The Lancaster Mennonite Conference Board of Bishops has called for the conference to re-evaluate its relationship to Mennonite Church USA.
“For many in Lancaster Conference, the question of our affiliation with Mennonite Church USA is back on the table,” said Keith Weaver, who chairs the board, in an interview.
In a Feb. 28 letter to credentialed leaders, the bishops announced “a time of discernment and exploration” during what they described as an “experience of conflict in the church.”
The letter did not cite reasons for the call to re-evaluate. Weaver said one reason was Mountain States Mennonite Conference’s licensing of a lesbian pastor, which has sparked controversy across the denomination.
Other concerns, he said, include a recent letter by 150 pastors and others supporting the inclusion of members in same-sex relationships, and Eastern Mennonite University’s review of its employment policy that prohibits hiring people in same-sex relationships.
“People are viewing those actions as indications of change,” Weaver said.
With 14,000 members in 170 congregations, Lancaster is the largest of MC USA’s 21 area conferences. It joined MC USA in 2004, more than two years after the denomination was created by a merger of the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church.
Ten years later, “differences over whether LMC can remain in this affiliation have reached a breaking point,” Weaver wrote in a report to the Constituency Leaders Council, an MC USA advisory group that met March 20-22 in North Newton, Kan.
Weaver describes the conference as at an “impasse.” Whether it stays in MC USA or leaves, it can expect to lose a significant number of congregations. “It feels like a lose-lose proposition,” he wrote.
Lancaster already has lost more than 75 congregations since 2000.
In their letter, the bishops said they would “design and lead a process of corporate and spiritual discernment for careful listening to God and each other across the spectrum of regional and global relationships.”
The process has not yet taken shape. But Weaver wants it to address questions deeper than current controversies. These include thinking in new ways about how members of the body of Christ can be the church together.
“Our hope for the re-evaluation is that we can step through the fog of this conflict and see a new way of being church,” he said. “We have to ask questions about the sustainability of our methods and structures that this crisis might help us to face. We need to leverage the energy into positive change.”