By Frances Townsend
Stanley Noffsinger’s term as General Secretary will conclude before the 2016 Annual Conference, and so a celebration of his service to the church was held at this Conference, and became a highlight of the meeting. Through a video and the reflections of many speakers, Conference-goers were reminded of the many aspects of his leadership of the denomination since he accepted the call to that position in 2003.
A number of persons were invited to speak including Jeff Carter, president of Bethany Theological Seminary, who spoke of God’s call to service, and of the much-needed special gifts needed in 2003 when Noffsinger answered the call. Carter celebrated Noffsinger’s deepening involvement in ecumenical work. Because of that work in the greater church, Carter said, “Our voice is being heard around the world.”
Nancy Miner, administrative assistant to the general secretary, spoke on behalf of the staff. Annual Conference moderator David Steele spoke on behalf of the denominational leadership, and remembered getting to know Noffsinger in 2004, and how he was encouraged in his own sense of call at that time. David Shetler, on behalf of the Council of District Executives, spoke of Noffsinger as a lookout, keeping watch over the churches and districts, and a prophetic watchkeeper as the voice of peace in the larger Christian community and world.
Ecumenical guests also added their voices to the celebration. Samuel Dali, president of EYN, said the Nigerian people “have come to know Stanley as a true, serious imitator of Jesus Christ,” celebrating him as a humble, compassionate leader with a deep concern for others. He invited Noffsinger to return to Nigeria “when God and your family agree.”
From one of the major ecumenical organizations with which Noffsinger relates, Christian Churches Together, director Carlos Malave gave thanks on behalf of the ecumenical community for Noffsinger’s commitment to interchurch work at a time when many heads of communions have it as a low priority. Very Reverend Father Aren Jebejian of the Armenian Orthodox Church in America said Noffsinger embodies the spirit of the Brethren who stepped in, in 1917, to help during the Armenian Genocide. He presented the gift of a carved Armenian cross, saying, “It is small, but it represents the huge love the Armenian church has for your general secretary.” Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), told the body that Noffsinger’s work has been a model for her in her own role in church leadership.
A video made by David Sollenberger reviewed events during Noffsinger’s term, starting with the 2003 Annual Conference at Boise, Idaho, when the denomination was dealing with financial woes, restructuring, and tension between agencies. But according to the video, Noffsinger considers his biggest challenge to be helping the church reaffirm its role as a peace church. He worked on that within the denomination, and took the message to national and international religious gatherings as well as into witness to governments. In the video, Noffsinger recalled a conversation with a pastor in Pennsylvania who said he was becoming known as the “Peace General Secretary.”
The Mission and Ministry Board presented the gift of a replica of the Divine Servant statue depicting the feetwashing, to be set on a base containing a New International Version of the Bible, and a piece of wood from Nigeria–symbols of three emphases of the general secretary’s ministry.
Another gift presented by Pam Reist and the Elizabethtown Church was a memory book. Pages contained pictures from the past 12 years of work, and the handwritten memories, thanks, and blessings added by Annual Conference attendees. Greetings sent in by e-mail from around the country will be added to the book.
In his response, Noffsinger said, “There is nothing greater than being in and among the body of Christ.” He also turned the body’s thoughts to the future, saying this is an important time in the life of the denomination when the church must decide whether it will be unified as the body of Christ, even with disagreements on some issues.
“I hope we make a decision to be a unified body of Christ in this particular community known as the Church of the Brethren,” he said. “We have an important voice, small that we may be–a voice that is sought after. So choose your words wisely because we are being sought out as followers of Jesus and another way of living. I pray for this church to flourish, to celebrate the goodness of our God and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the ever present knowledge that the Holy Spirit does not beckon to us but is ever present awaiting our attentiveness. I pray that we can respond with the way, the voice, and the action and behavior that would signal to the world that there is another way of living and it is a way of living of compassion and radical discipleship.”
Immediately after the close of the business session, a reception was held in Noffsinger’s honor.