Getting together again: 2019 year in review

Conferences reconcile; MC USA seeks revival; MCC returns to its roots

Dec 30, 2019 by and

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Reconnection and revival led Mennonite news in 2019. Conferences reconciled, leaders traveled overseas to renew historic ties, and Mennonite Church USA sought an infusion of Spirit-filled life.

Reconciliation was a long time coming for Franconia and Eastern District conferences, who mended a 172-year-old split. When delegates voted to unite the two Pennsylvania-based groups, they created what will be one of MC USA’s largest conferences, with more than 7,500 members.

The union harked back to a trend of the 1990s, when several conferences with roots in the former Mennonite Church and Gen­eral Conference Mennonite Church merged. The last comparable conjoining was the merger of Northern District and Iowa-Nebraska conferences in 2000.

The act of reconciliation continued a trend of realignment in MC USA. Franconia has expanded beyond its Pennsylvania base to draw in congregations from California and soon from Florida. Several Southeast Conference churches plan to join the new entity in order to stay connected to MC USA after their conference voted in 2018 to leave the denomination.

“Conference is not based on shared geography but shared relationships,” said Stephen Kriss, Franconia’s executive minister.

Mennonite Central Committee Ukraine staff Anna Proshak, left, and Olga Litvinenko serve corn grits, rye bread and warm cocoa — an MCC “relief kitchen dinner” — at a picnic for MCC board members in Khortitsa, Ukraine, where MCC’s work began 100 years ago. — Matt Sawatzky/MCC

Mennonite Central Committee Ukraine staff Anna Proshak, left,
and Olga Litvinenko serve corn grits, rye bread and warm cocoa — an MCC “relief kitchen dinner” — at a picnic for MCC board members in Khortitsa, Ukraine, where MCC’s work began 100 years ago. — Matt Sawatzky/MCC

Return to MCC’s roots

Historic connections reached back 100 years when the U.S. and Canadian boards of Mennonite Central Committee traveled to Ukraine as a prelude to MCC’s centennial in 2020.

They gathered in Zaporizh­zhia, a city near the former Mennonite settlements that thrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and whose pleas for relief from war and famine led to MCC’s birth a century ago.

The board members came to remember a turning point of Mennonite history and to see how MCC partners are continuing to meet human need today. These partners include Mennonite churches providing material aid and peacemaking efforts in the eastern war zone, where Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists have fought to a standoff.

“We tell people the Mennonites are not indifferent to the place where their ancestors came from,” said Sergey Panasovich, pastor of New Hope Mennonite Church, a member of the Association of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Ukraine.

Learning in Ethiopia

A reunion in Ethiopia brought themes of reconnection and revival together. Leaders of LMC, formerly Lancaster Mennonite Conference, drew inspiration from Ethiopian churches that emerged from its mission work beginning in the 1940s.

An LMC delegation’s visit to Ethiopia grew out of an Ethiopian leader’s question: Had the LMC “parent” forgotten its “child”?

LMC leaders went to listen and learn from the Meserete Kristos Church. As the world’s largest Anabaptist body with more than 600,000 worshipers and 300,000 baptized members, MKC has far surpassed its LMC missionary founders.

The visitors found a church that “prays more than we do,” said Bishop Glenn Kauffman and that “holds together some things that in the West we tend to separate, like evangelism and peace and justice,” said delegation member Tom Eshleman.

Women prepare food for the Meserete Kristos Church general assem- bly in Bishoftu, Ethiopia. A delegation from LMC renewed a relationship with MKC, which has grown far bigger than its Lancaster Mennonite Conference “parent.” — Glenn Kauffman/LMC

Women prepare food for the Meserete Kristos Church general assem-
bly in Bishoftu, Ethiopia. A delegation from LMC renewed a relationship with MKC, which has grown far bigger than its Lancaster Mennonite Conference “parent.” — Glenn Kauffman/LMC

Spirit-filled revival

The biennial MC USA convention in Kansas City, Mo., sought to renew an identity of peacemaking and inclusion.

Convention attendance continued a trend of decline, falling to 2,839, the lowest in MC USA’s 18-year history.

The pervading message was one of revival, asking the Holy Spirit to breathe life into dry bones.

“Church, it is time for us to start breathing again,” said Meg­han Larissa Good, teaching pastor at Trinity Mennonite Church in Glendale, Ariz., in a sermon to the youth and adults, who worshiped together in all sessions for the first time. “And the good news of the gospel is that any day can be resurrection day.”

Delegates revised the convention agenda to approve a statement opposing the abuse of child migrants. They also approved increasing teenage and college-age participation in delegate sessions, allowing each congregation to appoint a youth delegate in addition to its regular allotment.

MB financial loss

At the annual general meeting of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, leaders apologized for financial losses of $14.8 million over six years. Investment reserves fell from $17.7 million in 2012 to $2.9 million in 2018.

Moderator Bruce Enns confessed, “We did not lead well.” Executive director Elton DaSilva joined Enns in asking forgiveness for “how we behaved with your money.”

To explain the loss, Enns cited a large write-down in land and mortgage values held by the conference, an ambitious church-planting strategy and the presence of “strong, driven leaders” who were hard to monitor and hold accountable.

