Ohio pastor testified: ‘Don’t give up on prayer’
She continued to set example of faith during short battle with brain cancer
In September, Naomi Engle was diagnosed with brain cancer after experiencing problems maintaining her balance. The co-pastor of West Clinton Mennonite Church in Wauseon, Ohio, died Jan. 1 at age 51.
She was known for her deep involvement in the lives of her congregation’s people, particularly in the areas of visitation and mentoring.
“She leaves such a big gap for our church,” said Marcia Lehman, one of Engle’s closest friends. “She and her husband were such a team together. They were awesome.”
Originally from Marion, S.D., the daughter of Willard and the late Elsie Epp, she met her husband, Jess Engle, in high school at Freeman (S.D.) Academy. They graduated together in 1984 and married in the summer of 1985.
“I was 18; she was 19,” Jess said. “In hindsight, I look back and think, ‘Holy cow; that was young.’ Years later, as we evaluated our marriage, we don’t regret that at all.”
The couple graduated from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., and lived there 10 years. They had three daughters: Anna, Grace and Marie.
Jess taught at various elementary schools while Naomi was a stay-at-home mom. They made it a priority to be involved in ministries at Parkside Mennonite Brethren Church in Tulsa.
They later moved to Virginia and discerned a call to enter pastoral ministry together. They studied at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, where Naomi earned a master of arts degree in pastoral counseling. They were ordained and served for seven years at Aurora Mennonite Church near Streetsboro, Ohio.
Meanwhile, West Clinton had begun a pastoral search.
Lehman, who was the worship coordinator at the time, said the congregation was ready for female leadership. She prayed specifically for a married couple.
“It was an exciting moment for me when they announced they had a couple candidating,” Lehman said. “It was the first time we had a female as part of our staff at WC. I think Naomi was well received as a female pastor.”
The Engles became co-pastors at West Clinton in 2009.
“I think what we’re going to miss the most is her care for everybody,” said church secretary Pam Graber. “She was there for us in times of crisis and in times of joy.”
Lehman enjoyed a close friendship with Naomi.
“We had a lot of fun together,” Lehman said, describing how they traveled, picked berries, attended events and talked about all kinds of things from food to sewing to the Bible.
“Sometimes when I didn’t understand something about the Bible, I knew she was a safe person to ask,” Lehman said. “She was very nonjudgmental.”
The Engles paid attention to diverse age groups, doing visitation for older people, holding classes for married couples and empty nesters and talking to the youth about sexuality. Naomi organized a Christmas brunch for the college-age women.
“That was always fun,” said Kelsey Waidelich, a senior at Bluffton (Ohio) University whose parents hosted the brunch Dec. 20. “She was always a good listener, always wanted to know what was going on in my life. Both she and Jess were very supportive of not only college students but also high school students, going to games, choir events, theater events.”
Not afraid of death
It was the last church event Naomi participated in. The next day, she became unresponsive. She was given hospice care at home.
“When she went unresponsive, we were able to say, ‘We’re not afraid of death, but we’re not in a hurry to get there,’ ” Jess said. “She was on hospice at home for about a week. All of the kids and grandkids were home for that.”
Though they never saw her open her eyes, Naomi’s family was able to say goodbye to her on New Year’s Day.
“Just before she died, she was able to respond with some slurred speech and hand-squeezing,” Jess said. “We were all there when she took her last breath on Sunday afternoon.”
The congregation remembers her deep and broad influence.
“It is difficult to explain what all Naomi has taught us or how she has influenced us as part of the pastoral team here at WC,” said leadership team member Joy Kauzlick in a written statement of the reflection she shared at Naomi’s memorial service.
“. . . Her courage to touch on topics that were once taboo in the Mennonite church has shown us there is life outside the church that God is a part of. Naomi’s willingness to reach out to those that are hurting or those not feeling accepted stands out in my mind today. This past Memorial Day, Naomi really went out on a limb and had special prayer at our Sunday service for military families, veterans and those who died defending our freedom. This touched me because my husband is a veteran.”
‘Don’t give up on prayer’
Jess said the importance of prayer was part of Naomi’s legacy.
“One thing Naomi would say is not to give up on prayer,” he said. “The answer didn’t come for healing or the miracle that many wanted. I was OK with that. . . . There are so many aspects of prayer beyond the answer we want.”
Jess plans to take a sabbatical for a month or two — “a road trip without a clear itinerary,” he said. “I need to hear God in the silence. . . . There’s a shock aspect because Naomi was young, Naomi was loved. She was just hitting her stride as a pastor.”
He’s working on a sermon series that will help the congregation move forward.
“We all have struggle and difficulty,” he said. “Struggle and death and loss can make us bitter people. We can choose to be there or we can choose to move forward and do the healthy process to become better people. It doesn’t demean Naomi’s life and legacy at all, but I’m not going to build a monument to her and worship at it for the next 20 years. I would dishonor Naomi if I dug a hole, got in the fetal position and pulled a tarp over it.”
One way Jess is honoring his wife’s memory is his creation of the Naomi Engle Women in Ministry Scholarship Fund. Eligibility details are still being determined by West Clinton Mennonite Church.
“That was something important to her — that women not shy away from leadership because they’re women,” he said. “We together wanted to encourage women to be strong in ministry. We mean ‘strong’ as in responding to what God is doing in you.”
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