Lancaster Conference to leave Mennonite Church USA

Nov 20, 2015 by and

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Story updated Nov. 24

Lancaster Mennonite Conference announced Nov. 19 it will withdraw from Mennonite Church USA by the end of 2017.

Cross_churches_reduce1A proposal from the conference’s Board of Bishops was ratified by 82.3 percent of credentialed leaders, surpassing the two-thirds needed to pass.

The vote was 256 to 55, with about 80 percent of eligible leaders taking part.

“The announcement will likely be received in very different ways by leaders and congregations of Lancaster Mennonite Conference and across the denomination,” an LMC news release stated. “Leaders were encouraged to interact with others in loving and respectful ways and to pray for the Lord’s leading in the life of LMC in the days ahead.”

MC USA executive director Ervin Stutzman said he was disappointed in the development, though he had been anticipating it for some time.

“We will miss so much that Lancaster Conference has to offer us, and we have valuable gifts to share with them in return,” he said. “This does not mean, of course, that our relationship is ending. There will be many ways we stay in touch with each other over the next years.”

LMC moderator Keith Weaver is working with Terry Shue, MC USA director of leadership development, to draft an agreement outlining protocols for the two bodies during the transition period.

Withdrawal will be finalized on or before the end of 2017. Effective immediately, “congregations will function as non-participating in MC USA,” the proposal says, though congregations have the option to continue participating. Those that want to participate will need to inform the LMC office.

During the two-year implementation period, LMC will remain an area conference of MC USA to give time for congregations that wish to explore connections with the denomination, address legal matters and work out details between church agencies.

Lancaster is MC USA’s largest conference, with 13,838 members in 163 congregations in seven states, including Hawaii, and the District of Columbia.

Lancaster became a full member of MC USA in 2004 after a period of provisional membership.

Conference leaders

LMC moderator and bishop board member Keith Weaver did not return phone calls or emails in response to questions. Conference coordinator Joanne Dietzel provided an email on behalf of conference leadership Nov. 24.

“We are just beginning the two-year interim process of ending our affiliation with Mennonite Church USA,” she wrote. “Frankly, it is impossible to answer the questions you have raised because we do not know how the results of this decision will take shape over the next two years. At this point, we are not able to comment on the impact the decision will have on LMC congregations.”

She declined to comment further.

Samuel Lopez, a supervisor on the LMC bishop board and administrator of Concilio Hispano, the conference’s Spanish Mennonite Council of Churches, said the 22-church council was in 100 percent agreement about departing MC USA.

“Mostly because of how we perceive the LGBTQ agenda has been influencing MC USA, and the passing of the forbearance resolution at the Kansas City convention” in July, Lopez said.

Rifts and relationships

Stan Shantz, lead pastor of James Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, voted against withdrawing from MC USA.

“In many ways it didn’t really surprise me,” he said. “As I’ve been around here I felt it was moving in that direction.”

However, that does not mean his congregation is on the precipice of leaving the conference.

“There have been no decisions made,” Shantz said. “There will be a group of churches in the area that will be walking through this journey together in a time of discernment.

“We have a two-year window. I may have voted to stay with MC USA, but it’s really a congregational decision.”

He noted that most area churches have not entered a discernment process about their specific relationship to the denomination.

“To start doing that would be jumping ahead of the process,” he said. “We had to wait and see what Lancaster Mennonite Conference was doing.”

Bishop Richard Mininger of the Harrisburg District did not support leaving MC USA because he doesn’t believe Christians should sever relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ with whom they disagree.

“Now that my conference has made a decision with which I don’t agree, I need to apply that locally and continue to love my brothers and sisters in this conference and work together in cooperation,” he said.

His congregation, Slate Hill Mennonite Church, has already decided to continue participating with MC USA during the transition period.

Bishop Clair Good of the Elizabethtown and York districts said that while some congregations are uniform in their desire to part ways or stay with MC USA, others are not of one mind. The discernment process for those churches could take the full time through the end of 2017.

“It’s going to be a painful process for them as well; that is probably one of the most challenging parts of this process,” he said. “It creates a tension all the way down through the system.”

Good said “there’s no question” some churches loyal to MC USA will leave the conference.

“I think it’s clear that’s going to happen . . . but how to do that? Because most of the congregations wanted to stay in LMC as well,” he said. “They’re forced to make a decision one way or another. . . .

