I hadn’t been a delegate at a Mennonite Church USA convention since San Jose a decade ago. It wasn’t a positive experience then and, to be honest, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the renewed opportunity at Orlando. This way of being a national body doesn’t always bring out the best in us.
The first thing that struck me about the delegate body was its whiteness. Living in a majority people-of-color city and working cross-culturally, I was acutely aware of this lack of racial diversity. Only two representatives were at this gathering from our cluster of four majority immigrant congregations in South Philadelphia. And one of us, me, is white. We resolved to do better next time.
When I wasn’t at a conversation table, I spent the majority of my time with younger leaders. This was life-giving. I was convinced over and over again that the future of the church is bright and hopeful, though the institutional reality of the church is precarious and strained.
The denomination is reworking itself through different kinds of relating, often enhanced by technology and social media. Many of these challenge familial systems and old-boy networks while helping to incorporate people into the Anabaptist story who aren’t legacy adherents. I intend to do everything I can to assist this rewiring, to connect the old and new.
The Future Church Summit was a brave process to try to bring a new platform for how we find direction together. While providing a more equitable platform for the voices of young and more diverse constituencies, this imperfect process also allowed some of our demons to surface.
The mix of technology and the hard work of a “theme team” offered back a slightly different version of ourselves than we might have anticipated. For some of us, this feedback was uncomfortable. It was important work that became jumbled and bumbled through a too tightly controlled resolution process that focused on time constraints rather than listening. I voted for the resolution but afterward realized the process was flawed at the end, when delegates needed to pass a resolution. I commit to continuing to work at discerning what we heard and what it means.
One theme I heard with some resonance is an assertion that conferences work as adult siblings. If this posture emerges, it challenges the authority of centralized documents and leadership in a way that makes the national body more facilitative than executive.
I am not opposed to this change. It points in the direction of a network or a “federation.” I am afraid, though, that this model privileges those of us who readily have access to resources. I suspect it will mean continued collaboration and realignment in ways that might increase efficiency and the possibility of further division.
Many of us, particularly those who are white, do not like dissonance. Some of us are used to having our way. Yet the implications of dissonance and diversity are often growth and creativity.
I’m still not convinced we have found our way forward. But in the youth worship, among the vibrant interplay of millennials leading the next generation of youth, I found a sense of hope and promise. With an increasing awareness of who is absent at the table, and with the work of the Spirit, there might be enough illumination to help us keep moving on the way to God’s kin-dom.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.