Approximately 800 congregational and conference representatives met in the 2011 Delegate Assembly at Pittsburgh July 5-9. Four sessions on July 5 started with orientation to the week and introduction of the elements in this year’s gathering.
Tuesday: The July 5 sessions also included:
- introduction of an antiracism audit of the convention itself;
- a brief review of Mennonite Church USA’s 10-year history by former moderators Lee Snyder, Duane Oswald and Roy Williams;
- a report on the success of the Corinthian Plan by Keith Harder;
- a refresher course on “missional church theology” by Stanley Green and Eli Soto Albrecht;
- greetings from Mennonite World Conference leader Danisa Ndlovu and discussion of visa concerns for the 2015 MWC Assembly in Harrisburg, Pa.;
- discussion of and adoption of a covenant between Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada;
- greetings from ecumenical visitors.
Bishop Donald McCoid, an executive with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, described the 2010 gathering in Stuttgart, Germany, where the World Lutheran Federation formally apologized for the persecution of Anabaptists beginning with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.
“Lutherans repented of violent persecution of reformers,” McCoid said. “We asked forgiveness from God and from our Mennonite sisters and brothers. There were tears, there was embracing, and there was joy.”
McCoid said the votes on the apology were unanimous in acknowledging the persecution.
“In recent years we have become familiar with Martyrs’ Mirror,” he said, “and the depth of the peacemaking life. Many Lutherans said, ‘We did not know [about the persecutions].’”
Wednesday: On July 6, the delegates were asked to decide how they would do the business of the church through the remainder of the week. Proposed by Mennonite Church USA leaders, the “Pittsburgh Experiment” did away with resolutions for this assembly only.
In introducing the document, moderator Ed Diller explained that the Executive Board “thought [the Pittsburgh Experiment] gives more authority to the delegate assembly rather than less.”
Diller also said discernment in the fashion prescribed by the proposal would be countercultural.
“Our meetings on the work of the church should look less like the world around us,” he said.
After two open-mic periods where table representatives offered both objections and affirmations, the Delegate Assembly overwhelmingly supported the experiment.
But some delegates were not happy about the change.
“If I can’t bring a resolution, I can’t express what my folks [in my congregation] are thinking about,” said Audrey Roth Kraybill, from Lancaster, Pa. “I will express things in my (table) group, but I’m restless about it. I’m just not getting it.”
In a later open-mic session, others expressed support for the proposal.
“Resolutions tend to cut off discernment,” said Matt Weaver, from Millersburg, Ohio.
Terry Diener, from Goshen, Ind., agreed and said, “I had a sense of relief when I read about [the proposal], because statements cause polarization.”
Although the delegates wanted to take time to hear as many voices as possible—and voted down an early motion to cease debate—only about 30 of the some 800 delegates voted against the Pittsburgh Experiment.
The July 6 delegate session also kicked off We Are the Church Day. Delegates spent the most time focusing on the work of the Racial Healing Task Group, an all-white group of leaders.
“All are Anglos,” said Executive Board member Charlotte Hardt, “at the request of our racial and ethnic brothers and sisters.”
“Our ultimate goal,” said task group member Ruth Yoder Wenger of New York City, “is to help Mennonite Church USA view our [racial ethnic diversity] as an asset.”
Although the task group’s proposals retained the language of antiracism, it also introduced a new term: multicultural transformation.
“We find the language more biblical,” said Todd Jones of Freeman, S.D.
But Leslie Francisco III of Hampton, Va., and his table group disagreed with the change. “We think that antiracism should be the priority. Anti-racism is the diagnosis; multicultural transformation is the treatment.”
Others also disliked the new language.
“’Multicultural’ does not reflect issues of power, and ‘antiracism’ does,” said Nina Lanctot, Bristol, Ind.
Also on July 6, delegates said farewell to two Mennonite Publishing Network leaders who are retiring: board president Phil Bontrager and CEO Ron Rempel.
Thursday: The churchwide priority “Holistic Witness” was the theme of the first session on July 7. Executive Board staff member Andre Stoner Gingerich opened the discussion.
“We love service,” he said, “we flirt with peace, and we are allergic to evangelism.”
The open-mic comments after table group discussion focused primarily on church planting.