“There are good people the whole way across this thing, and people living by their convictions, so I’m hoping there’s a way forward in that.”

Service of lament

A group of theologically diverse pastors has been meeting together over the past couple of years for conversation, prayer and the Lord’s Supper, and is planning one way to move forward.

East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster will host a service of confession and lament at 7 p.m. Dec. 9. Lead pastor Todd Friesen said the service is intended for anyone, no matter how they voted.

“This gathering’s purpose is not to make statements or to cast blame but to help us release our brokenness and sorrow to God, knowing this is the only way we can begin to heal and move forward,” states publicity for the event.

MC USA connections

MC USA director of leadership development Terry Shue and denominational minister Nancy Kauffmann met with 20 to 25 LMC pastors Nov. 12 to discuss potentially continuing with MC USA. Shue said he has heard anywhere from 15 to 30 congregations have some level of interest in exploring such connections.

“They can join a conference of Mennonite Church USA, and there are three conferences stacked where Lancaster is, and another nearby, or they could start a new conference,” he said, but congregations cannot connect directly to MC USA, and the denomination does not hold credentials.

Shue said that while no MC USA bylaws prohibit a congregation from being a member of a member conference and another non-member organization, he and Kauffmann prefer not to have dual-conference congregations.

“We would not encourage that at all,” he said. “Too much energy from the congregation goes to the institutional structures of two conferences.”

Should there be interest in forming a new MC USA conference, it would not be able to join until the July 2017 MC USA convention in Orlando, Fla. Any new conference must first be recommended by the Constituency Leaders Council and approved by the Executive Board and convention delegates.

“I commend the leaders of Lancaster Conference for realizing one year is not enough for a shift like this, with so many agencies [connected to both Lancaster and MC USA] and the congregations who want to align with MC USA,” Shue said.

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  • Conrad Ermle

    It’s sad that it had to come to this. This all happened because a tiny minority pushed an aggressive sexual agenda not in accord with the settled teachings of the Anabaptist churches. The agenda required that tens of thousands of faithful biblical Anabaptist were being pushed to accept totally immoral and certainly godless lifestyles as acceptable. The politically correct agenda had and has no basis in Holy Scripture. The Anabaptist movement is a counter-cultural movement and must remain so, based entirely on the Word of God. Thousands will be leaving because of their God given calling which requires faithfulness to Holy Scripture. – Conrad Ermle

    • John M. Miller

      I feel sad when I read this mischaracterization of fellow Christians by Conrad. He may be firmly convinced of the rightness of his views, but to accuse others who are guided by the gospel of Jesus as responding to political correctness rather that being guided by the Holy Spirit is to falsify the issue. His harsh judgment about “totally immoral and certainly godless lifestyles” is slanderous of those who seek marriage rather than promiscuity. Lancaster Mennonite Conference has taken a step down the road of negativity and boundary drawing that respond more to inherited religious culture than to the dynamics of faith and Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his followers “that the world may believe.” EVANA has been founded on the primary impulse of rejecting inclusion of those brothers and sisters in Christ who have found God’s will for their lives in marriage in accordance with their God-given sexual orientation. I do not think that a movement based on negativism will gain great momentum.

      • Elaine Fehr

        Mr. Miller, with all earnestness I implore you to read Genesis 2 regarding God’s design for marriage, which He made to be between a man and a woman. Nowhere in this passage is there room for interpretation that the marital union may include two men or two women. Verses 22 to 25 makes it clear:

        “The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said,

        “This is now bone of my bones,
        And flesh of my flesh;
        She shall be called Woman,
        Because she was taken out of Man.”

        For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”

        You and many others have been deceived into thinking that homosexual activity in the context of marriage is God’s will. Where do you find biblical basis for that?

        • John M. Miller

          Ms. Fehr, I am well acquainted with the Genesis narratives. I understand them to represent a theology of God’s will for humanity that expresses and responds to the dominant pattern of human sexuality. I am also aware that Jesus referred to this creation account and developed from it his affirmation of the permanence of the marriage bond. I do not find in it, as you seem to do, an exclusive pattern that would forbid acceptance of those brothers and sisters in Christ who have found God’s
          will for their lives in marriage in accordance with their God-given
          sexual orientation. If you will look at v. 18, “The Lord God said, ‘It isn’t good for the man to live alone. I need to make a suitable partner for him.’” (CEV) I find in this as well as in 1 Cor. 7 support for the belief that God will is not violated in gay marriage.

