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 At least 10 congregations from several conferences have withdrawn this year.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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  • Jen Yoder

    Please, follow the style guide and remove the term “homosexuality” from your journalistic vocabulary.

    “The Associated Press and The New York Times both restrict usage of the term “homosexual” – a word whose clinical history and pejorative connotations are routinely exploited by anti-gay extremists to suggest that lesbians and gay men are somehow diseased or psychologically and emotionally disordered. Editors at the AP and New York Times also have instituted rules against the use of inaccurate terminology such as “sexual preference” and “gay lifestyle.”

  • Brian Arbuckle

    Jen Yoder believes that reality is shaped by language. She wants others to use only the words she approves with the meanings she assigns to them. This hegemonic use of language is strategic. Someone has said that the gay community effectively won the debate when it convinced the rest of us to speak of sexual orientation rather than sexual preference. The gay community would have us use language that detracts from the behavior that indicates that the root of such behavior is disordered desire. Causative factors may be numerous and complex but the desire itself is disordered. The world as it is teaches us that. The God who created the world informs us of that. Jen Yoder would have us use language to join with her in shaping an imagined worldview and if we do so we will in time suffer the same delusion. Under that delusion we will not be able to speak accurately about anything. This will not, however, be a comfortable place to live for we will continually experience the dissonance of knowing that our imagined worldview does not fit the world as it is.

    • Jen Yoder

      Hi Brian! Thanks for your response. It’s very interesting, especially your choice of the word hegemonic.

      Perhaps that’s a place where we can agree! Hegemony is a term describing domination of many diverse groups by a ruling group (a group holding governing power, financial power, etc.), using their power to enforce beliefs and values, constructing a dominant worldview with is painted as “natural.”

      Now…I’m confused by your application of the term, because you seem to think I’m part of a ruling class with access to governing power – when in practice, I am someone upon whom a dominant power-holding group is imposing and enforcing beliefs and values.

      We seem to agree, though, that hegemony is a negative state.

      Perhaps, regardless of our seemingly different understandings of human sexuality, we could work together to undo hegemony?

      Much love,

  • Berry Friesen

    Interesting report, though I find it odd to think of the Constituency Leaders’ Council as “advisory”. Aren’t district leaders the de facto owners of the denomination?

    It’s easy to see why district leaders are looking for some “solution” that enables everyone to stick together in the same denomination. District leaders are in a very uncomfortable position right now, and naturally want to put off the tough decisions until someone else is in the hot seats.

    So what would “a looser structure” lead to 5 years from now? I expect we’ll have two main groups: those district conferences that affirm the Confession and those that describe themselves as non-creedal and don’t have so much as “a teaching position” on sexuality. Congregations unhappy with the position of their district conference will be hopping to one that better fits.

    And 10 years from now? The two groups, having solidified their memberships and empowered their district leaders with new confidence and resolve, will be fighting over control of denominational assets and programs. What will our Sunday School materials teach? How about the Seminary? Should Pink Menno have a denominational staff person, or not?

    Maybe district conference leaders should deal with this all now, rather than putting everyone through another 10-12 years of confusion and uncertainty.

    • Linda Rosenblum

      Barry- I think you have very good points here. I don’t see how changing the name of the structure at all addresses the central issue here. It will eventually lead to two separate entities whatever they name them and continued disagreements over biblical interpretation and authority. Linda Rosenblum

    • John Gingrich

      Berry I have a radical “solution” to propose. Instead of waiting 10 years to fight over control of denominational assets and programs, lets do it now and disband the MC USA denominational structure and start over. It’s like a Sudoku puzzle, once it’s messed up its is best to erase the whole thing and start from scratch. We have two camps reading from different scriptures. One side is the gospel of Paul and the other is the gospel of Wink and Vines. One side sees themselves as scholarly and enlightened and see the other side as myopic and parochial. The other side sees themselves as faithful to the bible truth. One side is trying to force the denomination to change to meet their beliefs, the other side is walking away in droves. Take the pressure off the conference leaders by disbanding MC USA and don’t force these conference leaders to chose in or out. Then start with a new negotiation with all the regional conferences to see if there is a different set of promises and programs that we can agree to work together on. This process we are in now is the torture of death by a thousand cuts. Each side is saying “what if you’re wrong” instead of “what if I’m wrong” and that will not change. Let’s be pragmatic and start over from scratch.

      • Berry Friesen

        John, in your proposal, would the polity of the new denomination be exactly the same as what we have now? That is, same Confession, same Membership Guidelines, same Bylaws?

        If so, then under your proposal each district conference would be asked to decide (again) if it wants to be part of the church that formed in 2001. Mountain States would obviously say “no” and would go its own way. Each of the other districts would have the same opportunity.

        Yes, I think it could work. It wouldn’t require “disbanding” as you put it, but it perhaps would require a delegate action in Kansas City authorizing this unusual step. And it would give everyone the opportunity to cast a “yes” vote while avoiding the need to discipline anyone, which is anathema to some (many?) and is what I understand your reference to “pressure” to be about.

        I expect the task at the moment is to convince district conference leaders that they – like Queen Esther – came into positions of authority “for just such a time as this.” They must step up and act within the next several months or the denomination is finished.

        • John Gingrich

          In the article Ervin talks about a “looser structure”. I am proposing that before we begin that negotiation we totally disband the current structure. That gives local conferences the freedom to work for unity within their group without the pressure of answering for a congregation many states away. It gives freedom to explore from scratch the Confession, member guidelines, polity, the bylaws etc. A new structure would be formed out of whole cloth instead of trying to trim around the edges of what we now have. And yes, each conference would again have to decide whether to join or not. But that decision is being made currently in the reverse, many conferences are again going to have to decide whether to withdraw or not.

          • Berry Friesen

            John, if you start from scratch (as you put it), then this herd of casts will end up with “a looser structure” or no structure at all, in my opinion. I see merit in your idea only if we keep about what we have now, but ask each district conference to say “yes” or “no.”

          • John Gingrich

            This conversation is probably boring other so just one more response. You propose that the district conferences vote again on “what we have now”. I don’t think this will work because “what we have now” has proven to be a failure. Maybe this “herd of cats” cannot find a structure that they can agree on but maybe we don’t need a national governance structure and this puts the governance back to the conference level . We will need a way to organize the activities you name like missions, church colleges, mutual aid, MDS etc. Maybe several regional affiliations will form organically between existing conferences. But we will still have the same members, churches, and conferences. I know there are dangers to what I propose, but I am willing to risk them because as you said earlier our denomination is almost out of time.

  • Tim Ross

    I don’t understand why things have to change just because society changes? Society can’t even prove that homosexuals are born that way. I know ex gays who found wholeness through God, they acknowledged the perversion, the sin. We’re they wrong? Did God not help them? Are they mistaken? I used to be bisexual. I still struggle, but I know it’s not what God wants for me because it’s a perversion of the original, a bad copy. We all have struggles, why do we have to cater to those who yell the loudest who want their struggles validated?

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