Gulf States Conference to vote on withdrawal

Oct 6, 2014 by and

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Gulf States Mennonite Conference delegates are expected to vote at their annual assembly Nov. 1 on whether to sever ties with Mennonite Church USA.

The voting options, to stay or to withdraw, are being submitted by the conference’s Executive Committee. Leaving MC USA would be a constitutional change and require a two-thirds majority.

No conference has withdrawn from MC USA in the denomination’s 12-year history.

Conference minister Duane Maust said Sept. 26 that Mountain States Mennonite Conference’s decision to license Theda Good, a pastor in a same-sex committed relationship, “probably was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“We had several congregations that were really on the edge of their support for the Mennonite church, and that just sort of made their point final,” he said. “It would be nice to keep everyone through this, but it is hard to see that happening.”

Delegates will meet at Des Allemands (La.) Mennonite Church.

With 12 congregations and about 700 members, Gulf States is one of MC USA’s smallest conferences.

Congregations are mainly in Mississippi and Louisiana, and also in Alabama and Arkansas. The conference is ethnically diverse, with several Native congregations, along with predominantly African-American, Cajun, Hispanic and Germanic churches.

Interest in the annual assembly is running higher than usual.

“I had a phone call yesterday with a pastor going through his numbers asking, ‘We could have one more delegate, couldn’t we?’ ” Maust said. “I didn’t have that conversation last year.”

Several churches would leave the conference if it decides to remain with MC USA, Maust said.

Some congregations could become independent. Maust said at least two churches feel fairly strongly that they want to remain with the denomination.

“It’s going to be difficult either way, no matter how the vote goes,” he said.

A local tragedy

For Maust, denominational controversies, when compared to a local tragedy, prompt the question, “Why can’t we just do church?”

In early September, he said, a fatal shooting occurred a couple of blocks from Jubilee Mennonite Church, the congregation in Meridian, Miss., that Maust pastors with his wife, Elaine. A man who had begun attending the church, Bobby Ray Armstrong, was shot six times. He died Sept. 8, the Meridian Star reported.

“Responding to that is church,” Maust said. “You are trying to meet some of those family’s needs, and you get caught up in this stuff. Let’s not lose focus of church and what church is.”

If the conference were to split or dissolve, implications would be felt at conference-owned Pine Lake Camp in Meridian, Miss. Many from the conference gathered there Oct. 4 for a benefit sale.

“Pine Lake Camp draws our conference together in a really unique way,” Maust said. “The camp is a nucleus for the conference.”

No matter what delegates decide, Gulf States faces a transition. Maust has resigned as conference minister, effective Nov. 1.

“I love these people. I dream of everyone staying together somehow. And that is still my dream,” he said. “I feel love for my people across this conference, and they all have good points. It is my love for these people that makes it so difficult for me.”

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