New group to offer alternative to MC USA

Ohio meeting plans for a network emphasizing evangelism, accountability

Jan 23, 2015 by and

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HARTVILLE, Ohio — A new Anabaptist network of churches that expects to attract some who leave Mennonite Church USA plans to launch in the fall, organizers announced during a consultation Jan. 16-17 at Hartville Mennonite Church.

From left, Matthew Williams, pastor of South Union Mennonite Church in West Liberty, Ohio; Nehemiah Chigoji, pastor of Upland (Calif.) Peace Church; Sanford Yoder, pastor of Asheville (N.C.) Mennonite Church; and Allen Lehman, Franklin Mennonite Conference minister of Chambersburg, Pa., take part in a time of anointing at the “Reimagining New Life Together” consultation in Hartville, Ohio. — Kelli Yoder/MWR

From left, Matthew Williams, pastor of South Union Mennonite Church in West Liberty, Ohio; Nehemiah Chigoji, pastor of Upland (Calif.) Peace Church; Sanford Yoder, pastor of Asheville (N.C.) Mennonite Church; and Allen Lehman, Franklin Mennonite Conference minister of Chambersburg, Pa., take part in a time of anointing at the “Reimagining New Life Together” consultation in Hartville, Ohio. — Kelli Yoder/MWR

The event, “Reimagining New Life Together,” attracted about 170 people, largely former or current members of MC USA from Ohio, Indiana-Michigan, Lancaster, South Central, Franklin and New York conferences, among others.

Participants discussed a working document of the new entity’s vision, values and core commitments. They explored what the group might look like in regard to structure, authority, accountability, theological unity, evangelism and the role of women, among other things.

“I don’t think it is unreasonable to think that there may be at least 100 congregations or more that decide to become a part of the new network over the course of the next year,” said Matt Hamsher, a member of the consultation’s steering committee, in an email after the meeting.

“We don’t see ourselves as a small splinter group but as a group that can articulate deeply felt beliefs and a vision that will resonate with a large number of congregations.”

Lloyd Hoover, a member of the event’s listening committee and a bishop/overseer in Lancaster Conference, announced the anticipated launch.

“We have a mandate that calls for a courageous people, a radical people to carry forth what Jesus has put in front of us as a great commission, . . . a mandate for creating a church home where individuals can live out what they sense is their call to faithfulness in carrying forth this message,” he said.

The group is still developing a name.

Voice for renewal

People interested in forming an alternative to MC USA began talking last year after Mountain States Mennonite Conference licensed Theda Good, a lesbian pastor at First Mennonite Church in Denver, according to Hamsher, the pastor of Longenecker Mennonite Church in Winesburg.

Differences within MC USA over authority, membership guidelines and sexuality had been surfacing for a while, Ham­sher said. Good’s licensing clarified some of those differences.

Eastern Mennonite University’s re-examination of its hiring policy that prohibits hiring people in same-sex relationships sparked more conversation.

“Lacking a clear path forward [in MC USA] led a lot of people to say, ‘OK, where is the hope for renewal within the church?’ ” Hamsher said.

A desire for renewal led them to Anabaptist Renewal Circles, a group that emerged from within MC USA after the 2011 convention in Pittsburgh out of concern for the church’s spiritual health.

“We sense that we have some common understanding, some common goals,” Hamsher said.

Many met for the first time while networking at ARC’s first national conference in July.

Those interested in forming a new church asked for ARC’s help in convening a consultation.

Sunoko Lin, an ARC leader who was on the consultation’s steering committee, said ARC facilitated the weekend but will remain a movement within MC USA and won’t be officially involved with the new church.

“When [the new group] shared their inspiration, their dreams, their hopes, it connected well with the purpose of ARC,” said Lin, pastor of Maranatha Christian Fellowship in Northridge, Calif. ARC supports spiritual renewal with a mission focus, so this was a way to help with “new life emerging,” Lin said.

“My hope is for them to flourish and be the vessel of God’s word,” he said.

ARC invited three speakers who addressed spiritual renewal and mission, in between table conversations: Wesley Furlong, lead pastor at Cape Christian Fellowship in Cape Coral, Fla.; Bishop Leslie Francisco, pastor of Calvary Community Church in Hampton, Va.; and Howard Wag­ler, lead pastor of Journey Mennonite Church in Kansas, with locations in South Hutchinson, Yoder and McPherson.

Keep in touch

MC USA executive director Ervin Stutzman offered a brief blessing.

“I lament that Mennonite Church USA cannot be all that we want it to be for all of us,” he said. But he noted there are “hundreds of people in Mennonite Church USA who left other fellowships because those fellowships weren’t for them.”

Whether they leave or stay, all should keep in touch with each other, Stutzman said.

“I bless you to be in renewal in ways that keep building those bridges so we go back and forth and see what God is doing with each other,” he said.

Hamsher said that’s what he hopes for the new network.

“We would like to set a tone that would follow Ervin’s modeling for us the way to continue relationships, even if it’s not the relationships that are inhabited by official structure,” he said.

Still Anabaptist

Hamsher, who facilitated the table discussions, said a big question was how the new network’s polity, or governance, would differ from MC USA’s.

The network’s working document includes vision and identity statements, four values and eight common commitments.

The four values include obedience to God, faithfulness to Jesus, transformation through the Holy Spirit and “embodiment of the Anabaptist tradition in our contemporary context.”

The first commitment says the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, which MC USA and Mennonite Church Canada use, “serves as a description of our common belief and practice and as a standard for accountability.”

Hamsher sees differences in how the new network of churches will live out the Confession in contrast to MC USA.

“One big difference would be looking for clarity in polity and common understanding in where authority lies and how it can and should be exercised,” he said.

The group plans to use significant financial resources for mission and church planting.

“There has not been a desire to leave Anabaptism or to lose our Anabaptist identity,” Hamsher said. “We had questions about how well that word communicates to those around us, but we are committed to be in that tradition.”

Nancy Rodriguez-Lora left the consultation feeling excited. She attended on behalf of the congregation she pastors, True Vine Tabernacle in Elkhart, Ind.

“I feel like there’s some things to pray about and think about. Nothing’s going to be perfect,” she said. “But I feel a leading of the Holy Spirit.”

She will bring her observations back to her congregation’s leaders. The church will wait to decide whether to leave MC USA until after the delegate assembly in Kansas City in July.

But she doesn’t have much hope for major change. Without change, she said, “we’re probably going to fold with this new structure.”

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