Southeast Conference considers withdrawal

MC USA's landscape may not have finished changing

May 14, 2018 by and

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Southeast Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA is weighing its options. It plans to vote in October on whether to leave the denomination, and leaders are already talking with groups that offer other possibilities for affiliation.

The developments are driven by MC USA’s “forbearance” posture, which leaves room for multiple understandings of LGBTQ people, and an Executive Board decision in April that leaves judgment about leadership suitability to individual conferences and congregations.

Two years after MC USA delegates passed “forbearance” in 2015, Southeast approved a statement that said if forbearance stays, they will plan to leave. The conference numbers 26 congregations, with one transferring to MC USA’s Central District Conference this summer, and two more probably going there a year later.

“Our understanding in talking with people in leadership in Mennonite Church USA is that there is no plan to discuss forbearance or membership guidelines at the next convention in Kansas City” in 2019, said Southeast moderator Michael Zehr. “I have checked that out pretty thoroughly, so therefore it appears that forbearance will be the norm going forward.

“That’s directly related to the statement that we voted on in 2017. The statement said if forbearance became the norm moving forward, we would re-evaluate.”

Zehr said people of color make up more than half of his conference.

“We keep saying [in MC USA] that we want persons of color to take leadership, that we want their voices to be heard and important,” Zehr said. “. . . I feel like I have to listen to the voices of my sisters and brothers of color, and many of them are feeling strongly that it’s time for us to move in another direction.”

Shared affinity

A group appointed by Southeast leadership has been speaking with a handful of conferences and networks with which it shares affinity:

  • Conservative Mennonite Conference;
  • Evana Network;
  • Fellowship of Evangelical Churches (formerly Evangelical Mennonite Church); and
  • Lancaster Mennonite Conference.

Zehr, who is also co-pastor of The Gathering Tree in Key West, Fla., said these developments are bigger than same-sex relationships and the broader scope of LGBTQ matters.

“What is the role of Scripture in the life of the church, and how do we use Scripture to make determinations about how we’ll function as followers of Jesus in the world?” he asked. “I realize that we’ve always had to work with differences with how we deal with Scripture. . . . Some would say this isn’t any different than questions about women in leadership and divorce and remarriage, but people in my conference would as a whole take issue with that.”

Conversations have just begun, and there is a lot to talk about. Beyond marriage’s definition, Southeast is hoping to hear from other groups about where they stand on women in leadership. Multiple Southeast congregations have women in such roles.

The conference is exploring other networking possibilities, such as a potentially emerging network including Greg Boyd’s Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., which identifies its teaching position as Anabaptist.

Another option could be affiliating with a group of conferences that are still part of MC USA. Zehr believes MC USA’s landscape is going to continue to change drastically, and there are others with similar theological leanings to Southeast who have thus far chosen not to be the next ones out the door.

“Conferences who would say as a group, ‘We still hold to marriage being for a man and a woman,’ those are still the majority of what’s left in Mennonite Church USA,” he said, “and we’re talking to each other.

“I don’t know if that will go anywhere or what it will look like, but we’re talking to each other and realizing we have a lot in common and would like to continue those relationships.”

MC USA’s Confession of Faith defines marriage as between one man and one woman for life.

Continuing relationships

Zehr hopes Southeast can maintain relationships to MC USA agencies, such as Mennonite Mission Network and Everence, whether or not it leaves the denomination.

For about two years, MMN has been working to serve congregations outside MC USA. Using the moniker “Spreading Our Wings,” the concept is intended to signal MMN’s interest in serving former MC USA congregations and conferences, in addition to other entities.

Southeast is well-represented at MMN. Three of the agency’s 13 board members come from Southeast congregations in Florida.

MMN executive director Stanley Green said “Spreading Our Wings” moves MC USA’s mission agency in the direction of Everence and Mennonite Health Services Alliance. The finance and health agencies are accountable to MC USA governance but also serve additional constituent groups.

The MC USA Executive Board gave MMN sanction to serve non-MC USA groups in the spring of 2016.

“Whether we serve such groups would be contingent upon their interest in being served by us,” Green said. “Of course we would make some judgments too, related to alignment of convictions and vision.”

Old models of structure, relationships and accountability could be increasingly questioned. If forbearance is the new status quo, Zehr wondered if MC USA should even have membership guidelines.

“Are there going to be new models, new ways for those of us who identify as Anabaptist to network with each other on one level and be accountable on the other?” he asked. “I think that’s going to be a big thing moving forward. . . .

“The thing that changed in the last year in a big way is the door has been let open for LGBTQ people to be considered for leadership roles in Mennonite Church USA. That’s a huge difference from ‘can we agree to disagree?,’ which is what we were essentially doing before. . . . I don’t know if it’s a line in the sand, but it certainly feels like a step in the direction of Mennonite Church USA moving toward full inclusion of LGBTQ people.”

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