Robert J. (Jack) and Irene Suderman say it was a gift to spend five weeks at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS), where they studied almost 40 years ago.
Jack was a student at AMBS in the early 1970s, earning a master of arts in religion degree with a focus on peace studies. Irene audited classes at that time and worked in the seminary’s daycare. The return to the seminary last fall gave them opportunities to reflect on their earlier study and the ministry that followed.
“I realized how much of what we have done post-seminary was profoundly shaped by what we learned here,” Jack said. “At the time—like students today—we wondered about the value of some of what we studied, but after 35 years of work I realize how very valuable this was, even though we didn’t know it at the time. It’s been a surprising re-engagement and new appreciation.”
During their visit, which began Oct. 1, 2011, Irene participated in classes and shared from her experiences in pastoral, hospice and palliative care. She found opportunities for meaningful conversations with students as she spent time in the AMBS library and the gallery near the library.
Jack had a busy schedule during the couple’s five weeks at AMBS. He led a full-day workshop on discernment in the congregation, led a webinar on teaching the Bible in the congregation, and gave presentations in several classes. In addition, he joined Mennonite Mission Network staff and friends for discussions on current challenges in mission.
Together, they led a chapel service on Canadian Thanksgiving and shared reflections on their ministry in a colloquium. Their time in Elkhart also allowed them to reconnect with many people they know. One of those opportunities came when they participated in the Shenk Mission Lectureship, which brought together historians and missiologists from many parts of the world to celebrate the Global Mennonite History Project. They knew a number of other participants from earlier teaching ministries in Bolivia and Colombia, and from serving as resource people in Indonesia, India, the Philippines and Cuba.
“It’s been important for someone of their stature to bring their wide experiences into our community,” AMBS academic dean Rebecca Slough said. “It’s been good for me—and I hope for the seminary—for them to reflect back what they see for AMBS right now, what might we pay attention to.”
One obvious change that Irene observed is in the nature of the campus community. Because fewer students live on campus now, they don’t share as many common experiences. “I would think it’s more difficult for students wrestling with issues to not have a close community accompanying them,” she said.
Jack indicated that “an understanding that highlights a compelling vision of the nature, identity and vocation of the church in God’s plan has been strongly eroded in our society and church. A sense that this vocation is foundational for all ministry is indeed very weak,” he said.
However, Jack observed that AMBS is one of the places where this erosion hasn’t yet happened, or at least not to the degree as elsewhere. So the task for AMBS is to continue calling the church to this vocation. “This will be increasingly important and increasingly difficult,” he said. “But it needs to be a priority for the next 20 years. My hope is that every student would leave AMBS having come face-to-face with a compelling and passionate vision for the purpose of the church in God’s desire to restore creation to its original intentions.”
The Sudermans’ time at AMBS was made possible, in part, by the support they receive from Mennonite Church Canada in their ongoing ministry.
During a lunch gathering on their last day at AMBS, Irene and Robert J. (Jack) Suderman reflect on 40 years of ministry. A prevailing theme, Jack noted, is the important role of the church in the lives of Christians and in the world. ‘The peoplehood of God is the primary strategy God wants to use to heal the world,’ he said.