Mennonite Church USA to explore new structure

Sep 30, 2014 by and

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Seeking to hold the denomination together amid controversies over homosexuality, Mennonite Church USA will explore possibilities for a new structure.

At its Sept. 26-27 meeting in Kansas City, Mo., the MC USA Executive Board appointed a committee to look at new ways for area conferences to relate to each other.

The goal is to bring a proposal to delegates at next summer’s convention in Kansas City.

“It’s very much up in the air whether we can find a structure that will satisfy all that are in Mennonite Church USA,” said Ervin Stutzman, the denomination’s executive director, in a telephone interview. “It will not be easy to find any structure in which all can happily flourish.”

Stutzman said the committee would explore a looser structure — perhaps called an association, network, alliance or affiliation.

“The idea for a looser network was shared by both those who are more progressive and those who are more conservative, but they expressed it for very different reasons,” Stutzman said.

He was referring to ideas shared at a meeting of the Constituency Leaders Council, an advisory group of conference leaders, earlier this year.

“The pinch point at the moment is credentialing for ministry,” Stutzman said. “To what extent does the national church have authority?”

The credentialing issue arose this year when Mountain States Mennonite Conference licensed Theda Good, a Colorado pastor in a same-sex relationship. In June the Executive Board said MC USA would not recognize the licensing.

“There are conferences that would like to have greater freedom in credentialing, and others that would like the entire church together to have more say in what is done there,” Stutzman said.

Credentialing and other issues related to the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the church have led to unrest within MC USA. Gulf States Mennonite Conference is scheduled to vote Nov. 1 on whether to leave the denomination. In February the Lancaster Mennonite Conference Board of Bishops called for re-evaluating Lancaster’s relationship to MC USA. At least 10 congregations from several conferences have withdrawn this year.

Stutzman said some conservatives would favor a looser affiliation so they don’t feel guilt by association with those who have taken actions they disagree with. But this group’s first preference would be to have area conferences or the national board assert more authority over those whose actions vary from church positions.

While exploring new structures could be seen as an attempt to keep MC USA from shrinking, Stutzman said a larger vision should drive the process.

“We have to have an expanded vision of what it could be that draws us in,” he said.

He hopes for an association that would attract “people who want to express an Anabaptist understanding of the world,” including those who are not currently part of MC USA.

The committee will include two Executive Board members, Joy Sutter and Isaac Villegas; two members of the Constituency Leaders Council, Keith Weaver of Lancaster Conference and Katherine Pitts of Pacific Northwest Conference; and one person yet to be named. The CLC will provide input to the committee.

Survey of leaders

According to an MC USA news release, board members reviewed the initial data from a survey of credentialed leaders. Respondents were asked to reflect on questions regarding MC USA organizational structure, LGBT inclusion and the sense of belonging they felt to area conferences and the denomination. The survey drew 1,323 responses, a 66 percent response rate.

Conrad Kanagy, professor of sociology at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College, will analyze the data, with the goal of publicly releasing initial results before the end of the year.

Board members commended a list of resources on same-gender sexuality for study across the denomination. The list represents a spectrum of perspectives and is meant to encourage dialogue and understanding.

The board reviewed ministerial polity guidelines — A Shared Understanding for Church Leadership — that were updated and released in 2014 by MC USA and Mennonite Church Canada staff. The board recommended the working document to the CLC.

In a closed session, the board discussed whether to provide formal space for Pink Menno and the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests — groups that advocate for LGBT inclusion — at the Kansas City convention. No decision was made, Stutzman said.

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