Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Guest Post--Ben Smucker--1. Responses to Previous Post; 2. Ten Ways Being an Instructor is Like Being a Pastor

Ben points out the eagles' nest along the Back Way, by the sugar beets

The following guest post by Ben is the final installment of the Smuckers' April Blogging Challenge.

You can catch up with Emily's posts here and Phoebe's posts here.

If you haven't read Ben's previous post, this one will make substantially more sense if you read it first. You can find the link here.

Hitting “send” or “submit” on a piece of writing sometimes feels like the spin of a roulette wheel (or at least, what I imagine spinning a roulette feels like). You’re never quite sure how it is going to land with your audience. Previously when I’ve sent pieces of writing off into the ether, the responses I remember are usually a mountain of edits from my Ph.D. advisor or the scathing remarks from the enigmatic and anonymous “Reviewer 2”. 

It’s been really encouraging (and almost overwhelming) to see all the responses to my previous article. I would have loved to reply to all of them, but as I deal with emails from students all the time, there is only so much brain space for responding to messages, one reason I limit my social media usage. (If you actually want to ask me a question, email is a better way to get a response; bensmucker93@gmail.com).

If you’re expecting an article like the previous one, prepare to be disappointed (just like Reviewer 2). When you’re teaching two college classes (one with 100 students, the other with 85), are supervising seven TAs, have two midterms to give and grade, and are behind on two other side projects, writing a thoughtful blog post is nearly impossible. In the middle of all this, two of my sisters were in Oregon so we had a family vacation and I was trying to carve out as much time as possible for them, so there wasn’t a lot of time or brain-space for well-written blog posts1. Life comes at you fast.

So what do you do when you have no original ideas? You riff on old ones, and pull some other random bits you have lying around. This blog post will have two parts. Part 1 is my answers to questions I have received from people after my last post. Note that not all of these were asked directly, and some of these are just me wanting to write a bit more about things I didn’t have time and space to put in the first one. Part 2 is a list of ways being an instructor is like being a pastor. I wrote the initial draft out of boredom while administering a final.


Q: Will you be writing more?

A: I hope to. I’ve considered starting a blog for a while, but did not have the time while in grad school (and who wants to write for fun when a good chunk of your job is writing?). I also did not know if there would be an audience for my writing. I’m still figuring out the rhythms of life in my current position as an instructor, but I’ll probably try to start it up over the summer after I wrap up some more of the research from my dissertation (I’m still working to submit them for peer review).

Q: What will you write about?

A: What I observe that I find interesting. I don’t think I can get my audience interested in something unless I am interested in it. This will be a side project, so I want to have fun with it. There will probably be some topics where only a fraction of the audience will have any interest, but I’ll write about them anyway and maybe we’ll both be surprised. There may be other topics that get a lot of cultural attention that I’m just not that interested in, and I probably won’t write about them (sorry British Royal Family, personality tests, and Taylor Swift), though I might write about why they are so popular.

Q: What exactly is your current academic position, and what are you hoping to do in the future?

A: Currently I am an instructor in the mechanical engineering department at Oregon State University. I teach classes (mostly 3rd-year), but I do not do research like a tenure-track professor at OSU would. While I am a faculty member, it is a year-to-year appointment. I do not intend to try to become tenure-track faculty at a school like OSU, because I don’t want to do that much research. I will probably look for tenure-track professor positions at smaller schools where the job would be mostly teaching, but I’m pretty happy where I’m at.

Q: How did you come up with that last line in your previous post?

A: In my younger days when I would venture into more mainstream Mennonite culture at Bible schools and BMA conventions, I would have people say “Oh, are you Dorcas Smucker’s son?” It kind of became a running family joke. So after my mom visited my church, I asked her (mostly) in jest, “How does it feel to be known as ‘Ben’s mom’ for a change?” Turns out, my attempt at humor encapsulated my story better than I initially intended.

Q: Why did you join an Anglican church?

A: Several reasons.

  1. The strong intellectual tradition while remaining theologically evangelical; think of people like C.S. Lewis, John Stott, J.I. Packer, and N.T. Wright.2 

  2. The liturgical worship style. 

  3. Most importantly, my church is a group of dedicated Christ-followers who meet relatively close to where I live. 

When I left the Mennonite church I grew up in, I initially attended a more mainstream evangelical church for a couple of years (at that time the Anglican church I go to now was actually Presbyterian (PCA)). While there are definitely things I appreciated about that more mainstream evangelical church, the modern worship styles felt hollow to me. But when I read about more liturgical worship styles, they really resonated with me (I would highly recommend Tish Harrison Warren’s The Liturgy of the Ordinary or Prayer in the Night, whether or not you have any interest in Anglicanism). 

The church I had been a part of had become very large, and it was hard to get to know people. When I realized I was going to be in Corvallis after grad school, I realized that if I were just now deciding on a church in Corvallis, I would go to the Anglican church (some of my close friends were already going there). That’s when I decided to join my Anglican church.

Q: Should I leave if I feel like an outlier in my context? Should I become Anglican?

A: Probably not, but maybe. My previous blog post was intended to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. If you are having issues fitting into a Mennonite church or some other church, you will not solve all your issues simply by going to an Anglican church, or any other church for that matter. As I stated in my previous post, being the outlier can be really lonely. But it can also be an opportunity for substantial impact, so discernment is required. As Matthew 5:47 says, “If you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” Be cautious about simply seeking out “your people” as a means of fulfillment.

