In my dining room hangs a print from the Saint John’s Bible. The print is from the Gospel of Luke, and it was a gift to me from a mentor and his church. It reads, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us.” You never know how the light will break in, and this is that story for me.
I remember clearly it was March 2008, a Sunday afternoon. I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School and was driving east from Nashville on I-40 headed into the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains on a spring break road trip when I got a phone call from the board chair at Seattle Mennonite Church. “Sarah, I’m pleased to offer you a pastoral internship for this summer…”
Two months later I landed in the Pacific Northwest and met Pastor Weldon Nisly for the first time.
It wasn’t an easy road to get there. My denomination of origin, Mennonite Church USA, has many good qualities, but accepting LGBTQ people in membership, marriage, and ministry is not one of them. Instead we have select local pockets of welcome, and so in 2008 I went searching. I wrote letters to several congregations, explaining my course of study at Vanderbilt, my lifelong involvement in the denomination, and my desire for a field education experience in a Mennonite church. One of them was able to journey with me.
The day we met, Weldon planned to orient me to the church, a repurposed movie theater in the middle of a busy northeast Seattle neighborhood. We got out of the car and were headed toward the offices with a full agenda: meet staff, tour building, set up office space, when a homeless couple approached. Clearly Weldon had spent a good deal of time with the two, who I later learned made their home in the blocks around the church. Pastor, will you pray with us? they asked. And so we did.
This was my first lesson: Pay attention to the interruptions.
Every week we sat down to talk theology, ministry, church politics, sometimes for hours. My questions were frequent as I struggled to make sense of the comings and goings of the transient congregation, but over good food and good wine I learned lessons two and three: learning (mentoring) takes time, and leadership is never about defining who is in and who is out.
I was nervous for my first regional gathering that summer. I didn’t know what other churches and pastors had been told about the young, lesbian intern in Seattle. What I did know was that Weldon had been through the ringer after this church began to welcome and celebrate gay people and relationships. His credentials had been suspended for a time, and he had been a polarizing figure across the denomination. Much to my relief, I experienced nothing confrontational that summer. Weldon had prepared the way. In processing my feelings I learned lesson number four: when others are critical, upset, or mean, it is about them and their experience, not about you and your leadership.
When I graduated from divinity school in 2009, my partner and I moved back for her two-year ministry position. I was once again given the opportunity to serve Seattle Mennonite in a year long role as Interim Associate Pastor. Taking the position would require me to leave another job. The decision to return to the Mennonites was made after phone calls to Weldon during his sabbatical at Saint John’s Abbey. Lesson five and six together: listen to what God has put in front of you, and trust your instincts.
No longer an intern, I led a worship team, young adult trips and youth retreats. I preached regularly, and only once did someone respond to a sermon with a harshly worded letter. But that turned out to be a good thing according to Weldon. Lesson seven: if someone is not pissed off and pushing back, you’re not preaching the gospel. Very often reaction and resistance gives witness to what is going well in spiritual leadership, contrary to the common assumption that resistance means something is wrong and someone must be appeased.
I got to be part of difficult institutional and interpersonal conversations: restructuring the church and staying in community through areas of chronic conflict. Watching Weldon navigate in gentle grace, I absorbed the two-part lesson eight: listen first and ask good questions.
Halfway through the interim year I started looking for my next call with the blessing and strong references of Seattle Mennonite, but as expected, the possibilities for ministry in Mennonite Church USA were slim. Again there were pockets of support and more of it in 2011 than in 2008, but to some I was still a huge risk. That’s when I sorted through lesson nine with Weldon, a lesson easier for us to see from here on the margins: Threat is a barrier to faithful, courageous action, but once we get beyond the risks, many things are possible.
We left Seattle for Mid-Missouri in 2011, and I began the slow process of affiliating with another denomination and the painful process of loosening ties with the church that formed me. The mentoring didn’t stop though. Lesson ten comes from an email that Weldon sent last September: “I encourage you to remain open to the Spirit and God’s call to pastoral ministry in the future,” for you never know what could be next.
A humble, grounded man, Weldon embodies the shalom that he so deeply values as a Mennonite pastor and maker of peace. Last fall he retired from congregational ministry, but I’m not the only one he has sent on the way. There are a trail of us who have been shaped by Weldon, from Newton, Kansas to Chicago, Illinois to Oregon and North Carolina.
In reflecting on these years of formation, the interesting thing is that I don’t think Weldon has ever told me anything prescriptively. But he has taught more about leadership than anyone I’ve ever known.