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HARRISONBURG, Va. - It was a risky subject, but planners and participants alike agreed that the 2008 School for Leadership Training at Eastern Mennonite Seminary was among the best ever. The theme, "Embodying Sexual Wholeness in a Broken World," helped pastors and church leaders think about and better understand sexuality.
The theme is exactly what Sharon Wyse Miller, pastor at Ambler (PA) Mennonite Church, has been working on with her congregation. When she arrived at Ambler several years ago, the congregation was in crisis regarding a sexual offender recently released from prison who wanted to attend their church.
"We tend not to talk about sexuality until problems arise," said Miller.
"As pastors, it is important to help our churches get in touch with wholesome, beautiful sexuality that is a part of who we are as created beings of God." "We are working at finding healing as a congregation," she added.
At the opening session Jan. 21, David Boshart, pastor of West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa, encouraged participants to tell new stories about sex and sexuality in the church.
"Too often," he said, "the story the church tells about sex is a reaction to the culture, instead of a story of healthy, whole sexuality that can be present in the church."
The next morning, Brenda Martin Hurst, pastor at Frazer (PA) Mennonite Church, reminded participants that "we are all created in God's image and created good, and that includes our sexuality.
"We are sexual beings because of God's good design," Hurst said.
The conference included a focus on sexual brokenness. Pastor Nicholas Jefferson of Calvary Community Church in Hampton, Va.. reminded participants that "our bodies are the temple of God and we don't often treat them as such."
Annmarie Early, professor of counseling at Eastern Mennonite University, gave pastors an overview of attachment theory, a counseling model that addresses one of the most basic human questions: "Will you be there for me when I really need you?" Dr. Early encouraged leaders to imagine a church that says, "I will be here for you when you really need me, no matter what."
Keith Graber Miller, professor of Bible and religion at Goshen (Ind.) College wrapped up the plenary sessions on Thursday by talking about how we live in the new stories about sexuality told throughout the week. He encouraged participants to move beyond talking about the negative aspects of sexuality to include a whole picture of our sexuality.
"Incarnation means that God became flesh and therefore it is good that we are also flesh," he said.
"I've been made more aware this week of the powerful goodness of sexuality and the need to celebrate healthy sexuality," said Joann Hershberger Henderson, a counselor preparing to be ordained for special ministries in Virginia Mennonite Conference.
"My question is, how can we create safe and consecrated space in churches to talk about healthy sexuality," she said. "The counseling office is one way, but I'm looking for others ways too."
"We need to be open and candid about this topic in our churches," said Tom Kauffman, conference minister for Ohio Mennonite Conference. "We need to encourage pastors and leader to find ways to discuss these issues in a safe environment."
"This conference also helped me to see that we do have adequate resources and people to call upon within the Mennonite Church to deal with these issues," Kauffman added.
Two-hundred and thirty pastors, church leaders and seminary students
enrolled in the Jan. 21-24 event. Small and large group discussions
allowed participants to ask questions and share collective wisdom along with attending special interest classes and plenary sessions.
-Laura Lehman Amstutz 1/25/08