However, if you are a Christian, you should be a part of a local body of Christ-followers that can speak into your life, and you into theirs. “You’ll never find the perfect church” can feel like a trite phrase, but it’s also true. Looking for a church can very easily become consumeristic (there’s a reason we call it church-shopping), and the idea of finding “the best church for me” can be deeply infused with consumerism and individualism. But at the same time some of us face certain challenges and have certain pains from our past that may mean that we’ll need to leave the tradition we grew up in to grow more Christ-like.

If you are in a phase where you are looking for a new church, my two pieces of advice would be: 1. Proximity matters; 2. Assuming they have the basic tenets of orthodox Christianity (note the lower-case “o”), how well they disagree (with you and with each other) is probably more important than how much you agree with them. A community that can disagree with each other and still love each other deeply is a beautiful thing.

Q: How do we integrate those who feel like outliers into our communities?

A: This is really the important question. I don’t really know, but two places to start: show that you value them as a person, and that you value the thing(s) that makes them feel like an outlier, or the perspective that comes with it; take an interest in their lives, even if you can’t fully understand their “other world”.

Churches can very easily become stratified along racial, cultural, or socio-economic lines. My own denomination is the most educated Christian denomination in the United States. To my understanding, all of the adult men (and most if not all of the adult women) in my church have at least a 4-year degree; more than half the men have an advanced degree of some sort. Yes, it is a college town, so the surrounding general populous has a pretty high level of education, but I imagine that someone who did not have much educational background could very easily feel out of place at my church. This highlights that integrating outliers isn’t a problem unique to Mennonites; every Christian community will face the challenge of integrating those who feel like outliers compared with the rest of the group.


At some point, I realized there are a surprising number of similarities between being an instructor at a university and being a full-time pastor of a small church. Here are ten of them:

  1. You ramble on to a bunch of people who look like they don’t want to be there. When I was younger, my mom used to hint sometimes that she hoped I would become a pastor when I was older (while she also lamented the challenges my father faced as a pastor, ironically enough). So when I started teaching classes, I started telling my friends “when I was growing up, my mom wanted me to become a pastor. Sure enough, now I ramble on for over an hour to 30-80 adults who look kinda bored.”3 This served as the inspiration to come up with the rest of this list.

  2. The people you lecture to are paying you to be there. It’s easy to worry that you’re not living up to the expectations people have for you, since you are being paid to be there.

  3. You get concerned about the people who don’t show up. Sure, sometimes people have good reasons for not showing up. But there are some people you know would be doing better if they were showing up more.

  4. People contact you at odd hours with existential crises. Granted, the existential crises I hear about all seem to occur right before exam day or when homeworks assignments are due, and they’re usually in the form of an email I see the next morning instead of some middle-of-the-night phone call.

  5. You have a surprising amount of control over your schedule (sort of). There are certain times when you have to be in certain places (Sunday mornings for pastors, lecture times and office hours for instructors). But if it’s not one of those times? Sure, you can meet someone for coffee or go for a quick hike. Until you push off too many things and your procrastination comes back to bite you. 

  6. You wish you could spend all your time reading or talking to people informally.4 Sure, the most visible part of your job is talking up front to a larger audience. But really, you’d rather be interacting with people in smaller settings or off reading a book somewhere.

  7. You’re probably underpaid for the amount of education you have. You don’t work as an instructor for the money. While I have a very comfortable middle-class existence it is certainly less than I would be making if I was a tenure-track professor or working in industry as an engineer. If someone is the pastor of a relatively small church and has at least a Master’s degree, they are probably also making less than the average person with that level of education.

  8. It’s easy to be judgemental towards your constituents. Sometimes, you just feel like saying “How do you people not get this?!? How many times do I have to repeat this?!?!” But then you remember that you need to be patient, because…

  9. Seeing the growth in people makes it all worth it. Sometimes you wonder why you chose this line of work. Sometimes you wonder if all your efforts are worth it. But then you see the growth in people you spent so much time with, and it’s all worth it. Plus, your mom is proud of you.

  10. Your longest-lasting effects will come from showing up. In a world where people are showing up less and less, your embodied presence will be what people ultimately remember the most (I recently read Drew Dyck’s book Just Show Up, which talks about this in more depth). 

1 Even as I’m writing this, I really should be grading my students’ midterm exams. Hopefully they don’t get too annoyed at me for getting them back a bit later.

2 Note that not all Anglicans would necessarily be theologically evangelical (by Bebbington’s definition), but the Anglican Church in North America (the denomination my church is a part of) is.

3 If any of my friends from the Christian Graduate Fellowship are reading this, I apologize for making you hear this joke for the 17th time.

4 I don’t know how true this is across the board; it’s probably just something I have in common with my pastor.

Ben grilling at his house.

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Aunt Dorcas Advises: When Your Mennonite Child Wants to Go to College

No one asked this specifically, but Aunt Dorcas decided to dispense some advice. It seemed appropriate after her son Ben's guest post from April 18, which you might want to read now.

Ben's post--22 Miles Down Peoria Road

Ben with his Doctorate

Traditionally, Mennonite young people finish eight, ten, or maybe 12 grades of school, then follow their parents into a construction trade or farming, or maybe pursue teaching. Many women work in retail or teaching before taking on marriage and homemaking.

College has been less forbidden than unnecessary. Why get an education when you can earn a fine living building houses or welding? Indeed, why even finish high school?

