Prayer, discernment and divine coincidence lead Millsaps to Markham
MARKHAM, Ill. (Mennonite Mission Network) — In the Sunday morning chairs at Community Mennonite Church, worshippers with various skin tones sit side-by-side to pray and praise. But since pastor Horace McMillon was called to Mississippi in 2005, the church's paid leaders have been white-only, and everyone in the congregation agreed that needed to change.
Pastors Bonnie and Chuck Neufeld have been in various positions of leadership at Community Mennonite on and off for more than 30 years; they have served as pastors for the past 11 years. They said God’s call was clear – the church’s resolve to be an interracial, anti-racist community could only be achieved if the pastoral team reflected the rest of the congregation
More than 100 miles away and several years ago, Cyneatha Millsaps, with support from her husband, Steve, began attending Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. Members of Agape Missionary Baptist Church in Elkhart, the couple assumed her seminary degree would aid her social service work, not lead to a pastorate.
Today, after a process that has included spiritual discernment, leadership development and divine coincidence, this Baptist couple stands ready to make the Markham team whole.
Community Mennonite, which is a member of both Central District and Illinois conferences, has a long history of multiculturalism. When the once-white community of Markham began integrating in the 1960s, the church chose to open its doors to everyone, regardless of race. The decision cost the congregation nearly half of its members, but members gained the conviction that all of their power structures and decision-making processes must reflect congregational demographics.
After McMillon left, the Markham community began praying for God to send them another pastor, but there was a catch. Both Neufelds are half-time; they job-share one full-time pastoral position. The new pastor would likely also be half-time and the cost of living in Markham, on the south side of Chicago, can be prohibitive for a part-timer.
Still, the congregation prayed. At the same time, its youth ministry grew. The small congregation had more than 20 area youth coming regularly to gatherings and meetings – a number that blessed youth leaders while stretching them thin. They longed for an African-American family with gifts in pastoral leadership and communication skills and a passion for youth.
In September 2006, Janeen Bertsche Johnson, AMBS campus pastor, attended a Camp Friedenswald women’s retreat. She sat with a group of women from Markham and learned of the church's longing for an African-American part-time pastor. Millsaps immediately came to mind.
Millsaps had not thought much about becoming a pastor. She was committed to her job as president/CEO of Family Services of Elkhart County and felt called to continue in social services. But developing leaders is a core churchwide priority of Mennonite Church USA and Bertsche Johnson knew Millsaps’ potential. When Bertsche Johnson asked her about her interest in pastoring, Millsaps said it would be possible, but only if she could work part-time and continue in social services.
Bertsche Johnson felt the Spirit move, but the biggest jolt was yet to come.
Her husband, Millsaps continued, was looking to leave Elkhart, but he has felt called to serve with youth and currently works at a local middle school. They did not know where they would find a place that would allow both of them to follow their calls from God.
Bertsche Johnson returned to her office and immediately e-mailed the Neufelds.
Though they had been talking to others about the pastoral role, Community Mennonite Church began praying that Sunday for Cyneatha and Steve by name, asking for blessings on their current ministries and for connections between the couple and congregation, if that was God’s will.
A few weeks later, the Millsapses met the Neufelds in Elkhart. What was planned as a short conversation lasted three hours.
They talked about themselves. They talked about God. They talked about their shared experiences working with youths growing up surrounded by violence and brokenness. They laughed and they prayed.
“There was no awkwardness, there was no weirdness,” Millsaps said. “You would have thought that we knew each other for 40 years.”
Soon afterwards, the Millsapses visited Community Mennonite not knowing what to expect. They left, Millsapses said, longing for Markham.
The longing was mutual.
In e-mail conversations between the Neufelds and Millsapses, everyone involved discussed not only their growing desires to join in ministry, but their growing assuredness that God would continue to connect them if the partnership was meant to be.
By February, the congregation unanimously chose to commission Cyneatha as interim minister on a six-month trial basis and Steve as a lay leader with the youth ministry.
The congregation did not need the full time trial to sense God’s leading. By early May, the congregational board was preparing to invite the Millsapses to join the congregation permanently. The board intends to work out the remaining details so that a recommendation regarding Cyneatha’s ongoing pastoral ministry can be presented for official action at the annual congregational meeting in June.
“We have prayed about it, we have discussed it, we have deliberated it with the elders, we have listened to the congregation and it’s now time to be clear about what we are sensing as God’s call,” wrote the Neufelds in a proposal to the congregation. “We have witnessed the tremendous gifts that God has given Cyneatha and Steve. It is astounding that God would have answered our prayers so magnificently.”
There are still details to be finalized, including a degree to complete, jobs to finish and finances to raise (the Neufelds insist that Millsaps' salary be equal to theirs, regardless of suggested pastoral guidelines), but the two pastoral couples are adamant that they will see through what God has put in motion.
“It’s amazing to go and see young and old, the haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, and they love each other there. You can feel it and it’s nothing phony, nothing fake,” Millsaps said during an AMBS chapel presentation earlier in 2007. “They think we’re blessing them. It’s the other way around.”
To read more about the Millsaps’ and Neufelds’ experiences creating and preparing to work together in a multicultural ministry team, see “One in Christ Jesus,” part of the May issue of Urban Connections.