MC USA to revisit Membership Guidelines

Mar 4, 2019 by and

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HESSTON, Kan. — Mennonite Church USA is considering changes to its Membership Guidelines. Policy and practice no longer match, leaving people dissatisfied on issues of sexuality and inclusion.

The Constituency Leaders Council started the review process at its semiannual meeting Feb. 28-March 2 at Hesston Mennonite Church.

Constituency Leaders Council members, from left, Barry Bartel of Mountain States Mennonite Conference, Alicia Manning of African American Mennonite Association, Sid Burkey of Central Plains Mennonite Conference and Terry Zehr of New York Mennonite Conference (back to camera) discuss the Membership Guidelines. — Paul Schrag/MWR

Constituency Leaders Council members, from left, Barry Bartel of Mountain States Mennonite Conference, Alicia Manning of African American Mennonite Association, Sid Burkey of Central Plains Mennonite Conference and Terry Zehr of New York Mennonite Conference (back to camera) discuss the Membership Guidelines. — Paul Schrag/MWR

The CLC is an advisory group of about 60 representatives of area conferences, agencies and racial-ethnic groups.

The Membership Guidelines define marriage as between one man and one woman and say pastors may not perform same-sex marriages.

Yet today, in a majority of MC USA conferences, a pastor would not face disciplinary action for officiating a same-sex marriage. Three conferences have granted ministry credentials to openly LGBTQ pastors.

The result, said Michael Danner, associate executive director for church vitality and engagement, is “friction and tension.”

More conservative members ask why the guidelines aren’t enforced, while more progressive ones ask when the guidelines will be changed or dropped.

“Both sides are asking the same question: What are we going to do about the incongruence between what we say and what we do?” Danner said. “. . . I don’t know of any area conference that doesn’t deal with this.”

Written in 2001, the guidelines are one of MC USA’s founding documents. While the first two sections cover largely routine matters of purpose and structure, the third — “clarification on some issues related to homosexuality and membership” — has been a point of contention for years.

In 2015, delegates reaffirmed the guidelines and also resolved to practice “forbearance” toward those who disagreed. They declared a four-year hiatus on considering any changes.

Some had hoped delegates would revisit the guidelines at the 2019 convention. But Danner said this was not possible without further preparation.

Instead, a discernment process of undefined length has begun. On March 2, ideas generated by table groups were condensed into eight options, and participants ranked their favorites.

“It seems that people are saying we need to review the guidelines at the congregational and conference level and then rework them in a way that serves the church,” said Danner, who compiled the results.

In a brief time of response, members expressed hope for a good outcome and thankfulness that they had gotten the discernment process started.

Sandra Montes-Martinez, representing Iglesia Menonita Hispana (Hispanic Mennonite Church), urged that any rewriting of the guidelines include diverse voices. “I pray that we will let the Holy Spirit guide this process,” she said.

Media merger revival?

The CLC heard an unexpected announcement that a proposal to merge The Mennonite Inc. and Mennonite World Review Inc. might be revived.

Barth Hague, chair of the TMI board, told the group that a door had opened to resume negotiations between TMI and the denomination’s Executive Board.

Hague said the possibility emerged from a March 1 discussion he had with MC USA moderator David Boshart, moderator-elect Joy Sutter and executive director Glen Guyton.

“We agreed that it’s appropriate to put the merger option back on the table, with a renewed commitment to negotiating the final terms of an asset transfer,” he said. “Of course, this depends on the MWR board’s readiness to reconsider this option.”

The boards of MWR Inc. and TMI will hold a joint meeting March 29-30.

In November, the TMI board withdrew from the exploration of forming a new, independent media organization because it felt that negotiations with the MC USA Executive Board were at an impasse.

“We remain convinced that the best opportunity for continuing our mission with integrity is in combining forces with Mennonite World Review, whose mission, operation and readership are much the same as ours,” Hague said.

Due to the prospect of resuming negotiations, the CLC did not discuss a proposed change to the MC USA bylaws that would have established an editorial advisory committee as part of a plan to “realign” The Mennonite. The bylaw change is “in flux,” Guyton said.

“Regardless of what happens with The Mennonite in our system, we need to look at our communication strategy as a whole, our identity and our voice and collaboration between various agencies,” Guyton said.

He introduced a communication plan to bring greater cooperation within the MC USA system. This would include creating a new position of chief communications officer.

“There is a role for journalism and investigative reporting, but there is also a role for us as body to communicate who we are both internally and externally, and we want to enhance that,” he said.


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