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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