Realigned, rebranded: 2018 year in review

Conferences get new names; MC USA chooses African-American leader; Global South grows; Congolese receive international support

Dec 28, 2018 by and

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For years, North American Ana­baptists have been realigning — breaking old affiliations, forging new relationships, revising church structures to fit changing times.

In 2018, two conferences tried a new strategy — rebranding.

Lancaster Mennonite Conference, newly independent from Mennonite Church USA, became LMC: A Fellowship of Anabaptist Churches.

Attendees receive communion at LMC’s Celebration of Church Life on March 23-24 at Weaverland Anabaptist Faith Community in East Earl, Pa. The newly independent conference adopted “LMC: A Fellowship of Anabaptist Churches” as its name and welcomed 54 congregations — including 13 from Franklin Conference, which became an LMC district — bringing its total to 218. — Jonathan Charles for MWR

Attendees receive communion at LMC’s Celebration of Church
Life on March 23-24 at Weaverland Anabaptist Faith Community in East Earl, Pa. The newly independent conference adopted “LMC: A Fellowship of Anabaptist Churches” as its name and welcomed 54 congregations — including 13 from Franklin Conference, which became an LMC district — bringing its total to 218. — Jonathan Charles for MWR

Conservative Mennonite Conference decided to start “doing business as CMC” while continuing to discern a new full name.

LMC leaders cited geography: Far-flung members thought the name of a county in Pennsylvania didn’t seem like a good fit anymore for a conference with congregations in nine states and four countries beyond the U.S.

In CMC, dissatisfaction with the old name derived from a feeling that “conservative” made people think of Republican politics or plain attire. Some thought “Mennonite” brought to mind MC USA’s more liberal practices.

But choosing a name or tagline to go with the CMC initials proved frustrating. Moderator Joe Byler said he had given up on coming up with one “we’re all excited about.”

Beyond LMC and CMC, the trend of shifting power from national to regional structures continued as denominations adjusted to diminishing funds and declining loyalty.

The Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches discontinued national conventions and shifted authority to the provinces. The move to decentralize had similarities to realignment within Mennonite Church Canada, which in 2017 restructured to decrease national staff and emphasize provincial ministry.

The shrinking of MC USA continued as Southeast Mennonite Conference delegates voted to leave the denomination. Southeast became the fourth conference to withdraw, following LMC, Franklin (which merged into LMC) and North Central (the majority of which joined the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches).

At least two of Southeast’s 25 congregations expect to remain in MC USA by transferring to another conference, and one has already done so. This follows a trend of realignment within MC USA as congregations change affiliations to find a better theological fit, regardless of geography.

Congregational migration took on added significance in the case of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship. Virginia Mennonite Conference had suspended the ministry credentials of Pastor Isaac Villegas in 2016 after he officiated a same-sex wedding. This year, Central District Conference accepted the congregation’s transfer and restored Villegas’ ministerial status.

In another example of geographical flexibility, Pennsylvania-based Franconia Mennonite Conference received its fourth California congregation. It also met jointly with neighboring Eastern District Conference, continuing a process of reconciling an 1847 split.

Amid the shifting of affiliations, revising of structures and rethinking of denominational roles, an unprecedented gathering signaled the potential for new relationships. About 40 lead­ers representing six evangelical Anabaptist groups met Aug. 6-8 at Rosedale Bible College in Ohio with no official agenda beyond getting to know each other better.

The six were LMC, CMC, the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, Brethren in Christ, The Brethren Church and Evana, the evangelical Anabaptist network founded in 2015.

Combined, the groups have more than 100,000 adherents.

“I was amazed at the high degree of similarity that exists,” said Brinton Rutherford of LMC. “These groups share many of the same strengths and struggles.”

Groundbreaking leader

MC USA appointed the first person of color to lead a North American Mennonite denomination. In addition to being African-American, Glen Guyton brought an unusual biography to his role as executive director.

Guyton calls himself a “traditional Anabaptist,” having been rebaptized at Calvary Community Church, a Mennonite congregation in Hampton, Va., in 1993. He’s also a convert to Christ’s way of peace, having been discharged from the Air Force, where he earned the rank of captain, as a conscientious objector.

He succeeded Ervin Stutzman, who retired after eight years as executive director.

Witness of MWC

At Mennonite World Conference’s triennial General Council meeting in Kenya, delegates accepted LMC as a member and elected Henk Stenvers of the Netherlands as the next MWC president.

The council met in conjunction with the second annual gathering of Renewal 2027, a 10-year series of events marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and seeking renewal for today.

Elisabeth Kunjam of India, a member of MWC’s Deacons Commission, addressed the crowd at Nyamasaria Primary School in Kisumu: “The Holy Spirit’s empowerment . . . within the global Anabaptist family is needed for the church to raise up a standard that bears a witness to the world.”

MWC released a census that showed Anabaptist membership worldwide increased 0.7 percent, to 2,131,000, over the past three years. Growth occurred in the Global South as Africa, Asia and Latin America reported increases while North America and Europe declined. Africa was up 5 percent; North America was down 5 percent.

