Photo: As part of a ritual to welcome four new Lancaster Mennonite Conference congregations into membership at Atlantic Coast Conference’s fall assembly, candles for each of the four congregations were added to the candles burning on behalf of all ACC congregations. Photo by Lois Ann Mast.
The decision by Lancaster Mennonite Conference to leave Mennonite Church USA in November 2015 launched discussions about affiliation for congregations throughout and beyond the conference.
LMC congregations in discernment
Beginning last winter, a group of 17 LMC congregations—who chose to maintain connections to both LMC and MC USA during this interim time period—met together to discuss options and to share about models for discernment and decision-making. LMC also appointed a “support team” to help walk alongside the congregations and streamlined the process of transferring membership from the conference for any congregations that would choose to do so.
Now, one year later, nine of the congregations have made decisions. Five—Assured Hope Community Church, Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Hershey (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Church; Sunnyside Mennonite Church, Lancaster; Living Light Mennonite Church, Washington Boro, Pennsylvania; and Witmer Heights Mennonite Church, Lancaster—voted to remain members of LMC and four congregations—East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church, Lancaster, Pennsylvania; New Holland (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Church; North Bronx (New York) Mennonite Church; and Pilgrims Mennonite Church, Akron, Pennsylvania—joined Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) at their fall assembly.
Earlier proposals, one suggesting the formation of a new Pennsylvania conference, did not move forward.
“As I look at this network as a whole, I think certainly there has been a desire among all congregations not be motivated out of fear or certainty, but out of trying to listen to God’s call and an openness to whatever direction God’s spirit might lead,” said Todd Gusler, one of the conveners of this group of congregations in discernment and pastor at Rossmere Mennonite Church in Lancaster. “Now we see the ways congregations have gone different places. We’ve never been of one mind. It’s a good example of grace and dare I use the word forbearance as we realize we have different processes and different contexts and we’re different congregations.”
Rossmere is still in the midst of a congregational discernment process about affiliation that they anticipate culminating with a decisions in early 2017.
During an April meeting, ACC conference minister Merv Stoltzfus joined the 17 congregations in discernment to talk about ACC’s polity and conference culture. “Beyond that, we welcomed more interaction and engagement if congregations desired,” said Stoltzfus in an Oct. 28 phone interview. “When invited to Sunday school or church, we talked a lot about how we do credentialing and governance, and also how we work at building community among our congregations.”
On Oct. 22, four LMC congregations were welcomed as members of ACC with a nearly unanimous vote and a celebration during ACC’s annual assembly. The visual display for assembly worship and delegate sessions featured an altar with a lit candle and a nameplate for each ACC congregation. After the four congregations were welcomed into membership, candles and nameplates were added to the display for them as well.
Stoltzfus noted that there was a good energy during the Assembly, although he also recognizes that the process of leaving LMC was not without grief for some of these congregations.
“This was not just an easy decision for them. They had to do good processing together to see what it feels like to be leaving this family they have been part of,” said Stoltzfus. “The reality is that some of these congregations, in that difficult process, decided to remain in LMC even though they probably would have wanted to enjoy fellowship with MC USA, too.”
New Holland Mennonite Church was one of the first congregation’s to make a decision about where to affiliate, choosing to join ACC in late June. Pastor Dawn Ranck Hower says the congregation focused primarily on the differences in polity and governance and which style fit them best. In the end, they were drawn to ACC’s congregational model. Ranck Hower’s pastoral credentials were transferred in July, but the congregation needed to wait until ACC’s October assembly in order to formally join the conference.
After receiving a very “warm welcome” from ACC on Saturday Oct. 22, the congregation observed a “Transition Sunday” on Oct. 23. Using Philippians 4:4 (“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”), the congregation celebrated their congregation’s history with LMC. They also participated in a ritual of release, writing down questions or concerns that they might have on dissolving paper and releasing them into a dish of water. Finally, the congregation rejoiced in their future with ACC and received a blessing from Joanne Dietzel, ACC conference minister.
“How you leave is how you join, and it’s important to bring closure,” said Ranck Hower. “There was something about that warm welcome and acceptance [at ACC] that helped us to breathe deeper. For a couple years here we’ve been holding our breath. hen you’re in the midst of apprehension and change and tension, you don’t breathe deeply. I’ve been reflecting a lot here on breathing and God’s breath and the Ruach [a Hebrew word for breath, Spirit]. That ability to breathe deeply again has been something noticeable in our congregation.”
North Bronx Mennonite Church made a unanimous congregational decision to join ACC in October. Pastor Ruth Yoder Wenger noted that their congregation began to feel concern when LMC started to explore moving away from MC USA.
