ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary/Mennonite Mission Network) — When Bob Gerber, 80, of Leesburg, Indiana, enrolled as a Master of Divinity student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (then Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries) in Elkhart in the spring of 1978, he couldn't have imagined that he'd be getting his degree this spring, nearly 40 years later.
Or that his final practicum in applying his studies would come in creating a course on Anabaptist theology with German- and Portuguese-speaking church leaders in Brazil, where he'd served as a long-term missionary, for that matter.
However, Gerber — who graduated from AMBS on May 20 with a Master of Arts in Christian Formation — has "a capacity to follow a call that's not clearly laid out in front of him," notes his advisor, Rachel Miller Jacobs, D.Min., assistant professor of congregational formation at AMBS. "He shows an element of courage and trust that ventures out into something that is emerging."
Following God's call to serve
Gerber's journey to seminary began when he was a pastor of Bourbon Mennonite Chapel between Warsaw and Plymouth, Indiana, in the mid-1960s. The congregation commissioned Gerber and his wife, Fran, for service through Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor to Mennonite Mission Network. In 1968, the Gerbers and their one-year-old twins moved to the city of Araguacema, Brazil.
An educator by training, Fran taught English to their children and other local students and made their home a space of hospitality for people traveling to the city from outlying villages for high school education, hospital care or regional pastoral meetings. Bob focused on leadership and training among outlying churches and small congregations of the Brazilian Mennonite Church. He speaks fondly of traveling throughout what is now the state of Tocantins, often with his "Brazilian spiritual father," José Fernandes de Brito.
The Gerbers served in Brazil until 1974 and then again from 1978 to 1985. During these years, they returned to Northern Indiana occasionally on furloughs with their four children. Bob notes that the time at home finally allowed him to start formal seminary studies to complement his pastoral experience from Indiana and Brazil.
After returning to the United States, the Gerbers worked with Waterford Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana, in the late 1980s to plant the Mennonite Church of Warsaw, where Bob served as pastor for six years. In 1996, they moved to China, where they taught English and served in a pastoral role with 40 other North American teachers working at universities throughout the country with China Educational Exchange (now Mennonite Partners in China or MPC). Although they officially retired to Leesburg in 2000, the Gerbers have continued to serve each fall with MPC's orientation in Harrisonburg, Virginia, for teachers from China who are studying English in the U.S.
Returning to seminary
It took some courage for Gerber to restart his studies in his late 70s, with 20 percent of his seminary credits yet to go. In 2013 new accreditation guidelines stipulated that students' seminary credits would expire if they didn't re-enroll, and AMBS reached out to students with seminary credits short of a degree. After praying with Fran and discussing the matter with family members, Bob felt there was still a call to complete.
Returning to AMBS decades after he started his studies, Gerber says he witnessed a number of changes. From his initial classes with a "white male Mennonite-dominated student body," he observes how AMBS's student body today is more balanced among women and men, as well as more diverse in ethnic background, national origin and denomination.
Changes in teaching style at AMBS also ended up making a profound impact on Gerber's final practicum. Whereas decades ago professors at AMBS primarily used lectures, now they are more likely to use a "subject-centered" method.
"It's a beautiful approach," he marvels, his eyes alight. "The subject is there ready to be discovered, so people gather around it and try to discover its secret."
Miller Jacobs recalls that when she and Gerber worked together to discern a topic for his practicum that would meet his degree requirements, he was thinking about how to integrate his relationships from Brazil with this new subject-centered approach: "He wanted to figure out how this context, these people, right now, could gather around a subject in a way that's helpful."
A curriculum emerges
Seeking to propose a curriculum for Anabaptist theological education in Portuguese as way to explore these questions, Gerber contacted Fridbert August (AMBS MDiv 2011), president of the Association of Mennonite Churches in Brazil (Associação das Igrejas Menonitas do Brasil) and professor at the Faculdade Fidelis, a theological school in Curitiba in southern Brazil. August was "delighted with the idea," recalls Gerber, "and he brought together an advisory group of Brazilian pastors and church leaders from various Anabaptist conferences to shape the content."
In the spring of 2016, Gerber visited Curitiba, a metropolitan area of more than three million people, to consult with the advisory group. The group suggested using The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows, a small group study guide by James Bryan Smith, as the basis for the course's content. So Gerber wrote the content in English, Amalia Penner Correa translated it into Portuguese and August refined the materials. Gerber returned to Brazil in the fall of 2016, visiting Mennonite congregations across the country to introduce the nine-lesson course.
Gerber also noted during his initial trip how coming together physically was difficult for theological students in Brazil. He and the advisory group discussed making the course available online, but funds and personnel are not available for students to be able to interact with each other online. Currently facilitators can download the materials for use by discussion groups in their congregations.
In the spring of this year, Gerber's curriculum was launched as a Faculdade Fidelis pilot leadership training extension course, Raízes, with three small groups around Curitiba signed up. One group leader, Pastor Ricardo do Nascimento, says that the course — with its subject-centered methodology — has had a positive impact on young people's lives.
"The themes are contemporary and bring a very practical and easy approach to the kind of problems the students face on a daily basis," he reflects. "Every participant has been engaged in reading and meditating on God's Word. And during this process, the Holy Spirit has had the opportunity to speak to each of them in a very specific and personal way."
Gerber says he wasn't sure if congregations would be interested in the course in the end.
"It was good to work with the advisory council in preparation," he reflects. "And good to turn it over — and see them take hold of it and use it!"
Daniel Schipani, Dr.Psy., Ph.D., AMBS professor of pastoral care and counseling, worked with Gerber on the practicum. He highlights that while Gerber is a respected senior minister, he was "flexible and accommodating" in working with Portuguese- and German-speaking Mennonites to design the curriculum, bringing humility and respecting cultural sensitivities. Schipani observes that designing the course allowed Gerber to offer "wisdom that comes with experience, understanding the context and the tenets of the Christian faith."
The course Gerber helped develop demonstrates his passion for finding ways to gather around Scripture: "In a Christian setting, in a community of faith, this is what the Anabaptists talked about so much, encouraged that hermeneutics via community has the last word in interpreting Scripture."
As Gerber's work bears fruit in ways he couldn't have imagined, Miller Jacobs celebrates his faithfulness: "Bob has been astute in paying attention to what kept pulling at him, and then persistent in following through with that."