Those of us who pay attention to the way faith develops throughout the stages of life understand this and expect it. Most of us need to have a time away to test, to re-evaluate what we truly value about our faith and the way we were raised. One of our sons at age 25 reflected, “I am not sure I value where I was raised, but I really do appreciate how I was raised.” He came to this conclusion after being gone from home for six years.
This past year, I have been privileged to give leadership to three Sister Care for College Women events at Goshen, Bethel and Hesston colleges. One of our sessions provides guidance on answering the question: “What shall I do with my one precious life?” In each group, I ask the college women to reflect on what they wanted to be when they were 10, compared to what their aspirations are as 18- to 21-year-olds.
As girls, some envisioned being glamorous adults: ballerinas, athletes, actresses. But the majority of the women answer that presently they are studying for helping professions. We will be blessed with excellent social workers, nurses, teachers, psychologists and ministers. We will have faithful engineers, veterinarians and writers.
As the next decade rolls in, I believe these young adult women will indeed be leaders in their chosen professions. But let’s not lose sight of what they might be for our church as well. Encourage them to ask questions, let them wonder, listen to them, and most importantly, invite them to leadership. That’s what happened to this Jesus Freak from the 1970s. I was given opportunity to both fail and thrive. I was encouraged and mentored and invited to be a leader.
And I said yes.
Marlene Bogard is Mennonite Women USA executive director. Previously, she served as Minister of Christian Formation and Resource Library Director for the Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA for 25 years. She currently lives in Salem, Oregon with her husband Mike.