We are a practical and pragmatic culture. School is both required by law and necessary for basic skills of Bible study and running a business or household, but academia, with its detailed study of subjects with little relation to everyday tasks, seems frivolous. Mennonites love to tell stories of the lawyer or professor they worked for who couldn’t unclog his bathroom sink or change the oil in his car.

Culturally, we have almost no context for children who want to go to college, and little knowledge of majors, applications, credits, or financial aid. Even more, we don’t quite know what to do when one of our own pursues an education. Often, there is no place for them in the community, even when we and they want them to belong.

Here's Amy getting her Associate's

So, as a conservative Mennonite parent, how should you respond if your child or teenager says they want to go to college someday?

Ben, who wrote the post about living in two worlds, has a Ph.D.  Matt and Jenny have Master’s degrees, Amy and Emily have Bachelors, and Steven has two Associates. Matt’s wife Phoebe and my husband Paul also have Bachelor’s degrees, and I attended college for two years but don’t have a degree.

College kids in 2024 have a stereotype, especially among conservative people, as blue-haired snowflakes with six-figure student loans who lecture their parents about socialism and systemic oppression.

In contrast, our six all love Jesus and their parents and have retained the work ethic, frugality, and good sense of their Amish and Mennonite ancestors despite studying at secular universities. Their political views are nuanced rather than extreme in any direction, they all outwork me by a long way, and together they have less than $6,000 of student debt remaining despite paying for college themselves.

I share all this not only to brag shamelessly but also to establish my credentials. The truth is that Paul and I didn’t plan or orchestrate this outcome, and as with every good thing I’ve ever accomplished, it was accidental and unintentional. However, a few decisions seem significant, and our children have sometimes shared what they feel we did right, God bless them. I’m happy to pass that on as advice for others.

1.       Give your children a solid foundation: love them like crazy, believe in them, encourage, laugh, make your home a warm, safe place.
Get help if you have issues.
Model honesty, growth, repentance, sacrifice, and changing your mind now and then.
If they have a solid core and know who they are, they are far less likely to find the college alcohol culture a temptation, or to want to be like the cool people, or to change who they are so they can be accepted.
One daughter said it didn’t take long to figure out that most of the cool people were just pretending, and the partyers just wanted to escape real life.

Steven gets an Associate's in firefighting

2.       Choose a congregation that doesn’t outright forbid college. My dad, the first Amish person to get a Master’s degree and stay Amish, had his church’s permission to do so even though it was wildly outside the traditional box. I suspect his bishop in Oklahoma recognized his bright mind and endless curiosity as well as his love of being Amish.
The Beachy Amish church of my teen years didn’t forbid me or my sister from going to high school and college. They didn’t understand or relate in the slightest, which was unfortunate and made my faith crises worse than they needed to be, but I think they also recognized my giftings.
A church that forbids college classes of any kind, even online or at a local community college, has deeper issues that are likely to frustrate young people whether they are interested in college or not.
And, let’s be honest, anything totally forbidden can be secretly tempting. It’s counterintuitive, but absolutely insisting on one way is more likely to lead to them choosing another.

3.       At the same time, appreciate the Amish/Mennonite work ethic, and don’t elevate being a professor above cleaning grass seed or being a welder. Both can support a family. What are your child’s interests, giftings, and callings? How can they combine enjoyment, making a living, and serving God and others? The details aren’t as important.

4.       Encourage learning. We Mennonites already have a tradition of being self-taught, from farmers reading about fertilizer in Farm Journal to housewives watching YouTube videos on making the perfect cheesecake that doesn’t crack to preachers studying the Matthew Henry on Saturday night.
It’s not a huge leap from that kind of learning to taking college classes.

5.       Encourage reading. Go to the library. Read to your children. Talk about what they’re reading. Let them follow their interests. When Harry Potter was wildly controversial in the Christian world and Emily was a teenager, she borrowed the book, read it, and discussed it with me, analyzing the details as only she can. It was a great exercise for both of us.

6.       Let them ask questions. Lots of questions, on every subject. Discuss things. Look up answers in the dictionary and online and in the Bible. Ask people who know more. Admit it up front if you don’t know. Also admit that certain Mennonite practices are tradition more than Scripture.
Ask them questions right back. Make them think.
Some questions are terrifying for parents, but you can do hard things.
“Letting us ask hard questions” is the #1 answer I get when I ask my kids what we got right. Emily said, “I knew what I believed and why, and I could explain it, because of all the discussions we’d had.”
Amy said, “You let us ask questions and we regularly pushed back on things, so we knew what we believed by the time we got there.”

7.       Teach them that that God’s Kingdom is bigger than our family, our neighborhood, our church, and our nation. This is how we understand and practice Scripture. Other people do it differently. Maybe they baptize babies or play drums in church. But if they also believe in Jesus, we are part of the same family, we can learn from them, and God has a role for all of us.

8.       Show them how to live with contradiction and nuance and tension.
Don’t throw them pat answers and expect them to be ok with that.
Look up Bible passages. Look up other passages that seem to say something different. God’s judgment and his mercy. Free will and being chosen. God’s goodness and human suffering. It is possible to live in this in-between place, to be honest about seeming contradictions, to learn as you go, to not know how it all works, to trust God to show you eventually.
The same is true for reconciling evidence for an old earth with the Biblical account of Creation. We don’t know everything yet. We can still learn about dinosaurs and rock layers, and it doesn’t have to destroy our faith. We can read Answers in Genesis periodicals, but they aren’t going to explain every possible situation. Be ok with uncertainty. This is God’s world. He has things well in hand. We don’t know that much, honestly. There is a lot left to learn.
I recognize that people and families are different, and some think a lot deeper than others or are more sensitive to suffering or have a greater need for certainty.
But you can set the example of loving God and others without absolute certainty about every possible question.

