MC USA board member resigns after same-sex wedding

May 23, 2016 by and

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A member of the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board has resigned after officiating a same-sex wedding May 21 in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Isaac Villegas

Villegas

Virginia Mennonite Conference suspended Isaac Villegas’ credentials on May 25, citing ministerial misconduct.

Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, announced his board resignation in a May 23 letter to MC USA delegates. He cited a policy, approved by the board in February, that “we expect board members to honor our decisions and the documents we are trusted to uphold.”

A member of the board’s executive committee, Villegas wrote that when he shared his intentions at a February board meeting, the board counseled him to resign because the act would put him at variance with the denomination’s Membership Guidelines, which delegates reaffirmed at last summer’s convention.

“I hope we will soon find ways to commit ourselves to grace, love and forbearance for every member of Christ’s body, even as we have different ways of living out our convictions regarding same-sex relationships,” he wrote. “I hope that soon we will loosen the grip upon our lives of the denomination’s teaching position regarding sexuality; that soon we will no longer teach that queer desire is sinful; that soon we will let our churches bless those who wish to marry, whether gay or straight.”

Virginia Mennonite Conference recently clarified a policy of immediately suspending the credentials of a pastor who conducts a same-sex wedding.

Villegas said that before the change, procedures called for the pastors who perform such ceremonies to be categorized as “at variance.” In both cases, credentials would be suspended.

VMC Faith and Life Commission chair Patsy Seitz said the procedures, approved by the commission on April 15, call for a one-year suspension while the pastor remains in place with the congregation.

Restoration of credentials may be considered near the end of the suspension “to confirm that the breach of trust has been healed and that mutual understandings of credentialed expectations are agreed.”

“I think that’s where we’ll have to be in conversation with each other, because my sense is there will not be a change of perspective,” Seitz said.

Discernment process

About three years ago, Chapel Hill Fellowship began a discernment process on the roles of gay and lesbian people. The 18- month process included Bible study; outside speakers, including conference officials; discernment and reflection.

“We decided that we would commit to not using someone’s sexuality or gender identity as a criteria as we consider them for membership,” Villegas said.

He said the decision led to later agreement that no member should be excluded from any ordinance of the church, including weddings. Villegas officiated the May 21 wedding for two women with ties to the congregation.

Virginia Conference’s Faith and Life Commission was kept up to date at every stage.

“In all of our discussions with our conference minister and the Faith and Life Commission, they did not seem willing to change their minds about the policy of the conference regarding people who are gay and lesbian, despite our congregational discernment,” Villegas said. “They seemed to be unwilling to listen to what our congregation was discerning about the direction of the Holy Spirit.”

The congregation has no plans to leave the conference.

“We decided we belong in Virginia Mennonite Conference, and we decided not to pursue [other] options but to be who we are with people who have been part of our lives in our Mennonite community, for which we are grateful,” he said.

Sad decision

Since Villegas was appointed to the board in 2013, he has chaired the MC USA resolutions committee. He said his resignation came with sadness.

“The board has to manage a diversity of theological convictions in our denomination, and I understand their perspective on what is most helpful for board members to do and not do,” he said. “So for those reasons I can understand why it is helpful to not have a member of the board who doesn’t follow part III of the Membership Guidelines.”

Part III says pastors may not perform same-sex weddings.

MC USA moderator Patty Shelly said May 24 that when Villegas shared his plans at the board’s February meeting, other board members’ feedback was not unanimous, and no official action was taken. She expected that responses to his resignation at the board’s June 2-4 meetings in Orlando, Fla., would also be diverse.

“Isaac is much loved on the board,” she said. “He has been an exceptional board member.”

Executive director Ervin Stutzman said this was the first time a board member had resigned over incompatibility with the Membership Guidelines.

“Isaac is a wonderful person,” he said. “. . . He’s been an effective board member and executive committee member.”

Stutzman said it was clear to both board members and MC USA staff that not everyone agrees with and supports every policy.

“The board has a policy that says they welcome diversity of perspectives, and we have that,” he said. “But the question is, in what way are the board members expected to support the majority of the decisions of the board?”


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  • Scott Smith

    “The congregation has no plans to leave the conference.” I’m wondering why affirming congregations don’t join United Church of Christ or Metropolitan Community Church rather than battling the status quo. I’m puzzled because, after I became a pacifist, I came across the 1995 Confession of Faith and left my previous denomination (rather than battle it) to join MC USA and VMC. Yes, I left a previous community but gained a new one with a more compatible common cause.

    Scott Smith

    • Steven Stubble

      Good question, Scott, and I think I can answer it for you. For affirming Mennonite congregations, churches like United, Metropolitan etc., still engage in too many activities that are expressly forbidden in Scripture: smoking, serving in the police force, clear-cut logging and non-dolphin-free fishing are things that would taint a progressive church and cannot be tolerated under any circumstances. So you see, there are still some people you have to exclude if you want to remain inclusive!

  • James Regier

    This development is saddening. Two resolutions were passed at this last convention. One for forbearance, the other to maintain the present documents for MCUSA. The former was passed by a much wider margin than the latter. Yet apparently some members of the Executive Board have ignored the former while using the latter to push Mr. Villegas to resign. As Patty Shelly says, his resignation was neither an Executive Board decision, nor was it all board members who put such pressure on Villegas. The fact remains, his resignation under pressure represents the greatest challenge yet of the Executive Board’s credibility in claiming to maintain an atmosphere of good faith forbearance and dialogue.

