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Crossroads:
portraits of hope and change

John M. Drescher

John M. Drescher The ministry of John M. Drescher (C 51) spans five decades of change in the Mennonite Church. And during those years, he traveled widely, spoke often, wrote much and cared deeply for the church. "His personality matches his mission in life," said daughter Sandra Drescher-Lehman (C 79). "He wants to see the church revitalized in a way that changes everyday lives of ordinary people."

"Never spend too much time on anything that does not outlast time" is one guiding principle John remembers sharing with his children. One way he puts this principle into disciplined practice in his own life is to read the entire New Testament once a month. After twenty years (which means he's returned to the same text more than 200 times), he is amazed "how it's new all the time." He notes that his commitment of about 45 minutes a day is "less time than many folks spend reading the daily newspaper."

John believes that all of our actions in life are based on how we answer the question, "Who is king?" For him, "Jesus is Lord" is still a radical, edgy and life-changing statement. Not Caesar, not the crowd, not self, but Christ. As moderator of the Mennonite General Conference, he preached these words in 1971, "During the last several decades the church has experienced little criticism or conflict from the world, not because the world is more Christian, but because the world and the church are so much alike. We long to be loved so much we've lost the desire for a distinctly different life. Most of us would rather be dead than different."

"People are looking, not so much for some new teaching, but for examples. We must not only know the way and show the way, but go the way." —John Drescher

One teaching of a distinctly different life for which John makes no apologies—"the peace position should be the position of every Christian," as it was in the centuries before Constantine, before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire. When he is asked to speak to groups on the topic "Why I am a conscientious objector" he often begins by sharing his personal story, of rooming in college with a former Hitler youth whose Mennonite father supported the Third Reich, of the cemetery between France and Germany lined with the graves of Christians who joined the armies on both sides, both believing God was on their side.

"I've never heard this stuff before. I've been a flag-waver all my life and now I've got to rethink some things" is a response from one parishoner at a Methodist church where John was asked to share his story. That's a friendlier comment than he sometimes receives after speaking to some Mennonite churches, traditionally know for their peace position, now receptive to many competing mainstream voices, including influential radio and television preachers. John's three roles of greatest influence as a Christian communicator are writer (of more than 37 books and pamphlets, "probably the most published Mennonite writer alive today," according to the magazine Christianity Today), editor (of the Mennonite church's official magazine Gospel Herald from 1962 to 1973), and traveling preacher (with more than 200 speaking appointments annually during his prime, now leveling off to a more manageable 130 appointments last year).

"When the church calls him, he hears that as the voice of God. In many ways, the whole church owns my dad," his daughter Sandra says, herself a published writer and ordained minister serving at Souderton (Pa.) Mennonite Church. "As a traveling preacher, his warm presence, and the fact that he would soon be moving on, allowed him to say challenging things without making people mad. In that sense, visiting preachers have certain privileges."

John notes that there's one word you won't find in the entire New Testament…"saint. It's always in the plural, saints. We don't live for ourselves alone. We can't be a Christian alone. When I was called to be editor of Gospel Herald, I had a list of seven reasons why I could not do it, all perfectly valid reasons. At the end of my job interview, the publisher did not ask for my decision, but instead handed me a piece of paper with the names of people who knew me well. ‘I suggest that you call these people.' Every last one said go to Gospel Herald. We need to take the counsel of other spiritually-minded persons to sort things out."

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At January's School for Leadership Training banquet, Dean Ervin Stutzman of Eastern Mennonite Seminary presented a special recognition tribute to John for his 50 years of ordained ministry. In his response, John acknowledged the vital role that his wife filled in his ministry. (Read the press release on John's award.)

"It would have been impossible without Betty. We took our vows of ordination together. She gave up her teaching. She raised our children when I was gone more than half the time out in the church during Gospel Herald days. I do not know of one time she complained."

To be remembered as a "good and faithful servant" is John's simple request. "And for the times I've sought to show kindness to someone else."