Board approves discussion of MC USA’s future

Nov 14, 2016 by and

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NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — As funds and membership shrink, Mennonite Church USA seeks the wisdom of a crowd.

Leaders are planning a “large-group process” for the biennial convention in Orlando, Fla., next July. They hope to give more people a voice in shaping the denomination’s future.

The process would involve all delegates — there were about 700 at the 2015 Kansas City convention — along with leaders of conferences and agencies, and other stakeholders such as racial-ethnic leaders and young adults.

The MC USA Executive Board approved a charter for the large-group process during its Nov. 10-12 meeting at the Mennonite Central Committee Central States office.

Leslie Francisco III, center, a member of the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board and chair of the Racial Ethnic Council, speaks during a discussion on power and authority in the church as moderator-elect David Boshart and moderator Patricia Shelly listen. — Paul Schrag/MWR

Leslie Francisco III, center, a member of the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board and chair of the Racial Ethnic Council, speaks during a discussion on power and authority in the church as moderator-elect David Boshart and moderator Patricia Shelly listen. — Paul Schrag/MWR

Specific questions for the assembly to address have yet to be written, but the broad concepts are: What do we want the church be known for? What is important to us? What kind of church is God calling us to be?

Board members and staff acknowledged financial straits impact the ability to fulfill hopes and dreams.

“What do we care about most as a church? We can’t do everything we’ve always done,” said Ervin Stutzman, executive director.

Affirming the large-group process, Jim Caskey, board member from Goshen, Ind., noted the need to address financial limits.

“We are trying to do more with less, and after a while you just can’t,” he said. “Do we have too many priorities? Are we asking for too much?”

Contributions to Executive Board programs are projected to decline almost $300,000 from the previous fiscal year, said Glen Guyton, chief operating officer.

The Executive Board has cut its staff from a full-time equivalency of 23.65 five years ago to 18.12 today.

Belt-tightening is the reality in many churches today.

“The trend will probably be to smaller institutions and more local kinds of ministries, so basically we have too much structure for the trends of the future,” Guyton said. “We are based on an old model of operating.”

But old ways die hard. Joy Sutter of East Norton, Pa., cautioned that “our traditional way of doing church” must not get in the way of implementing new ideas the large-group process might generate.

Phil Rich of Archbold, Ohio, agreed. “Are we ready to change based on what we hear at a meeting like this?” he asked.

The board envisions the large-group process as a positive experience, in contrast to the debates on divisive issues that dominated the 2015 convention.

In Orlando, board members would like to avoid the making of winners and losers that happens when delegates vote on controversial resolutions.

They might get their wish except for one resolution: “Seeking Peace in Israel and Palestine.” Kansas City delegates tabled it and requested revisions for another look in 2017.

The four-page statement, which has gone through at least 20 drafts, includes a call to withdraw investments from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. It also opposes antisemitism and calls for building relationships with the Jewish community.

Board members and staff wondered if there might be a way to resolve the issue without a win-lose debate. Earl Kellogg of Urbana, Ill., countered that conflict was unavoidable “unless we decide we’re never going to speak to troubling issues.”

By a vote of nine in favor and five not sure, the board passed a motion to bring the resolution to delegates at Orlando but to “carefully consider how to do that.”

The board discussed issues of power and authority with members of the Racial Ethnic Council, which advocates for people of diverse racial groups. Several of its members are also on the Executive Board.

Council chair Leslie Francisco III of Hampton, Va., said the denomination’s lack of clarity on who makes decisions frustrates people of color.

“It is very confusing in an African-American context to explain the system — that there is no place where someone makes a decision and we just move forward,” he said.

Nisha Subaiya Springer of Plano, Texas, said the desire for decision-making in community led to going round and round on issues without resolution.

“I believe our denomination strives for consensus, and that is why we are afraid to take a lead role and say the buck stops here,” she said.

Moderator Patricia Shelly of Newton said the church needed to honor different cultural perspectives. She acknowledged the tension between a consensus model of making decisions and other models in which a leader speaks more forcefully.

Yvonne Diaz of Terlingua, Texas, spoke of the need to identify different kinds of power, informal as well as official, that determine who has influence.

The board decided to form a working group to propose ways to confront issues of power and race. It invited the Racial Ethnic Council to meet with the board once a biennium.

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