“The area of church planting is underdeveloped,” said Western District conference minister Clarence Rempel. “I encourage the national body to put some specificity [into how churches should be planted].”
Steve Heatwole, Columbia, Pa., sought to reduce the pressure congregations feel around this churchwide priority.
“Each congregation should not be burdened with the whole, encompassing goal,” Heatwole said. “But each congregation should be faithful to what it can do and let the national body be responsible for the whole.”
But Yvonne Platt, Norristown, Pa., had concerns more urgent than planting churches.
“In Mennonite circles,” Platt said, “all I hear about is keeping kids out of the military. But I don’t hear how to keep kids from killing each other, keep them from fighting. I’ve been in the streets breaking up fights. We need resources to teach peace to our children.”
The second session on July 7 focused on leadership development. Duane Beck, Raleigh, N.C., announced the creation of the Peter and Reta Mae Wiebe Endowment Fund for full-time interns exploring pastoral ministry.
The fund will be administered by the Mennonite Church USA ministerial leadership office. Beck said that Peter was his mentor. Beck also said that he had served as a mentor to former pastor and now Executive Board staff member Terry Shue, and Shue served as a mentor to other younger pastors.
“[Among] the three of us,” Beck said, “we have had 60 mentees.”
Friday: The morning sessions on July 8 focused on two churchwide priorities: Christian formation and stewardship. The Binational Worship Council used the occasion to garner suggestions from the delegates about hymns that should be in any new hymnal.
During the discussion on stewardship, delegates heard that the funding system in Mennonite Church USA is broken. MC USA leader Marty Lehman said the first fruits concept, established at the beginning of Mennonite Church USA in 2001, was good, but the implementation of the theology behind it was not.
Lehman listed numerous problems with the implementation:
- Not all MC USA agencies and groups are included.
- It required that area conferences change their funding patterns; only two conferences made that transition.
- The plan assumed financial health for each churchwide agency, but many have struggled during the recession [and couldn’t fulfill their obligations to fund the Executive Board]. There is no Plan B.
- The Executive Board relies totally on gifts from the churchwide agencies and area conferences, and the EB has not been allowed to do direct fund-raising.
“The fund-raising system,” Lehman said, “was supposed to reduce direct solicitation [to individuals]. But, in fact, it has increased. There is a tension in the way we do fund-raising.”
After a period of table group discussions and open-mic comments, the delegate assembly voted on whether the Executive Board should launch a review of the funding system. Delegates voted overwhelmingly for such a review.
The afternoon session on July 8 focused on the Purposeful Plan, a 16-page document that MC USA leaders said would continually be changed. But it was one section entitled “Resources or Regulation” that drew the most attention.
“I grew up in a highly regulated church, said Marlin Zimmerman, Richland, Pa. “But now we’re slipping down a road of no regulation. We need a balance.”
David W. Shenk, Mountville, Pa., said that MC USA came together with a foundational commitment to membership.
“I wish for a clear statement on accountability,” Shenk said.
In response, MC USA executive director Ervin Stutzman read some excerpts from the membership guidelines. “This is what the church has said,” Stutzman said after each section, “and this is what I believe.”
Saturday: The final delegate sessions on Saturday morning, July 9, focused first on the churchwide priority “Christian Community” and featured two pastors of large and growing congregations: Sunoko Lin of Maranatha Christian Fellowship in Los Angeles and Esdras Ferrara (through a video), leader of the 1,000-member Sonido de Alabanza congregation in Cicero, Ill.
“As a leader in the church,” moderator Ed Diller said after the Sonido de Alabanza video, “I am embarrassed to say I did not know there was a Mennonite church of 1,000 with such vibrancy.”
The final session on July 9 was devoted to a report from Mennonite Central Committee, a final report from the convention listening committee and transition rituals. Because no resolutions were introduced during the delegate sessions, the resolutions committee had little to do.
“We felt like the Maytag repairman this week,” said committee chair David Boshart.
Moderator Ed Diller closed the 2011 Delegate Assembly reflecting on his experience as moderator.
“The experience was life-changing,” Diller said, “wonderful, tedious and difficult but one I could never have anticipated. I am very confident in this group and the wisdom you showed this week.”