Meghan Florian is a writer and editor from Durham, North Carolina, where she teaches writing at William Peace University and the Center for Theological Writing at Duke Divinity School. She is a member of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship. We asked Virginia Mennonite Conference leaders to respond to this statement. You can see their response at the end of her piece.
At Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship (CHMF), we do things together. We celebrate new babies and marriages; we grieve losses. We cook and we eat. We build. We make church together.
Three years ago, together we questioned Mennonite Church USA and Virginia Mennonite Conference’s positions on the full inclusion of LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer] individuals in congregations. A group of us met and planned discussions and lectures and developed a list of resources from a variety of perspectives to guide our congregation as we struggled to listen to one another. Our pastor, Isaac Villegas, shepherded those of us who led the way. We discerned together and built trust as we sought a way forward.
The process was difficult, but it was worth it when we reached consensus, and came out as a place of welcome for all God’s people, announcing that we are a place where all are welcome, celebrated and loved. We entered into a conversation with the Faith and Life Commission of VMC about our dissent and its consequences. We notified them of our decision, in prayerful expectation that we might find a way to be church together across our differences. We chose to trust the FLC, to continue in the spirit of openness reflected by including our conference minister in our discernment process early on.
We complied with every request the FLC made of us. We wrote detailed responses to questions about theology, biblical interpretation and tradition. We met with the FLC to discuss these same questions, and we were told to keep these conversations private. Over and over, we were bypassed by those who would rather talk to our pastor than to the committee chosen by the congregation to represent CHMF to the FLC. We gave and gave of our gifts as a congregation, to show VMC our commitment to the Mennonite church and to the gospel, all while asking, simply, Is there still a place for us here? The FLC did not answer that question when we wrote, and they did not answer it when we met, but they are answering it now, whether they mean to or not. Despite having every reason to bear with us in love, the message we have received is that those making decisions in VMC do not think there is a place for a congregation like CHMF in this conference.
Ignoring our congregation’s wishes after our pastor agreed, with our support, to officiate a same-sex wedding, the FLC chose to summon Isaac alone. Rather than a “conversation,” this meeting consisted of a large group of people questioning decisions he made with our blessing. VMC barred our conference delegate and our deacons, those whose task is to minister to our pastor, from attending this meeting. There were no witnesses. They have shared no records of this meeting with our congregation.
We have since received the results of the FLC’s process: Isaac will be accused of ministerial misconduct, and labeled as someone who has broken trust, his actions listed on the level of infractions such as harming another minister and embezzlement. Let me be clear: Isaac Villegas has not broken our trust. He has been, and will continue to be, a faithful pastor at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.
We have tried for so long to be generous and patient, to play by VMC’s rules, and these actions finally broke my heart. Isaac is our pastor, and this effort to shame him into renouncing his commitments, and the commitments of our church that he carries out on our behalf, is an affront to the very core of who we believe ourselves to be.
On May 21, Isaac officiated a wedding, as he has so many times before, but this time it was the marriage of two women. We honored the commitment these friends made to one another, promising to love and support them as they seek to uphold their vows throughout their lives. And on that otherwise joyous occasion, the FLC was expected to suspend our pastor’s credentials. They no longer recognize his ministry; they have rejected him and the many gifts he has shared with the Mennonite church up until now. But Isaac is our pastor, and what you do to him you do to CHMF. We are not a people who will abandon our pastor when he acts out of faithful obedience to God and the church—when he does what is right.
No other conference in MC USA suspends credentials without first reviewing them. In other conferences, a simple demarcation of “at variance” is enough to recognize our diversity. VMC’s action is unprecedented and unnecessary. In a conference where roughly half of credentialed ministers support the full inclusion of LGBTQ people, CHMF is not an outlier. Isaac is not an outlier. In a denomination that less than a year ago adopted a Forbearance Resolution, VMC has acted as if the decisions of the delegate body do not apply to them, choosing instead silence and censure. According to VMC’s new ministerial credentials policy, forbearance does not exist. It’s true that Isaac and CHMF are at variance, but everything about this new policy goes beyond what is called for in responding to our decisions and actions.
At CHMF, we try to tell the truth about our lives, even when it hurts, even when it’s not pretty. We are far from perfect, but we are learning how to love as Christ loves us. That love is built on trust. Isaac, our pastor, is our shepherd as we learn to live together and love one another well. He is a gentle guide in this ungentle world. We trust him.
VMC will not recognize Isaac as Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship’s pastor after this wedding. After years of trying to comply with VMC’s requests, we reached a stalemate, but Isaac is still our pastor, as he has been for the last 10 years. We celebrate those years of service, as we also celebrate Isaac’s faithful witness to God’s work among us.
Response from VMC leaders
We feel keenly the sadness of Chapel Hill as expressed by Meghan Florian. Clearly the journey of the congregation in discerning their way forward has deepened their commitment to their pastor, Isaac Villegas ,and has intensified their desire to minister to all people, a call set forth in the Forbearance Resolution.
The three-year discernment process for Chapel Hill did include communication from Virginia Mennonite Conference. During the process, Chapel Hill leaders were reminded of Virginia Mennonite Conference’s standing policy that conducting a same gender marriage would lead to suspension of an officiating minister’s credentials. As a conference, we recognize our call to represent an entire community of congregations and to uphold the MC USA membership guidelines.
Our intention is to remain in conversation with Isaac Villegas and the Chapel Hill congregation as a member congregation of Virginia Mennonite Conference.
Clyde Kratz, VMC Executive Minister
Elroy Miller, VMC Moderator
Patsy Seitz, Chair, Faith & Life Commission
Photo: Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship worship. Photo by Martha King.
The views expressed in this opinion post do not necessarily represent the official positions of The Mennonite, the board for The Mennonite, Inc., or Mennonite Church USA.