Mennonite Church USA’s Central District Conference has made a commitment to unity during fractious denominational times.
Delegates unanimously approved “A Resolution on Unity in a Time of Disagreement” during their annual meeting June 26-28 at Madison (Wis.) Mennonite Church.
They also unanimously passed a resolution calling for greater interracial and cross-cultural engagement.
Madison Mennonite brought the resolution on unity. It notes denominational anxiety over the recent licensing by Mountain States Mennonite Conference of Theda Good, a pastor living in a committed same-sex relationship, and calls for mutual respect of “each other’s discernment.”
“We believe that the answers we seek are best found in dialogue and mutual discernment, rather than denunciation and separation,” the resolution states. “We ask our sisters and brothers in the broader church to remember our common ‘commitment to ongoing dialogue and discernment’ and ‘agreeing and disagreeing in love,’ as affirmed by MC USA delegates in Columbus (2009).”
The resolution calls on the MC USA Executive Board to help the body practice “relational rather than punitive accountability, no matter the strength of our disagreement” and declares a commitment by Central District to remain in relationship with all other conferences, including Mountain States.
Central District’s meeting was held concurrently to the Executive Board’s meetings in Chicago. Because of this, conference minister Lois Johns Kaufmann said Central District understood the confirmed resolution wouldn’t be part of the feedback the board considered in its decision to not recognize Good’s licensing.
“How we function at a denominational level is being worked out,” she said. “All of us in MC USA are having to figure out how to function, but Central District is who it is.
“We are strongly congregational, and I find in Central District a resistance to hierarchical ways of making decisions, so this resolution is highly consistent with our polity in general.”
Kaufmann said each conference’s organization and culture is based on deep traditions and what people have grown to value. For some conferences, this means strong leadership and clear boundaries.
“But in Central District, accountability doesn’t look like that,” she said. “We try to stay in relationship, in conversation. We invite; we avoid coercion.
“Another way of highlighting that is in our constitution. We don’t have any mechanism for removing a congregation from membership. We invite congregations to be engaged and speak their perspective and stay in relationship.”
Heart of the gospel
The conference took time to further strengthen those relationships with a cross-cultural engagement resolution brought by Hively Avenue Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind.
“The other resolution [on unity] is timely in certain ways,” Kaufmann said.
“But this resolution is really at the heart of the gospel and probably the more important resolution in the long run.”
The resolution confesses shortcomings in building friendships with sisters and brothers of different races, falling short of modeling God’s welcome and love for all people.
“We aren’t very good at this,” Kaufmann said. “There is commitment to it and we keep working at it, but frankly, Central District is fairly Anglo. Our congregations — when we do have congregations that are not primarily Anglo — don’t do well at building relationships between congregations.”
The resolution encourages congregations to develop relationships with a church of a different cultural or racial composition during the next year.
Suggestions include planning a joint worship service, hosting a joint activity such as Bible school or a picnic, engaging in a joint peace and justice witness or planning a pulpit exchange.
In other business, Central District welcomed Covenant Mennonite Fellowship of Sarasota, Fla., into the conference. The action came after several years of discernment and conversation with the congregation’s former conference, Southeast Mennonite Conference of MC USA.
Covenant Mennonite withdrew from Southeast Conference in 2011 when the congregation faced dismissal if it did not change its stance on homosexuality. In 2009, the conference revoked the ministry credentials of Covenant’s former pastor, Randall Spaulding, in response to his disclosure of his desire to pursue a covenanted same-sex relationship. Spaulding is no longer part of the congregation.
Matthew Bailey, an artist and member of Milwaukee Mennonite Church, created three pieces of art for the meeting to portray Central District’s two-year theme, “Transformed through Text and Table.” The art was given to Covenant Mennonite as a welcome gift.