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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