“We have valued membership in MC USA from the beginning. The vision statement resonates deeply with our congregational calling as members of the body of Christ,” wrote Yoder Wenger in a Nov. 5 e-mail. “We value the wider denomination as a diverse community of believers guided by the Holy Spirit and accountable to each other while agreeing and disagreeing in love.”
Wenger noted that the congregation was also attracted by ACC’s “welcome of women and men equally into all levels of leadership” and by the opportunity to meet with other ACC congregations in New York who gather monthly.
For Sunnyside Mennonite Church, the affiliation question was one of a number of discernment processes, including a pastoral search that the congregation was undergoing. The congregation soon realized that in order to hire a pastor, they would need to have an answer to the question of their congregation’s affiliation.
The congregation underwent a nine-month discernment process that included conversations with LMC Executive Conference Minister, Keith Weaver, and MC USA Executive Director, Ervin Stutzman, and testing a potential relationship with Franconia Mennonite Conference, another MC USA conference largely centered in Pennsylvania. They also read and studied books and Scripture to learn more about processes of discernment.
Transitional pastor Donald Sharp, who has been serving with Sunnyside for 14 months, noted that the congregation has been diverse theologically and was happy to co-exist in that diversity.
“We were fine with our diversity. We knew each other as having varied approaches to theology and practices,” said Sharp in a Nov. 4 phone interview. “We didn’t necessarily have to want to make a decision.”
A straw poll in June showed that roughly two-thirds of the congregation was in favor of staying with LMC. In September, after a few more rounds of processing, the vote to affiliate with LMC passed with 74 percent approval; it needed a two-thirds majority to carry through.
In this transition time and after the affiliation decision, the congregation has lost some members, but Sharp says that the congregation has seen God’s Spirit at work, even in the midst of hard decisions.
“The Spirit moved greatly to help people hear each other. That’s been a big thing,” said Sharp. “There’s also been the work of the Spirit among those who are here and who really are very determined and wish to make this congregation thrive.”
Jason Kuniholm, LMC Bishop for the Lancaster, Lititz and Mellinger Districts, served as a resource person for many of the congregations in the discernment process. Although congregations were given two years to make their decisions, Kuniholm noted that for many churches, that length of time felt like too long to be left in limbo.
“This process has forced churches to do some discernment and talk with each other,” he said, in a Nov. 4 phone interview. “The conversations have been energizing and hopeful, but there was frustration at having to make a forced decision. My task over the past few months has been to help churches to go through this transition and help them to make these decisions.”
Kuniholm is ending his bishop role at the end of 2016.
Congregations joining Lancaster
In the last six months, LMC has received 14 new congregations into membership and Executive Conference Minister Keith Weaver notes that the conference is in “various stages of discernment with several others.”
Among those congregations joining LMC was First Mennonite Church in Berne, Indiana. Following up on a decision two years earlier, members of First Mennonite voted on Sept. 25 to withdraw their membership from Ohio Conference and join Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite Conference (LMC).
In a phone interview on Oct. 26, Jeffrey Linthicum, a pastor at First Mennonite, said the congregation voted in October 2014 to leave Ohio Conference but were still looking for another church body to join. “We’ve been in conversation with [people from] Lancaster Conference,” Linthicum said. He wanted to be clear, however, that LMC did not approach them; First Mennonite approached LMC.
“The merger [of Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church in 2002] probably shouldn’t have happened,” Linthicum said, because of the theological differences within Mennonite Church USA. “We didn’t [have] enough understanding of the theological differences in the church,” he said. “The merger was not a good thing in the end.”
In particular, he noted the conflicting votes at the Kansas City 2015 Delegate Assembly that supported both a forbearance resolution and one maintaining the ministerial guidelines that discourage pastors from performing same-sex ceremonies.
During the two years since deciding to leave Ohio Conference, Linthicum said, First Mennonite continued to support the conference to the same degree it always had.
First Mennonite originally had been a member of Central District Conference, which, before the merger was part of the General Conference Mennonite Church. It left CDC in 2008 to join Ohio Conference. Linthicum said the pastors’ credentials would be transferred to LMC.
LMC is not officially connected to the Evana Network, an evangelical Anabaptist network begun in 2015, Weaver notes that several LMC congregations are partnering with Evana to access some of their church development resources, a partnership that the conference encourages. Weaver currently serves as an Evana board member, too.
“Our desire is that we would not be alone in these changes,” wrote Weaver in a Nov. 4 e-mail. “We seek to partner with other movements and networks in taking the Good News of Christ across the street and around the world.”