Blessing at the parting of ways

When churches separate, it’s time to model diversity with grace

Conference leaders and others listen to a presentation by Glen Guyton, executive director of Men­nonite Church USA, at the Constituency Leaders Council meeting in San Antonio, Texas, in March. — Camille Dager/MC USA Conference leaders and others listen to a presentation by Glen Guyton, executive director of Men­nonite Church USA, at the Constituency Leaders Council meeting in San Antonio, Texas, in March. — Camille Dager/MC USA

The only thing that’s constant is change. Doug Luginbill attests to this in the history of the Mennonite Church USA conference he leads.

“In 1957, when Central District Conference was formed through the merger of two other conferences, we were 41 churches,” said Luginbill, the conference minister of CDC, responding to questions from Anabaptist World. “Today we are 45 churches. However, only 12 of the original 41 remain today.

“Some have closed. Some have joined other MC USA conferences. Some have joined other Mennonite groups. A few have become independent congregations. . . .

“I guess that’s what it means to be part of the ‘free church.’ ”

Technically, a free church is one that isn’t a state church. But Luginbill’s point is clear: Anabaptists affirm freedom of conscience. And sometimes, conscience dictates finding a new spiritual home.

We’ve taken a closer took at the exercise of congregational freedom in an article about withdrawals from MC USA.

As one congregation wrote to New York Mennonite Conference: “We feel that an ongoing relationship with MC USA/NYMC is no longer compatible with who we are, and it is no longer mutually healthy nor beneficial to either party.”

MC USA is not alone in finding that it is hard for a denomination to hold together a wide spectrum of views on sexuality. The United Methodist Church hasn’t been able to do it either.

The splintering of MC USA has picked up speed since delegates passed an LGBTQ-affirming resolution known as Repentance and Transformation in May 2022. The resolution alienated traditionalists, who say it lacks forbearance toward them and their beliefs. It pushed some congregations to withdraw, including some that were pretty close to the edge already.

The fractures had grown so deep that a more moderately worded resolution might not have kept South Central Mennonite Conference and dozens of other congregations from leaving.

Today, people want to know where a church stands on LGBTQ inclusion. The days of intentional ambiguity — trying not to offend anyone or hoping to avoid conflict — might be over.

Congregations that consider their diversity a strength find themselves in a difficult spot. Their unity might depend upon members’ willingness to refrain from trying to get everything they would like in a perfect world.

People in these churches might feel called to celebrate the virtues of unity in diversity. But greater numbers seem to prefer a like-minded unity, where the lines of acceptable belief about sexuality are clearly drawn.

Ironically, progressives who affirm diversity have shaped a denomination that is less diverse theologically. Some might call this an unintended consequence of a greater good: a church that welcomes LGBTQ people who were marginalized in the past. The shaping of MC USA has not been done by force; conservative congregations have chosen to leave. Indeed, this is the way Christians who affirm the freedom of conscience should part ways — not by expulsion, as has happened in the past and still happens in other Anabaptist denominations.

With Luginbill, we lament separation but bless new beginnings. “We ultimately want congregations to be part of a conference/denomination in which they can fully live into their mission and thrive,” he said.

If the splintering of MC USA is necessary for congregations to thrive, so be it. This is not a “so be it” of indifference but of blessing at a parting of the ways. We recognize the oneness in Jesus Christ of LGBTQ-affirming churches and traditional interpreters of Scripture, of like-minded congregations and diversity-celebrating idealists and everyone in between.

“So be it” is also a word of reflection and even repentance. Eric Massanari, executive conference minister of Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference, says: “If we are to continue to listen for the Spirit’s leading, . . . we must honestly acknowledge what has been lost along the way and humbly name our own part in the separations that have occurred.”

Paul Schrag

Paul Schrag is editor of Anabaptist World. He lives in Newton, Kan., attends First Mennonite Church of Newton and is Read More

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!