Franconia, Eastern District move to unite

Dec 4, 2017 by and

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Franconia Mennonite Conference and Eastern District Conference may unite by November 2019, ending a 170-year separation.

At the two Mennonite Church USA conferences’ joint assembly Nov. 3-4 at Dock Mennonite Academy in Souderton, Pa., delegates affirmed a recommendation from the Exploring Reconciliation Reference Team to enter a “formal engagement process” toward becoming a single conference in two years.

Members of the Exploring Reconciliation Reference Team explain their final report at the joint assembly of Franconia Mennonite Conference and Eastern District Mennonite Conference, Nov. 3-4 at Dock Mennonite Academy in Souderton, Pa. — Franconia Mennonite Conference

Members of the Exploring Reconciliation Reference Team explain their final report at the joint assembly of Franconia Mennonite Conference and Eastern District Mennonite Conference, Nov. 3-4 at Dock Mennonite Academy in Souderton, Pa. — Franconia Mennonite Conference

The team was formed after the two conferences voted in 2016 to start a process that could lead to merging. The next step is for the conferences to form a Healing and Reconciliation Team to address spiritual and emotional matters and an Identity Development and Structural Implementation Team to handle logistics. A final vote to merge would be taken in November 2019.

Franconia Conference minister Stephen Kriss said the conferences had been working alongside each other for a decade, sharing activities, assemblies and office space.

“It’s been a natural merging of relationships, as well as an honest desire to work at what reconciliation means, especially in a time of fragmentation,” he said.

It’s a much different scene today than in 1847, when differences in church authority and decision-making tore Franconia congregations apart, causing them to fight over meeting space and divide into two conferences.

Today, the differences between the conferences are relatively minor, according to Eastern District Conference moderator Jim Musselman.

“We really don’t do things that much differently,” he said. “There’s that perception that we do, but it’s more of a perception than reality.”

Past and present

The Exploring Reconciliation Reference Team’s report, which includes data from focus groups, individual interviews and an online survey, highlights concerns about “authentic Mennonite faith, pacifism and treatment of veterans after World War II.”

According to the report, since the World War II era, families left Franconia churches because a family member who served in the military had been expelled from church membership, and found welcome in Eastern District congregations “who were less authoritative in structure.”

Today, the report said, “[s]ome in FMC voiced concern about EDC congregations who fly the American flag and other possible theological differences, while many in EDC worry about FMC’s history of top-down authority. As the two conferences look toward a shared future, special care must be taken to ensure that EDC as the smaller conference is not simply swallowed up by the larger structures and policies of FMC, but that both conferences feel a sense of ownership as we work together to create something new.”

Musselman said whatever differences the conferences had were more historical than current.

“I think in the past on the Eastern District side, we weren’t so quick to discipline men that had served in the armed forces. Eastern District had more who did [join the military],” he said, noting that these were typically noncombatant positions. “Eastern District congregations tended to be more urban . . . and didn’t get the automatic farm exemption, whereas a lot of the Franconia churches were more rural.”

Logistical differences may be more of a challenge today than ideological ones. Eastern District is a small conference of 14 congregations mostly in southeastern Pennsylvania, with one in Boston. Franconia now numbers 45 congregations with the addition of four Indonesian churches — one in New York City and three from the Los Angeles area, making Franconia a bicoastal conference with the majority of its congregations in Pennsylvania.

“We’re committed to continue to keep moving as Franconia Conference while the reconciliation process continues,” Kriss said. “With the addition of four new congregations, we continue to enjoy the challenge of being an intercultural and geographically spread-out conference.”


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