Distance no obstacle for Central District’s growth

Congregational polity attracts transfers from east

Jun 26, 2017 by and

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Central District Conference’s geographical range may continue to expand as congregations prioritize polity over geography in realignment.

Three congregations seeking to transfer from other Mennonite Church USA conferences were introduced to delegates at Central District’s annual meeting June 22-24 at Bluff­ton (Ohio) University.

Melissa Florer-Bixler, left, pastor of Raleigh (N.C.) Mennonite Church, and conference discernment task force spokesperson Brenda North Martin introduce the Raleigh congregation at the Central District Conference annual meeting. — J. Tyler Klassen

Melissa Florer-Bixler, left, pastor of Raleigh (N.C.) Mennonite Church, and conference discernment task force spokesperson Brenda North Martin introduce the Raleigh congregation at the Central District Conference annual meeting. — J. Tyler Klassen

Berea Mennonite Church in Atlanta is requesting to transfer from Southeast Mennonite Conference. Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship and Raleigh (N.C.) Mennonite Church are requesting to transfer from Virginia Mennonite Conference.

According to CDC’s policy, membership in the conference would not be granted until its 2018 annual meeting.

Historically, CDC was the General Conference Mennonite Church district that covered the Upper Midwest, from Ohio to Iowa. It has grown to include congregations from Florida, Georgia and Virginia.

Conference minister Doug Luginbill sees CDC’s polity as the attraction for transferring congregations.

“Our polity is very congregational-based — that freedom in the way that we make decisions together as a conference, the way we relate to each other, the way we support each other as congregations. . . . We have a fairly high level of trust that each congregation does what is best for them,” he said. “That way of being together has offered some freedom that has been attractive to some congregations.”

Identity and inclusion

A letter from Berea’s leadership team referenced concern about “the future of our standing as a congregation of Mennonite Church USA, as indicators suggest [Southeast Mennonite Conference] may vote to leave MC USA in the near future.”

At Southeast Conference’s spring delegate assembly, delegates affirmed a statement that “Southeast Mennonite Conference go on record as planning to leave Mennonite Church USA should the forbearance resolution . . . become a permanent position or practice for the church” (MWR, April 10).

The “Forbearance in the Midst of Differences” resolution, which passed with 72 percent support at the 2015 MC USA convention in Kansas City, Mo., calls for extending “grace, love and forbearance toward conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions.”

“We remain committed to our membership in MC USA,” the letter from Berea stated. “We have chosen to explore a possible relationship with CDC because we know and respect your relationship with our friends at Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship and because we appreciate CDC’s place in the ongoing conversations in MC USA.”

A letter from Chapel Hill’s moderator, Rebecca Rich, referenced LGBTQ inclusion, citing Virginia Conference’s suspension of Chapel Hill Pastor Isaac Villegas’ ordination without review after he officiated the wedding of two women in May 2016.

“We were impressed that the polity of CDC makes room for congregations to discern the leading of the Holy Spirit, even when that Spirit leads us into a theological commitment regarding LGBTQ people that is at variance with our Mennonite Confession of Faith,” the letter stated.

Rich told MWR that after Chapel Hill decided to fully include LGBTQ people in congregational life, they hoped to continue conversation with Virginia Conference. But when the conference suspended Villegas’ credential after he officiated the wedding, she said that felt punitive.

“That felt to us like there’s not any more room for discussion here,” she said. “CDC feels like a place where we can live [LGBTQ inclusion] out and still be in the community with other congregations to seek each other’s support and figure out how to be church, and not only focus on that one particular issue.”

‘New season’

Luginbill said about half the congregations in Central District have formulated their own LGBTQ inclusion statements, and several have joined the Supportive Communities Network of the Breth­ren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Interests.

“I would not characterize CDC as having an overt agenda to promote LGBTQ inclusion,” he said. “The polity allows for more diversity within the conference.”

Since the 2015 MC USA convention, one congregation has transferred out of CDC. Carlock (Ill.) Mennonite Church transferred to Illinois Mennonite Conference in April.

At its annual meeting, CDC delegates voted to grant membership to Open Table Mennonite Fellowship in Goshen, Ind., a previously unaffiliated congregation formed in 2012.

“As a conference, we are very committed to MC USA,” Luginbill said. “. . . These are changing times. It’s a new season of the denomination.”


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