NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) –— Because of an online Mission Seminar, hosted by Mennonite Mission Network, Argentine mission associates José Oyanguren and Maria Alfonsina Finger were invited to gather face to face with mission colleagues who are serving far away.
The couple, who serves in the Argentine Chaco, joined 33 other workers from around the globe and 17 Mission Network staff members online for three days in mid-June. Pandemic restrictions prohibited Mission Network from sponsoring the annual gathering in person, which had previously been the norm.
Yet it was these very restrictions, many participants said, that helped forge deeper connections with their counterparts from other regions. Throughout the gathering, they prayed together, shared ministry struggles and joys, and received resourcing and encouragement from staff.
"One of the most beautiful things was being able to see the faces of those who are working with Mission Network in other parts of Latin America and the rest of the world," Oyanguren wrote in a recent email. "Also, to hear from them, to see that many situations in our lives are also being experienced by them. It was like leaving, for a little while, the reduced space of the Chaco and opening ourselves to a much bigger world."
Holding the seminar virtually allowed the Oyangurens and others who had not previously participated to connect more deeply. They had not attended before this year, because they were not in the U.S. when Mission Seminar brought together new workers and continuing workers, who were visiting churches in the U.S. between assignments.
Other participants also shared enthusiasm for the online venue, including Dale Nafziger, who is serving in Asia. "It was so nice to connect with Mission Network workers from around the globe without having to travel," he wrote in a recent survey response. "A bit may have been lost by not meeting face –to face, but much was gained in time/money savings."
Martine Audéoud is a Mission Network associate serving with the West Africa Alliance Seminary (Université de l'Alliance Chrétienne d'Abidjan). Audéoud wrote, "It was an excellent alternative for those of us who cannot always travel. Thank you so very much for this enriching experience."
Sophie Lapp Jost, who is serving in Germany with her husband, David, wrote, "It was great to see and hear from other workers and to get an update on what is happening at MMN. I couldn't have come if it had been in person."
These positive statements reflect the "silver lining" that lined the "cloud" of pandemic restrictions that the guided the staff who helped plan and execute the retreat, including Michelle Ramer, assistant for Program Human Resources and Global Ministries, and Tonia Martin, care coordinator for Program Human Resources.
"This year was about trying something new, primarily out of necessity, but as we began planning, we found excitement about the possibilities," Martin said. "We planned the event intentionally to include time for small group conversations and opportunities for workers to share with each other and connect in Zoom breakout rooms. I believe those times were appreciated by workers, and they were meaningful for me as well!"
Other staff members also praised the Zoom format, including Sharon Norton, co-director of Africa and Europe with Steve Wiebe-Johnson.
"Having the seminar virtually meant that people who couldn't travel, due to pandemic restrictions, were still able to join our fellowship and experience spiritual refreshment and equipping," Norton said. "I hope in the future that we can be together in person. But I think a hybrid event could be very valuable for those who aren't scheduled to be in North America at the time of Mission Seminar, yet want to benefit from the fellowship."
John Lapp, senior executive for International Partner Engagement, said the staff members were surprised and gratified that most of the international workers were eager to meet together, even virtually. "This reinforces the importance that peer-to-peer relationships have for all of us but, especially, for people who are at the cutting edge of mission," he said.
Peer-to-peer relationships were nourished during small group break-out times, according to regions.
"Michelle placed Deb Byler (Guatemala), Alfonsina, José and me in a Spanish group for several of the breakout sessions, for ease of communication," said Linda Shelly, director for Latin America. "Since Deb, Alfonsina and José all work in Indigenous settings and Deb visited the Oyangurens in her previous role, the conversations were especially meaningful."
Also able to attend this year, because of the Zoom format, was Margrit Kipfer Barrón from Bolivia, who has not been in the U.S. to attend in-person gatherings.
Wiebe-Johnson noted that the virtual option did not squelch the abundant joy and rich emotional and spiritual safety that has always characterized Mission Seminar.
"My joy comes from hearing from different folks talk about the issues they are facing and the different ways that God has been leading them in the past and the ways that they are currently experiencing God's presence, even when they are presently in a [spiritual] desert," Wiebe-Johnson said.
He continued, "I find that Mission Seminar can be one of the safest places that we can be. We are free to share exactly the way we are feeling, here and now, with the successes and failures of our ministry."