9.       Ben says “humility” in his family was a big influence on him. When the kids were very insistent with their opinions, I made them say, “But I could be wrong.”
I tried to say it myself.
I admit this was a reaction to an annoying person in my life who shut down every discussion or question with “Scripture makes it very clear that. . .”
Well. Sometimes Scripture didn’t make it very clear, but the real issue was that this guy was afraid of having his opinions examined and found wanting, so the conversations ended right there. I wanted to put a comic-strip balloon script over his head: “But I could be wrong.” Since I couldn’t do that, I made sure my family knew how to say it.

10.   Remember that having your children’s beliefs tested is not a bad thing. I’ve known parents who didn’t ever want their children in a situation where they were different from the people around them. One mom didn’t even want her child to attend an ACE [Christian curriculum] convention because the other girls might wear makeup and jewelry and wouldn’t wear head coverings. And their poor child would have to stand alone.
Obviously, you supervise appropriately and you don’t ever throw your young child to the wolves, but if your teachings are so fragile that you can’t send a teenager to an ACE convention for fear they’ll fall away, you have issues far worse than makeup and jewelry.
In the book, Circle of Love, a young Mennonite man leaves home for 1-W service and gradually spirals into the ways of the world around him, with heartbreaking results. How sad that he had to leave home and go out into the world, right? But what if he had always had such a weak faith but no one including himself ever knew, and he stayed in his home church and community all his life, and his faith was never tested and exposed? Would that really have been better?

Jenny giving her presentation for her Master's in Math

11.   “College is an adult decision and an adult responsibility, so they can pay for it themselves.” That’s what my husband used to say.
While we didn’t pay for college except for the tax write-offs their freshman years, we tried to help in other ways.
They were free to live at home as long as they wanted, either paying rent or helping around the house for half an hour a day.
We hired them to work at the warehouse or around the house, since Paul felt that it wasn’t fair to pay teen/adult  boys but not their sisters, just because they couldn’t sling 50-lb bags of seed.
We also helped them save money for their futures, whether college or cars or homes.
All the kids had summer jobs while in college, and some worked through the school year as well.
Most of them didn't get much for scholarships until grad school, when both Ben and Jenny got generous packages that paid for tuition plus a stipend to live on. Matt’s Master’s degree was covered by the Navy. Amy and Emily waited until after age 24, so they qualified for more financial aid.
We note that financial help is much more common in STEM fields [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] than in the humanities.
[While she attended Oregon State, Emily noticed that the students who advocated for socialism were also the ones who were persuaded to sign up for huge student loans as naive 18-year-olds and had no feasible prospects for paying them off.]

Emily getting her Bachelor's

12.   Along with taking financial responsibility, let them be adults in other ways as well. They will likely make choices different from the ones you made. This is true whether they pursue an education or not.
They are now adults. They get to choose.
Pray a lot and be quiet unless they ask.
If they come home with blue hair and talking about equity and inclusion, remember that they might be practicing Micah6:8 better than the neighbor in the plain suit who won’t help his unmarried sister with housing costs and doesn’t pay his seed sackers what they deserve.

13.   Don’t pressure your children because of what others think and say. Your children are allowed to choose. Other people are allowed to choose their responses. That is part of the consequences of one’s choices.
Ben occasionally likes to grow his hair long. His grandma doesn’t like this and tells him so. That is how it should be. Grandma goes to him directly with her concern and doesn’t tell me to tell him. Ben can decide when to get a haircut.
People will also think and say things about you as the parents. They are allowed to do that. You will survive.

14.   “Recognize that you are choosing to enter their world, and you know it’s going to have a secular perspective, so be respectful and don’t be a crusader or sit in the front row and argue with professors about evolution or whether or not God exists. They have a job to do. It’s your job to learn and do a good job and show your faith by your life.” That’s what my cousin Truman’s wife Marietta told me her children decided when they went to nursing school. I thought that was awfully wise.
I don’t know that my kids articulated it like that, but they certainly lived it out.

15.   Recognize that the challenges to your kids’ faith will not come from the sources you expect. Sometimes a Christian college mocks real faith more than a secular university will. Sometimes the abusers in the Mennonite church back home do more damage than the atheist professors in college. In my experience, literature classes introduce more bizarre anti-Christian ideas than biology classes. You never know. Prepare them with a solid foundation. Don’t raise your eyebrows or gasp when they come home and tell you what they’re facing.
Ask questions.
Pray a lot.
Also: support and encouragement will come from unexpected sources. Ben’s supervisor during grad school was a supportive and understanding, but never proselytizing, Latter-Day Saints man who obviously was comfortable with both engineering and faith.

16.   As best you can, make peace with this: Anabaptist communities do not have a strong academic tradition, so your child will be something of an anomaly and may never fit in, either because there is no job for him or her in the community, or because no one understands their way of thinking. They may not find someone to date or marry.
You might think the obvious answer is for your child not to go to college. The truth is, we often don’t have room for a scholar of any kind.
My dad tried hard to fit into the Amish and Beachy communities, but it didn’t work well. Even without his degrees, he would have had a hard time fitting in. One of my brothers was much the same, with a brilliant mind and a somewhat frail body, neither one suited for the rigors of farming and the utterly practical mindset of the community.
The last 25 years of his life, Dad had a safe and accepting place at their Beachy church in Minnesota. God bless them.
But I remember as a child when people made mocking comments to me about how poor we were or how ineptly Dad farmed.
So your child might need to leave your community to find their own place in the world. It’s hard. It’s also ok. Most of the time. The alternative, of staying and never fitting in, is even harder. Better to use the gifts God gave you and find a place outside the community than forever be trying to fit in but not succeeding, forever dreaming of more than the community can offer, never valued for the gifts you bring but mocked for the ones you lack.