    This challenge is doubled for Virginia Conference. Not only have they chosen to suspend Mr. Villegas’ credentials, but they have accused him of “breaching trust”. This accusation is questionable, considering his congregation’s consensus decision to affirm him officiating in such weddings was public, and that Villegas discussed the decision with the conference before hand. The accusation becomes downright sinister when one considers that the same conference has yet to take action of any kind regarding a growing sexual abuse scandal at Lindale Mennonite Church in which the pastors allegedly chose the comfort of an abuser over the safety of an abused person within the congregation.

    I sincerely hope that this coming Executive Board meeting will have two sustained and open discussions, with full, unfettered press access. First, the Board must formally decide whether to accept Villegas’ resignation. Let those board members who wish to support Villegas come forward. Similarly, let those who wish to oppose forbearance come forward. Secondly, the Board must have a formal discussion into precisely what it means to condemn sexual abuse within our denomination and what those implications are.

    • Berry Friesen

      To evaluate what you are saying about VMC, James, it would help to know what promises Rev. Villegas made to VMC when he asked them to credential/empower him as one of its ministers.

      Can someone provide the language of his promises?

      MCUSA has a recently affirmed teaching position on sexuality. I don’t fully agree with it, but then I do not wield any authority vested in me by a district conference or by MCUSA. So I’m pretty sure I will be given latitude in my points of dissent by my congregation, my conference and the denomination.

      So think of me and Ervin Stutzman as two ends of a continuum: I have received no authority from my church, Ervin has been designated its spokesperson and CEO.

      Obviously, Ervin should not stick around if he publicly disagrees with the teaching position of the church, right? What about the Moderator? Moderator-elect? What about Executive Committee members? Plain old Board members? What about executive staff?

      We are a denomination by confederacy, which means district conferences can pretty well do what they want. True, they made promises too when they joined MCUSA, but no one is willing to enforce those promises (see Mountain States Mennonite Conference) because the district conferences are fundamentally autonomous. This reality has led us to believe that there can be no consequences for anyone.

      Still, pastors make promises, not in some abstract or implied sense, but eye-to-eye in the presence of God and all the witnesses standing by. Did all those promises become null and void when the delegates passed the forbearance resolution? Can anyone cite any statement from the Convention that would bear out that interpretation?

      • James Regier

        If one is true to one’s conscience and one’s best understanding of God’s will, the powers of Empires, whether they be USA, MCUSA, or Virginia Conference, matter not.

        • Berry Friesen

          James, MCUSA and VMC are not empires, no matter clumsy or unjust you may find them. They are voluntary associations, resistant to dominant social and political norms, irrelevant to the the vast majority of people living around them and with no authority over those who do not voluntarily submit to its understanding of how the world works in a way that leads to shalom. Discontented members can simply walk away with no consequences whatsoever. Droves of people have done just that.

          Can you imagine a world in which groups of people covenant with one another to live in submission to a particular vision of a better world, who welcome all who share that commitment, who turn away those who willfully damage group cohesion and trust, and who refuse to use physical violence in the process?

          Nearly 500 years ago, the Anabaptists could.

          • James Regier

            You are welcome to dance around to avoid comparisons between Empire and MCUSA the institution all you wish.

            We are not the Anabaptists of 500 years ago. We are their descendants. Born and nurtured into an institution and a faith that we deeply love and to which we are fiercely loyal. The movement for full inclusion and acceptance will not go away, regardless of the hassle it might become. The declaration that GLBTQ Mennonites are as loved and accepted by God for how God created them, and that the church, too, must reflect this love and acceptance is not going to disappear. Neither shall the efforts to bring MCUSA about as an institution toward a place where diverse voices can be heard and respected in such areas.

          • Brian Arbuckle

            We are constantly being bombarded with this blasphemous notion that persons who self-identify as GLBTQ are as they are because the divine Creator has made them that way. The church as church will never accept the falsehood that the divine Creator is responsible for that which actually represents the undoing of creation. “When a man puts that part of himself which represents new life into the cavity of another man which represents decay and expulsion, at the most basic of all possible levels he is saying “Life, be swallowed in death.” (J. Budziszewski) There is simply no way to sanctify that which is inherently so utterly opposed to what God has actually created and pronounced good. Is there not a better way to “declare” that persons who self-identify as GLBTQ are loved and accepted by God than by distorting the truth about God the Creator?

            Yes, there is. We can declare that they are loved by God because they, like all humans, are created in His image. They are the object of his love because God in Christ has reconciled the world. We can declare that surrender to disordered desire will rob them of their kingdom of God inheritance. We can offer to them what the church catholic has always offered…the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. Why would anyone want to identify as GLBTQ once they learn about the new identity they can have in Christ.

            But where, I must ask, is the Mennonite community that once knew of and spoke of this new identity in Christ? Where is the Mennonite community that once heard diverse voices and could discern that some of those voices were not to be respected and certainly not accepted because they were telling big fat lies?

    • Scott Smith

      It’s difficult to imagine neither resolution dominating the other. Whichever one prevails, supporters of the other will be disappointed.

      Scott Smith

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