For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:29d-30)
On a mid-December weekend, I traveled from north central to southeast Pennsylvania for a special recognition of a friend and former pastoral colleague. In 1990, he and I and one other person were the founding pastors of a unique church in Norristown, Pennsylvania, west of Philadelphia. At its founding, the church had roughly equal numbers of whites, blacks, and Hispanics.
I moved back to Indiana two years later. The Hispanic pastor left a few years after that. But Ertell Whigham stayed with the congregation for all of these years. At the end of 2023, he is stepping back as “Associate Pastor” (now the title of every pastor in the congregation). He emphasizes that he is not retiring, but his ministry will be in other areas. The congregation marked the occasion of 50 years of total ministry starting elsewhere in 1973 with a special celebration at Nueva Vida Norristown New Life Mennonite Church (NVNNL). I received an invitation and was delighted to be able to attend both the Saturday evening event as well as Sunday morning services.
I did not necessarily want to leave Norristown back in 1992. The joining together of three congregations, each primarily composed of different ethnic groups, was a unique chapter in my life. The resulting bilingual, multi-cultural congregation was a culmination of my vision which stretched back to when I first went to Norristown in 1982. In the new congregation, I was the only pastor fluent enough in both English and Spanish to be able to preach in both languages. I thought that my gifts in communication and administration and music were vital in holding the congregation together. Yet, in retrospect, God had other plans.
The reasons for the departure of our still-young family were complex. The decision was heart-wrenching. But in the end, the move was made. For all the ensuing years, I followed the journey of the congregation from afar while navigating many other satisfying and challenging chapters in my own life journey.
Meanwhile, Ertell stayed on the whole time. In preparation for the weekend, I re-read the last half of the history of the congregation that came out in 2015[i]. Between that book and the tributes of December 16, 2023, I came to an even greater appreciation of the congregation’s impact and of Pastor Ertell’s leadership role. His vision led to the purchase of an office building and parking lot next to the church building. He led through an economic downturn when the occupancy of that building was thin at best and the congregation was in danger of losing its own worship space. Now, he reports that the building provides a home for various ministries and social services, and even another church. The income covers the normal operating expenses of the NVNNL congregation. Congregational offerings can all go to mission and outreach.
Yet the impact of the inter-cultural vision at NVNNL has extended far beyond Norristown. The leaders and donors from other congregations in what was known as Franconia Mennonite Conference rallied behind the congregation when the chips were down. At the celebration, current conference leaders noted the impact of Ertell’s era as the executive conference minister of Franconia Conference from 2011-2017. Outreach and support extended to many other language groups in addition to English and Spanish. When Franconia Conference merged with a smaller conference that had split from them in 1847, the newly merged conference was named “Mosaic Mennonite Conference” which became official in 2020. Indeed, the conference is a mosaic of ethnicities and nationalities. Since leaving his official conference role, he has consulted for other congregations and conferences on issues of anti-racism and intercultural relationships. The most remarkable situation that he told me about is an intercultural church in Bristol, England, directly inspired by the example of NVNNL.
In December 2023, I am convinced anew that my leaving Norristown was for the best. As hard as it was for me, it was necessary for God’s larger purposes to be fulfilled. It allowed my colleague as well as the congregation we co-founded during that time to flourish and spread its impact.
In John 3:22–30, John the Baptist is answering the hard questions about his own ministry in the light of Jesus emerging on the scene with much the same message of repentance and purification to prepare for the Kingdom of God. John’s disciples 26 …came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” And John patiently explains what Jesus brings to the situation “has been given from heaven.” John reminds his followers that he already told them, “I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.” He draws the analogy to a wedding where the best man who has been the center of attention having arrived ahead of time to prepare for the wedding ceremony, now “rejoices greatly” when the bridegroom shows up. In God’s Rule, there is no competition. People are called to fulfill a specific role, and everyone rejoices when the God-ordained pieces fall into place. John concludes, “For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Quotations from NRSVue).
Indeed, I have learned repeatedly from my experience in ministry that “I must decrease.” When I start thinking that I am the key to a ministry moving forward, then it is definitely time to prepare for moving on. Sometimes I recognized this fact early enough to make the transition smoother; other times, I waited too long and the transition was more painful.
As I observed Pastor Ertell on that Saturday night in December flitting up and down the aisle to handle yet another detail in this major congregational event, I had to smile. Indeed, one speaker joked that Ertell is like the Holy Spirit; he is here and there and seemingly everywhere at once. Pastor, administrator, counselor, worship leader, sound and video technician, and musician…his mark of leadership was everywhere. I could definitely identify. Yet, in an era when many founding pastors stay “in charge” until the day they die, Ertell is choosing to step down from a role he has been engaged in for 33 plus years. What makes it all the more remarkable is that the NVNNL is now looking for three new pastors to carry the work forward, ideally one from each major ethnic group—black, white, and Hispanic.
Yet, God’s Kingdom principle remains as first embodied in John the Baptist: He must increase, but I must decrease.” God is in charge. Jesus is Lord. The winds of God’s Spirit indeed blow and we know not where.
Blessings, Ertell! It was a privilege to join you in starting Nueva Vida Norristown New Life Mennonite Church and experience new dimensions of what Jesus proclaimed in John 17:21, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I rejoice in what God has done in this unique ministry. I welcome you into the ranks of those who “must decrease” so that the next chapter can be written as the Holy Spirit continues to build the church of Jesus Christ.