17.   Remember that you can’t control the outcome. These are things we tried to do, and we had a good outcome. But these are not recipes or guarantees. A thousand influences factor in, as well as luck and personality and the grace of God and the tides of history.
The only factor you control is yourself. So work on being the best and healthiest and humblest you.
These days, my enormous pride in my children is balanced by the humility of being the least-educated of the bunch. I used to know the most. Now I know the least. It’s good for me.

18.   Back to #1—keep providing a solid foundation, long after they’re grown and gone. They will always need a safe place to come home to.

That's what I think.

Aunt Dorcas


Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Guest Post-- 22 miles down Peoria Road: The challenge of living in disconnected worlds--by Ben Smucker


Ben Smucker

It seems strange to think of a stoplight as a portal between two worlds. Yet for the last decade of my life, the stoplight at Peoria Road and Highway 34 has been the invisible border between my Mennonite world and my academic world. 

From the small farming town of Harrisburg, Peoria Road runs 22 miles until it tees into Highway 34 just outside Corvallis, a college town of about 60,000 people and home to Oregon State University. The road itself is a beautiful drive. It gently weaves its way between fields, occasionally giving glimpses of the Willamette River, but mostly giving views of distant hills, cottonwood trees, and the greenest grass you ever saw. (It is also home to Country Bakery, which is the most common Mennonite reference point for many non-Mennonites in the lower Willamette Valley).

But metaphorically, Peoria Road is the portal between two
distinct worlds that I have spent a significant portion of my life in. I grew up just outside of Harrisburg as a part of the Mennonite community there. I have spent the last 10 years of my life at Oregon State, first as an undergraduate, then for seven years as a graduate student while I got my Ph.D., and for the last year as an instructor (a faculty member who teaches classes but does not do research) in the mechanical engineering department.  

Anecdotally, when most people think of the conflict between these two worlds (Mennonite and academic), it’s often thought of in theological terms, as a conflict between faith and science. While those tensions do exist, they are often overstated, particularly in the sciences (on a side note, in conversation with Christian professors older than me it seems that the sciences have become notably less hostile towards religion in the last several decades, but that’s a subject for another day).

Instead, the divide is much more cultural: these are worlds that are foreign to each other. They effectively speak different languages. They value different things. And as a result, few Mennonites know anything about academia, and few academics know anything about Mennonites (“They’re kinda like the Amish, right?”).

But like C.S. Lewis's Digory and Polly in the Wood Between the Worlds, there is an inherent tension that comes with trying to occupy two worlds that seem to have little to do with each other. Ultimately, there will come a point where we will need to resolve the tension. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in an increasingly lonely place, where you are never fully known or understood by either world.

I highly doubt the idea is original to me (few good ones are, and I’m not even sure this is a good one), but I like to think of our social lives as a series of spheres. The number, size, and overlap of these spheres depends on the individual, but would include family, neighbors, church/religious community, work/school, social activities, etc.. Some spheres may be very interconnected (such as when your friends all go to church with you) or completely disconnected (like when you work with people you never see outside of work). 

As spheres increasingly overlap, they can become indistinguishable until they effectively meld into one single sphere. The Fellowship in Wendell Berry’s Port William is a classic example of this, where folks within the tight-knit community grow up and grow old together. They work, worship, and weep together. The Shire in Tolkien’s world is also representative of this, where everyone knows everyone, and where you explain who someone is by how they are related to you or to someone you know.

It’s no coincidence that both those communities are agrarian and either pre-industrial or not fully industrialized, where one is connected to the land and to each other in ways that seem foreign to the modern suburbanite. One’s identity is forged not so much by who they are individually, but by who they are relative to the rest of the community. While these communities may have some individualistic tendencies (particularly in the U.S.), they often operate much more as a collective.

In many ways, this describes the Mennonite community I grew up in. My dad was my boss, my pastor, and my high school teacher. My school friends were my church friends. And with a mother who was a famous Mennonite writer, to the broader Mennonite community I was “Dorcas Smucker’s son.”

On the other extreme, you can have the post-industrial suburban commuter who works in a large city 40 minutes away, lives in a cul-de-sac with a dozen other commuters who work at 12 different companies, and who attends church in another suburb 30 minutes away, if they attend church at all. This person’s social networks exist largely independent of each other, such that if they died or some tragedy occurred, people they see on a routine basis may not know about it for weeks or months.

However, the suburban commuter has an individualistic autonomy that is just not available to those within the tight-knit community. She can pursue whatever career she wants, choose whatever religious community she wants based on reasons that may range from very Biblical to very superficial. If she feels a calling towards a particular occupation, she can choose to do that without alienating the community.

Corvallis has many people in this mold. While they may live close enough to work to commute by bike, they probably don’t have deep roots here, though there are a pretty substantial number of people who have lived here for a decade or more. The number of people in Corvallis who are from Corvallis and the surrounding area is pretty small. Among faculty at Oregon State, it’s even smaller. And on the whole, it is highly individualistic, and people generally live pretty disparate lives where their spheres of life don’t overlap a lot.

