Year after withdrawal, Lancaster Conference gains, loses

Large Indiana church among those joining; four congregations move to Atlantic Coast Conference

Nov 15, 2016 by and

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Since Lancaster Mennonite Conference’s decision in November 2015 to withdraw from Mennonite Church USA by the end of 2017, it has received several congregations formerly with MC USA conferences.

Moderator Keith Weaver said in a written statement that Lancaster has received 14 congregations, most of which were no longer affiliated with an area conference of MC USA. The conference is also in conversations with four additional congregations discerning where to affiliate.

One of those now joining Lancaster is First Mennonite Church of Berne, Ind., which withdrew from Ohio Mennonite Conference.

“We voted in October of 2014 to find a place of Mennonite Anabaptist identity outside of Mennonite Church USA,” said senior pastor Jeff Linthicum. “We looked at a lot of options and found that Lancaster was the best fit for us.”

The congregation voted in September to pursue affiliation with Lancaster. Linthicum said the congregation — numbering between 450 and 500 on a Sunday morning — was especially attracted to Lancaster’s focus on mission.

“Mission is a huge component of our congregation,” he said. “My wife and I served with Eastern Mennonite Missions; we’ve had several young people serve with the YES program. [Lancaster is] more evangelical in its approach; they’re still very Anabaptist but with a focus on evangelism.”

Linthicum said there are 14 family units in the church currently on the global mission field, and there’s an increasing interest in local mission that has many excited about Lancaster’s emphasis on church planting.

First Mennonite of Berne historically was a member of Central District of the General Conference Mennonite Church.

Discernment ongoing

Seventeen Lancaster Conference congregations utilized the two-year period after the conference’s withdrawal vote to discern their affiliation. Of those, five have chosen to withdraw from MC USA and remain with Lancaster, while four transferred to MC USA’s Atlantic Coast Conference.

Todd Gusler, pastor of Rossmere Mennonite Church in Lancaster, helped facilitate a conversation group for the congregations in discernment.

“From the very beginning, we knew there would be congregations going different directions,” he said. “Some of their cultures and contexts seemed to fit with Mennonite Church USA. Some felt the opposite or had very strong feelings about Lancaster Conference or concerns about Mennonite Church USA.”

Rossmere is one of the remaining eight congregations still in the discernment process. Gusler said the congregations’ decisions were likely to come between now and later in 2017.

“We’re trying to figure things out and be faithful in our contexts and live with some semblance of diversity,” he said.

Letters from the leaders of congregations applying to Atlantic Coast Conference listed their reasons for transferring.

“We look forward to joining a conference that is deeply committed to and involved in our Mennonite Church USA denominational family,” the letter from East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church in Lancas­ter stated. It also listed “women and men being able to participate equally in all levels of leadership” and “learning with other ACC congregations how to be in loving, mutual relationship with LGBTQ Christians” as items that made Atlantic Coast an appealing choice.

Lancaster Bishop Jason Kuniholm said although the congregation had made “a clear decision” to stay with MC USA, they wanted to recognize Lancaster as well.

“Before East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church transferred, they invited Keith Weaver to visit, and they affirmed the role Lancaster Mennonite Conference has played in their church,” he said.

Kuniholm said the churches that had the most difficult time were those that had the most evenly divided members.

“I’ve found that nobody has been splitting, but there’s been some shifting of membership,” he said. “Overall, the discussions have been very good practice in discernment, and most congregations come out saying ‘We processed that well.’ ”

Finding fellowship

Weaver participated in a gathering facilitated by leaders of the Evana Network, who invited leaders from Lancaster, Franklin and North Central conferences to meet Nov. 4-5 at North Clinton Church in Wauseon, Ohio.

“It was a meaningful and restful time of worship, prayer, healing and fellowship,” Weaver said. “I think the key takeaway was that we all valued the opportunity to be together, and we agreed to meet again.”

North Central voted in July 2015 to withdraw from MC USA. Franklin voted in April to withdraw from MC USA.

John Troyer, executive director of Evana, said the meeting was “a time of prayers for healing for each other, getting to know each other, and recognizing that in many ways we’re on the same page with each other. . . . Through this time of prayer and worshiping together, we felt like we were companions on the journey.”

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