MC USA survey reveals divides on inclusion, organization

Jan 5, 2015 by and

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A new survey reports credentialed leaders in Mennonite Church USA have diverse views about membership and leadership roles for gay and lesbian people and about how the denomination might organize itself differently.

The survey, conducted by Elizabethtown (Pa.) College sociology professor Conrad Kanagy in August, was released Jan. 5 by the MC USA Executive Board.

A committee assigned to explore options for restructuring the denomination will use the survey results in its work. The committee plans to bring an action to delegates at the MC USA convention June 30-July 5 in Kansas City, Mo.

About 2,000 credentialed leaders — including pastors currently serving congregations, people working outside a congregational role and retirees — received the survey. Two-thirds, or 1,323 people, responded. Pastors currently serving congregations make up 60 percent of the respondents.

Regarding inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, 43 percent want to be part of a church that “upholds the vision of marriage expressed in the [MC USA] Membership Guidelines, which prohibit same-sex relationships, even if losses occur.” Of those in active congregational pastoral assignments, that amount is 51 percent.

Sixteen percent want to be part of a fully inclusive fellowship “even if losses occur.” On the other hand, 41 percent value unity to the extent that they are “willing to live with ongoing differences.” A slightly lower amount, 37 percent of those in pastoral assignments, prioritize such unity.

Opinions are more split concerning organizational alternatives. The current structure is satisfactory to 23 percent, while one quarter wish to reorganize to make area conferences the center of credentialing authority. Another quarter are not sure; 15 percent prefer congregations to do the credentialing; 11 percent want to give more authority to the Executive Board; and a little more than 1 percent would dissolve the denomination in favor of fully independent congregations.

In his report summary, Kanagy said a pastor’s LGBTQ perspective was connected to organizational desires.

“Of those against LGBTQ membership, 89.2 percent support upholding the historic teaching position even if this results in membership losses,” he says. “Only 10.8 percent support the alternative of unity in the midst of diversity on the issue of sexuality.”

LGBTQ roles

“In terms of views on both LGBTQ membership and leadership, Mennonite Church USA leaders have shifted dramatically,” writes Kanagy in his report. He compares the 2006 Church Member Profile survey, which he directed, with the current survey and cites two changes:

  • In 2006, 14 percent of credentialed leaders stated they would accept a “practicing homosexual” as an ordained minister in their congregation. Today, 46 percent would.
  • In 2006, 66 percent of leaders said they would not accept a “practicing homosexual” as a member of a congregation. Today, 47 percent would not accept an LGBTQ person who is not celibate as a member.

Only 8 percent feel there is no condition in which an LGBTQ individual can be a member of an MC USA congregation. The greatest amount, 39 percent, think only those who remain celibate should be members. Full membership without conditions was preferred by 32 percent, followed by 21 percent who think only those who are celibate or in a committed, monogamous relationship should be able to be members.

Regarding congregational leadership, including pastoral roles, for LGBTQ people, 36 percent think the opportunity should only be for the celibate. This is followed by the “celibate or committed relationship” option, with 26 percent support, followed by full opportunities at 20 percent and under no circumstances whatsoever at 19 percent.

Age proved to be a strong indicator of outlook, but opinions do not move on a consistent path from young to old, as Kanagy notes: “The least support for LGBTQ membership is among those between 36 and 45 years of age.”

Among 18- to 35-year-olds, 66 percent support LGBTQ membership, though this age group represents only 9 percent of respondents. Forty-five percent of 36- to 45-year-olds support membership, followed by 51 percent of 46- to 55-year-olds, 55 percent of 56- to 65-year-olds and 53 percent of those older than 66.

Gender was even more closely related to views of LGBTQ membership and leadership. Since a 2006 MC USA profile, female credentialed leaders have increased from 17 to 26 percent. Of women in current congregational assignments, 51 percent support LGBTQ membership without conditions, compared to 21 percent of men. Among those who would limit leadership opportunities to those who remain celibate, men outnumber women 44 to 24 percent.

Conference views

Attitudes about LGBTQ membership and leadership are sharply divided by conference. At least two-thirds of current pastors in Franklin, Gulf States, Lancaster, New York, North Central, Ohio, South Central and Southeast conferences oppose LGBTQ membership. Fewer than one-third of current pastors in Central District, Illinois, Mountain States, Pacific Northwest and Western District conferences oppose LGBTQ membership.

Regarding denominational structure, the greatest number of respondents indicate a desire to keep things as they are or say they do not know. But some conferences had majorities favoring greater power at the Executive Board level or greater autonomy for conferences or congregations.

“Conferences that are more likely to support the historic teaching position on sexuality are more likely to affirm stronger denominational authority or to affirm the current arrangement,” Kanagy reports. “Those with more progressive views of same-sex relations are more likely to support strengthening of the authority of area conferences.”

Lancaster was most represented with 18 percent of survey respondents, followed by Indiana-Michigan (11), Ohio (10), Virginia (9) and Franconia and Western District (7 each). Eight conferences each represented 2 percent or less of the results.

“While the [survey] results reflect the tenuousness and fragility of Mennonite Church USA as well as the fissures within the denomination, they also reveal congregations actively pursuing God’s purposes, experiencing God’s presence and influencing the communities around them,” wrote Kanagy in his conclusion.

In a Dec. 17 email, executive director Ervin Stutzman and moderator Elizabeth Soto Albrecht invited survey respondents to pray about and ponder the survey’s meaning.

“Do not dwell on the negative,” they wrote. “Rather, stand back and try to comprehend the larger picture — the canvas on which this portrait is painted — the historical context for today and tomorrow.”

The full text of Kanagy’s report, an executive summary and an appendix containing tables of data are online at mennoniteusa.org/survey-results.


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