Issues make polity book a must-read

Should delegates be asked to approve revised ministerial manual?

Nov 3, 2014 by and

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Mennonite Church USA’s new ministerial polity handbook has drawn more attention than such a document usually would, due to its potential impact on issues of sexuality and credentialing authority.

mennomedia polity manual coverSince the book was finished this spring, leaders have been considering whether to ask the delegate assembly to approve it next summer in Kansas City.

Allowing delegates to vote on it could lead to delegate floor debates over issues such as a ban on same-sex marriage covenants and who holds authority over ministry credentials.

The statement that forbids same-sex covenants currently is found in the Membership Guidelines, a 2001 document that delegates approved when MC USA was formed. Its addition to the ministerial polity document is new.

After its Oct. 6-8 meeting, the MC USA Constituency Leaders Council advised the Executive Board about who should approve the document, A Shared Understanding of Church Leadership: Polity Manual for Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA.

Patricia Shelly, moderator-elect of MC USA, said CLC table group responses were across the board, but a few things stood out.

“There is a sense from most comments that the EB should adopt this statement with the recommendation of CLC, though some think the delegates should vote to approve it,” said Shelly, who led the meeting.

Many responses said delegates need an opportunity to discuss the theology and practice in the manual, she said.

She also noted a strong awareness of the section on same-sex unions as a likely flashpoint of discussion with delegates.

“But there was no clear counsel about whether this section should remain or be removed from the manual,” she said.

Ervin Stutzman, executive director of MC USA, said he anticipates the Executive Board will decide in January what the approval process should be.

‘The world has changed’

The binational document is a revision of a 1996 book. It outlines what congregations and conferences generally practice in calling, hiring and credentialing ministers, said Nancy Kauffmann, denominational minister for MC USA. It also includes guidelines for ethical behavior.

“We were updating and clarifying those points, to bring more consistency and to enhance what was already in place,” she said.

Kauffmann worked with Terry Shue, director for leadership development of MC USA, and Karen Martens Zimmerly, MC Canada denominational minister, on the revision.

Every church document has a shelf life, Shue said, and this one, written before the merger that created MC USA, was out of date.

“We were, as denominational ministers, feeling that the previous version was not serving us as well as it could be,” Shue said. “The world has changed drastically in the last 20 years, and that is probably alone enough reason to say, ‘Oh, it’s time to revise the polity handbook.’ ”

The revision process began in 2011 and incorporated input from ministers, leaders, young and old and racial-ethnic members.

MC Canada has approved the document through its faith formation council. Kauffmann said the revision team expected the Executive Board would also easily approve it for MC USA. But because of current church conversations, the board decided the book would be printed as a working document to allow more time to decide how to approve it.

Questions regarding denominational authority in credentialing ministers rose this year when Mountain States Mennonite Conference licensed Theda Good, a Colorado pastor in a same-sex covenanted relationship. The Executive Board said the denomination would not recognize her licensing.

Moving a guideline

One small part of the 72-page document is of particular concern to some.

Pages 70-71 include Section Three of the Membership Guidelines, which says pastors “may not perform a same-sex covenant ceremony.” Such action is “grounds for review of their credentials by their area conference’s ministerial credentialing body.”

“The conference ministers said in a letter to national staff [in 2011] that they wanted the prohibition moved,” Shue said.

A guideline for ministers makes more sense in a ministerial handbook, pastors reasoned.

The ban on same-sex covenants is in the Membership Guidelines because it was part of the negotiations that led to the 2001 merger of the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church, Shue said.

“It was essentially the glue that held together the negotiations in order for the merger to happen,” he said. “The prohibition was very out of place, but it was essential. It was there to get certain congregations to agree on this.”

But not all conferences agree with it now, if they ever did.

“That fact is causing a great amount of stress,” Shue said.

This summer in Western District Conference, delegates discussed but did not act on a resolution that would allow their congregations and pastors to perform same-sex ceremonies “without fear of censure.”

“We’ve [told Western District] that passing such a resolution would be unilaterally declaring that the agreements made early on are no longer valid,” Shue said. “It will make that glue not strong enough to hold us together.”

Some wonder whether the new document will carry too much authority if brought to the assembly, Shue said. Others think delegate approval will give it the authority it needs.

Eye on the future

The questions being discussed today address only a small part of what the revision process accomplished, Kauffmann said.

The writers updated all the language with an eye on the church’s future and mission.

“We wanted to write a book that was oriented to the church we want to become,” Shue said. “We hope that this polity document reflects in its language the missional church God has called us to be part of, to join what God is doing in the world.”

From years of experience as a minister, Kauffmann knows the importance of these guidelines.

“We can hurt each other when we don’t have some agreed-upon understanding of how we will manage with consistency and integrity,” she said.

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