NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) – When Eric and Julie Yoder were in their late teens, participating in Service Adventure in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, stretched them beyond the safe cocoons of their childhoods.
Two decades later, as a married couple with three children, they hoped that by becoming leaders of that same unit, they would once again be stretched beyond the status quo of middle-class family life in Goshen, Indiana.
With one year behind them and one to go in their assignment in Johnstown, they are rediscovering the power of Service Adventure to invite risk and transform lives, the couple said during a recent telephone interview.
Two decades ago, they participated in Service Adventure, one of Mennonite Mission Network's many service programs. It encourages high-school graduates to serve within a community for 10 months while living in a unit house and relating with a local congregation.
Coming back to serve as leaders in that same unit is something they periodically explored since getting married in 2003, they said. But the time never seemed right as they were having babies and settling into careers – he as an airline pilot, and she a structural designer for a packaging company.
A couple of years ago, after Claire, now 3, was born, they decided to take the plunge.
"At our ages — Eric is now 40 and I am 38 — we felt we were becoming too comfortable in Goshen, where life can tend to become all about the next promotion at work, or the kids' sports and academic achievements," Julie Yoder said.
"We felt it was time to expose them to a different focus to demonstrate that material goods and achievements were not all that life is about. We were getting caught up in the status quo, and we felt we needed to take a break."
That break came as they left their manicured neighborhood for a declining one. The house – the same one that Julie and Eric lived in when it first opened in 1998 — is aging and needs some repairs.
Despite the rough-edged outer décor, the family is rediscovering how relationships with participants, not material riches, make a house a home. For example, their children — Dane, 8, Heath, 6, and Claire, 3 — bonded with two big "brothers" and one big "sister." As one big family, they embarked on weekly adventures, ranging from making applesauce to learning archery to vaccinating sheep.
With new relationships come new challenges, including blending family and unit life, they said. For example, Eric Yoder kept his job as a pilot, which requires that he is gone from home more than half the week.
"When I am gone for four or five days at a time, I haven't had the same experiences that family and the unit has had during my absence, and it is harder to stay connected," he said. "I also want to provide attention my kids need from their father, while also giving attention to the participants."
Because he is gone a lot, the lion's share of the unit leadership falls to Julie. She embraces her responsibilities and considers them a good fit. Though they do require that she divide her attention between her children and participants launching into young adulthood.
"I love doing life here, but that also means accepting the good, the bad, and the ugly, which brings a new freedom to be our unvarnished selves," she said.
The balancing act required now has another layer — being willing to discern new directions for the future. "We remained in Goshen for 13 years because it was a safe and secure community," Julie Yoder said. "But after taking the risk to venture beyond the known, we are more willing to trust God for new unknowns."