An Interview with Phil Wagler

The Sabbath as a Missional Discipline

1. When did you come to Zurich Mennonite Church? What was the culture and texture of the community when you arrived?

My family moved to Zurich in the summer of 2003. The church had a long history of strong community presence and a desire to be an effective witness for Christ. At the same time, however, there was a sense of "stuckness" with where they found themselves and the experience of a church life that was very busy, but not necessarily in mission effectiveness.

There had also been a about a fifteen year history of relatively rapid pastoral turnover which created a lack of direction. This served to create an atmosphere where a few competing visions of what the church should do were in conflict (music and how to "attract" people being part of that equation). So, overall there was health, but beneath the surface there were signs of having put the emphasis in the wrong place and not really understanding the nature of the church very well.

2. What was the context/neighbourhood like? And was it a stable or changing context?

Zurich is a village of about 900 people surrounded by other small hamlets, villages, and side roads that dot south-western Huron County in Ontario. Our municipality has a population of about 7000. Overall, population is in decline, small towns are struggling and the rural landscape is changing with small farms closing and jobs not scarce, but neither bountiful (especially good-paying jobs). Ironically, amidst all this change there is a strong sense of community and it is not a depressing place to live by any stretch. The number of churches is in decline as well and, while a general acceptance of the importance of church is present, the number of people actively engaged in the life of local churches is dwindling.

3. What is your view of leadership, and how has your understanding changed "as the rubber hits the road?"

I view leadership as Christ-centered servant-hood that shapes the culture and equips the saints for ministry to one another and their world. This actually became a greater conviction as our process of growth and transformation continued as a people. I understood more clearly that I had to both model and teach a new culture and find other leaders who could do the same. The one personal correction I needed, however, was the need for patience and process. I had to learn more fully what it meant to allow transformation to cook, to create space for God's time to fully come.

4. How does your understanding of church and mission relate to the kingdom/reign of God?

I believe the Church is to join in and embody God's mission in the world. In a startling and almost inconceivable way the Church is God's way of revealing his manifold wisdom in the world (Eph.3:10) and the ongoing presence of what Jesus revealed in history. Hence, the life of the Church is the presence and practice of God's reign in the world - which the local church lives out in the unique time, space and culture it inhabits.

This is not to say that the church is the kingdom of God, but that the church (those called out to be a peculiar people) has been caught up by the call and vision of that kingdom as revealed in Jesus Christ. The Church and her inherent mission is the window into that other kingdom that has been initiated in Christ, become manifest in a redeemed and re-sent people, and will come to fulfillment on That Day. The Church's great privilege and challenge is to be faithful citizens and witnesses/ambassadors of this kingdom they are already a part of, but is yet to be fully realized.

5. The APEST frame of Ephesians 4 has been important to you. How has this understanding of leadership plurality impacted your practice of church and mission? How has it met resistance?

The APEST frame has been extremely important to us. To begin, it's actually not something foreign to the church culture and expectations of our Mennonite/Anabaptist tradition, though the language we are using around it is new and unfamiliar. This, of course, can produce resistance since it sounds strange to speak of plurality in this way when, in recent years at least, we have been used to speaking of the "pastor" as either the poor soul burdened with all (or most) of the gifts or purely a shepherd-gifted person whose focus is the inner nurture of the life of the body.

Further, our embrace of the APEST frame has meant releasing these gifts for the purpose of equipping the saints for ministry, rather than the executing of a number of tasks to keep the church running smoothly. This too can create resistance, for it challenges the assumptions and expectations connected to what we pay "pastors" to do. Practically, we use the APEST frame in our consideration of calling paid staff, building elder teams and even committees since we desire that a mix of these gifts be present at all levels of church life. Primarily, however, the equippers of this are the supported pastoral staff, who give time to teaching and equipping.

6. How does your understanding of spiritual formation relate to mission?

We believe spiritual formation IS the mission. If the mission is to make disciples than helping believers grow in their understanding of their identity in Christ will determine the health of our corporate mission as a people in our community and world. In addition, we resist the temptation to compartmentalize our spiritual and secular lives. As a result, to grow disciples means they be formed by the life of Christ both in terms of their spiritual lives and their lives in home, neighbour-hood, school, workplace, and community context. So, a disciple's life is the mission.

7. To what extent has the transition been fueled by theological reflection? Has this been a communal process?

I would say that the transition was the fruit of theological reflection. We began first as a team of elders and then as a whole body to give theological and biblical thought to who we were and what we were doing. A healthy communal struggle in Christology and Ecclesiology helped reframe the discussion as a people. We also entered into a corporate Sabbath year focused around the Scriptures that deepened our theological reflection, forced us into deeper relationships, and aided us in biblical re-imagination.

8. As you began to think about making a shift, what were you weighing in your mind? What were the conversations like with stakeholders?

