Learning to leave well

Doing better at church splits

Mar 27, 2015 by

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We need to find a new way to talk about the congregations that are leaving Mennonite Church USA: They’re not leaving us; we’re getting divorced.

Leaving is something you do after four OK Cupid dates. But we have shared assets. We have children together (Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Mission Network, Everence) and we have the same parent (Mennonite World Conference). Do you want to stay involved in your children’s lives? Do you want to stay connected to your ex-in laws? How will you negotiate custody on holidays like Relief Sale and Schmeckfest? Churches aren’t “leaving” — they’re moving out of the house we’ve shared for 60 years.

This metaphor is scary. The church is still, though sometimes only technically, opposed to divorce. How can we talk about “divorcing well” if it’s something we’re not supposed to do at all? If what Clinton Frame Mennonite Church, near Goshen, Ind., actually did was divorce MC USA’s Indiana-Michigan Conference, then both parties need a moment of self-reflection, self-discovery, and learning how to live separately. Self-reflection is hard, but what I’ve noticed recently is how much churches are struggling to live separately. I’d like to make a few suggestions for areas of self-reflection. To keep this from getting too dark, I’ll intersperse the self-reflection with some semi-applicable, keeping-with-the-metaphor pop love songs.

There are many churches out there singing “Give Me One Reason to Stay Here,” by Tracy Chapman, walking as slowly as they can. They keep holding out for the delegate assembly happening in Kansas City in July, like it will give them one reason to stay here and they can turn right back around. If you’re the sort of church demanding discipline for Mountain States Mennonite Conference, Kansas City won’t make you change your mind. The church is simply too divided, too opinionated and too diverse to agree on punishing a conference — a conference that includes, by the way, churches that oppose homosexuality.

I’m not aware of liberal churches who plan to walk out of MC USA, but if they’re there, this applies to them, too. But it seems some congregations are out there, trying to take away their cake and eat it, too.

Emma Green noted this, briefly, in her Atlantic article, “Schisms Over Same-Sex Marriage in the Mennonite Church.” At Allegheny Conference’s annual assembly:

The attendance rolls showed that some of the more conservative churches had brought along as many delegates as they were allowed — even churches whose members usually didn’t show up to conference meetings.

There are congregations who are on their way out the door who are stretching out their goodbye.

Another scenario that happens and can blur some lines is when a church votes to withdraw from their conference. They should attend the assembly meeting where they will be released, and say goodbye to their friends or acquaintances. But they should not vote on conference budgets or engage in discussion about future plans. If you’re divorced, you need to stop messing with your ex’s finances. That isn’t healthy.

I’ve heard concerns about this in other conferences, and I see it happening in Illinois Conference. Congregations who are upset about women in ministry dig in their heels on GLBTQ issues. If you’re concerned about women in ministry, you should perhaps first accept that you’re at variance with the Mennonite polity for ministerial leadership. There are congregations promising to leave, but dragging out the divorce as long as they can. It’s like they’re singing “If I Fall, You’re Going Down with Me,” by the Dixie Chicks as they go.

To be clear: this is a small minority of churches. The much larger plurality of moderate and conservative churches are still making up their minds, still practicing discernment and wondering what God is calling them to in the wide mess between the extremes. To those churches I say: let’s talk. Let’s sit down at convention and complain about the food and get to know each other and figure out if we can do this complicated thing called church together. It could be a forever kind of conversation or we might go down in flames. But I’ve got blank spaces all over my convention schedule, and I’d love to write your name.

For the most conservative block — I don’t mean that disparagingly, you are simply the ones most certain that God is not calling you to stay in this relationship — you’ve been so injured that leaving is what you need to do to heal. To those congregations — if you’ve done your best to proclaim the gospel to the churches you think have misunderstood it, if you’ve tried to cure the sick, cleanse the leapers and cast out demons, and if you’ve found the denomination unresponsive: don’t stand in the doorway watching your ex-love go about her life without you. Leave the town and shake the dust off your feet as you go. Jesus said something like that. So did Taylor Swift. So take their advice, and shake us off.

Hillary Watson is a full-time Mennonite pastor in suburban Chicago. She tweets about the Mennonite church @stuffmennossay, and blogs at gatheringthestones.com, where this first appeared.


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