This article expands reports posted during the assembly. — Editor
At a special assembly May 27-30 in Kansas City, Mo., Mennonite Church USA delegates shifted their denomination’s stance toward LGBTQ people in an affirming direction.
Decisions by the 506 delegates indicated that LGBTQ acceptance has grown during MC USA’s 20-year history and that disagreement persists on sexual ethics and church governance.
In two votes on May 29 at the Westin Hotel, delegates decisively repealed the Membership Guidelines — a 20-year-old document that prohibits pastors from officiating same-sex marriages — and narrowly approved a wide-ranging statement affirming LGBTQ inclusion and confessing that exclusion has caused harm.
In the morning, delegates voted 404-84, or 82.8% in favor, to “retire” the Membership Guidelines. This resolution came from the Executive Board and mandated no further action beyond repealing the guidelines.
This decision aligns policy and practice, because the majority of MC USA’s area conferences do not enforce the ban on pastors officiating same-sex marriages.
In the afternoon, delegates voted 267-212, or 55.7% in favor, to approve a “Repentance and Transformation” resolution, written by the Inclusive Mennonite Pastors group. This resolution not only “rescinds” the guidelines but also confesses harm, affirms the spiritual gifts of LGBTQ people and commits to inclusive actions.
Among these actions are creating an LGBTQ constituency group with representation on the Constituency Leaders Council, providing support and resources for LGBTQ leaders and “embody[ing] a theology that honors LGBTQIA people and relationships with all future MC USA theological statements” such as revisions of the Confession of Faith.
The resolution says current MC USA policies “do violence to LGBTQIA people by failing to affirm their full, God-given identities.”
Delegates — who represented 43% of MC USA congregations — also dealt with two other resolutions. They unanimously approved a statement that encourages congregations to make their facilities more accessible to people with disabilities. They discussed but did not vote on “For Justice in the U.S. Criminal Legal System.”
Before each vote, delegates conferred in 77 table groups and then lined up to speak at mics at the front of the hall. They were given a two-minute time limit and refrained from clapping or any other audible response.
Deliberations began with the question of whether to process the “Repentance and Transformation” resolution. Delegates voted 357-135, or 72.6% in favor, to put it on the agenda. The Executive Board had taken the unusual step of placing this decision in the delegates’ hands.
“As Mennonites, we talk about peace all the time, but often we push the hard conversations under the rug,” said Elinor Kosek of Madison Mennonite Church in Wisconsin. “We need to show people that even when we disagree, we can coexist peacefully. If we are going to practice what we preach, we need to have this conversation.”
Andrew Fairfield of Christiansburg Mennonite Fellowship in Virginia said he was unsure how to vote because, although he is “aggressively progressive,” he wanted to bring as many conservative congregations along as possible, and passing the resolution might cause losses.
David Maldonado of College Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., said the resolution confessed guilt he did not feel.
“Even though I believe we should talk about it, I don’t feel a responsibility to say I’m sorry when I didn’t do anything,” he said.
The next day, delegates discussed the Executive Board resolution to “retire” the guidelines. Despite expressing diverse views on sexuality, few directly argued for retaining them.
Cynthia Lapp of Hyattsville Mennonite Church in Maryland said that when MC USA was founded and the previous denominations’ merger proved difficult, “the LGBTQ community became a common enemy we could build our church on” — but “they are not our enemy, they are us.” She said she hoped the church would unite against real enemies like white supremacy or gun violence rather than fighting internally.
Steffen Sommers of Ridgeview Mennonite Church in Gordonville, Pa., said he supported repealing the guidelines because this would “correctly place the power back in conferences’ hands.”
Ken Burkholder of Souderton Mennonite Church in Pennsylvania said he felt tension because, while it made sense from a polity standpoint to retire the guidelines, to do so would make a theological and biblical statement about marriage he was not comfortable with.
Kyle Rogers of Franconia Mennonite Church in Telford, Pa., criticized the Executive Board for not asking delegates to open their Bibles as they talked. He said the church was missing an opportunity to use Scripture in the correct way, and “we have moved to being anti-Bible.” He hoped to “hold conviction and compassion together.”
Tomas Ramirez of Orlando, Fla., said the church should preserve the rules contained in the Membership Guidelines.
“My battle is not against the gay community,” he said. “I love them. We are losing our focus. The world outside is being lost, and we are fighting among each other.”