There are beautiful things about the sense of belonging and identity that can come with a strongly collective community, but it can be really challenging and exhausting to be the outlier (or the outsider) within that community. In the individualistic group, being an outlier is seen as an inherent positive, a means of distinguishing yourself from the normies. Yet people often miss the sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.

At its best, I believe the church has the opportunity to cut across the dichotomy posed by individualism and collectivism, valuing both the individual and the community. As we “go into all the world,” we will need to step out into spheres that seem disconnected from our tight-knit communities, yet we have the opportunity to forge close communal bonds with our fellow believers, even when they come from different ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Fully fleshing this out would probably be the subject of a book that I would be unqualified to write, but the following paragraphs describe how this tension has been working itself out in my own life.

For better or for worse, when I chose to pursue academia, I was largely guaranteeing that I would never live in some modern-day equivalent of The Shire. However, I did not understand that as a Mennonite in academia, I would increasingly feel like an outlier within my Mennonite community, and that it would become an increasingly lonely place. But when COVID came, I realized how disconnected I had become from my Mennonite church, and I ultimately left that church. 

By the grace of God, within my first few months of graduate school in the fall of 2016 (four years prior to leaving my Mennonite church), I got connected to a Christian grad student group on campus. It was (and is) a small student-led group of 5-10 grad students that met weekly for prayer and Bible study, while taking advantage of the fact that we were all young and childless to do fun things together on weekends. It has been among the most life-giving groups I have been a part of, and some of my strongest friendships have come from that group.

It also opened my eyes to the breadth of Christianity that existed beyond the tradition I grew up in, but it also made me realize just how important embodied Christian fellowship is. I now am a part of a small Anglican congregation of about 80 people, largely composed of younger families. They are an amazing group of Christ-followers that I am blessed to be a part of, and they make me feel included even if I am one of about 4 single people (me, my two roommates, and one other guy), and if I’m the only one who grew up Mennonite.

My present world feels less disconnected than it has in a long time, probably since high school. I live, work, and go to church in the same town for basically the first time in my life. Two of my roommates also attend the same church, and are also a part of the Christian grad student fellowship. Two of my best friends from the grad fellowship go to church with a colleague I will be working on a project with next year. The leader of the Christian Faculty group also goes to my church. I meet monthly with a retired professor from the Christian Faculty group who was in the mechanical engineering department for 30 years. If I meet a fellow Christian who has been in Corvallis for at least several years, I can probably find a mutual acquaintance.

But this level of connectedness has not come easy. It has come from being a faithful presence in the same place for an extended period of time. It has come from showing up every week to groups I am committed to. It has come from going out on a limb to talk to people (or more commonly in my case, from other people going out on a limb to talk to me). And sadly, it has come at the cost of leaving the community I grew up in, which I feel a twinge of guilt about every time I read Wendell Berry. Yet I believe this is where I am called to be, and those sacrifices are worth it.

While I was working on this blog post, my parents and my sister Amy came and visited my little Anglican church in Corvallis. This was the first time any of my immediate family members had come to church with me there. When my worlds collide, I tend to have a (probably illogical) fear that both sides will find the other strange, and find me strange in the process.

Instead, we found how much we have in common. Most of the songs that Sunday were hymns that we sang growing up. We read the Lord’s Prayer together, just like we used to recite it prior to meals. We worshiped the same triune God I worshiped in my Mennonite church growing up; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Afterwards, the people at my church extended the same warm welcome to my family that I had received when I first started going there. 

But in a strange turn of the tables, I was no longer known as “Paul and Dorcas’s son.” This time, they were known as “Ben’s parents.”

Dr. Benjamin Smucker

Monday, April 15, 2024

Ask Aunt Dorcas: When Birth is Traumatic and It's Not Ok to Say So


Aunt Dorcas, Amy, and Ben--1993
in the hospital, soon after Ben was born.

Dear Aunt Dorcas,

  I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy about two years ago. Prior to his birth, I heard many women share their birth stories both online and in person. Their comments about the pain level ranged from "I would describe it more as pressure than pain" and "It was intense but definitely manageable" to the occasional "Labor was incredibly painful." I averaged all these comments and decided that the birth process must be fairly painful but not terrible.

  I found labor to be shockingly painful and transition felt almost unbearable.

  I have two questions about this.

   (1) Why is it so common for women to downplay the pain of childbirth? I realize that so many factors play into the intensity level and I believe there are some women who truly don't find it to be that painful. But I don't understand how someone can experience the level of pain I did (or worse, in some situations) and consider it "uncomfortable but definitely manageable."

  I want to view birth as the beautiful experience it is, and I agree that we as Christian women should be among the most positive voices when it comes to talking about babies and birth. What does it look like to be honest about the hard aspects of birth while fully appreciating the beauty of it and the miracle of new life?

  (2) I've heard many conversations about the practical aspects of childbirth but very few about the emotional impact of birthing a child into the world. One of the factors that plays into many events that are considered traumatic is the powerlessness to stop the unpleasant event (in abuse, an accident, etc.) While labor is different from those incidents in the sense that there is a purpose for it and it is expected, it still feels as though there can be something traumatic about the very nature of contractions- wave after wave of intense pain that you are powerless to stop or escape from. I've never really heard anyone talk about this so I'm not sure if this is a real thing or if the only trauma that can come from birth is from complications such as emergency c-sections, hemorrhaging etc. I had a fairly short and straightforward labor so I struggle with feeling like I don't own the right to be traumatized by my experience.


