This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Another conference offers less connection

In response to one of its member congregations voting to leave Mennonite Church USA in the spring of 2016, South Central Mennonite Conference delegates have updated conference bylaws allowing a congregation to be part of the conference but not the denomination.

The unanimous action, taken during the annual meeting July 21-22 at Hesston (Kan.) Mennonite Church, is similar to an arrangement enacted in 2016 by Ohio Mennonite Conference. Such status is also available to congregations in Lancaster Mennonite Conference, which is in the process of leaving MC USA.

Greensburg (Kan.) Mennonite Church Pastor Jeff Blackburn said his congregation, which voted to leave MC USA, still wanted to be part of South Central.

“We feel like it is a like-minded, Bible-believing, Christ-centered conference where we wish to be connected,” he said. “We do not wish to be an independent congregation out here on the prairies.

“We want to be connected to a larger group for accountability, fellowship, the ministries and outreach that we can do mutually that we would not be able to do on our own.”

After Greensburg took its vote, delegates at South Central’s 2016 annual meeting discussed the implications, because conference bylaws only stated that South Central is a member of MC USA. Over the last year, new bylaws for limited membership were created, stating “congregations currently a member of SCMC who choose not to maintain affiliation with Mennonite Church USA may do so upon written request to the SCMC Executive Committee.”

Like Ohio Conference, congregations not affiliating with MC USA do not have a portion of their conference contributions passed on to the denomination.

Outgoing South Central moderator Gary Wolfer said two or three other congregations are looking at similar membership status.

“Even with the conferences staying affiliated with the Mennonite church, there’s a movement where the denomination is becoming less central to what’s going on,” he said. “They are ceding more and more power to the conferences; they are providing less and less services.”

A growing conference

As MC USA shrinks, South Central grows. Last year, Inman (Kan.) Mennonite Church followed nearby Bethel Mennonite Church to transfer from MC USA’s Western District Conference. Kingman Mennonite Church followed this year, along with Mountain States Mennonite Conference’s Light of Life Church in Farmington, N.M. A church plant in south Texas also completed paperwork in time to join at July’s annual meeting.

Similar shuffling is seeing several congregations joining Central District Conference, and a handful of former Lancaster Mennonite Conference congregations continuing participation in MC USA by joining other regional conferences.

“The denomination is splitting, but not in a true split,” Wolfer said. “Rather, the conferences are becoming more on their own. They’re associating around the kinds of interpretations that they make on their own.”

Denomination’s benefits

MC USA denominational minister Terry Shue, who relates to South Central, said that while a congregation may be most familiar with its conference activities, there are denominational benefits many churches don’t notice much.

The Corinthian Plan insurance system for pastors allows those who leave the denomination to continue participating.

“The annually updated pastoral salary guidelines have a plethora of data that congregations use far and wide because we put it up as a free download,” Shue said. “The Conservative Mennonite Conference in Rose­dale, Ohio — the way they do salary guidelines for their pastors is to do a link to our page.”

He noted MC USA’s ministerial leadership inquiry application process vets pastoral applicants, regardless of a congregation’s level of membership.

“We as denominational ministers are often referred to as the pastors for conference ministers,” he said. “. . . Those are things we don’t break down into a spreadsheet of dollar-added benefits, but there are things that congregations that choose not to be a part still benefit from.”

For the most part, the fiscal impact of departing congregations is not significant, because Shue said such congregations typically cease their giving years earlier. He said the bigger challenge is keeping people talking to each other as polarization increases.

“It makes it even harder with the movement away from geographic-based conferences to affinity-based ones,” he said. “The reality is as much as we strive to have these conversations, it is determined by who shows up at the table.”

Wolfer said he doesn’t think a few churches opting out will pull South Central away from its MC USA affiliation.

“I think what will pull South Central is what happens in the larger church,” he said. “If there are moves to change the Mennonite Confession of Faith, there are certain kinds of things that could happen. . . . I could see that having a difference to member churches.

“As of today, what we have is a forbearance perspective, but there will come a day when that ends,” Wolfer said. “What is going to happen after that, I don’t know.”

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