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Last updated March 12.

March 17, 2014 issue

Board hears conference leaders' concerns

Mountain States action, EMU policy review are issues

By Tim Huber Mennonite World Review

Leaders of several Mennonite Church USA conferences have expressed concern to the denomination’s Executive Board about issues related to homosexuality.

Franconia Mennonite Conference posted a letter from leaders of five of the conferences on its website Feb. 27.

The letter, dated Feb. 12, was intended as counsel for the board at its February meeting in light of two recent actions:

  • Eastern Mennonite University’s review of its employment policy that prohibits hiring people in same-sex relationships; and
  • Mountain States Mennonite Conference’s licensing of a pastor in a committed same-sex relationship.

The letter describes the two events “as catastrophic for our constituencies.”

The letter is signed by Franconia executive conference minister Ertell Whigham, Virginia Mennonite Conference executive conference minister Clyde Kratz, Lancaster Mennonite Conference moderator Keith Weaver, New York Conference executive conference minister Gene Miller and Franklin Mennonite Conference conference minister Allen Lehman.

Franconia posted the letter as a matter of full disclosure to its delegates.

“A number of pastors in each of our conferences have begun questioning their continued affiliation with Mennonite Church USA in light of these latest developments,” the letter says. “It is our perception that our conferences will begin losing congregations very soon as these conversations continue to drag on without resolution.”

The letter cites 1986 and 1987 statements by MC USA’s predecessor denominations describing homosexual, extramarital and premarital sexual activity as sin and asks whether Mountain States Conference violated a covenant to be transparent on ministerial leadership issues.

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  • Herm Weaver is conference minister in Mountain States Mennonite Conference, right?

    I knew Herm 15 years ago. He was a grown-up brother back then and I am sure he still is today. So Herm, gather your team together there in MSMC and act to stem the bleeding in the body that you are part of. Issue a statement stating that you continue to believe your action to license Theda Good was an act of obedience to the Spirit and then go on and suspend the implementation of that decision pending further consultation with your brothers and sisters across the body you joined and covenanted to be part of.

    You can withdraw your suspension at any time you conclude the rest of the body is not acting in good faith in their consultations with you.

    This is not rocket science; this is how grown-ups act within a conflict that could easily spiral out-of-control and do irreparable damage.

    If you fail to act in a manner such as this, you will by your inaction force others to act.

    - Berry Friesen (mar 3 at 10:22 a.m.)

  • This seems like another case of former Mennonite Church (MC) polity assumptions overwhelming congregations with roots in the former General Conference. I'm saddened and embarrassed to see Eastern MC's try to bludgeon former GCs into submission on an issue that would formerly allowed greater congregational autonomy and openness to diverse perspectives. The LGBTQ community is not going away. How long will we continue to push it away without really engaging with it?

    - Sam Steiner (mar 3 at 10:40 a.m.)

  • Here's a similar article from The Mennonite magazine which includes letters from Ohio, Indiana-Michigan in addition to East Coast conferences -

    - Debbie (mar 3 at 10:54 a.m.)

  • I am saddened that so many persons feel that the inclusion of persons with God-given gifts for ministry, service, and education are considered "catastrophic for our constituencies." I have watched for too long as our LGBTQ brothers and sisters are excluded from the Mennonite Church. Now many in the church are recognizing that one's gender orientation is not a choice, but is the way that person was knit together in the womb. I affirm Mountain States Mennonite Conference, EMU, students at Goshen College, and the 150+ pastors that affirm the Mennonite Church and are working to enlarge the tent.

    - Jeni Hiett Umble (mar 3 at 12:11 p.m.)

  • The letter from the conference leaders went to the heart of things when they pointed out the incongruency of a Mennonite conference or school advocating for something involving a behavior that the Mennonite church officially views as sin. I would guess that persons in Mountain States and at EMU are advocating it because they perceive the church moving toward saying that committed same-sex partnerships can be holy and right. But the church may not actually continue moving that way after doing the intentional "biblical and theological reflection" which the letter calls for. Rather we might, as Michael King described the conservative view in today's MWR, become "convinced a hedonistic culture is driving an emotional contagion seducing the church down the wrong path."

    - hnmiller (mar 3 at 12:32 p.m.)

  • Gene Miller should really take a better pulse of the congregations in his conference before making threats to leave MCUSA. As a queer member of the New York Mennonite Conference, I can assure you that several of his healthiest churches will not be making the exit with him.

    - Drew Langdon (mar 3 at 2:27 p.m.)

  • Whatever result we may seek in the end, I hope we can quickly agree that all parties to the debate should abide by the procedural rules agreed to at the beginning.

    That's what the letter from the eastern conferences seeks. It doesn't take a position on what the "result" of the debate should be but only begs for integrity and orderliness in the process.

    - Berry Friesen (mar 3 at 2:52 p.m.)

  • There is a simple dynamic being voiced in these letters. When the denomination was formed the conferences joined it based on the denomination's membership guidelines. If the present abandonment of these "rules of the road" had been foreseen at the time, I doubt that any of the conferences involved in these letters of concern would have ever joined. The present MC USA denomination is not the one we joined, and it is not us who have changed our positions.

    - John G (mar 3 at 4:21 p.m.)

  • Just to add a PS to my above post, there is a line from a poem that describes how I feel. "We have bonds from the brokers who have broken their oath, and we're out on the street with a lump in our throats" Mark Heard

    - John G (mar 3 at 5:10 p.m.)

  • Berry Friesen says: "Whatever result we may seek in the end, I hope we can quickly agree that all parties to the debate should abide by the procedural rules agreed to at the beginning."