          • Elaine Fehr

            It’s good to hear that you are well acquainted with the Genesis narratives. Then may I ask you what is the definition of “wife” in verse 24 which speaks to God’s design for marriage? ( “…a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.)

            As for 1 Corinthians 7, did you notice that there again it speaks to marriage as a union between a man and a woman? Verses 2-4: “…each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” This passage leaves no doubt about it. Marriage is a union that involves a “he” and a “she”, not a “he” and a “he” or a “she” and a “she”.

            Do not be deceived. Any marital arrangement other than what is specified in God’s word as His design for marriage is a contradiction to what He blesses.

          • John M. Miller

            Yes, Elaine, that’s the way it works for heterosexuals, the predominant pattern in society. I’m also aware of the verses that point to the permanence of marital relationships. I don’t find any bans in these texts of those relationships in which God’s recognition of the need for companionship by those who come the hand of the Creator differently gendered. But I do recognize that anyone basing their theology on this kind of text-proofing will not see where love can find its rightful expression in others who are different from themselves.

          • Joshua Rodd

            There’s also no recognition, anywhere, in scripture, of the idea that some people need marital companionship with someone of the same sex. That’s a new, innovative idea.
            The Bible is silent on a lot of topics. That doesn’t mean scripture gives tacit approval of every single thing it doesn’t talk about.

          • John M. Miller

            But there are commands to love and at least one passage in 1 Cor. 7 where Paul argues for marriage in those instances where sexual desire is so strong that it is better to marry than to burn. Based on the knowledge that same-sex desire is a given for some and that love of others as we love ourselves is required by Jesus, a logical conclusion is that same-sex marriage is a good thing for these persons. Gerald Schlabach has written a biblically based and well-argued essay on this.

          • Joshua Rodd

            The person who wrote 1 Corinthians 7 would not agree with the statement that it is logical for same-sex marriage to be good for someone who is same-sex attracted and who is burning. It’s a real distortion to use Paul’s writings to argue for something that he elsewhere spent plenty of ink railing against.

        • Conrad Ermle

          Elaine, you will notice the high priests of gay marriage cannot appeal to Holy Scripture to gain acceptance for their ideology, which is totally in opposition to our Anabaptist heritage and theology. The reason is simply because they are advocating ideas not sanctioned by the Word of God or the church. Anyone who dares to challenge their concepts are simply dismissed as old fashioned and full of judgement. It’s a political tactic, of course, and works with those who are looking for an excuse, but the faithful will not be so easily dismissed. You are right some of these people have been deceived by their own agenda into thinking that “homosexual activity in the context of marriage is God’s will”. There is no biblical basis for that. Some who advocate these sins are simply deceived, but a few are good hearted folks who don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and they mean well. Others are hopefully trying to justify the waywardness of a relative or friend. A few (hopefully very few) might even be seeking some kind of affirmation for their own misbehaviors in years gone by. – Conrad Ermle

  • Berry Friesen

    It was only this past June when Ervin Stutzman very publicly promised to do everything within his power to enable LMC congregations continue to be part of MCUSA, even if LMC decided to withdraw. Now his senior staff (Shue and Kauffmann) are quoted here as throwing stumbling blocks in the the most accessible pathway for that to happen.

    Shame on them.

    Down here in the trenches, where congregations have been handed the task of making difficult decisions without accelerating the splitting process, being part of LMC and another district conference is an important and necessary option. I wish Shue and Kauffman would stop telling my pastor, “Don’t do it.”

    • Conrad Ermle

      Shue and Kauffman speak only for themselves and do not speak for the membership of the MCUSA. They need to sit down and let the real leaders speak. Only then will there be any real effort toward reconciliation, based entirely on settled Anabaptist thought and teaching, based entirely on Holy Scripture, not the ideology of “senior staff”, whatever that means. – Conrad Ermle

      • John M. Miller

        Shue and Kauffman have positions within the administrative structure of MC USA. I wonder why Conrad Ermle, who as far as I know has no official capacity, considers it his prerogative to disrespect their voice in these serious discussions about church polity. I see wisdom in what they say as they seek to deal with the fallout of LMC’s disruptive decision.

    • J. Richard Thomas

      Before LC withdrew from MC USA its congregations had the option of being part of Lancaster but not MC USA. That seemed to be a good solution but sadly it was rejected by most leaders in LC.

