Church leadership can be a difficult and thankless task. It can also be life-giving and joyful.
The Mennonite Church USA Executive Board didn’t let the burden of big challenges overwhelm their April 13-14 meeting in Los Angeles. Their determination to chart a faithful course for MC USA’s 56,000 members was evident in moments of both frustration and hope.
The board’s deliberations had the tone of assessing the church at a transitional time, weighing the opportunities and limits of who MC USA is today.
Leaders are adjusting to realities far different from those envisioned at the birth of the denomination a little over two decades ago.
A smaller church needn’t resign itself to a diminished mission. It should clarify its vision, redirecting its focus outward after years of preoccupation with internal concerns.
“We spent 20 years trying not to get smaller,” said board member Jim Caskey of Goshen, Ind., during a time of sharing expectations and ideas for the next three years.
But MC USA did shrink — proving a principle of mergers, cited by a denominational staff member, that the new entity ends up being about the same size as the smaller partner.
Moderator Linda Dibble called the joining of the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church an experiment that may not have worked.
Regardless of whether the merger caused the losses — and it seems certain that some would have happened anyway — the focus now is on what this church, with a clearer identity, can do to build the kingdom of God.
Delegates took a decisive step last summer by approving an LGBTQ-affirming resolution that has caused some traditionalists to doubt that the denomination is forbearing with them, as a 2015 resolution promised to do for all. Conservative angst frustrates leaders who’ve tried to reassure everyone that MC USA doesn’t insist on conformity to a progressive trend.
And yet, people are creating their own conformity by breaking relationships to gather with those who are like-minded.
“Do we stay focused on staying together as a community, and all that entails, or are we focused on clarity of vision and mission and what it means to follow Jesus in 2023 and beyond, even if we get smaller for a while?” Caskey asked.
The concept of a “boutique denomination” — like a business that fulfills a unique role for a niche audience — came up. Another intriguing thought was to try to be like Isaachar, an Israelite tribe with the gift of discernment (1 Chronicles 12:32).
Claiming a prophetic role on a road less traveled is a familiar identity for Anabaptists. Among the world’s 2.6 billion Christians, we are merely a footnote at 2.13 million. But we’ve made an outsized impact — as pacifists, pioneers of church-state separation, voices of conscience and keepers of communal loyalty.
Will a denomination on the progressive wing of Anabaptism, which is where MC USA has staked its identity, sustain this influence? Relevance depends on practicing what is preached.
“Mennonites are known to be relational,” said Iris de León-Hartshorn, associate executive director of operations. “Everything we do hinges on our relationships with each other. It’s a cultural thing. But sometimes we haven’t had healthy ways of relating.”
She cited the irony that “Mennonites go all over the world teaching conflict mediation, but in our own church we’re fighting while we teach other people not to fight.”
If membership withdrawals mean some are giving up the struggle for structural unity, then collaboration across Anabaptist denominations needs to be a priority — and not just in Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite World Conference.
Leaders in a transitional era need to ask: What is ending that we need to release? What is emerging that we need to embrace?
A national board can’t answer these questions alone. Each church member shoulders the frustrations and joys of building the body of Christ.