Photo: Constituency Leader’s Council members, from left to right: John Denlinger, Shannon Dycus, Richard Goering, Dottie Delgadillo, Nan Kanagy and Terry Shue. (Photo by Hannah Heinzekehr)
“This is a hard time for the church,” said Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA. “Take courage as you step into leadership in new ways.”
These words, spoken in the midst of a “pep talk” to members of the Constituency Leaders Council during its Oct. 19-21 meeting in Archbold, Ohio, summed up the meetings where area conference, agency and constituency group leaders gathered to discern what it means to be “elders” for the church and heard from area conferences considering proposals to withdraw from the denomination.
Alongside a statement that “the Delegate Assembly will not entertain changes to the membership guidelines for the next four years,” the Resolution on the Status of the Membership guidelines, which Mennonite Church USA delegates passed at their meeting in Kansas City, Mo., this summer, also included a call for the CLC to lead more intentionally. The resolution states: “We call on the CLC to take seriously its role as ‘elders’ for the denomination, ‘discerning and advising the Executive Board, the Delegate Assembly and Mennonite Church USA on issues confronting each of them relative to faith and life.’”
The majority of the meeting was spent processing the practical implications of this direction and unpacking what it means to serve as denominational elders in the midst of disagreement. Jack Suderman, former general secretary for Mennonite Church Canada, offered reflections on elders in the biblical context, which guided the CLC’s work.
“In the biblical context, eldering is best understood as shepherding,” said Suderman. “And good shepherding is influenced by the terrain. One of your functions is episkopos—oversight—leading with a view to the ‘big picture’ and God’s leading.”
CLC members worked in table groups to craft answers to questions, including how CLC work will inform area conference decisions and how CLC will operate when conferences find themselves in conflict. When asked to list hopes for their elder role, CLC members articulated a desire to listen for the Spirit of God, serve as a discerning community and model and celebrate diversity. They also named fears of stepping into this role, which included being misunderstood, lacking courage and wielding power in harmful ways.
Who’s at the table?
On Oct. 20, CLC members heard from three area conferences that are in the process of withdrawing or considering withdrawal from Mennonite Church USA and offered feedback on a proposal with more than 300 signatures (140 of them delegates) asking that the Brethren Mennonite Council (BMC) for LGBT Interests be named as a constituency group and therefore given seats on the CLC and EB.
Table groups had time to consider the proposal regarding inclusion of BMC as an official constituency group with seats on the Executive Board and at CLC. Table groups submitted counsel, and it will be sent to the Executive Board for consideration at its meeting in February 2016.
The listening committee and several individuals also raised concerns about lower-than-usual numbers of people of color in attendance at the meetings.
During its July 17-19 annual assembly, North Central Conference passed a motion to begin a yearlong process of withdrawing from Mennonite Church USA. Jesse Swiers, NCC moderator and pastor of Lake Region Mennonite Church of Detroit Lakes, Minn., spoke with tears in his eyes about the impact CLC has had on his leadership and spirituality, and he articulated a hope for continued connection.
“This may seem like separation or death, but it’s not,” said Swiers. “No matter the situation, the church should be a place of healing. I want the church to be known for something that brings dead things back to life. We don’t put our faith in structure but in the lordship of Jesus Christ.”
Two other conferences are considering proposals for withdrawal from Mennonite Church USA. Lancaster’s bishop board is meeting Oct. 23 to consider a proposal that calls for Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite Conference to begin a two-year process of leaving Mennonite Church USA. Conference minister Keith Weaver articulated the pain that LMC has experienced in the past as congregations have left LMC and noted that something has to change or LMC “will implode.” He sensed that leaving Mennonite Church USA would allow for a “growing energy for the kingdom of God.”
Two other LMC pastors, Karen Sensenig of Habecker Mennonite Church in Lancaster and Dawn Winey of Mount Joy (Pa.) Mennonite Church, offered a call to other conferences to help support those congregations within LMC who do want to stay connected to Mennonite Church USA. LMC’s current policy does not allow women to serve as bishops.
“I hope we can have a sense of freedom to network where we find life in the missional work of God and that this breaking apart might lead to healing,” said Sensenig. “Healing is always painful, but LMC could not continue as it was.”
Franklin Mennonite Conference leaders will consider a proposal to withdraw from Mennonite Church USA at a Nov. 12 meeting.
A proposal emailed to delegates on Oct. 15 suggested that the best way to strengthen the conference’s missional calling was to withdraw from the denomination and seek a new vision and new relationships together. The rationale for the proposal included discomfort with affiliation with area conferences who are accepting of LGBTQ individuals, concerns about continuing to lose congregations and a desire to focus more full on “kingdom work.”
Rodger Schmell, Perkasie, Pa., moderator of Eastern District Conference, reflected on an image of dandelion seeds scattering in the wind. “I cried a lot yesterday,” he said. “It seems like the church is dissipating, like a dandelion puff when you blow on it. When all the seeds leave, you’re left with an empty stem. But wherever the seeds land, they prosper and grow, because God grows them. In the midst of grief and a shakeup for the church, we know that he is with each of us and will help us grow.”
CLC members participated in a litany blessing each conference and including special prayers for North Central, Lancaster and Franklin conferences.
Throughout the meeting, Jane Hoober Peifer of Lancaster, Pa., and Michael Zehr, church planter from Key West, Fla., led the group in worship. The theme scripture, Galatians 5:16-26, focused on the fruits of the Spirit.
During his opening address, David Boshart of Wellman, Iowa, moderator and CLC chair, exhorted CLC members to “tend their joy” as a spiritual discipline. CLC members had opportunities to name the most powerful and positive aspects of the work of CLC, which included building conference-to-conference relationships, offering counsel and modeling unity in diversity.
Tuesday evening closed with a time of communion and singing.