After a rocky couple of decades, Mennonite Church USA sought to mobilize its members for positive change July 3-8 in Kansas City, Mo.
Leaders and speakers at MennoCon23, MC USA’s biennial national convention, challenged adults and youth to work for change that’s big enough to be called transformation.
The event drew 1,471 people — the fewest ever, excluding the pandemic- era convention two years ago in Cincinnati — to the Kansas City Convention Center.
The theme, “Be Transformed,” pulsed through the week as a rallying point for a denomination stung by membership losses but ready to embrace change that infuses Christlike love in all relationships.
Speaking to the 341 delegates, who met for a day and a half July 7-8, executive director Glen Guyton noted that in 22 years the denomination went from 21 conferences to 16, from 840 congregations to 509 and from 113,000 members to about 50,000.
National convention attendance has declined from a peak of 8,600 in 2005.
“We see an MC USA that has evolved, for better or for worse, into something different from what we had initially envisioned,” he said. “. . . It is time for us to remember who we are at our core. It is not about what divides us but what we do together as a small but powerful instrument of God’s peace.”
Leading a Bible study for the delegates, Sarah Bixler, associate dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary, compared the gathering in Kansas City to the upper room where the resurrected Jesus appeared and the disciples faced the choice to receive or resist God’s transformative work.
Our problems, Bixler said, match those of the disciples, as we compete for divine favor and even betray one another. But Jesus comes among us, bearing the marks of his suffering, speaking peace, bringing the Holy Spirit and “affirming our agency in the practice of forgiveness.”
In business sessions, delegates voted down a recommendation from the Executive Board to lengthen the time between delegate assemblies from two years to three. The minority prevailed: 65.6% favored a triennial schedule, slightly less than the two-thirds majority required to pass a bylaw change.
Six worship services, with the adults and 486 youth together, featured mostly contemporary music led by a worship band. Speakers expanded the transformation theme with testimonies of God’s leading in times of change.
On July 6, a four-person panel, spanning birth years from 1957 to 2005, shared about where each has seen the church at its best, how it has changed, and their hopes for what comes next.
Amanda Nelson Stoltzfus, associate pastor of youth ministries at Community Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., grieved brokenness in the church, hoping the future can hold reconciliation.
“I really hope we find a way to stay in community with each other in such a divisive time,” she said. “. . . I just want us to figure out how to love each other, hold ourselves accountable and just not quit.”
Eric Massanari, conference minister of Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference, cited the transformative impact of diversity in leadership.
“I was formed by women in ministry from [an early age],” he said. “Since then, I have seen an expansive opening of doors to ministry for people in different racial/ethnic groups, the LGBTQ community. . . . I’m really grateful and hopeful for that change.”
Affirmation of recent change was apparent during a seminar on “Living into Repentance and Transformation,” which addressed the question, “What does it mean to be an official LGBTQ-welcoming denomination?” The query stemmed from delegates’ approval, at a special assembly in May 2022, of a resolution that mandates LGBTQ-affirming actions at the denominational level.
The resolution “changed the landscape of MC USA in some significant ways, some that we don’t even know about yet,” said Michael Crosby, pastor of First Mennonite Church in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., and one of the seminar leaders.
Randall Spaulding, pastor of Boulder Mennonite Church in Colorado, invited the 90 people at the seminar to consider “what comes next for queer flourishing within and beyond MC USA.” Among those who took part were four LGBTQ pastors.
The schedule included nine time slots for seminars, some designated as intergenerational or for youth.
In “Conjuring Hope in Rural Spaces,” retired pastor S. Roy Kaufman urged appreciation for rural congregations. These churches — once the denomination’s “power brokers” but now, in some cases, “weakened” or in “death throes” — are needed “for theological and practical reasons,” Kaufman said. “It is only rural, agrarian congregations who through their conservatism preserve the distinctiveness of every cultural group. In an urban setting all these unique cultural markings tend to be erased. . . .
“The church at large and the denomination in particular would be less than the fullness God intends it to be without its conservative, agrarian congregations.”
A seminar on “Toward a Church in Which Women in Ministry Thrive” reported early findings from a survey of women pastors. Amy Zimbelman, conference minister of Mountain States Mennonite Conference, said there were about twice as many male active licensed clergy in MC USA as women — 621 to 329. Almost a third had stories of people changing their minds and becoming supportive of women in ministry; 71% said they had at some point been mistaken for the pastor’s spouse, secretary or other nonclergy role.
Fernando Perez and Rebeca Gonzalez, transitional pastors in Newton, Kan., told of their ministry with families of people who have disappeared amid violence in Mexico. Migrants are vulnerable to kidnapping, human trafficking and murder as corrupt law enforcement officers allow gangs and drug cartels to get away with their crimes. More than 100,000 people in Mexico are counted as missing.
Families search for the remains of loved ones where unmarked graves have been found. With a sharp tool “they punch deeply into the ground,” Perez said. “It is impressive the strength with which they ask God to find their loved ones. When they say, ‘There is someone here,’ everyone comes. They don’t know if it is their son or their family member. They only know they have found a human. It is a very painful path.”
In a seminar for youth, “It’s OK to Not Be OK,” Sarah Neher, director of faith formation and congregational life at Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kan., offered spiritual practices for coping with times of struggle.
Based on God breathing life into a human being in Genesis 2:7, Neher taught the practice of breath prayer: “We inhale a name for God, and we exhale our desire or request.”
Like the void before God began creating, “maybe you feel some of that chaos in your life and relationships,” Neher said. “Know that God is near and speaks order into your life. God, who separated the heavens and the earth, can bring peace and order. God wants you to feel this wholeness, this breath, the spark of God.”
She suggested a transformative prayer: “Great Comforter, wrap me in your love.”