2016 in review: What works for denominations now?

As North American churches adjust to changing times, MC Canada decentralizes, makes room for dissent

Dec 19, 2016 by and

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With Christian denominations generally declining in North America, Mennonites are looking for new ways of being the church together.

Shrinking or refocusing national offices while building up regional and local responsibility is the order of the day.

In 2016, Mennonite Church Canada and the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches moved to decentralize their structures and ministries.

MC Canada set the pace of change. Meeting in Saskatoon, Sask., delegates approved a plan to shift the denomination’s focus from the national office to the regional conferences, known as area churches.

As big as that decision was, another had a more immediate and controversial impact. Delegates endorsed a resolution to “create space” for congregations whose understandings of same-sex relationships differ from the Confession of Faith, which affirms traditional marriage only.

Mennonite Disaster Service volunteers from the Lancaster, Pa., area clear trees in Socastee, S.C., as part of recovery efforts responding to Hurricane Matthew. — Nate Schlabach/MDS

Mennonite Disaster Service volunteers from the Lancaster, Pa., area clear trees in Socastee, S.C., as part of recovery efforts responding to Hurricane Matthew. — Nate Schlabach/MDS

The statement — similar to Mennonite Church USA’s 2015 “forbearance resolution” in its tolerance of dissent — raised the prospect of conservative withdrawals, much like MC USA has experienced.

Pushback was particularly strong in British Columbia, where pastors from across the province met to discuss a response. Some advocated separation from the denomination.

Amid the changes on structures and sexuality, MC Canada executive director Willard Metz­ger saw the denomination adjusting to cultural change in which churchgoing isn’t the priority it used to be.

“In our Canadian context, regular church attendance is anyone who comes once a month or more,” he said. “It takes more effort to have this sense of family at a local level, in addition to an area church and a national church.”

Still, the national office will not be shut down, and Metzger said he heard a “very loud caution that area churches don’t spin off into independent entities.”

For U.S. Mennonite Brethren, the changes were not as big but pointed in a similarly decentralized direction.

“Rather than directing or promoting top-down programs, USMB will align its resources and structures to serve, equip and network local churches for ministry,” stated a document summarizing a plan delegates approved at their convention in Denver.

Don Morris, newly installed as USMB national director, said he believed a lot of denominations were moving this way because they can no longer expect congregations to support a national office while feeling they don’t get much in return.

Expanding the networking possibilities, Canadian Mennonite Brethren will allow their church-planting ministry, C2C, to extend into the U.S. and assist the USMB districts.

In MC USA, shrinking membership and funding prompted leaders to plan a major discussion of the denomination’s mission and priorities at the 2017 convention.

“The trend will probably be to smaller institutions and more local kinds of ministries,” said Glen Guyton, MC USA chief operating officer, in an Executive Board meeting, describing the North American denominational outlook.

MC USA’s realignment

MC USA saw its numbers shrink as most of the 13,800-member Lancaster Mennonite Conference was on its way out.

After Lancaster announced in November 2015 that it would leave MC USA within two years, MC USA adjusted its statistics to account for the fact that only about 10 percent of the conference’s 163 congregations were considering staying with the denomination. The rest were dropped from the roll, resulting in a 17 percent loss, to 78,892.

By November, four Lancaster congregations had opted to stay with MC USA by transferring to Atlantic Coast Conference.

Lancaster made gains as well, drawing in 14 congregations. Most of these had left other MC USA conferences. One was First Mennonite Church of Berne, Ind., historically one of the largest congregations in the former General Conference Mennonite Church. Most recently it had been a member of Ohio Conference.

The women of Bihar Mennonite Mandli welcome attendees to the All India Mennonite Women Conference with traditional dance and drums. — Cynthia Peacock/MWC

The women of Bihar Mennonite Mandli welcome attendees to the All India Mennonite Women Conference with traditional dance and drums. — Cynthia Peacock/MWC

MC USA also lost one of its smaller conferences, Franklin, which withdrew in April. Franklin has 14 congregations with about 900 members in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Franklin administrator Allen Lehman said the departure was “about homosexuality, but it’s [also] about a polity of governance that doesn’t lodge authority anywhere.”

Weighing similar concerns — including the 2015 licensing by Central District Conference of a gay pastor in Ohio — delegates of Ohio Conference pondered their future with the denomination. They voted down a resolution to explore leaving MC USA but created an option for congregations to distance themselves from the denomination by being conference members only.

In Virginia, controversy over a same-sex marriage came with a new twist: the pastor who officiated the ceremony was a member of MC USA’s top leadership board.

Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina, resigned from the Executive Board, citing a policy that members are expected to “honor our decisions and the documents we are trusted to uphold.” Virginia Conference suspended Villegas’ ministerial credentials.

Denominational moderator Patricia Shelly described Villegas as a “much loved” board member. Villegas expressed the hope that “soon we will let our churches bless those who wish to marry, whether gay or straight.”

Two MC USA area conferences made history in a way Mennonites rarely have — by deciding to explore a reunion after splitting 169 years ago. Franconia and Eastern District conferences approved a process that could lead to reuniting the groups, which broke apart in 1847 and whose territory overlaps in Pennsylvania.

MCC’s largest response

Mennonite Central Committee’s response to the Syrian civil war grew to become the largest humanitarian aid project in the agency’s 96-year history. Over the past five years, MCC has provided more than $41 million in humanitarian relief in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.

The upheaval has stirred ethnic and religious tensions in Syria and neighboring countries, including Iraq. When the conflict spilled into Iraq in 2014, the number of displaced people there grew to 3.3 million, including those forced from their homes by the U.S. invasion in 2003 and other conflicts.

