Goshen College, John D. Roth

Goshen, Indiana

To foster ecumenical conversations about baptism by hosting seminars for pastors and lay leaders using a newly created accessible study guide on the recent groundbreaking report of the international Lutheran-Mennonite-Roman Catholic Trilateral Dialogue on Baptism. 

Researcher(s): John D. Roth 
Academic Discipline:  History

Project Summary 

This project will promote ecumenical conversation on the topic of baptism among Mennonites, Lutherans, and Catholics by creating a study guide that translates the recent groundbreaking report of the international Lutheran-Mennonite-Roman Catholic Trilateral Dialogue on Baptism ("Baptism and Incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church") into language that is more accessible to pastors and lay leaders. The project will include 6 regional seminars to foster ecumenical conversations about baptism based on the report, and make the study guide widely available in English, Spanish, and French. 

What questions have you asked about worship in the past year?  

I have been very impressed in Lutheran worship settings by the way in which they often call on participants to ritually remember their baptisms -- images of water abound in Lutheran worship services. It is ironic that Anabaptist-Mennonites, who actually can remember their baptisms, rarely incorporate this reminder into their worship services. How can Anabaptist-Mennonites be invited to remember their baptisms more regularly? 

As we approach the 500th anniversary of Anabaptist beginnings, symbolized by the first adult baptisms in Zurich in January of 1525, the theme of baptism will become more prominent in Mennonite identity. In many ways adult, or believers baptism, is constitutive to Mennonite identity. The report of the Trilateral Dialogue invites Mennonites to welcome new members who were baptized as infants on confession of faith. What rituals can we create to do this with integrity? 

In what ways has or will your project strengthen the worship life of congregations? 

The ritual of baptism is central to Anabaptist-Mennonite self-understanding--virtually all Mennonites today would affirm the principle of adult, or believers, baptism. Yet a host of pastoral and liturgical questions continue to surround baptism that pastors often address on an ad hoc way. I hope that the study guide I have created, along with the workshops, will encourage Mennonites to be more attentive and deliberate in how they address these questions -- both pastorally and in the worship life of the congregation.  I hope that our references to baptism will be more ecumenically sensitive. I hope that more pastors will take seriously the encouragement in the Trilateral Report to consider receiving new members who were baptized as infants upon their confession of faith, rather than requiring them to be [re]baptized; I hope that worship will incorporate ways of remembering our baptisms. 

What have been your greatest challenges (or challenging opportunities)? 

The disruption created by Covid-19 prompted frequent changes in plans. This had a surprising positive outcome when the first workshops transformed into a series of global webinars for members of the Mennonite World Conference. In the end we had close to 200 participants from nearly 30 different countries. But it also meant that other workshops were postponed, or took place in less-than-ideal settings with social distancing and without food.  The second, closely related, challenge was that each workshops required a great deal of logistical planning to coordinate advertising, registration, ecumenical guests, food, etc. This took more time and energy than I anticipated. Finally, I was not able to find a French translator for the study guide. 

What advice would you like to share with other Teacher-Scholars? 

If your project involves public events, be realistic about the amount of time that will be required to attend to logistical details.  I enjoyed the workshops very much, but the time it took to coordinate each one--the dozens of emails and phone calls required to identify ecumenical partners and attend to local logistics--was much more onerous than I anticipated.  Then there was the additional time needed to write an eight-chapter study guide, oversee the design and printing process, and coordinate the Spanish translation, and work at distribution. This turned out to be a much bigger project, consuming much more time and energy, than I imagined at the outset. In the end, I am pleased with the outcome. But other Teacher-Scholars should be realistic about what they can accomplish within the time/scope/budget of the grant. 

What products will emerge from your project? 

The most visible product emerging from the project is a study guide:  “Believe and Be Baptized”: Conversations on Baptism in the Anabaptist-Mennonite Tradition / A Study Guide to Accompany Baptism and Incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church (Lutheran-Mennonite-Roman Catholic Trilateral Conversation on Baptism).  The eight-chapter study guide is available in Spanish as well as English.  I have also created a PowerPoint to accompany the workshops, which could have material that would be useful for a local congregation.