This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Allegheny Conference affirms licensing of pastor in same-sex relationship

Allegheny Mennonite Conference has approved a request from Hyattsville (Maryland) Mennonite Church to move forward with licensing toward ordination for Michelle Burkholder. Burkholder has been serving as associate pastor at Hyattsville since 2013. She is a member of the LGBTQ community and married to her partner.

The request for licensing came through Hyattsville’s congregational discernment processes, which recognized and named Burkholder’s gifts for ministry.
“Michelle is so clearly gifted for ministry,” said Cynthia Lapp, lead pastor at Hyattsville, in a Feb. 17 phone interview. “She reaches out to children and includes them in the congregation in a really genuine way, and she just connects with people wherever they are.”

As part of their request for licensing, Hyattsville asked congregational members to write letters or comments noting things they appreciated about Burkholder’s ministry. They sent these testimonials, 20 in all, with their formal request to the conference.

Burkholder’s licensing service is scheduled for March 26.

Allegheny will become the third Mennonite Church USA area conference to credential an LGBTQ pastor, joining Central District Conference and Mountain States Mennonite Conference.

In a Feb. 15 statement, the conference acknowledged that this decision places them at variance with Mennonite Church USA’s stated policies. The statement reads: “We are acting from the foundation of a March 2015 conference decision ‘to live together with theological disagreements using the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective as a guiding document, not a disciplinary document.’ It is in the spirit of that decision and the spirit of the two resolutions passed by MC USA delegates at Kansas City in 2015 (in which we see an intentional tension between a vision of forbearance among diverse congregations and application of membership guidelines that have remained constant) that we believe congregational autonomy to discern and choose congregational leaders from the context of the congregation should be affirmed as appropriate congregational authority.”

According to Dave Mishler, Allgheny conference minister, the conference’s credentialing team reviewed the request from Hyattsville and also interviewed Burkholder. “The results of that interview and the letters of support led the credentialing team to affirm the congregation’s discernment and Michelle’s own discernment of her call to ministry,” said Mishler.

Because the decision puts the conference at variance with MC USA’s Membership Guidelines, the conference’s leadership council also reviewed the decision and affirmed, by majority decision, moving forward with licensing.

Ervin Stutzman, MC USA executive director, also emphasized that the two resolutions passed by delegates at Kansas City were taken into account in Allegheny’s process. “I trust that the conference has done what they felt was best in their context and respect their discernment on this matter,” he wrote in a Feb. 17 email.

In accordance with MC USA’s current policies, Burkholder will not be listed in the national ministerial directory.

Burkholder was a member of Hyattsville prior to being called as pastor. In 2013, when she began her role as associate pastor, Hyattsville and Allegheny Mennonite Conference were in the midst of a formal reconciliation process. In 2005, Hyattsville had been disciplined and was named as a nonvoting member of Allegheny Mennonite Conference due to a policy that welcomed LGBTQ individual as full members of the congregation.

The congregation intentionally chose to wait to make a formal request for credentialing for Burkholder until the reconciliation process was complete. In 2015, Allegheny delegates voted 72-70 to reinstate Hyattsville as a full member. In the year and a half that followed, Hyattsville and conference leaders worked intentionally at rebuilding relationships. The request for licensure followed this process.
Since 2015, the conference has lost 13 congregations, some of those groups citing tensions over the inclusion of LGBTQ people as their primary rationale for leaving. The conference currently has 14 member congregations.
While it feels great to be on this side of all of the discipline and to be living into reconciliation, I have a real awareness that there’s a reason we’re here moving toward licensure and that’s because so many people left, and that feels sad,” said Lapp. “But there’s such good energy with pastors remaining in Allegheny, and there’s a new trust being built. I feel really heartened by that.”
Burkholder herself says she is full of “gratitude, joy and hope” for Hyattsville and for the conference.

“It’s a complicated thing because I think licensing toward ordination is meaningful for me as an individual, but it’s also a meaningful thing for Hyattsville to receive this support from the conference,” said Burkholder on Feb. 17. “It’s a hopeful sign for the broader Mennonite church that we might be able to live into forbearance with each other. That doesn’t mean that everybody has to agree with this for their congregation and their setting, but it’s the right thing for us at this time. Hopefully in the future there will be places for other LGBTQ people to offer themselves fully to the church and have their gifts received.”

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