Conference shrinks when members don’t recommit

Pacific Southwest subtracts churches with weak connections

Feb 20, 2017 by and

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Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference parted ways with nearly a quarter of its congregations at its annual meeting Feb. 11 in Pasa­dena, Calif.

A restructuring process that began a year and a half ago led to a request by leadership for members to “recommit” to the conference and Anabaptist identity.

Conference minister Clare Ann Ruth-Heffelbower said Pacific Southwest had overextended itself to care for a conference that wasn’t as big as people thought.

“We have a number of congregations that have not participated at all for years,” she said, noting a handful were attended by people who didn’t even know they were in Mennonite churches.

The Pacific Southwest board began the recommitment process in September, requesting documents such as contact information, organizational documents, financial statements and a letter requesting membership and affirmation of Anabaptist values.

The board also asked for membership lists to report to Mennonite Church USA and to determine how many delegates each church receives.

Twenty-six congregations recommitted by the Feb. 11 deadline and eight did not, though some may still rejoin.

Almost all the congregations that did not reapply for membership are majority nonwhite.

“For a time it looked good to bring in as many ethnic minority congregations as we could. That’s what the kingdom’s supposed to look like,” Ruth-Heffelbower said. “I think as that was happening, they weren’t all coming in to be Anabaptists, but it was a place to belong and they joined the conference.

“While we made efforts to have pastors go through classes for ordination processes, I think some of them didn’t fully buy into Anabaptist understandings and didn’t pursue licensing or let licenses expire. One pastor said, ‘I don’t want to be credentialed by you.’ ”

She thinks Pacific Southwest is the only conference that has taken such an approach.

“But I’ve talked to other conference leaders who’ve said, ‘We need to do this,’ ” she said. “Indiana-Michigan [conference] is doing a recovenanting process that is more spread out and more focused on the issues that the church is facing.”

She said Pacific Southwest’s restructuring was not based on theological matters but on what it means to be in a conference, including participation, credentialing and financial support.

Five of the eight congregations that are no longer Pacific Southwest members do not have a pastor credentialed by the conference. Documents from the Feb. 11 meeting indicate about one third of congregations are carrying the bulk of the financial load, while a third had contributed nothing for years.

Pacific Southwest had about $500,000 in reserves about four years ago and spent it down with staff and ministries.

Ruth-Heffelbower said “drastic” cuts are coming. Three employees total 1.75 full-time equivalency now and will reduce to 1.25 in July, with a goal of reaching 7/8 FTE by the beginning of next year. Knowing which congregations want to be part of the conference will inform other parts of reinventing the conference.

Bumpy rollout

Conference leaders acknowledge the recommitment process could have gone more smoothly.

Information about the process was difficult for some congregations to understand or was slow to be processed by churches not prioritizing relationships with Pacific Southwest. Some congregations didn’t understand why the documents were necessary.

Virgo Handojo, pastor of Jemaat Kristen Indonesia Anugerah in Sierra Madre, Calif., was shocked to receive a letter in November.

A membership committee — Femi Fatunmbi, Hyun Hur, Joe Roos and Gene Kimel — assisted congregations with applications and worked to meet with churches not wishing to participate.

“We don’t have membership, but we have committed members,” Handojo said of his congregation. “We grew up in the Communist Party, and there you must register.”

JKI Anugerah is represented on the Pacific Southwest board and issued the only vote against the recommitment process.

Handojo lamented what he sees as the conference valuing money over missions and community.

“Our first priority is looking for a conference that can accept us,” he said. “Our sister church is in Franconia Conference, so maybe they are looking for a possibility to connect, even though they are far away.”

Ruth-Heffelbower said the conference is in communication with all of the congregations that are no longer members. She expects some will reapply before the June 9-11 assembly.

“Our assembly in June is intended to work at [strengthening intercultural competency], and our speaker is Gilberto Perez Jr. from Goshen College’s intercultural center,” she said.

The conference is also consulting with Intercultural Development Inventory administrator Sue Park Hur, co-director of ReconciliAsian and co-pastor of Mountain View Mennonite Church in Upland, Calif.

“We talk about being an intercultural conference, but we haven’t worked enough to talk to each other and understand each other’s cultures,” Ruth-Heffelbower said.

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  • Conrad Ermle

    Is this what happens when “inclusiveness” triumphs over biblical Anabaptist thought? It may well be that those who remain noncommitted to the conference are the most Anabaptist. – Conrad Ermle

  • Bruce Leichty

    As a delegate at this session representing one of the smaller member congregations of this Conference, I’d like to first say that it may be somewhat misleading to report that JKI Anugerah was the only vote against “the recommitment process.” (This term itself may be a bit misleading in that it is a way of putting Sunday garb on the legal requirement in the Conference bylaws requiring certain procedures before any congregation is terminated. The word “terminate” is the word that is used in the Bylaws and was ultimately used in the membership resolution that was adopted.)

    The vote at the delegate session, where there were some 58 possible votes, was 17-16 in favor of terminating congregations by those in attendance at the session in Pasadena. However, the Conference also provided for voting by Zoom conferencing (in my own opinion a questionable way of doing this kind of business), and that vote was 10-0 or 10-1 in favor of the resolution. In the interest of transparency, the congregations terminated (at least for the time being) were: All Souls Christian Center, Christ Life Chapel, Indonesia Christian Community Fellowship, Indonesian Worship Church, Jemaat Kristen Indonesia (JKI) Anugerah, Ministerios en Su Presencia, San Francisco Chinese Mennonite Church, Trinity Chinese Mennonite Church.