Congo relationships

MWC and Mennonite Central Committee responded to the suffering of Mennonites and others in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Beginning in 2016, violence between local militias and the national military forced 1.4 million people from their homes — including thousands of Mennonites — resulting in deaths, separated families and poverty.

A delegation from MWC’s Deacons Commission visited the DRC in December 2017 and reported the believers there were a model for the global church. Mennonites who had little money to offer opened their homes to survivors whom they did not even know. In places where it is common to care only for one’s own kin, Mennonites assisted displaced people from any tribe.

Three Congolese Mennonite de­nominations worked with MCC to distribute food and supplies funded by MCC, the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and Anabaptist organizations around the world.

“We eat once a day. It is not enough,” said Agnes Ntumba, who received MCC food after fleeing her village with her husband and seven children to live with a host family. “[Now] we will be eating in the morning and evening, too.”

Europe, and beyond

The European Mennonite conference, MERK, which meets once every six years, was bigger and more diverse than ever. Held in Montbelliard, France, it drew about 2,300 people, including four Indonesians who were guests of the Dutch. Attendees included Russian German Mennonites and emerging Anabaptist groups in Italy, the United Kingdom, Po­land, Lith­u­ania, Ukraine, Serbia and Albania, in addition to Anabaptist national churches in France, the Netherlands, Switz­erland, Germany, Austria, Portugal and Spain. The conference theme, “Transmission,” focused on sharing the love of Christ with others and the next generation.

Women in ministry

U.S. Mennonite Brethren held a summit to gauge interest in lifting a ban on women as lead pastors. Finding opinions divided and firmly held, they concluded the policy should not change. A study conference was scheduled for January 2019 to foster understanding of different views.

CMC opened the door wider to women in leadership, allowing them to serve on institutional boards while reaffirming the complementarian theology of roles according to gender. The moderator said women’s ordination was not being considered.

Addressing abuse

Amid rising awareness of sexual abuse and harassment, an MC USA Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention presented recommendations that included procedures for dealing with sexual violence by noncredentialed leaders, closing a gap in earlier policies. The report called for “a cultural shift” within the denomination regarding healthy sexuality, including “trusting and valuing the voices of victims and survivors and rooting out unhealthy and degrading perspectives of women.”

Mennonite Women USA and Dove’s Nest, an abuse-prevention organization, organized a conference on “Empowering Women: Claiming Healthy Personal Boundaries,” in Omaha, Neb.

Puerto Rico’s recovery

Volunteers helped Puerto Ricans recover from Hurricane Maria, which devastated the Caribbean U.S. territory in September 2017. A 70th anniversary celebration at Academia Menonita Betania (Bethany Mennonite Academy), postponed for a year due to the storm, became an occasion to honor Puerto Ricans’ resilience and generosity.

Despite sustaining serious damage, the school reopened after three weeks, without electricity or water, and welcomed students back regardless of whether their families could pay tuition.

Mennonite Disaster Service, Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Education Agency contributed to the rebuilding efforts. “I am amazed at what the school has been able to do in a year,” said Carlos Romero, MEA executive director.

Other top stories

— The Canadian and U.S. Conferences of Mennonite Brethren Churches held biennial conferences. Meeting in Saskatoon, Sask., Canadian delegates approved a plan that emphasizes decisions at the provincial level and discontinues national conventions. Meeting in Salt Lake City, U.S. delegates asked the government to end the practice of separating immigrant families.

— Hopi Mission School in Arizona announced plans to reopen as Peace Academic Center. Former superintendent Thane Epefanio was sentenced to two years in prison for embezzling funds.

— Fresno Pacific University cut ties with three well-known Ana­baptist pastors — Greg Boyd, Bruxy Cavey and Brian Zahnd — who were working for Fresno’s Mennonite Brethren seminary as visiting lecturers but whose theological views generated complaints from constituents.

— Scholars confronted long-neglected history at a conference on Mennonites and the Holocaust at Bethel College. The third event of its kind — after meetings in Münster, Germany, in 2015 and Filadelfia, Paraguay, in 2017 — uncovered Mennonite complicity in militant nationalism and racism that produced the Holocaust.

— In a congressional race between two alumni of Lancaster Mennonite High School, incumbent Republican Lloyd Smucker defeated Demo­cratic challenger Jess King by 18 percentage points and retained the seat representing Pennsylvania’s 11th district. King is a member of Community Mennonite Church in Lancaster; Smucker was born into an Amish family.

— After decades of planning and fundraising, the Meserete Kristos Church of Ethiopia — the world’s largest Anabaptist conference, with 310,000 members — opened a new office building in Addis Ababa.

— Mennonite Economic Development Associates appointed its first female president, Dorothy Nyambi, a dual citizen of Canada and Cameroon. She succeeded Allen Sauder, whose 16-year tenure saw growth from serving 200,000 clients to almost 103 million families.

— Three U.S. colleges inaugurated presidents: Rebecca Stoltzfus at Goshen College, Jane Wood at Bluffton University and Jona­than C. Gering at Bethel College. Jeremy Miller began serving as president of Rosedale Bible College.

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