Fresno church leaders say leaving MB denomination is liberating

Willow Avenue Mennonite Church in Fresno, Calif., is considering a proposal to affirm and welcome LGBTQ people. — Willow Avenue Mennonite Church Willow Avenue Mennonite Church in Fresno, Calif., is considering a proposal to affirm and welcome LGBTQ people. — Willow Avenue Mennonite Church

For Willow Avenue Mennonite Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Fresno, Calif., the path to becoming an LGBTQ-affirming congregation began decades ago — and is now leading them out of the USMB conference.

At a special convention March 24, Pacific District Conference delegates changed bylaws to allow for removal of churches if they “cannot agree in doctrinal matters with the decisions of the Conference or with the Confession of Faith.”

The change becomes effective 45 days from that date, unless one-third of churches register opposition, said Lynn Jost, moderator of the Willow Avenue church council.

If it is not blocked, “we expect the PDC Executive Board to act in a way that terminates our membership, while leaving us with our property,” he said.

The congregation is in discussion with Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference of Mennonite Church USA about joining that denomination, possibly as soon as September.

The LGBTQ subject first came up at Willow Avenue in the 1970s, when a member came out as LGBTQ. It came up again in 2006, when a member married a spouse of the same sex.

In between, the subject arose as children and grandchildren of members came out. Youth wondered why LGBTQ people weren’t more welcome and included. But the church was reluctant to talk about it.

“It was always on people’s minds, but it was hard to talk about,” Jost said. “There was fear of what would happen to the church if we were too public about it.”

Pastor Audrey Hindes said: “People were talking about it, but in hushed tones, whispering about it in corners. It seemed to me we were expending a lot of energy not dealing with it.”

In 2019, the council surveyed members about the future and identity of the congregation. That’s when “the topic of LGBTQ+ welcome came up many times,” Hindes said.

As pastor, she felt it was finally time to talk about it. “I thought, if we don’t deal with this, we won’t be able to breathe freely,” she said. “It will kill us.”

In February 2021, the church council decided to put the issue before the congregation. In May, the church broke into small groups to discuss whether to become welcoming and affirming.

When Willow Avenue told the district conference about the discussion, the reaction was immediate.

“The conference said, ‘Don’t think for a moment you won’t get kicked out of the conference if you do this, and make sure you tell the congregation this before they vote,’ ” said Jost, a professor of Old Testament and director of the Center for Anabaptist Studies at Fresno Pacific University.

A vote about a proposal to become welcoming was slated, but before the church could do that, the conference asked Jost to surrender his cre­dential as a minister in August. In October, the conference suspended the church from membership.

“That was a big shock for many people,” Hindes said of the decision to decredential Jost and suspend the church. “It made many people want to vote in favor.”

In January, Willow Avenue members voted 94% in favor of being a welcoming and affirming church.

About the decision, Jost — whose son is gay — said: “God wants covenant relationships. If people have same-sex covenant relationships, is it possible that is what God created for them? We should affirm that.”

Jost said the church is hoping for an amicable separation from the conference.

Although sad about expulsion from the denomination, Jost and ­Hindes find it liberating.

“The burden of struggling with the denomination about this issue is gone,” Jost said. “They said I don’t belong with them anymore. I’m free to do and say what I want without having to satisfy denominational requirements.”

Hindes feels the same way.

“Now I feel free to say openly that everyone is welcome here, that you are a beautiful child of God, created in God’s image,” she said. “We’re not whispering anymore.”

With files from Tim Huber.

John Longhurst

John Longhurst was formerly Communications Manager at MDS Canada.

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