Photo: Mennonite Church USA Executive Board members (from left to right) Nisha Springer, Zenobia Sowell-Bianchi and Larry Hauder talk together during Feb. 11-13 meetings in Rosemont, Ill. Photo by Hannah Heinzekehr.
In its second meeting of the biennium, the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board voted on a proposal to add a new constituency group, spelled out the implications of resolutions passed by delegates in Kansas City, Mo., last summer and planned for the denomination’s future. The board met Feb. 11-13 in Rosemont, Ill.
The meaning of forbearance
EB members approved a statement spelling out the practical meaning of the Resolution on Forbearance in the Midst of Differences and the Resolution on the Status of the Membership Guidelines, both passed by delegates this summer. The statement passed with a vote of 10 to four and two abstentions.
“People have been asking, What does this mean?” said Patricia Shelly, moderator for Mennonite Church USA. “This statement is one way to show how we are managing the tensions between forbearance and our Membership Guidelines.”
The statement says, “Taken together, the Forbearance and Membership Guidelines resolutions describe a way of holding freedom and mutual accountability in tension, which helps us live out deeply held convictions in a spirit of peace within our diverse denomination.”
The statement also listed several key implications, including these:
- an expectation that all EB members and national staff will adhere to the “standards, values and beliefs” articulated in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, Mennonite Church USA’s Membership Guidelines and the two resolutions;
- a commitment not to take punitive action against congregations or area conferences who are at variance, as well as an emphasis on disciplinary and ethical decisions being worked out at “the most local level competent to do so, rather than by centralized authority”;
- a move to govern proactively and on behalf of as many congregations and area conferences as possible;
- and a renewed focus on the goals laid out in the Purposeful Plan, a strategic planning document developed by the EB and national staff and discussed by delegates every two years.
You can read the full text of the statement online.
Constituency group questions
The board considered a July 2015 petition asking for the Brethren-Mennonite Council for LGBT
(Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Interests (BMC) to become a new constituency group. The petition included more than 300 signatures (140 of them delegates). Constituency groups are able to send representatives to the Constituency Leaders Council (CLC), a board of elders that meets twice a year and is often called on to give counsel to the EB.
The EB asked the CLC to offer feedback at its October 2015 meeting regarding whether or not to appoint BMC as a new constituency group. Drawing on this counsel and concerns about BMC as a group with members outside Mennonite Church USA, the Executive Committee of the EB brought a motion that the board not appoint BMC as a constituency group and encouraging CLC to find spaces for dialogue with LGBTQ members of the church.
The motion passed by a vote of 10 to 4, with two people abstaining.
The board approved a proposal from the Intercultural Relations Reference Council asking to change its name to Racial Ethnic Council. The IRRC includes representatives from each of the six racial/ethnic constituency groups: Asian Mennonite Ministries, African, Belizean and Carribbean Mennonite Mission Association, African-American Mennonite Association, Iglesia Menonita Hispana, Indonesian Mennonite Association and Native Mennonite Ministries. Its purpose is to advise Mennonite Church USA’s office of Intercultural Relations and to process common concerns and ideas to advance access for racial/ethnic members of Mennonite Church USA.
The IRRC also brought a second proposal asking for a change in status for racial/ethnic constituency groups. The proposal called for the creation of a new category, Racial Ethnic groups. The proposal states, “The Racial Ethnic Council (formerly known as IRRC) reviewed the history of the merger of the church in 2001 and their placement as a “Constituency Group” along with Mennonite Women and Mennonite Men. The Racial Ethnic Council members believe this placement diminishes their history and struggle within Mennonite Church USA before the merger and to this date. Both Mennonite Men and Mennonite Women do not share the common history of racial ethnic people in the church.”
This would require a change to the Mennonite Church USA constitution and a vote by delegates. The EB will discuss the proposal further at future meetings.
The EB discussed current realities and trends that will continue to shape Mennonite Church USA in the future, including shrinking numbers and budgets. Since July 2015, 143 congregations have left the denomination, leaving Mennonite Church USA with 698 congregations and approximately 81,600 members.
Glen Guyton, chief operating officer for Mennonite Church USA, reported on EB finances, which remain in the black this year despite a slight decrease in giving by area conferences. “We understood a long time ago that we would have a shrinking denomination, and so we have been preparing for this for a while,” said Guyton.
Despite challenging trends, Ervin Stutzman, the newly reappointed executive director for Mennonite Church USA, encouraged the board to look proactively toward missional church efforts in the future. Stutzman and national staff are beginning work on church revitalization efforts, which will include promoting a new book, Fully Engaged: Missional Church in an Anabaptist Voice, engaging the CLC in resourcing events and conversations about church revitalization, identifying vital and growing congregations to learn from across the denomination and developing resources to help congregations move toward greater vitality.
“I feel like this is such a great time for re-innovation and for the Mennonite church to reach out to a group of people that really are looking for something new and something unique,” said Nisha Springer, board member from Peace Mennonite Church in Dallas. “There is so much that I see being at Peace Mennonite Church, where we have people from so many paths coming to our church because they read about the Mennonite church on our websites. I see a craving from people to have a new way to think about the church and social justice and peace.”
Stutzman also plans to undertake a large scale rewrite of The Purposeful Plan to bring it up to date for review and conversations with delegates at the Orlando 2017 assembly.
Planning for the 2017 Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando is underway. The event, running July 4-8, will be one day shorter than past conventions and will focus on the theme “Love Is a Verb.” Delegate meetings will start on July 7.
Prior to the board meeting, a group of Mennonite leaders representing the EB and all the churchwide agencies and organizations met to identify trends, opportunities and challenges facing the denomination and to brainstorm possible scenarios for collaboration and working together in the future.
Other items and actions
The board conducted a review of Mennonite Education Agency (MEA). Carlos Romero, executive director for MEA, and Judy Miller, MEA board chair, presented an overview of MEA’s ministries to the board and identified key challenges facing MEA, including rapidly changing higher education environments, stretched financial resources and limited staff time.
“Even though the landscape is difficult, we have not lost hope in what we have to offer,” said Romero.
“We need the church to embrace and understand our institutions as being a missional center. We are serving Mennonites and serving the world. We need a paradigm shift for what Mennonite education could and should be doing. These institutions are there to teach our children and help shape our church, but also to contribute to the world and communities around us.”
The board commended MEA for its work and offered counsel.
Throughout the weekend, the board spent time in worship, led by Joy Sutter, board member from Salford Mennonite Church in Souderton, Pa., and Samuel Voth Schrag, board member from St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship. Diane Zaerr Brenneman, board member from West Union Mennonite Church in Wellman, Iowa, brought a clay oil lamp that sat in the center of the room throughout the weekend.
“As you watch the candle, you can see that the flame moves a lot and yet it’s very grounded,” said Brenneman. “I encourage you to think about how God moves in our midst as well.”
Each worship session focused on two of writer Richard Foster’s “six spiritual streams.” Stutzman has used the diverse spiritual streams, each of them found in Jesus’ ministry, as a tool for uniting people across the church.
“I have sensed the Spirit saying that these streams could lead us together to more unity in the church,” said Stutzman. “They could help us to revitalize our church.”