This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Why we gather

Leadership: A word from Mennonite Church USA leaders

In a few months we will gather in Phoenix for the biennial convention and delegate assembly of Mennonite Church USA. Since the local congregation is the locus of our church, why and how do we gather as a national conference?

Thomas Richard 2012 smWe will come together for worship, celebration, business, monitoring the progress of our Purposeful Plan, fun and service. We will affirm our core values and be involved in networking, learning, biblical/communal discernment and a prayer walk. By gathering, we will strengthen our identity and discern next steps in our journey.

We desire that our convention be a signpost pointing toward the kingdom of God, which the Bible defines as justice, joy and peace in the Holy Spirit. We want to make Spirit-led decisions of faithfulness that help all of us in the diversity of our geographical settings, experiences and theological understandings to be united around our core values, which include confessing Jesus as Lord, seeing the Bible as authoritative, owning the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective and seeking the Spirit’s leading.

We will gather in polarizing times in our culture, and these polarizations impact us as a church. Sometimes we talk about conflict management and difficult discussions as if they were unique to our times, not always recalling that all generations have needed to struggle to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

I am challenged by the story of the special session of the Mennonite General Conference in 1944 in Goshen, Ind. The conference was called because of a conflict threatening the (Old Mennonite) church around differing definitions of nonconformity and disagreement on whether the national conference should have the authority to discipline area conferences that were noncompliant with national conference understandings.

Mary E. Bender wrote about this tension-filled gathering that had reached an impasse: “Sanford Yoder, for 16 years president of Goshen [Ind.] College until his retirement in 1940, quietly rose, … and Guy Hershberger, a delegate, described him this way, ‘In his gracious, irenic spirit, expressed through his gentle but deeply resonant voice, he pointed to the real reason for the impasse. The reason lay deeper than the rightness or wrongness of any given point of view. It lay in the disintegration of fellowship into mutual distrust, as each side ostracized the other.’

“ ‘When Yoder sat down,’ continued Hershberger, ‘there was deathly silence. Had a pin dropped, you could have heard it—until a brother suggested a time of prayer.’ The delegates knelt for an hour and a half in that sultry August night. When the prayer was over, the discussion resumed, but this time it was confession more than discussion.

“The next morning when the delegates met again, a softened resolution from each side passed easily. The church was free to carry out the work to which the postwar years called it.”

This 1944 conference was a watershed moment in our history, and from my perspective it speaks to our questions of trust and our willingness to listen to each other and the Spirit in these times. So how will we gather in our national delegate assembly in Phoenix?

Will we gather in humility to listen to the other and to study the Scriptures together? Will we do communal/biblical discernment? Will we gather to confess, bless each other, pray and seek the Spirit’s direction? Will we gather believing the best about each other? Will we gather around our core values? Will we gather realizing that unity is from God and that we are called to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?

Mary Bender wrote that delegates “willing to loosen the grip of ego investments in their attitudes and move toward the other side in response to the love and grace of God can usher in a new day.” May that new day continue to dawn among us in Phoenix and beyond so that we can be God’s people of healing and hope.

May it be observed as we gather, “See how they love each other,” and may that love and unity flow through us to the world as a witness to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Dick Thomas is moderator of Mennonite Church USA and superintendent of Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite School.

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