This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

After first ‘peer review,’ Mennonite Church USA leaders question its value

HESSTON, Kan. — The licensing of an Ohio pastor who is gay has gone through Mennonite Church USA’s first “peer review.”

Whether others will be done is an open question.

More than 60 members of the Constituency Leaders Council discussed the review — and how to exercise authority and practice accountability — at their semiannual meeting Oct. 17-19 at Hesston Mennonite Church.

When CLC members wrote their opinions on sheets of paper posted on the walls, the one labeled “rationale for continuing peer review” was blank.

The review examined Central District Conference’s 2015 decision to grant a ministerial credential to Mark Rupp, pastor of Christian formation at Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church.

A 2015 MC USA delegate resolution calls for a “conference-to-conference peer review” when a conference’s action does not align with denominational policy.

“Every mandate that comes from delegates has to be tested for its effectiveness,” said David Boshart, MC USA moderator-elect and CLC chair, in an interview. “We’ve done a pilot experiment, and now we have some discerning to do. . . .

“The evaluation of the peer review process raises the question of what value it creates for outcomes and future directions.”

Members of the review team and Central District leaders reported to the CLC about the process that led to Rupp’s licensing.

“We didn’t do [the licensing] to be difficult or to thumb our theological noses at anyone,” said Doug Luginbill, Central District’s conference minister. He said conference leadership felt a strong sense of God’s leading, as well as trepidation, fearing a loss of relationship with those who disagreed.

The peer review team consisted of Mary Etta King of Mountain States Conference, Terry Zehr of New York Conference, Marco Guete of Southeast Conference and Elizabeth Troyer-Miller of Central Plains Conference. The group completed its work in August.

Zehr said the team examined Central District’s decision-making process and considered how the action affects the wider church.

King said the team recognized Central District’s practice of congregations relating to each other as adult siblings. In this relationship, said Lisa Weaver, conference board president, congregations “want to help each other but do not feel a need to control each other.”

Acting on ‘variance’?

After discussion around tables, CLC members wrote their observations. They included questions: Is trust in leadership undermined when we fail to act on “variance”? How do we respond to those who feel their convictions are being ignored?

And critiques: Not much new was learned; time and money were spent with little meaningful outcome; the process may have felt punitive rather than forbearing.

And affirmations: The review was done with grace, diligence, integrity and faithfulness.

The peer review team’s report raised questions of its own: Knowing that the review process likely will not lead a conference to change a decision, how can it strengthen relationships, encourage reflection and promote learning? Or do reviews “fuel the flames of our disagreements”?

The peer review discussion led into a broader discussion of authority.

Boshart asked the group to discuss moral authority and organizational authority. Moral authority is the ability to cast a vision and say how things should be. Organizational authority is the power to implement the vision.

Questions included: How should the Executive Board exercise moral authority? What are the limits of organizational authority?

Boshart noted that the denomination’s “documents are ambiguous about how organizational authority is exercised” when the vision is in dispute.

Canada’s potential losses

Mennonite Church Canada executive director Willard Metzger reported on the implications of a delegate resolution this summer to reaffirm the Confession of Faith and to “create space/leave room” to test alternative understandings of committed same-sex relationships “to see if they are a nudging of the Spirit of God.”

“We don’t have a desire in our constituency, by and large, to excommunicate congregations,” Metzger said. “Most people still find themselves resonating with the Confession of Faith. We are not trying to change anybody’s mind, but we are creating space for those who see things differently.”

Making space comes with a cost. Metzger said leaders of MC Canada’s area churches (comparable to MC USA’s area conferences) have reported that 23 congregations, or 10 percent of the total, are considering leaving the denomination because of disagreement with the resolution. He said there was talk of the entire MC British Columbia area church leaving.

Call for a do-over

Sandra Montes-Martinez of Iglesia Menonita Hispana (Hispanic Mennonite Church) and Jessica Schrock-Ringenberg of Ohio Conference presented a challenge to overcome the paralysis of controversies and turn toward a positive vision for the future.

Along with Peter Eberly and Jeremy Shue, they are the writers of “An Appeal for Healing and Hope for the Future of Mennonite Church USA from Younger Church Leaders,” directed to the CLC and Executive Board.

Schrock-Ringenberg said the denomination, founded in 2002 in a merger of the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church, had started on the wrong page, focusing on divisions of the past.

“We are calling our denomination to a do-over . . . a vision that moves and goes somewhere,” she said.

Using broken pieces of pottery as symbols, she said: “We want our own piece to be the only thing, and this is paralyzing us and making our witness irrelevant. . . . We are inviting you as elders of the denomination to call on our leaders to stop being distracted by what is paralyzing us. We are asking you to set aside your piece for the sake of the whole.”

Montes-Martinez urged not just repeating but really believing the church’s vision statement about bringing healing and hope to the world.

The young leaders’ statement identified “spiritual negligence” and “tribalism” as problems the church needs to confess and as factors that have led to fracturing the denomination.

“We have not given up on our church in spite of our disappointment and impatience with our current experience,” the four wrote. “. . . If we confess our tendencies toward spiritual negligence and tribalism, we believe a new space will open for the power of the Spirit to transform us.”

The CLC is an advisory group composed of representatives from area conferences and constituent groups.

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