    I believe that the only vote on the board against the termination process was from a board member who is part of JKI Anugerah, although I am quite sure that at the delegate session I saw outgoing moderator Femi Fatunmbi raise his hand in opposition to the resolution after hearing from all delegates. There was no roll call vote so someone else might clarify this.

    I also believe that many of the “no” votes on termination were cast by non-white delegates, some of whom voiced the concern that (at least in certain cases) there was no reason to rush to terminate these congregations from Conference membership before a bit more processing had been done. I found myself in agreement with that voice. I also asked our incoming moderator Kathy Oswald whether non-cooperation on the part of any of these churches might be traceable to the turmoil going on in the larger MCUSA about “same sex marriage.” PSMC has a number of congregations with same sex couples or which are led by persons who either accept or teach the normalcy of same sex marriage, and those leaders now dominate the Board and include our Conference Minister, to the chagrin of some of us — but I see little indication that these issues are confronted openly. Conference Minister Clare Ann Ruth-Heffelbower responded that she was not aware that any of the congregations being terminated had voiced concern over the denominational trend toward tolerance of same sex marriage for their unwillingness to “recommit.” (But were they ever asked?)

    Thus is the situation complex. Yes, in my opinion there had been a rush in previous iterations of this Conference to be inclusive of persons of other races and ethnicities and national origins, such that this brought in churches without a lot of background in distinctive Anabaptist-Mennonite beliefs and values, but at the same time, I would submit that some of these now-terminated congregations may be more Anabaptist on the subject of natural God-ordained marriage — and perhaps other issues as well — than what is found in the current Conference leadership. I am told, but cannot state with certainty from personal knowledge, that at least some of the congregations terminated hold fast to traditional Anabaptist Christian orthodoxy on male-female marriage.

    And lest I be accused of hypocrisy I have to make the above observations in all due humility as a divorced and remarried person whose Anabaptist forebears may well have sought to keep out of the unblemished church, too, even though I believe the issues raised by divorce and remarriage in the 16th century or the first century are considerably different from those raised by divorce and remarriage now, or by same-sex marriage, for reasons beyond the scope of this post. (That is, I am not opposed to contextualization nor do I believe all teaching found in the Scriptures can be or should be accepted in isolation, devoid of cultural context or without any testing against the example or work of Jesus himself; I just believe the modern-day MCUSA is on the wrong contextualization path in its willingness to accommodate to modernity on the normalization of same-sex coupling.)

  • Doreen Martens

    I produced the PSMC print newsletter for more than 17 years before the conference’s budget issues led to its being cut last year, and attended almost every one of the twice-annual assemblies during that time. I must say the list of non-committing churches didn’t surprise me in the least, since most of them (with the exception of a couple of the Indonesian congregations) have been complete no-shows for many years. Nor did they show any interest in knowing more about the conference through the newsletter. For years I sent copies of it into a void, wondering if anybody ever saw it in these ghost congregations. I think bringing the same-sex issue into this discussion is a red herring. They just weren’t aware or interested enough in a body they didn’t contribute to and often had little to no contact with anyway. PSMC will be stronger for not having to worry about congregations that saw no value in the connection. I applaud the board for having the courage to take action on it.

    • Bruce Leichty

      Doreen, Thanks for your many years of journalistic contribution to the Conference. I must say I cringed when I read that the newsletter would no longer be published, because I read it, even though you never heard from me, either. So — your work was not unappreciated! The term “red herring” seems a bit strong. My position is not that tolerance for same-sex marriage “did” drive away some churches, but that it is just isn’t clear, and to me it would be perfectly understandable if some of these churches did distance themselves from PSMC (even years ago already) because of the more-than-forbearing position of the Conference toward these practices, and the failure of conference ministers (after Jeff Wright?) to strongly affirm the MCUSA position (?), and perhaps more generally for the theological or social agenda among many of our conference leaders that seems to motivate what I would call cultural accommodation and what others may believe is radical faithfulness.

      I think there are a lot of different factors that contributed to the non-participation of some of these majority non-Anglo churches and if you check with Clare Ann Ruth-Heffelbower I hope she would tell you that I agreed that some of these churches had deplorably little understanding of being Mennonite or Anabaptist, and that I was supportive of a winnowing process — it’s just that I am not confident in the process that was used or the pace at which it proceeded, or that the Board sufficiently valued its delegate body. For that matter, I have learned that even at the Board level, all of the non-Anglo members except one were not even present for the critical vote to proceed with termination, and it interests me that this is attributed by at least some in leadership to a lack of sufficient commitment of those potential dissenters even to board participation, which deserves further exploration. For example, did anyone see their involvement on the board as tokenism, and without real voice or influence about goals predetermined by the few who really run things? I hasten to add that I am not assuming that all non-Anglo congregations or their representatives were not supportive of the recommended termination resolution.

      In general, I am not confident that the Conference genuinely heard and valued the contributions that these congregations could have made to the rest of us, and not just by virtue of their being of different skin tone or from different countries or singing a different style of music. I think the Conference used its multiculturalism as a badge of honor — coming to see it as a goal instead of a byproduct — and forfeited real dialogue with those whose beliefs and traditions were quite different from some of us steeped in ethnic Mennonite heritage, as valuable as I think that is But I have not been extremely active in Conference so I must qualify these remarks with that acknowledgement, and I also know that it is very hard to be more than superficial in a conference of the geographical spread we face in CA and AZ, too.

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