In an effort to be part of Mennonite Church USA, six congregations in Florida have decided to leave Southeast Mennonite Conference and intend to join Franconia Mennonite Conference.
A church plant that was in the process of joining Southeast Conference also intends to join Franconia Conference.
Delegates and pastors representing the congregations met Aug. 10 at Iglesia Menonita Arca de Salvación in Fort Meyers, Fla. Noel Santiago, leadership minister at Franconia Conference, joined them.
The 23 congregations that have most recently belonged to Southeast Conference exited the denomination March 16.
In April, the congregations that wanted to stay with MC USA asked about joining Franconia Conference, said Marco Güete, who since March 15 has been employed by Franconia Conference as an interim leadership minister supporting congregations in Florida seeking to remain with MC USA.
“There were not many questions left by the time we met last week, except whether we would join Franconia as a group or individually,” Güete said in an Aug. 15 interview. They will, in fact, plan to join Franconia individually.
Reasons to stay
Güete cited three primary reasons the congregations want to remain with MC USA.
“Since the majority are people-of-color congregations that have helped MC USA become more open to people-of-color leadership, they feel that entering another denomination would be like starting over,” he said. The other reasons are that the congregations believe MC USA “is their family” and they are “tired of division.”
The seven congregations plan to meet as “Franconia Florida churches” at least four times a year for friendship, fellowship and discussing how to work together, Güete said, and they hope to “maintain good fraternal relationships” with Southeast leaders.
After a three-year discernment process, 27 Southeast Conference delegates representing 16 of the conference’s 25 congregations voted to leave MC USA and directed the Leadership Board to bring new affiliation options by March. All delegates from congregations now joining Franconia Conference voted “no” to leaving MC USA last October.
At a March 2 meeting, Southeast Conference leadership presented LMC (formerly Lancaster Mennonite Conference) as its choice for where to collectively affiliate. After much discussion, Southeast moderator Michael Zehr made a recommendation, and delegates agreed, to delay action on where to collectively affiliate until later this year.
“It became clear to me that we weren’t ready to make a decision,” Zehr said at the time.
That day, representatives from nine congregations, including the ones now leaving Southeast Conference, reaffirmed their desire to remain with MC USA.
Meanwhile, Franconia Conference is experiencing its own transition. This fall, the conference hopes to complete a two-year reconciliation process with Eastern District Conference that would result in the two conferences becoming one.
As a result, the seven Florida congregations are not expected to join the new conference —which may or may not be called Franconia Conference — until the fall of 2020.
“We are prepared to support the Florida congregations as we do any congregations looking to join us,” said Steve Kriss, executive minister of Franconia Mennonite Conference, in an Aug. 15 interview.
Southeast Conference moderator Michael Zehr said in an Aug. 16 interview that it’s “difficult to have these congregations withdraw right now” because within the conference “there is an overall desire to find a way to stay together as much as we can.”
The Southeast Conference fall assembly will be held Oct. 4-5. At that gathering, delegates will pick up the question of where to collectively affiliate given that these congregations have left the conference and because delegates at the March 2 meeting agreed to look at affiliation options later in the year, Zehr said.
As of Aug. 16, Southeast Conference has 16 congregations, down from 25 in October.