This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Lancaster’s distancing shrinks roll

Mennonite Church USA membership has decreased about 17 percent over the past year, and a large part of the drop is due to updated reporting of Lancaster Mennonite Conference congregational involvement in the denomination.

A little more than a dozen of Lancaster’s 163 congregations — 10 percent or fewer — are exploring the option of staying with MC USA. The conference requested the rest be dropped from the total membership count.

As recently as Jan. 27, the MC USA website reported 95,308 members. The figure dates back to late 2014. However, the actual total membership of MC USA conferences is 78,892, a difference of 16,416, according to figures released to MWR on Jan. 19.

When it announced its departure from MC USA in November, Lancaster was the denomination’s largest conference, with 13,838 members in 163 congregations. MC USA’s new, lower membership total is based on only 1,091 members from LMC.

MC USA denominational minister Nancy Kauffmann said Lancaster asked MC USA to remove all congregations except those that have chosen to participate in MC USA during the withdrawal transition phase running until the end of 2017.

Kauffmann’s office has a list of about 12 congregations that have indicated an interest in staying. About four others are also meeting with a group interested in remaining connected with MC USA.

“The removal of 111 congregations and 17 church plants happened December 2015,” Kauffmann wrote in an email.

Last fall’s proposal from LMC’s Board of Bishops to withdraw was ratified by 82 percent of credentialed leaders. The updated Lancaster membership for MC USA (1,091) means 92 percent of the conference’s members are not considered to be in churches “opting in” to MC USA.

Discerning connections

On Jan. 7, leaders from 16 Lancaster congregations interested in discerning connections with MC USA met with conference leaders.

“It doesn’t mean they are leaving MC USA, and it doesn’t mean they are leaving Lancaster,” said LMC conference coordinator Joanne Dietzel. “For these two years they want to continue affiliation with both. For many congregations, they will be working through a process.”

At the meeting, four people were selected to be conveners of a group known as “LMC-MC USA.” The group will guide future meetings, offer support and connect with other conferences and MC USA leaders.

“We also engaged a bit with how we can help each other’s congregations process if and what decisions they have to make,” said Jonathan Bowman, one of the group’s conveners and lead pastor of Landisville Mennonite Church.

He said each congregation may consider multiple options: remain exclusively with Lancaster, switch to another MC USA conference, explore the feasibility of dual affiliation with Lancaster and an MC USA conference or explore joining a new MC USA conference, if one is created.

Fellow convener Todd Gusler, pastor of Rossmere Mennonite Church in Lancaster, said it is important to note the group is not a decision-making body.

“There will probably not be a decision en masse in a particular direction,” he said. “Congregations will need to decide what they want to do individually. We’re there for networking to occur and ideas to be shared and tested.”

Congregational support

Outside the meetings and activities planned by the LMC-MC USA group, congregations in the group will be considered equal members of Lancaster Conference.

“About the only thing different is that group will appoint two people to represent them at the [MC USA Constituency Leaders Council] meetings, and any offerings or contributions that come from those congregations to Lancaster Mennonite Conference, we will tithe 10 percent of that to the denomination like we have been doing the last couple of years,” Dietzel said.

The Lancaster bishop board has also appointed a congregational support team, as laid out in its resolution to withdraw from MC USA.

“They have appointed this team to help congregations listen objectively to the congregations, perhaps suggest some resources they might use in the process, just to be available and walk with them,” Dietzel said.

Kauffmann said that in recent years MC USA has asked congregations in February to update their information, including membership numbers, so figures could change again in the next few months. While Lancaster’s reduction is a large portion of MC USA’s most recent decline, Kauffmann attributed the remaining membership loss to church closures, congregations leaving conferences and the death rate.

Tim Huber

Tim Huber is associate editor at Anabaptist World. He worked at Mennonite World Review since 2011. A graduate of Tabor College, Read More

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