MCC has 11 humanitarian relief projects in Syria and Lebanon and additional efforts in Jordan and Iraq. Projects include giving food, cash allowances, water, hygiene supplies and heating fuel, as well as support for education, employment, trauma healing and peacebuilding.

MCC works with local partners including the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Middle East Council of Churches and the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches.

“MCC’s aid helps strengthen the churches to be able to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable during this time of war and loss,” said Doug Enns of Winnipeg, Man., MCC representative in Lebanon and Syria with his wife, Naomi.

Growth in Asia

Gatherings in South Korea and Thailand provided examples of Anabaptism gaining momentum in countries where the movement is still young.

Nearly 100 people attended the first Korean Anabaptist Conference in Seoul. Nonresistance sparked the most vigorous conversation, because military service is an important part of Korean cultural identity. The only recourse for conscientious objectors is imprisonment, a choice recently made by Sang Min Lee of Grace and Peace Mennonite Church in Seoul.

Most of the 150 people who attended the third Thai Anabaptist Gathering in Det Udom were first-generation believers from a Buddhist background. For those who have to be prepared to face adversity daily — including threats of injury and imprisonment — stories of the early Anabaptist martyrs were relevant and inspiring.

Colleges in transition

Five colleges were in the midst of presidential transitions, and three announced major gifts.

One transition involved two colleges. Susan Schultz Huxman left the presidency of Conrad Grebel University College to accept the role at Eastern Mennonite University, succeeding Loren Swartzendruber.

Hesston College selected Joseph Manickam, a former MCC program director in Asia and current faculty member at Payap University in Thailand, to succeed Howard Keim.

Two other college presidents — James E. Brenneman of Goshen and Perry White of Bethel — announced they would step down at the end of the current academic year.

Bluffton University celebrated the largest gift in its history — $4 million from the Austin E. Knowl­ton Foundation of Cincinnati — for a new science building.

Goshen received Illinois farmland valued at $3 million from the estate of alumnus Milo Albrecht, with the funds to be used for scholarships. Bethel received a $2 million estate gift to establish the Douglas C. and Jane M. Seibel Endowed Chair in Accountancy.

Shooting in Kansas

Mennonite congregations and the wider community of Hesston, Kan., turned to God and each other for comfort and healing after a mass shooting Feb. 25 at Excel Industries, a Mennonite family-owned manufacturer of lawnmowers.

During a community worship service in Hesston, Kan., Hesston College campus pastor Todd Lehman lights a candle for one of the four people who died in a shooting at Excel Industries. — Paul Schrag/MWR

During a community worship service in Hesston, Kan., Hesston College campus pastor Todd Lehman lights a candle for one of the four people who died in a shooting at Excel Industries. — Paul Schrag/MWR

Excel employee Cedric Ford, 38, opened fire on co-workers with a semiautomatic rifle, killing three and wounding 14, before being fatally shot by Hesston police chief Doug Schroeder, a member of Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church of Goessel.

Those who died were Renee Benjamin, 30; Josh Higbee, 31; and Brian Sadowsky, 44. First Mennonite Church of Newton hosted the memorial service for Sadowsky. Dozens of Excel employees attend local Mennonite congregations.

During a community worship service at Hesston High School three days after the shooting, Hesston Mennonite Church Pastor John C. Murray said that when knowledge and words are limited, three things — faith, hope and love — are unlimited and eternal.

Amish and politics

The Amish of Pennsylvania and Ohio found themselves the unlikely targets of presidential campaigning when a political action committee tried to get them to vote for the Republican nominee, Donald Trump.

Ben King, Amish PAC’s Lancaster, Pa.-based outreach director, who grew up Amish, said in August he thought there could be “5,000 to 6,000 votes readily available if we do it right.” At that time the PAC had raised nearly $40,000 and placed newspaper ads and roadside billboards.

One ad described Trump as the pro-life owner of family businesses who did not drink alcohol and had never been a politician before. It began with the basics: “Did you know the 2016 presidential election will be on Tuesday, Nov. 8?”

Mennonites took part in Election Day Communion, a movement to unite Christians despite political differences that began in 2008 at Springdale Mennonite Church in Waynesboro, Va., and has grown exponentially.

“We know that churches across the country, from almost every Christian denomination, will be participating,” said Jason Boone of MC USA’s Peace and Justice Support Network.

Other top stories

Evana Network, a new evangelical Anabaptist group that has drawn support from congregations leaving MC USA, held its first convention at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., in July. More than 250 people attended. Twenty-two congregations had joined or were in the process of joining Evana.

MCC responded with humanitarian aid after earthquakes struck Nepal and Ecuador and when Hurricane Matthew devastated Haiti. Matthew also hit the U.S. East Coast, where Mennonite Disaster Service mobilized volunteers to work in North and South Carolina.

The International Community of Mennonite Brethren gathered in Panama City, Panama. Among reports from around the world, Germans told of their outreach among refugees from the Middle East.

Work began on a new song collection to succeed the 1992 Hymnal: A Worship Book. MennoMedia set a fund­raising goal of $606,000 for the effort, which it named Project 606 after “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” — No. 606 in the 1969 hymnal.

Colombian Mennonites celebrated a historic peace accord to end the nation’s 50-year civil war, but voters narrowly rejected the agreement in a national referendum. Peace activists said their efforts, including those of Justa­paz, the Mennonite center for justice and peace in Bogota, would continue.

The Nigerian government negotiated the release of 21 girls held by the Boko Haram terrorist group. The majority of the 270 girls abducted in 2014 were from families who attend congregations of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria.

See more from the Year in Review, including additional photos and notable quotes, in the Dec. 19 edition of Mennonite World Review.

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