What is Lancaster doing right?

Jan 8, 2016 by

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We have a phrase around here: “Chicago over Everything.” It means we have mad love for the city when they do something right, and when the city messes up, we keep our pride and stay loyal.

I’m starting to believe Lancaster Mennonite Conference has a similar phrase, because these days the shout rising up seems to be “Lancaster over Everything.” How odd that when Iglesia Menonita Hispana, the body of Spanish-speaking Mennonite congregations in the U.S., met together in November, the question appeared to be “Can we, as a body, stay affiliated with Mennonite Church USA, given their (ambiguous) stance on homosexuality?” Instead, it became clear that those answering “no” were almost all in Lancaster Conference and already planning to leave the denomination.

So IMH remains part of the denomination, albeit with 25 percent of congregations moving on. Most Spanish-speaking churches want to stay in MC USA. But those who are connected to Lancaster conference, when given the choice, have chosen Lancaster over everything. So once again, our church split is confoundingly geographic. Something about Lancaster Conference is the greatest thing since sliced bread, at least for those who are part of it.

I think it means Lancaster is doing something right. Even if you want to pinpoint Lancaster as a sectarian clique, those who are in the group are so far in they can’t imagine being without its resources and connections. Lancaster is creating a close-knit group with shared goals and collaboration. They have a clear sense of mission and purpose. They know the value of the regional group and feel strongly that it enhances their ministry and connections. Their identity is Lancaster.

When I talked to one of the IMH pastors this summer in Kansas City, asking him how things were going, he said, “Things are great! I’m getting credentialed through Lancaster. They’re great.” He’s most connected to Lancaster. He was unimpressed with MC USA, not only believes they’re going the wrong direction, but doesn’t see the assets of their ministry. Lancaster has clear beliefs and clear assets. To lose the conference is to lose a huge amount of resources, spiritual, academic, practical, relational and even financial.

Lancaster has a sense of identity, mission and purpose that many area conferences are struggling to find. Lancaster is cohesive in a way that other area conferences just can’t grasp. If Lancaster merges with the newly formed EVANA network, it will be EVANA riding on the strength of Lancaster’s sturdy foundation.

A cynic might argue that this cohesive identity comes from a destructive simplistic thinking pattern that solidifies identity by focusing on condemning what they are not. And yes, geography and church density gives Lancaster a leg up over the sprawling western conferences. You could also argue that this strong sense of identity is also destructive because it cultivates institutional loyalty–over everything.

But we’re part of a denomination — at some level, we do value institutional loyalty. And we’re strongly localized, with the area conferences tasked with many of the day-to-day supervision tasks, including holding and removing credentials among leadership. It doesn’t serve us within Mennonite Church USA to scoff at Lancaster when they are doing something that works.

Many regional conferences struggle to do identity-building. They struggle to articulate why area conferences matter. They struggle to find what function of theirs is most useful to their pastors, and pastors struggle to articulate what else they need. Can other area conferences strengthen their sense of unity and identity? What would it take to do so? Charismatic personalities, stronger relationships, more frequent meetings, more money, more relevant and useful resources? Is it possible that area conferences don’t matter so much unless they’re in a smaller geographic area?

I do not want my area conference to imitate Lancaster’s authoritarian, all-male leadership board. I don’t think that would bolster our sense of identity. But before Lancaster goes out the door, maybe we should interview the pastors who are leaving, ask them, “What did Lancaster give you that makes you put this institution over everything?” Don’t tell me because they’re right; millions of people all over the world stay married, too, not because their partner has the right orthodoxy but because there’s something to the orthopraxy of this relationship. Something in it works.

Something in Lancaster is working, and it’s something that’s not always working in other area conferences. But in collapse, there is growth. How can MC USA learn from Lancaster and in so doing, strengthen the mission, purpose and identity of each of the remaining area conferences?

Hillary Watson is a full-time Mennonite pastor in suburban Chicago. She blogs at gatheringthestones.com, where this first appeared.


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  • Aaron Yoder

    Hillary, this is a helpful article which could serve to build up MC USA and the area conferences. Thank you for highlighting how a larger body (even an institution) can be healthy as it cares for both it’s values and it’s people.

  • John Gingrich

    I appreciate the respectful tone of this article and I am not speaking for anyone in LMC or LMC leadership because I am only a person in the pew. But my anecdotal perception of the dynamic of the LMC actions do not match some of the assumptions of Hillary in this article. I don’t think that a LMC loyalty or a strong group identity is the motivation for the decision to leave the denomination. LMC was falling apart and many churches were taking steps toward a future outside the conference if the status quo was maintained. Many churches had already made that move. This is the opposite of a strong conference loyalty. The churches were ready to walk away from the conference because to use a word of Hillary’s, the orthopraxy of the denomination was diverging from their traditional convictions. Last summer’s Kansas City decisions seemed to confirm this reality so conference leadership had to decide how to deal with the growing rebellion to MCUSA at the congregational level. The decision is obviously not unanimous but with the percentages of the two votes it seems the consensus is strong. LMC’s future is far from certain but at least there is now the clarity of a decision. The congregations will now decide if the conference is a comfortable place for their beliefs and their fellowship

  • Stephen S. Weaver

    This is a hopeful query for MC USA. I also appreciate John Gingrich’s correctives. From an insider’s perspective, I do not think many realize how tenuous LMC’s existence was (is). We experience the wasteland that is North American Christianity too. It will take a long-sought renewal, humble conversion and meaningful reform for us “to pull the plane out of the dive.”
    What animates me and those I serve is that He “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.” If this was an institution primarily directed and animated by humans, there would be cause for despair. “To him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
    – Stephen S. Weaver