Story updated Nov. 24
Lancaster Mennonite Conference announced Nov. 19 it will withdraw from Mennonite Church USA by the end of 2017.
The vote was 256 to 55, with about 80 percent of eligible leaders taking part.
“The announcement will likely be received in very different ways by leaders and congregations of Lancaster Mennonite Conference and across the denomination,” an LMC news release stated. “Leaders were encouraged to interact with others in loving and respectful ways and to pray for the Lord’s leading in the life of LMC in the days ahead.”
MC USA executive director Ervin Stutzman said he was disappointed in the development, though he had been anticipating it for some time.
“We will miss so much that Lancaster Conference has to offer us, and we have valuable gifts to share with them in return,” he said. “This does not mean, of course, that our relationship is ending. There will be many ways we stay in touch with each other over the next years.”
LMC moderator Keith Weaver is working with Terry Shue, MC USA director of leadership development, to draft an agreement outlining protocols for the two bodies during the transition period.
Withdrawal will be finalized on or before the end of 2017. Effective immediately, “congregations will function as non-participating in MC USA,” the proposal says, though congregations have the option to continue participating. Those that want to participate will need to inform the LMC office.
During the two-year implementation period, LMC will remain an area conference of MC USA to give time for congregations that wish to explore connections with the denomination, address legal matters and work out details between church agencies.
Lancaster is MC USA’s largest conference, with 13,838 members in 163 congregations in seven states, including Hawaii, and the District of Columbia.
Lancaster became a full member of MC USA in 2004 after a period of provisional membership.
LMC moderator and bishop board member Keith Weaver did not return phone calls or emails in response to questions. Conference coordinator Joanne Dietzel provided an email on behalf of conference leadership Nov. 24.
“We are just beginning the two-year interim process of ending our affiliation with Mennonite Church USA,” she wrote. “Frankly, it is impossible to answer the questions you have raised because we do not know how the results of this decision will take shape over the next two years. At this point, we are not able to comment on the impact the decision will have on LMC congregations.”
She declined to comment further.
Samuel Lopez, a supervisor on the LMC bishop board and administrator of Concilio Hispano, the conference’s Spanish Mennonite Council of Churches, said the 22-church council was in 100 percent agreement about departing MC USA.
“Mostly because of how we perceive the LGBTQ agenda has been influencing MC USA, and the passing of the forbearance resolution at the Kansas City convention” in July, Lopez said.
Rifts and relationships
Stan Shantz, lead pastor of James Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, voted against withdrawing from MC USA.
“In many ways it didn’t really surprise me,” he said. “As I’ve been around here I felt it was moving in that direction.”
However, that does not mean his congregation is on the precipice of leaving the conference.
“There have been no decisions made,” Shantz said. “There will be a group of churches in the area that will be walking through this journey together in a time of discernment.
“We have a two-year window. I may have voted to stay with MC USA, but it’s really a congregational decision.”
He noted that most area churches have not entered a discernment process about their specific relationship to the denomination.
“To start doing that would be jumping ahead of the process,” he said. “We had to wait and see what Lancaster Mennonite Conference was doing.”
Bishop Richard Mininger of the Harrisburg District did not support leaving MC USA because he doesn’t believe Christians should sever relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ with whom they disagree.
“Now that my conference has made a decision with which I don’t agree, I need to apply that locally and continue to love my brothers and sisters in this conference and work together in cooperation,” he said.
His congregation, Slate Hill Mennonite Church, has already decided to continue participating with MC USA during the transition period.
Bishop Clair Good of the Elizabethtown and York districts said that while some congregations are uniform in their desire to part ways or stay with MC USA, others are not of one mind. The discernment process for those churches could take the full time through the end of 2017.
“It’s going to be a painful process for them as well; that is probably one of the most challenging parts of this process,” he said. “It creates a tension all the way down through the system.”
Good said “there’s no question” some churches loyal to MC USA will leave the conference.
“I think it’s clear that’s going to happen . . . but how to do that? Because most of the congregations wanted to stay in LMC as well,” he said. “They’re forced to make a decision one way or another. . . .
“There are good people the whole way across this thing, and people living by their convictions, so I’m hoping there’s a way forward in that.”
Service of lament
A group of theologically diverse pastors has been meeting together over the past couple of years for conversation, prayer and the Lord’s Supper, and is planning one way to move forward.
East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster will host a service of confession and lament at 7 p.m. Dec. 9. Lead pastor Todd Friesen said the service is intended for anyone, no matter how they voted.
“This gathering’s purpose is not to make statements or to cast blame but to help us release our brokenness and sorrow to God, knowing this is the only way we can begin to heal and move forward,” states publicity for the event.
MC USA connections
MC USA director of leadership development Terry Shue and denominational minister Nancy Kauffmann met with 20 to 25 LMC pastors Nov. 12 to discuss potentially continuing with MC USA. Shue said he has heard anywhere from 15 to 30 congregations have some level of interest in exploring such connections.
“They can join a conference of Mennonite Church USA, and there are three conferences stacked where Lancaster is, and another nearby, or they could start a new conference,” he said, but congregations cannot connect directly to MC USA, and the denomination does not hold credentials.
Shue said that while no MC USA bylaws prohibit a congregation from being a member of a member conference and another non-member organization, he and Kauffmann prefer not to have dual-conference congregations.
“We would not encourage that at all,” he said. “Too much energy from the congregation goes to the institutional structures of two conferences.”
Should there be interest in forming a new MC USA conference, it would not be able to join until the July 2017 MC USA convention in Orlando, Fla. Any new conference must first be recommended by the Constituency Leaders Council and approved by the Executive Board and convention delegates.
“I commend the leaders of Lancaster Conference for realizing one year is not enough for a shift like this, with so many agencies [connected to both Lancaster and MC USA] and the congregations who want to align with MC USA,” Shue said.