Hope rises in Ohio Conference

Healing of relationships leads to more cooperation, renewed focus on mission

Feb 4, 2019 by and

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In late 2016, Ohio Mennonite Conference regional pastor Cliff Brubaker decided to hit the road and visit every congregation in the conference.

He estimates he got to 47 out of 55, most of which are in Ohio, with a few in Michigan and Penn­sylvania.

“I love these churches,” Bru­baker said. “I love their stories.”

At the 2018 Ohio Conference assembly, Jessica Schrock-Ringenberg, right, who formerly served as missional consultant, invited participants interested in joining a missional network to mark their congregations on a map. — Bryan Leaman

At the 2018 Ohio Conference assembly, Jessica Schrock-Ringenberg, right, who formerly served as missional consultant, invited participants interested in joining a missional network to mark their congregations on a map. — Bryan Leaman

He discussed a list of questions with groups from each congregation that expressed interest during Ohio Conference’s 2016-17 Year of Covenant, an initiative to build relationships and trust, and to gather information to set the direction for the future.

“By far the most common response was the need to learn how to make connections in the community in which the congregation is located,” Brubaker said.

When tension rose in Ohio Conference in 2014 about the denomination’s and conference’s response to same-sex marriage, some churches switched their Mennonite Church USA conference affiliation, and others left the conference and MC USA. Most churches remained.

“In some ways we’re a little more homogeneous than other conferences, and a little bit more rural in setting,” said Jeff Hoch­stetler, pastor at Berlin Mennonite Church.

The conference Leadership Team invited churches to participate in the 2016 Year of Cov­enant, which included a commitment for pastors and leaders to attend regular meetings.

“Pastors in one geographic location had different perceptions of what was happening in conference than in other locations,” said Paula Snyder Belousek, pastor of Salem Mennonite Church in Elida, Ohio. “It became clear we didn’t know each other.”

Resolving a conflict

At a pastors gathering in February 2017, Brubaker led a session focused on healing relationships. He created space for identifying and naming tensions and disagreements and invited everyone to lay these on the altar.

“The pastors can point to work done leading up to and in that meeting as really important in helping build confidence and expectancy among pastors,” he said.

In congregational visits, he asked each for feedback on a plan created by the conference Leadership Team to continue being part of MC USA, with the caveat that if the denomination or conference changed its teaching position on same-sex marriage, this would be cause for review.

This proposal included “put­ting our best energy into being and becoming missional congregations together” and “minimizing the effort spent on the same-sex marriage issue.”

“Though many congregations noted a wide range of perspectives, congregations generally found the statement to be a good way to move forward,” Brubaker said.

Hochstetler added that it is an illusion to say the conference has moved beyond conflict.

“There is always tension in groups, but we can focus on our mission together,” he said. “We are better together than apart.”

Reclaiming a mission

The conference also had a simultaneous Year of Mission initiative led by a group of younger pastors who set out to “agitate and advocate” for intentional, missional work in local contexts.

At the 2017 annual assembly, after completing the Year of Covenant and Year of Mission, delegates voted overwhelmingly on a “healthy budget” to spend into reserves if necessary to invest in missional work. Financial giving has since gone up.

“In some ways we are reclaiming a piece that’s been lost along the way,” Brubaker said “Ohio Conference started because of a desire to be engaged in mission.”

Since then, the conference has held missional conferences, had a pastor serve as a conference missional consultant and provided grant money to congregations. Congregations are working with Mennonite Mission Network’s Missional Discipleship Initiative to build discipleship groups.

“There’s intentional activity of pastors working together,” Hoch­stetler said.

Several pastors participate in the East Central Ohio Sanctuary Support Network, an ecumenical group of pastors who support each other in standing up for undocumented immigrants.

“It’s said again and again there is a new sense of hopefulness and willingness to collaborate in the conference,” Brubaker said.

The conference selected Dick Barrett in September to fill the role of conference minister, beginning the position full-time in January. Barrett has served as a pastor at Oak Grove Mennonite Church in West Liberty, Ohio, for 16 years.

“We’re not saying everything’s resolved,” said Snyder Belousek, who chaired the conference minister search committee, “but we have committed space to listen to God’s spirit and dream together about who God is calling us to be.”

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