Because we are a priesthood and not a hierarchy, this space is sparing in calling special attention to any one of its “priests.” But the occasion of the closing session of Mennonite Church Canada’s assembly, held in Calgary, begs for an indulgence in marking the event of the retirement of Robert J. Suderman.
Suderman is a leader with special gifts, used humbly and effectively during his five-year term as general secretary, and the denomination has been enriched with his willingness to give of himself generously in so many ways. We are past the era when a few gifted leaders who, with charisma and brilliance, led the body of believers with the force of their personalities. Suderman does not fit that archetype, but his style of deliberate and measured statesmanship has earned him a legacy that leaves an indelible mark on MC Canada.
One of his gifts, so needed in our changing religious culture of the 21st century, is his listening skills. His first self-assigned task, when stepping into the position, was an ambitious one: visiting all 230 congregations making up the “body” of MC Canada. He came away from that experience with a sense of optimism so badly needed for a church in transition, saying all of the persons he met “were good people.” He recorded his conversations in his book God’s People Now!, a document that will find its place as a valuable historic record of this era.
Another obvious gift is his teaching skill, most notably his ability to exegete relevant truth from Scripture, always contextualizing it in both its ancient roots and its modern application. In his series at Calgary on “Being a faithful church,” he painstakingly amplified the words of Paul to the Colossians to make his listeners feel as if they were hearing the words for the first time.
“Do you own an ‘amplified version?” he would ask with a chuckle, as he expanded on the chosen passages with his own Suderman Amplified Version. Beyond the humour of that friendly gesture was an ingenious strategy: inviting his listeners to integrate the wisdom of the text into their own lives and identity as “thankful disciples.”
Again, it was very 21st century, his making the text, with which many of us are familiar, a conversation and an invitation to grow and become, instead of a doctrine or a set of stringent guidelines for righteous living. This was attractive to long-term Christians and new ones alike, especially our young people who some say are less familiar with the Bible than their elders.
From his earlier experience as a missionary in Bogotá, Colombia, he developed a global and ecumenical view of Christianity which encouraged and nurtured the planting of new churches of ethnic minorities in Canadian congregations, most notably on the west and east coasts. This, he noted in his farewell “state of the union” remarks, gives the denomination hope that we are not a dying church, but a living, growing and dynamic one.”
This quality, this ability to inspire hope and confidence at a time when the church sometimes seems down on itself in so many ways, is a Suderman gift that is needed in this time and place.
Underneath that friendly, self-effacing manner was a lot of courage, however, something just short of chutzpah. He is passionate about instilling new awareness of our Anabaptist identity, not only among us standing in that tradition, but insisting on it in the global faith arena.
The evidence of that came through strong and clear just days before his retirement speech at the assembly, when he told the 80 multifaith leaders of World Religious Summit 2010 that “we must stop teaching and justifying violence in our faith communities.” His declarative was so passionate and persuasive that Muslim leaders from the Middle East agreed, saying, “Yes, that is exactly what we must do.”
Suderman came to us for such a time as this. His hermeneutics, his giving us a theological framework and biblically-based language that allows us to talk to each other—rather than walk away from each other—when we disagree, is an enduring gift that may have saved the denomination for years to come.