When a delegate asked what the conference had to show for $18.6 million spent on interdenominational church planting over six years, Enns said he couldn’t answer with certainty.

One result of the loss, combined with a downturn in giving, was the closure of the denominational magazine, MB Herald, whose print circulation had fallen to 3,500.

Women in ministry

The U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches held a national study conference on “The Bible and Women in Pastoral Ministry” in response to calls for women to be allowed to serve as lead pastors.

Diversity presents a challenge as some congregations move in the opposite direction, becoming more restrictive despite a 20-year-old resolution urging the use of women’s gifts in every role except lead pastor.

The conference provided a forum for egalitarian (progressive) and complementarian (traditional) views. It offered input for leaders to consider but carried no mandate to recommend a policy change.

Membership Guidelines

MC USA began a review of its Membership Guidelines, which have been a source of controversy because they forbid pastors to officiate same-sex weddings.

Conservative members have asked why the guidelines aren’t uniformly enforced, while progressives have advocated they be changed or dropped.

After delegates in 2015 approved a four-year hiatus on considering any changes, 69 percent of delegates at the 2019 convention affirmed taking up the question again. An advisory group was formed to recommend a decision-making process.

Witness of MWC

Mennonite World Conference’s Renewal 2027, a 10-year series of gatherings celebrating the 500th anniversary of Anabaptism and seeking to inspire faithful witness today, continued with a gathering in Costa Rica that ­focused on solidarity with migrants.

“We enthusiastically celebrate that we are a Christocentric, borderless faith community,” said Maykol Luis Garcia Morelli, president of the Association of Christian Mennonite Churches of Costa Rica.

A new initiative in ecumenical relationships began as MWC and the World Communion of Reformed Churches began a multiyear dialogue. Scholars gathered in Zurich, Switzerland, to talk about what divided the two groups in the 16th century and to identify ways to reconcile and collaborate today.

“A 500-year-old Bible study is being reconvened,” said Mennonite representative Tom Yoder Neufeld.

MWC’s Peace Commission helped organize a Global Anabaptist Peace Network during a Global Mennonite Peacebuilding Conference in the Netherlands.

Meeting on military

MCC U.S. hosted a consultation of 13 Anabaptist groups, spanning MC USA to the Old Order Amish, to address the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service.

The commission is considering issues such as whether women should be required to register with Selective Service and how to increase participation in military or public service.

In a joint letter to the commission, the church groups advocated for the rights of conscientious objectors and opposed any expansion of draft registration.

The U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches did not participate in the meeting nor sign the joint letter. USMB leaders later wrote their own letter, which cited constituents’ diversity of belief on military service.

Seminary leadership

Two seminaries chose new leaders. Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, which serves the USMB conference, installed ­Valerie Rempel as dean, its top leadership role. Thus a woman leads the seminary that trains pastors for a denomination that does not allow women to serve as lead pastors.

Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary selected David Boshart, conference minister of Central Plains Mennonite Conference, as president. The process included a period of “extended discernment” after Boshart was announced as the candidate of choice. The AMBS board affirmed him after weighing the concerns of those who questioned his commitment to inclusion of LGBTQ people and response to sexualized violence.

Congo’s recovery

Mennonites in the Democratic Republic of Congo continued to rebuild their lives three years after a regional outbreak of violence displaced 1.4 million people and left 5,000 dead.

Ministries included a literacy project, which trained hundreds of educators to teach thousands of illiterate adults. Education served as a tool for evangelization and trauma healing.

Educator Yamba Katembue Patrice described the hardship: “Many Mennonites of Kamiji are suffering because they have lost everything. Some lack clothes, shoes. Some pass the night under the stars; others are beggars.”

Other top stories

— Mennonite World Review Inc. and The Mennonite Inc. finalized a plan to merge in September 2020 and form an independent media company that will publish a new magazine and improved digital platforms.

— Members of Southeast Mennonite Conference, which voted to leave MC USA in October 2018, went separate ways. Thirteen congregations decided to join LMC, and six chose to remain in MC USA by transferring to Franconia Conference.

— CMC, formerly Conservative Mennonite Conference, announced its magazine, Beacon, was ending in print.

— Eastern Mennonite Missions announced plans to move its headquarters from Salunga, Pa., to Lancaster City in 2020, marking a shift in strategy to engage an urban community, respond to the worldwide refugee crisis and connect with younger generations.

— Hopi Mission School in Kykotsmovi, Ariz., reopened as Peace Academic Center, continuing its recovery from the embezzlement of almost $1 million by former superintendent Thane Epefanio.

— Mennonite Church West Africa advanced its mission to strengthen churches in Guinea-Bissau, the Gambia and Senegal as it celebrated the ordination of its first credentialed leaders.

— Undocumented immigrants protected from deportation by living in Mennonite churches in Columbus, Ohio, and Chapel Hill, N.C., received notice of six-figure fines, which were later dropped.

— Canada’s House of Commons declared a Mennonite Heritage Week, bringing mixed reactions. Some felt it perpetuated the idea of Mennonites as a European ethnic group rather than a multicultural community.


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