Dear Lydia,

Yesterday my daughter was talking to a new mom about her baby’s birth. She said she figured she’d be fine having her husband with her as the only non-professional support. However, she soon realized that when you’re having a baby, you want someone with you who’s also had a baby.

In her case, that was quickly arranged, luckily for her.

Paul said, “As the husband, you take all the classes and you think you know what to do. Then it turns out not to be what your wife wants you to do.”

In our case, he had perched eagerly beside the bed while I was gasping in mortal pain, leaned over me, and said cheerfully, “Ok, breathe! Come on, breathe!”


Can you imagine me yelling at him like that? Probably not. But labor brings out what you didn’t know was there. Local legend has it that one of the sweetest young women in Oregon threw a washcloth at the nurse during labor.

Labor is an experience that takes you to the edge of reality. For many of us, it is a tunnel of pain and overwhelm that feels like the valley of the shadow. Lost in waves of pain and pressure that we are powerless to stop, we lose track of who we are, what is going on, who is with us, and why we are doing this. We become someone else, a wild woman with no filters or tact, both weak and strong, fighting and conquered.

With a couple of my five births, I completely forgot I was having a baby or that this would not last forever.

Of course it’s traumatic.

And then, in an instant, we are taken from the depths of agony to the heights of joy. There’s nothing in the universe to compare. One second, we are bearing down in the middle of the hundredth contraction, lost to reality. The next, the pain is instantly and entirely gone, and there is a baby! A new little person, come from heaven, red and slippery, the most wondrous creature you have ever seen. If you’re like me, you think, “Oh that’s right!! This was all about a baby! I forgot there was a baby! And there she is!” You feel a joy that is surely a glimpse of Heaven and feel like the veil between is sheer as an organdy curtain and the light is shining through.

If you’ve been through it, tasting the worst and best, you have a story to tell. Childbirth and stories are connected like salt and pepper, like thunder and lightning, like frogs and puddles.

Eve didn’t have women to be with her or to talk to afterwards when she birthed those first babies, poor thing, but ever since then, women have supported each other in labor, and they have told each other their birth stories.

My mother used to repeat the stories of how the six of us were born. “Oh, girls, it’s just the most TEEEEEEERRRRRIBLE pain! Oh, you just can’t imagine. Oooooh, I can’t even describe it, it hurts so bad.”

My sister Rebecca and I found out, years later, that in large groups of people we both used to look around wide-eyed and think, “For every one of these people, some poor woman went through the most unearthly, unthinkable pain.”

However, as I got older I realized my mom’s stories didn’t really make sense. She also told of having a chemicalled cloth laid on her nose and being completely unconscious when she gave birth and also presumably during the worst stages of labor. How did that compute with the insane pain?

By the time I had my first baby, times had changed. We went to a little hospital one night a week for probably two months and learned all about pelvises, dilation, contractions, exercises, and Lamaze breathing. We ladies lay on the floor and breathed long slow breaths in our noses and exhaled out our mouths with earnest hoo hoo hoos and ha ha ha’s while the hovering husbands coached us.

We were taught that the perception of pain changes when we are informed and prepared, when we have support, and when we feel that we have choices and volition.

That, I was convinced, was why Mom’s births were so agonizing. She was completely at the mercy of the medical system and especially Dr. Sattler, a sadistic man who scoffed at weak American women because, as a refugee in Germany, he had marched with a flood of desperate people and had seen women drop out of the line to give birth and then get back on their feet to keep going.

[Edit--That was what I remembered from Mom's stories, but I saw an article online that indicated Dr. Sattler may have been with the American military and observed refugees in Europe, rather than being one of them.]

When Mom was 8 months pregnant with her first child, Dr. Sattler decided the baby was breech and needed to be turned. He called in a helper, and the two of them pushed on Mom’s stomach as hard as they could. The pain was unbearable. That didn’t stop them.

The baby didn’t move for 24 hours, and then Mom went into labor and was taken to the hospital.

She woke up all alone in a room. No husband, no nurse, no baby.

She thought, I must have had my baby, and it died.

After a while, a nurse came in with a bundle. “Would you like to see your baby?”

Oh! She had a baby? And it was alive?

Well, yes.

No wonder Mom was traumatized. I feel like her daughters were maybe not the best audience for her tales, but I hope we bore witness to her hellish experience. Certainly, we wanted something better for ourselves.

As I see it, there are three factors to a good outcome with childbirth.

1.      Skilled care: someone present who knows how to deliver a normal birth and who has resources when things go south—breech, bleeding, and a hundred other complications.

2.      Volition: a sense of choice, control, power, and ownership for the mom. She gets to choose place, position, people, interventions. She can make requests and they are granted.

3.      Support: people who are there for the care and keeping of the birthing woman, who listen to her and grant her wishes. Also, people who will listen to her story afterwards and validate it all. And people who will care for her in practical ways.

We are always trying to find the perfect combination of these three ingredients, and we are always reacting to the generations before.

In the late 1890’s, when my grandmothers were born, women gave birth at home, in familiar surroundings, and had support from other women. New moms stayed in bed for six weeks, fed and cared for by others.

However, many of them lacked skilled care, and every family has stories of women who died in childbirth. We still see this in places that don’t have access to medical care.

The reaction to that was to maximize hospital care and completely minimize the mother’s choices over what happened to her, as well as the support from others. By the 1950’s, doctors called all the shots, women had no options, and husbands were relegated to waiting rooms and ushered in when Mom was all cleaned up and tucked in bed with clean sheets. I’m told my father-in-law was always skeptical of his wife’s descriptions of childbirth because, after all, she looked pretty good when he finally got to see her. Some of us are still annoyed at him for that.

