A pastor who doesn’t fit in one place might flourish somewhere else. In two important cases recently, good pastors had to move on (without leaving their congregations). The reasons, and the changes that resulted, showed contrasting ways of dealing with diversity.
The first case happened at Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University, which scrapped what should have been a great fit. As we reported in our Sept. 10 issue, FPU dismissed three pastors — Greg Boyd, Bruxy Cavey and Brian Zahnd — who had taught as visiting lecturers at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary for two years. The university previously touted them as star attractions of a master’s degree program. Brian Ross, the program director, called them “possibly the three most influential leaders in neo-Anabaptism,” a movement in which people from other faith traditions are drawn to Anabaptist theology.
FPBS is an ideal place to nurture neo-Anabaptism. It serves the Mennonite Brethren churches, whose ability to attract people from outside traditional Mennonite ethnic backgrounds enriches the Anabaptist movement. But some FPU supporters questioned the pastors’ theology of the atonement and, in Boyd’s case, beliefs about God’s knowledge of the future. In August, a fruitful relationship abruptly ended.
Ironically, FPU dropped Boyd, Cavey and Zahnd less than a month after the USMB convention in Salt Lake City encouraged members to celebrate their diversity. Soon after that, denominational leaders announced a study conference on women in ministry that promises to welcome a range of beliefs. Yet Boyd, Cavey and Zahnd, whose views fall well within the range of ideas worth studying at a seminary, were deemed too unorthodox.
Their evangelical and Anabaptist credentials are not in doubt. Cavey was a plenary speaker at the 2015 Mennonite World Conference assembly; Boyd and Zahnd have affirmed Anabaptism when speaking at Mennonite events.
FPU and the MB seminary have lost a great asset for bridging the evangelical and Anabaptist worlds. Perhaps another Mennonite seminary will claim the neo-Anabaptist pastors.
The second case happened in Mennonite Church USA, where both a congregation and its pastor have moved on after the pastor’s actions didn’t fit in one area conference. Central District Conference accepted the transfer of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship after Virginia Mennonite Conference suspended its pastor, Isaac Villegas, for officiating a same-sex wedding. Virginia Conference enabled the move by relinquishing Villegas’ credentials — an act of good will in the spirit of a 2015 denominational resolution that calls for extending forbearance when beliefs differ. The Chapel Hill congregation’s move from Virginia Conference to Central District shows the Forbearance Resolution can serve MC USA well by allowing members to find the right fit.
Underlying both situations is the question of how to deal with diversity and dissent. In the current issue of the MB magazine Christian Leader, FPU professor Quentin P. Kinnison advises recognizing dissent as a gift. He says dissent invites the people of God to take part in the character-shaping activity of discernment: “What we need are ears to hear God’s Spirit. This may mean that we listen more carefully to voices we have previously dismissed.”
Seminaries, conferences, churches and individual believers function best when we find the right fit but don’t define too narrowly who we’re willing to fit with.