Brethren in Christ Church mourns death of Bishop Ken Letner

GRANTHAM, Pa. (Sept. 12, 2008) – On behalf of the Brethren in Christ Church, General Secretary Don McNiven read the following tribute to the life and ministry of Kenneth Ray Letner, bishop of the Susquehanna Conference, during a memorial service on Tuesday, September 9:

It is with both grief and hope that the Brethren in Christ Church honors the life of and ministry of our dear brother, Kenneth Ray Letner, who entered into the Lord’s presence on Thursday, September 4, 2008, at the age of 56 following a courageous battle against cancer. Throughout his more than three decades of ministry within our midst, Ken was known as a visionary leader, a wise teacher, a supportive colleague, and a humble follower of Jesus Christ whose refreshing vulnerability endeared him to all who knew him. In the words of his brother bishop, Brian Bell of the Canadian Conference, Ken “was able to give such insightful comment into the discussion, no matter the topic, aware of the realities of churches large and small, with a keen eye to biblical and Brethren in Christ principles. His love of Jesus and His bride, the Church, was so vibrant.”

Ken’s walk with God began at the tender age of 10 years, when he responded to an altar call during evangelistic services at the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in his hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Although his parents were not believers, Ken was blessed by a godly grandmother, who, as he was fond of telling, “bathed his early years in godly nurturing and prayer.” In his mid-teens, while on staff at a summer camp of the Primitive Methodist Church, Ken dedicated his life fully to the Lord, and not long after, he sensed a call to ministry.

Ken was introduced to the Brethren in Christ Church during his student days at Messiah College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science in 1973. It was also at the college that he met his life partner, Linda Chubb, to whom he was married for 34 years. Theirs has been a true partnership in ministry, grounded in a shared and unwavering commitment to the work of the Lord.

Following two years as youth director in Linda’s home church, Skyline View in Harrisburg, Pa., Ken enrolled at Ashland Theological Seminary, earning a Master of Divinity degree in 1978.  While at the seminary, Ken served as the director of Christian education at Ashland BIC Church during the school year, and in the summer, as director of Kenbrook Bible Camp in Lebanon, Pa. As a seminary student, Ken was viewed as an exceptionally promising future pastor and leader for the Brethren in Christ, and so it was no wonder that, even before his graduation, he was recruited by and accepted a position with the Lancaster BIC Church, where his primary responsibilities included the youth and Christian education programs. A colleague during his years at the Lancaster church remembers how Ken’s “gregarious personality and compassionate caring for people brought a warm and personal touch to his ministry.”

Ken’s leadership within the General Church began in 1982 when he was named director of Christian education for the Atlantic Conference and associate director of Christian education for the General Conference. In 1984, Ken stepped into the role of executive director for the denomination’s board for congregational life, a position that drew on his organizing and teaching skills, as well as his passion for youth ministry and Christian education. Ken found particular joy in his work with the denomination’s youth conventions (now known as YouthQuest), and he was also an enthusiastic champion of the church’s quizzing program

Along with his executive director role, Ken was elected assistant moderator for the Atlantic and then for the Susquehanna Conferences. During these years, his gift of teaching was put to good use as an adjunct instructor in Christian education at the Keystone Bible Institute and also at his alma mater, Messiah College. He was also secretary of the board of Locust Grove Mennonite School in Smoketown, Pennsylvania and served on the Mennonite Education Council.

In 1991, the Cedar Grove BIC Church in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, called Ken as senior pastor.  A beloved shepherd from the start, Ken led the congregation for more than eleven years. During that time, the congregation expanded their program, enlarged their facility, nurtured spiritual renewal, doubled in attendance, and launched a daughter congregation, New Harvest Community Church. Debby Bentch, pastor of adult ministries at Cedar Grove during Ken’s tenure and one of many persons for whom Ken served as a mentor and spiritual advisor, recalls with appreciation “Ken’s faith in me, willingness to step out on a limb for me, and constant encouragement and support gave me confidence to do the unexpected, to take risks for God, and to move out of my comfort zone in every way.”

Although “very fulfilled and challenged” in their ministry with the Cedar Grove church, Ken and Linda responded in faithful obedience when he was called to lead the Susquehanna Conference as its bishop in 2002, a position he filled with diligence, creativity, and enthusiasm for almost six years. He excelled at and enjoyed the administrative aspects of the bishop’s office, and yet he remained a pastor at heart, serving ministry leaders and their families with humility, love, and great sensitivity. Even as illness overtook him, Ken continued to encourage “his” pastors and churches with email messages in which he shared insights from his scripture reading – most often the Psalms – and from his rich prayer life.   

During his bishop years, Ken was the denomination’s point person for church planting, and he was quick to remind his colleagues on Leadership Council of our Impact 2010 goal of 305 healthy congregations. As a fellow bishop recalls, his “passion could sometimes be obstinate, especially for Kingdom values that he felt were too important for us as church leaders to lay aside.” Ken’s careful analysis of BIC church plants over the past thirty years and the conclusions he reached about best practices from a BIC perspective, will continue to inform our church planting efforts for years to come.   

Lest it seem that Ken’s life was defined solely by his work, it is important to acknowledge his ability to maintain boundaries – to establish priorities – to be fully present for family and friends. Ken knew how to relax, and he knew how to have fun. As Perry Engle, bishop of the Midwest and Pacific Conferences, recalls, “As much as anything, Ken enjoyed a good laugh, whether it was around the work table or out bowling with a few of us other bishops after the work for the day was completed. I would have preferred one more hug and another good laugh with my friend before he left, but I guess that gives me just one more thing to look forward to when I get to heaven.”

Ken spent almost the whole of his ministry in Pennsylvania, and yet he never became provincial in his outlook or expectations. He was the first in line to encourage mutual support and cooperation among pastors and congregations across the denomination, and as a result, the impact of his life and work is felt around the world through the men and women who benefited from his encouragement and mentoring.

As Tony Rohrer, founding pastor of the Upper Room BIC Church in Lewistown, Pa., writes about Ken: “You can measure a man’s life by the people that were influenced by him. There is no way to really know the full impact [that Ken’s] life has had on not just me but the multitudes that will be touched because of [his]heart for Jesus and the spirit that was carried through [him]. Thank you, Ken, for a life well spent and the deep seeds of faith that will keep producing harvests from now until Jesus brings us all together.”

The family has established a memorial fund in Ken’s name to be used for leadership development in the Brethren in Christ Church. Checks should be made out to the General Conference BIC Church, with a note in the memo line “Ken Letner Memorial,” and be mailed to the BIC Church Offices at 431 Grantham Road, P. O. Box A, Grantham, PA 17027.

Letters of condolence may be sent to the Letner family at RR 4, Box 4797, Mifflintown, Pa. 17059-9666.