I came to the point personally where I could no longer continue to prop up and serve a church system I didn't believe in. It's not that I ceased loving the church. On the contrary, I think I was growing in love for the Bride even more. Still, I found that my convictions and the potential or perceived conflict they could produce were a great barrier to courage. At the same time, I realized that there were many stakeholders who shared my convictions but were looking for someone to articulate them and lead through the confusion they were feeling as well. So, on the one hand those stakeholder conversations were very rich, while on the other hand some were tense and uneasy. These conversations were in a multiple forums as well, from one-on-one to public meetings. In the end, a shared commitment and love for one another, Christ and the church bound us through the process of corporate discernment and leadership risk that was necessary.

9. How did the existing legacy of ZMC support and detract from the change process?

This was one of the biggest hurdles, for a warped understanding of the nature and identity of the church meant that change and transition could easily be interpreted as an attack on our history or a blaming of it. We had to do hard work to help people see that far from casting aside our history and the legacy of those who have gone before, this process was a recovering of what we look back on with admiration. There was a pride in what we did as a church and for what we were known for in the community that had to be honestly addressed, while paving the way for new dreams and visions that had historical, and more importantly biblical, precedent.

10. What specific spiritual practices did ZMC embrace in the transition, and how did they impact the shift?

There was of course our corporate Sabbath year, which was a huge and extensive exercise in spiritual practice as a people. Along with that intentional changing of the pace for a season we practiced being together corporately and in small, inter-generational groups, intensive Scripture reading, gathered worship, the sharing of personal story, mission and service, eating together, and prayer. These practices deepened the transition and made it more than just another fix-it program and united both personal and corporate health.

11. Where are you in the process? What new questions have formed as you engage in the rhythm of inward and outward life? What other practices have proven key to the transition?

We are most definitely still in process. Our 101 year old congregation has now planted our first church with, Lord willing, others on the way. I would say at this moment the primary process points (how's that for a homiletic moment!) are how to structure to maintain a balance between accountability and freedom and how supported staff fit into what God is doing among us. So, new questions emerge about how you identify leaders and how you partner with like-minded people who the movement is now bumping up alongside in our area and how you staff appropriately and with missional focus when money is a stretch. A key practice in aiding this transition is the forming of intentional partnership with people not like us (and cross-culturally) that help us see ourselves more clearly and force us into learning/re-learning situations.

12. Who are your mentors or models (dead or alive)? What resources has the Anabaptist heritage contributed?

I have been influenced by the way my Hispanic brothers and sisters approach mission and church planting. They have set a model for me of risk-taking and seeing the necessity for many churches, even in close proximity. Mentors have come in many forms. I have a handful of close mentors who have guided my personal life as a man, husband, father, and pastor, and others who have guided my thinking and practice of ministry. Some of these have been within my own denomination and others from other parts of the body of Christ. A few of these have come my way as "God moments," while others I have sought out myself. Historically I am definitely influenced by the practice and theological heart of my Anabaptist heritage - specifically as it relates to an understanding of the nature of the Church, her relationship in and to the world, and the priesthood of all believers. Further to that, the life of the Moravian community, the Wesleyan movement, and my reading of the life of the Church outside my western assumptions has been incredibly important.

13. What are you really excited about now?

I am excited about the emergence of more and more equipped leaders (and specifically elder-types) among us. This bodes well for our future and our ability to see good theology and missiology both understood and put into practice.

14. Which sacred cows have you tossed aside in becoming more missionally engaged? What have you had to "unlearn?"

Personally I have tossed aside much of the emphasis and importance I once placed on the quality and attractional importance of our weekly worship gathering (i.e. the "show" value). It's not that excellence is unimportant or a non-value for me, but my focus has changed. I am now most concerned that the release of gifts that leads the body into praise, fellowship, prayer, and life beneath the Word on a Sunday morning be seen as only a small part of a greater whole of our loving of God, our neighbour, and ourselves in a biblical, mission-shaped, and God honouring way. I no longer care very much at all if people "like" what we do corporately, and even hope sometimes they won't in order that they might learn the hard work of being a body and of having space to hear the transforming message of the Gospel. I have had to unlearn my consumerist way of thinking about our life together and the nature of ministry. This has been painful at times, and caused some conflict, but the fruit has been worth it.

15. What advice would you offer to other congregations in Canada that are in transition?

Be willing to think more honestly about your assumptions about the nature of the church biblically. Give courage to your leaders and ask them to actually lead and not manage you. Then, be committed to prayer together and get "on the bus" when you see the Holy Spirit is on the move. Further, accept the differences God has graced you with as a people and ask how you will give glory to God and be the body of Christ in your context and cease asking solely, "how can we do church better?"


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• © 2005-2008 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on April 18, 2008