Andrew Rissler of Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship in Georgia said he had “seen nothing but God’s everlasting love” in a gay married couple he knows. The question, he said, is “whether the Holy Spirit is moving in this community. I know it is.”
Before discussion of the “Repentance and Transformation” resolution, the resolutions committee announced it had rejected an amended version that made changes it considered too extensive.
Delegates expressed hope to be a more inclusive church, follow Scripture and maintain unity.
“We have treated gay, lesbian and queer people as objects and not as human beings,” said Leann Toews of Tabor Mennonite Church, Newton, Kan. “Let’s admit we have caused harm.”
Lesley Paparone of Bethany Mennonite Church, Bridgewater Corners, Vt., said the resolution promoted justice and peace, the beliefs that drew her to the Mennonite church.
“Mennonites know peace requires action,” she said. “This resolution takes steps toward justice, and justice is the only way to the purest form of peace.”
Several delegates spoke against the resolution because they believed it would cause division — despite, in some cases, their support for its inclusive intent.
“Passing this resolution as it is will draw the circle smaller,” said Caleb Schrock-Hurst of Parkview Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va. He added that the church “must be honest about the grievous harm it has done to LGBTQ people.”
Dwight McFadden of Millersburg Mennonite Church in Ohio asked delegates to reject the resolution and consider a more unifying statement.
“We need both the traditional and the progressive. We cannot do this work if we don’t have both,” he said. “I don’t feel like this is the third way that we are known for.”
Luke Holsopple of East Goshen Mennonite Church in Indiana said a bigger theological question — How do we interpret the Bible? — was at stake.
“As a young person, it is sad how things have changed in my young lifetime,” he said. “The forces of Satan are real. What better way to destroy and divide our church than to attack the foundations of our beliefs?”
Sunoko Lin of Maranatha Christian Fellowship, Reseda, Calif., said he could see that the resolutions to repeal the Membership Guidelines were nonnegotiable to some people, and this made him wonder if he was welcome in MC USA.
Amy Zimbelman of Mountain States Mennonite Conference said her conference was the first in MC USA to ordain an openly gay pastor.
“It has been beautiful to see what happens when congregations that profoundly disagree with each other stay together,” she said. In Jesus’ ministry, she said, “it was a sign of the kingdom of heaven that the marginalized were brought to the center.”
A motion to table the resolution failed, receiving 25% support.
On the last day of the assembly, delegates discussed “For Justice in the U.S. Criminal Legal System” and approved a call for better accessibility for people with disabilities.
Reporting on table-group discussions about the justice resolution, several delegates cited a need for resources that raise awareness. One called for materials on how to talk about systemic injustice with children, so that when they or their friends have encounters with law enforcement, they will be prepared.
Another said that as a teacher of many children with parents who have been incarcerated, she has seen how this issue has an enormous impact on the school and community.
Presented for study but not a vote, the resolution is designated for follow-up by MC USA staff.
Discussion of the accessibility resolution included calls to act on its commitment to “make our community life and facilities accessible to all and to discern and affirm the gifts of each person for our common good.”
Amy Claassen of Whitestone Mennonite Church in Hesston, Kan., said the issue was personal for her because her son has autism and bipolar disorder.
“I want people with intellectual disabilities to stay on the radar,” she said. “Please don’t forget about these people and these children.”
MaryBeth Moore of Virginia Mennonite Conference, who has two deaf sons, said: “By excluding people with disabilities, we are excluding gifts. If our churches are not accessible to everyone, the whole community is missing out.”
The resolution suggests congregations take action by conducting an accessibility audit, developing a plan to increase accessibility and calling a disability advocate or advocacy team. It commits the church at all levels “to calling out and employing the leadership gifts of people with disabilities.”
Delegates worshiped together four times, with spoken messages and singing. Malinda Elizabeth Berry, an associate professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, gave the final message. After a stressful weekend of processing complex issues, she cited simple lessons from children’s books and songs — like “I can make peace with everyone I meet” — about kindness and respecting others’ feelings.
Recalling the television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Berry personalized the universal need to be understood and accepted.
“This neighborhood is changing, and some of these changes I am grateful for, and some leave me afraid,” she said. “I want to live peaceably with you all, and I need people to love me just the way I am.”