    I take the liberty of linking to something I submitted to Tim Nafziger's blog in The Mennonite back in 2001, in which I contended that the denomination leadership has failed to follow agreed-upon procedures. I submit that the current problem is not with "procedures" (which have become a veritable idol to certain factions in the church -- read Matthew 23:13), but with something deeper and more sinister.

    I hope MWR can accept the following extended excerpt from what I wrote back then:

    Within the 2001 [Membership Guidelines] is a section that was submitted, with the rest of the document, to congregations for discernment prior to the assemblies that would be considering it. My recollection is that most then-General Conference congregations voted that it be deleted, but a majority of those in the much larger Mennonite Church favored it, so the document was presented to the Nashville assembly for a vote with section 3 included.

    Some of us who were against its inclusion were told by denominational leaders that we should nevertheless vote for the whole document, because otherwise the "transformation" of the two denominations into, uh, what turned out to be two other denominations divided along a national boundary, could not take place. In any event, we were assured, that section to which we objected would not be included in the bylaws of the new denomination (the one on the U.S. side of the border; the one on the other side of the border had already pretty much decided to ignore the whole thing).

    It was further pointed out the objectionable section internally stipulated that the whole document was to be reviewed in 2007, some 6 years after its adoption. What happened in 2007?

    Again, prior to the gathering in San Jose some of us called attention to this approaching deadline and asked that we be allowed to provide input into the process of review. We were first told that the matter would not be raised until after the convention was over. Then we were told that it would be dealt with at a joint session of the Executive Board and the Constituency Leaders Council. That date came and went, and all that came out of denominational headquarters was the sound of crickets chirping.

    On later probing, I was told that the gathered hierarchy had approached the whole issue with fear and trembling and had decided that no changes needed to be made. I have no knowledge that this decision was ever so much as communicated to the delegate body two years later, let alone presented for ratification.

    Since then, I have had further assurances that the matter would be brought up at subsequent meetings, and again nothing has been reported about it. I do hope this gives you some insight into why my trust in how MC USA does discernment is not all that robust.

    - Lin Garber (mar 4 at 3:57 p.m.)

  • Lin, I do not see in your comment anything that erodes the legitimacy of the Membership Guidelines. If some delegates voted "yes" because they feared the measure would fail without the Guidelines, that does not in any way erode the authority of what they did. It only indicates they were exercising discernment, which is often the case with a difficult vote.

    Regarding the other matter you raise - the failure to hold an open review of the Guidelines since Nashville - I expect that decision was shared by many leaders and not made by only a few.

    - Berry Friesen (mar 4 at 5:26 p.m.)

  • Berry Friesen- If nothing else, Lin Garber's comments might cause you to reflect on the term "good faith" that you used earlier in this thread.

    - Ed Miller (mar 5 at 7:18 a.m.)

  • Ed, I do and I will. But the inference of "bad faith" can't really be taken TOO seriously until names are attached.

    I suppose many fill in the blank with the name of Ervin Stutzman since he fills the spot at the top of the staff pyramid. But he's not the one who makes key decisions about whether we stay together as a church; those people are conference leaders. And Stutzman doesn't decide how to structure convention agendas or how to structure the procedure related to Mountain State Mennonite Conference between now and the summer of 2015; the Executive Board will do that.

    So yes, good faith is of critical importance. But we have a highly decentralized system where lots of people can say "don't you dare" to Stutzman in private and then "we need to remain open-hearted" when speaking in other venues. So I'm waiting to hear where the "bad faith" lies and then some evidence for the allegation.

    - Berry Friesen (mar 5 at 11:03 a.m.)

  • Berry makes a strong appeal for obedience to process and procedures, even when one is in disagreement with the church body. I respect that. However, sometimes the spirit leads us towards civil disobedience, especially when vulnerable people continually inherit injustice at the hands of those who inherited power. If I were lgbtq, I should think that by now I'd be very fed up with obedience to "agreed upon procedures" when my voice was left out from the beginning.

    - Joseph P (mar 5 at 12:51 p.m.)

  • Joseph, you may be right; others have suggested the same. Without more context, it's really hard to evaluate.

    As you suggest, civil disobedience can be an act of conscience but if there is a desire to continue in close relationship with others who have a different view, usually it is couched in efforts to minimize the harm others experience as a result of the disobedience.

    Alternatively, it can be an act of protest, especially when normal channels of advocacy are blocked, but I haven't heard the Constituency Leaders' Council gave MSMC the run-around. Have you?

    - Berry Friesen (mar 5 at 4:29 p.m.)

  • I will say this. as a former member of the Mountain States Mennonite Conference and the Mennonite Church because of this issue, the leaders of the Mennonite Church USA need to be accountable for the "input" that they gave Herm Weaver. At the meeting Herm Weaver had with our congregation he stated that the Mennonite Church USA did not give clear guidance to him. What that means exactly I do not know. But I think they should have told him not to take this action it will rip churches apart in your conference. Like it has done to mine and others in the Mountain States Mennonite Conference. I want to know why the EB did not give him clear guidance on this issue when it is clearly against the statement of faith in regards to homosexuality as a sin. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

    - Aaron Schmucker (mar 11 at 12:04 a.m.)

  • Aaron, very enlightening comments. I guess the troubling thought is that any conference leader would need help in knowing what the bible and the statement of faith require in making this decision. To even be so out of touch with the deep convictions of the man and woman in the pew of the Mennonite Churches surprises me. The place for guidance on this issue should not be the EB, it should be the scripture and our covenant with each other as defined in our statement of faith.

    - John G (mar 11 at 5:49 a.m.)

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