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Watching God at work

   
 


Sven Eriksson, Denominational Minister, Mennonite Church Canada

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February 15, 2008
- by Dan Dyck

WINNIPEG, Man. — Baptist. Prison counsellor. Dangerous. Child of the sixties. Mennonite.

These may not be the descriptors one might expect from a Denominational Minister, but each one comes up at some point in Sven Eriksson’s story.

Born in Finland and emigrating to Vancouver, Canada with his family at age eight, Eriksson sensed a call to ministry from the time of his baptism – age twelve or thirteen as he recalls. An active family life in the Baptist church in Finland continued on Canada’s shores as the immigrant family settled and quickly became involved in a local Baptist congregation in Coquitlam, a community just outside Vancouver at the time.

Eriksson was shaped by the 1960s, when many young adults regarded institutions as universally evil. Perhaps some of these early anti-establishment tendencies came from what he calls “my nascent Anabaptist” background. “The history of my people in Northern Europe was really an Anabaptist movement. These folks were re-baptized as they left the state church and became free churches,” says Eriksson.

“When I was a child I became a serious student of the Bible, and that had its effect,” says Eriksson, reflecting on the path his life has taken. The pastor of his then congregation provided “the kind of preaching and teaching that challenged me to be a follower of Jesus, and that being passive was not an option.” After high school, Eriksson studied history and psychology at the University of British Columbia, laying the groundwork for anticipated seminary studies in the future.

Work as a prison counsellor was “like another degree,” and a trek to Trinity Evangelical School in Deerfield, Illinois would prepare him first for work with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, and then with Columbia Bible Institute (now Colombia Bible College) in B.C. where he connected more strongly with his nascent Anabaptism, and its functional expression in the Mennonite tradition.

All the while he harboured a subtle call to the pastorate. But when a chance arose to be an associate pastor, he declined. “I would have been a dangerous pastor at that time. I had been profoundly shaped by the ethos of the sixties. Much of the church seemed mired down in institutionalism. I was not ready,” he says.

But by 1983 Eriksson says, “the sixties idealism” had faded and he accepted an invitation to become associate pastor of a “radically grace filled” Baptist church in Penticton, B.C. This as followed by a surprise invitation from an old university friend to consider a pastorate at Peace Mennonite Church in Richmond, B.C. – and an opportunity to reconnect with Mennonites. “All these [Mennonite values] were positive considerations as I looked at serving as a pastor in a Mennonite setting.”
 
A fruitful time of service at Peace Mennonite led to an invitation to become Denominational Minister of Mennonite Church Canada where he continued to enjoy the most rewarding part of ministry “… watching God work in other people’s lives” albeit at a different level.

Retirement will afford Eriksson the opportunity to reflect on his role of the past five years. Being Denominational Minister is “Having a ministry of seeing the big picture… like being a physician and having the diagnostic role of discovering where the health is and where the pain is and paying attention to both,” as any pastor would, he says, but on a macro scale.

“I have been stretched in my work with Mennonite Church Canada. My colleagues here force me to think in much bigger ways than I think I could – and that’s been very good, but not always easy.”

Advice for future denominational ministers includes a call to closely watch the growing edges. In Canada, it is the rapid growth of minority cultural churches, “our fastest growing sector – maybe our only growing sector,” says Eriksson.

“Many churches that have been traditional churches are slowly changing to becoming more multicultural. It’s a huge sign of hope.

“Mennonites are tending more and more to be highly educated professional people, and that sector in Canadian society is having fewer and fewer children. If we think we’re going to survive by not changing, we’re in trouble. The Russian/Swiss cultural mix of Mennonites will disappear in a generation or two unless they change and become multicultural in Canadian society.”

Leaders in his position can also anticipate blessings. “I feel greatly privileged to be connecting with other church leaders because of the qualities they bring and the opportunity to learn from them.

“I will look back at these five years as a huge gift and as a great way of concluding a ministry career. I’ll retire, but I don’t know what that will mean yet.”