In that era, women like my mom survived births that might have killed them in earlier days, but they had lasting emotional scars from the inhumane methods of the medical world.

Maybe my generation had the best combination. We were allowed to put together the birth plans we wanted, we could have husbands and moms and friends in the delivery room, and we could tell our stories to other women and be affirmed and believed. I’ve been at many women’s gatherings when the conversation wandered into childbirth and we all told our stories, while the rest of us laughed or gasped by turns.

We recognized that every woman’s experience is different. I have a sister-in-law who just “loved that feeling of puuuuusssshhhing the baby out!” Others of us, in great contrast, were ripped from stem to stern pushing the baby out and didn’t know if we’d ever have a normal bowel movement again.

It was all valid and validated.

When I was having babies, there was already a trend to minimize the danger of childbirth and maximize the normality of it. “Your body is made for this,” those midwives said. “Welcome the pain. Breathe through it. We are here for you.” This was far better than what my mom endured, but had its own pitfalls.

My impression is that that movement has expanded in the 25 years since then, accelerated by Instagram and a young-mom peer pressure that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. My guess is that the pressure to minimize the pain of childbirth is a wish to maximize a sense of control over the process. This is your body, your choice, your quest, and you are strong and brave and you can do this amazing thing.

Unfortunately, this can cut off the other two legs of the stool. An unrealistic perception of your control of the process often means not making contingency plans for medical emergencies.

It also means, as Lydia said, that women downplay the pain, presumably because if you had a hard time, that means you “did it wrong.” So stories aren’t told, heard, or validated, and the trauma isn’t healed or processed. It wasn’t supposed to be more than discomfort and pressure, so the unbelievable pain must be their own fault. If all the other ladies in the hot tub felt empowered and strong all through labor, how can you admit you were asking for a knife to kill yourself? [True story of someone I love.]

We all make birth decisions based on the stories of sisters and friends. Maybe we choose their midwife, doctor, or hospital. Or we take castor oil to get the process underway when we’re overdue, as my one sister-in-law swore by.

I had heard glowing reports from friends about the wonder of giving birth in a tub of water. “I hardly felt anything,” said one.

What a gift that would be! So I planned on a water birth at home for my fifth baby. We placed a new stock tank in the dining room and filled it with warm water. Paul was there along with three professional midwives.

It was horrible.

The pain was beyond all endurance, and then when it was time to push I didn’t feel the slightest urge, and I was so far gone mentally that I couldn’t think which muscles to activate and how to make it happen. Things got a bit desperate and dicey for all of us, with Paul and the midwives leaning over and practically yelling at me to push, before Jenny was finally born.

So the water birth was a bust, but I felt good about the home birth, the midwives, and all that. My friend Rita Baker came over soon afterward with a pot of chicken soup, and a few hours later Paul went and fetched the other children at his parents’ house, and we all snuggled that amazing baby.

I had made my birth plan based on real people, reading, and my own experiences with previous births.

What’s troubling is when pregnant women make high-stakes choices about childbirth based on persuasive social media characters and online information with no connection to real life, such as a young missionary overseas making a birth plan based on advice from Instagrammers in the US.

Here’s my advice to women having babies:
1. Acknowledge the high stakes of childbirth. Yes, it’s amazing and life-affirming. It’s also dangerous. It can be traumatic. It can be the highest and lowest points of your life. Be honest about this.

2. Seek a balance of skilled care, personal choice, and support from others, in your birth plan and afterwards. Be aware of the risks of every approach.

3. Get information on preeclampsia and stretch marks online, but learn about birth options from real people. Sisters, friends, aunts, midwives, doctors. They know how far it is to the hospital and what the weather might be like around your due date and whether or not your husband will make a good coach. They can also tell you real experiences with birth centers, midwives, and epidurals.

4.Own your own story. Choices, mistakes, feeling empowered or guilty or defeated. It’s yours, it’s real. You don’t need to change it to sound good.

5.  Listen to each other’s stories and affirm and validate every one. Every woman is different, every child is different, every birth is different. Each deserves affirmation. Ask young moms questions and listen to the answers. Don’t say everything you might think. Affirm their story even if, like one memorable young woman, they say giving birth was really awful, and no, actually, they can’t say that it hurt, but it was terribly miserable because it was just so much pressure. [True story. To my eternal credit I didn’t slap this woman but nodded and listened and affirmed her experience without telling her about mine WHICH HURT LIKE BLAZES, JUST SO YOU KNOW! “Just so much PRESSURE!” WHAT EVEN???]

Sometimes women keep talking about experiences that don’t sound that traumatic on paper but seem to have left a lasting, haunting, impression. Listen, make sympathetic noises, and, if the woman seems stuck there for a long time, refer her to a professional. Any part of the process can be traumatic, whether it’s the lack of control over the process, complications, medical interventions, or an unmet need for support. Sometimes we need extra help.

I wish my mom could have seen a therapist to talk through her birth trauma.

We are strong women, and we can do this unearthly task of bringing a new human being into the world.

Let’s erase the expectations and gather around and support and affirm. Most of us in Mennonite communities have the best possible combination of medical care, plenty of information, community support, and the means to choose what works best for us. Let’s celebrate these resources and not complicate an already complicated process with expectations that most of us can’t meet.

Birth can be traumatic for many reasons. We can bring healing by supporting other women and allowing them to share their stories.