Photo: Luz y Vida worship team leads worship at the Southeast Conference assembly in October 2018. Photo by Alma Perez Ovalle.
The congregations of Southeast Mennonite Conference are reanalyzing their future after delegates at a March meeting decided to delay action on a decision for where to collectively affiliate.
Following a three-year discernment process, Southeast Conference delegates voted in October on a proposal to leave Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) brought by the conference’s seven-member Leadership Board. Of the 27 delegates present, representing 16 of Southeast Conference’s 25 congregations, 18 voted yes, eight voted no, and one abstained. The proposal also directed the Leadership Board to bring delegates new affiliation options by March.
Delegates gathered March 2 at Iglesia Menonita Arca de Salvación in Fort Myers, Florida, to consider where to affiliate. Prior to the meeting, Southeast Conference leadership circulated a grid with several affiliation options and, at the meeting, presented LMC (formerly Lancaster Mennonite Conference) as their choice for affiliation. LMC representatives attended the meeting.
After much discussion, Southeast Conference moderator Michael Zehr made a recommendation, and delegates agreed, to delay taking action on where to collectively affiliate until later this year.
“It became clear to me that we weren’t ready to make a decision,” said Zehr, who is also a church planter in Key West, Florida.
Following last October’s vote, MC USA Executive Board staff requested that Southeast Conference provide a date the conference would leave the denomination. Delegates at the March 2 meeting took action to affirm an exit date of March 16.
Several congregations at the meeting expressed interest in remaining part of MC USA.
“Southeast Conference leadership’s mandate was to investigate affiliation options, and they came back with one option, an option of leaving MC USA and joining LMC,” said Roy Williams, pastor of College Hill Mennonite Church in Tampa, Florida. “But there were those of us who voted not to leave MC USA, about a third of us who did not agree with leaving. Are we cut out of the picture?”
Williams asked Zehr for permission to invite representatives of congregations that wanted to remain part of MC USA to join him for lunch, and Zehr granted permission. Representatives from nine congregations met with Williams, who was moderator of MC USA from 2005 to 2007.
Steve Kriss, executive minister of Franconia Mennonite Conference, sent a letter March 12, offering support to MC USA’s Florida congregations, in response to outreach from Williams, who is now acting moderator of the group seeking to remain part of MC USA.
“Because of long-term relationships with the communities in Florida, Franconia offered to be encouraging as they discern future relationships and to support them to stay at the table with MC USA,” Kriss said.
Michael Danner, associate executive director for church vitality and engagement for MC USA, sent a letter March 13 to MC USA’s Florida congregations saying the denomination was earmarking stipend money for staff to work with any congregations seeking to remain part of MC USA.
Effective March 15, Marco Güete is interim leadership minister at Franconia Conference, working as the staff leader of congregations seeking to remain part of MC USA. Güete also works at Mennonite Education Agency with its initiatives with Spanish-speaking leadership development and formation. He is a former conference minister for Southeast Mennonite Conference.
According to Güete, some congregations “didn’t like LMC for affiliation because they didn’t agree with LMC’s structure.”
Although Southeast Conference left MC USA on March 16, the denomination is allowing all congregations that have been part of Southeast Conference one year to determine their affiliation. The denomination will, if requested, hold ministerial credentials for that time period.
“We recognize they have the right to determine where they want to affiliate,” Danner said.
Representatives from seven congregations met April 13 at Iglesia Menonita Arca de Salvación in Fort Myers. Additional participants were Kriss; Noel Santiago, Franconia Conference leadership minister; Dawn Yoder Graber, MC USA Executive Board member; and Mauricio Chenlo, minister for church planting for Mennonite Mission Network.
The congregational representatives took three actions by consensus:
- to take several months to engage in dialogue about potentially joining Franconia Conference;
- to affirm Güete and Williams in their roles and to name Rick Lee, who is pastor of Homestead (Florida) Mennonite Church, as the group’s secretary and treasurer;
- to allow College Hill Mennonite Church to receive financial contributions on behalf of the group.
Williams said he does not believe forming a new conference in Florida that is part of MC USA is a good idea because “financially we would be stumbling around and not have the resources we need.”
As of May 1, Southeast Conference has 23 congregations, including those seeking to remain part of MC USA.
Zehr said he and the Leadership Board are “trying to look at options for affiliation that would be best for all of Southeast Conference’s congregations.”