      • John Gingrich

        Think about the logic of that statement. Lancaster conference belongs to MCUSA, the congregation belongs to Lancaster conference but the congregation doesn’t belong to MCUSA? That was not a solution, it was a fantasy, an impossibility.

        • Rich Preheim

          That was an option in the General Conference Mennonite Church, so it’s not an impossibility.

          • John Gingrich

            I used the word logic. If all A is B and all B is C then all A must be C. Maybe in the world of church organization the rules of logic are trumped by the rules of paradox? But in the rational mind of the people in LMC it seemed like belonging to a conference that belonged to MCUSA made it a member of the denomination. The opt-out option seemed like a fictional construct.

          • Rich Preheim

            I resent the implication that the church in
            which I grew up and which nurtured me was illogical. Such a stance is
            indicative of the ongoing marginalization of the General Conference Mennonite
            Church part of Mennonite Church USA’s legacy. It’s apparent that many MCUSA
            members of Mennonite Church background believe that their heritage —
            theological, historical, cultural and especially ecclesiological — is
            normative for the faith. Thus any differences can be dismissed and belittled.

        • Joshua Rodd

          Lancaster conference already has congregations that belong to Lancaster conference but are not associated with MC USA. As far as I know, they are the only conference that does this.
          This isn’t a question of a congregation here and there wanting to opt out – this is a matter of almost all the congregations in Lancaster not wanting to be part of MC USA. The few that do, cold consider being dual affiliated, or switch to another conference but maintain relations with Lancaster. I don’t see how that isn’t on the table.

          • John Gingrich

            I’m obviously not very good at explaining my point. I didn’t intend to insult any person or any part of the MCUSA. I tried to explain why many in LMC did not find the opt-out option a satisfactory answer to their discomfort with the denomination. It is a moot point now with the decision by LMC to leave the denomination so I was unwise in beginning this whole discussion with my original response to Mr. Thomas. Apologies and best wishes to all.

    • John M. Miller

      Berry, apparently you have information that is not public knowledge unless Shue and Kauffman telling my pastor, “Don’t do it” is a reference to the statement in this article that Shue and Kauffmann prefer not to have dual-conference congregations because “Too much energy from the congregation goes to the institutional structures of two conferences.”

      I see logic in that position. For some years I pastored Dallas Mennonite Fellowship with membership in South Central and Western District Conferences. It was burdensome and I wished for the conferences to get their act together in one structure.

      It seems to me the ramifications of LMC’s decision will and maybe should result in it losing congregations that are more open to acceptance of inclusive marriage and that find value in a denominational structure. I’m not sure why you find that undesirable considering that LMC has succumbed to its restrictive boundary setting culture.

      • Berry Friesen

        Why does “logic” not rule? Let me begin to count the ways. Because Christ calls us to unity and to reconciliation. Because of a long history of warm and empowering relationships. Because we have a ministry one to the other. Because we value diversity. Because the witness of Scripture is to act with compassion toward those with whom we disagree, not scorn or punishment. Because we want to practice what we preach. Because . . . .

        • John M. Miller

          It would seem to me your logic would deplore LMC’s action. Do you see any way those who accept gay marriage can find an organizational home in LMC? Unity, reconciliation, and warm relationships require some place for diversity, and LMC has shut the door on that possibility. Not?

  • John Bekert

    Whenever the Bible mentions marriage, it is between a male and a female. The first mention of marriage,Genesis 2:24, describes it as a man leaving his parents and being united to his wife. In passages that contain instructions regarding marriage, such as 1 Corinthians 7:2-16 and Ephesians 5:23-33, the Bible clearly identifies marriage as being between a man and a woman. Biblically speaking, marriage is the lifetime union of a man and a woman, primarily for the purpose of building a family and providing a stable environment for that family.

  • Scott Eley

    I am an outsider to the Mennonites, but I am a Christian. Having read the comments by those in this debate, I applaud those taking a stand on this issue. It is one thing to have differences regarding doctrines Christians can differ on, but marriage between a male and female is foundational for a society to exist, and is the only marriage supported by the Bible. It takes much courage and integrity to stand against the moral decay in our culture. I believe the silence of our churches and pastors is a big reason our culture is turning against the Lord, so it is refreshing to see churches and pastors standing with the Lord. If we do not stand for truth and holiness now, the day may come when our government will prohibit pastors from speaking the truth.

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