Mennonite Church USA delegates on July 7 narrowly rejected a recommendation to lengthen the delegate assembly cycle from two years to three.
With 65.6% support, the resolution fell just short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass. The vote was 210 to 110.
Delegates met July 7-8 at the Kansas City Convention Center immediately after the national convention of MC USA.
The Executive Board, which brought the recommendation, estimated a triennial schedule would increase attendance and cost 30% less for both delegates and the denomination over a six-year period. It also would allow more time to implement delegate assembly actions.
Although the recommendation dealt only with delegate assemblies, most of the discussion focused on conventions, which traditionally have been held with delegate meetings but do not have to be.
“MennoCon is too important to go to three years,” said Ryan Ahlgrim of Richmond, Va.
Several people said youth especially need biennial conventions.
“Coming twice [during high school] was an essential part of my faith formation,” said Kate Bodiker of Berlin, Ohio. “I think getting people together is one of the best ways to get people engaged.”
Executive director Glen Guyton said youth engagement was a reason for the proposal, because some youth groups have adopted a four-year plan, skipping every other convention, and triennial gatherings might be the “sweet spot.”
Dennis Koehn of Chicago said a triennial schedule worked for the General Conference Mennonite Church, one of the predecessors of MC USA.
“It takes tremendous staff time to prepare for a large gathering like this,” he said. “A three-year format gives our agencies more time to do their mission. We have historical experience that a three-year rhythm works very well.”
In an interview, Guyton said it is the responsibility of the Executive Board and staff, in consultation with area conferences, to decide how often to have conventions.
“We will look at options for new and creative ways to make this event sustainable,” he said.
Convention attendance has declined from about 7,500 in 2009 to fewer than 1,500 in 2023.
In a second decision, delegates voted 305 to 4 to simplify the denomination’s structure by reducing the number of agencies from five to three. Everence and Mennonite Health Services Association will now be defined as entities, or ministry partners.
They will have less accountability to the Executive Board but be no less committed to a close relationship with the denomination, said the CEOs, Karen Lehman of MHS Association and Ken Hochstetler of Everence.
MHS Association is a group of 78 Anabaptist-related health and human service organizations. Everence is a financial services and stewardship organization. Both serve multiple denominations. MC USA members comprise 21% of Everence’s clients.
The three remaining agencies are MennoMedia, Mennonite Education Agency and Mennonite Mission Network.
In his state-of-the-church report, Guyton compared the denomination to Buck Rogers, the time-traveling astronaut from the 20th century who didn’t pine for the past as he navigated the world of 500 years in the future.
“I believe Buck Rogers serves as a metaphor for the transformative [journey] that we are on as members of MC USA,” Guyton said.
He noted that in 22 years the denomination went from 21 conferences to 16, from 840 congregations to 509 and from 113,000 members to about 50,000.
“We stepped into this new denomination with hope in our hearts,” he said. “We believed in the power of unity, diversity and collective action. . . . But now we see an MC USA that has evolved, for better or for worse, into something different from what we had initially envisioned. . . .
“We need to make the most of the present we are in right now. It is time for us to remember who we are at our core. It is not about what divides us but what we do together as a small but powerful instrument of God’s peace.”
The delegate meeting included recognition of two Peace and Justice Grants. One recipient is Boulder Mennonite Church in Colorado, which will give school supplies and extra clothing for students at Hallett Academy, which serves a predominantly Black and low-income neighborhood in Denver. Ivanna Johnson-McMurry of the Boulder congregation introduced the project.
The second grant was for Project SACRED, created to address physical, mental and spiritual issues resulting from three Mennonite residential schools for Cheyenne and Arapaho children more than 100 years ago. SACRED stands for solidarity, acknowledgement, collaboration, recognition, education and dignity.
The project seeks to begin to heal multigenerational trauma rooted in residential schools. It includes research to identify children who attended the schools and create a database of information for their descendants.
Susan Hart of Koinonia Indian Mennonite Church in Clinton, Okla., said researchers are going through documents and photographs “so we can create a better picture for our people.” She described it as a monumental endeavor.
“We will be able to tell the families where their loved ones were and give some people some rest,” Hart said.
At the beginning of both delegate days, Sarah Bixler, associate dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, led a Bible study on “Scenes from the Upper Room: Expectations and Transformations.”
After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples still wounded because “transformation requires acknowledgement of wounds,” she said.
Mennonites from the dominant culture have emphasized their own wounds due to persecution in the past, she said, but looked away from the wounds of minority groups. She cited Hart’s call to attend to the wounds of children in Mennonite residential schools.
“It is a problem when we grasp a chosen trauma so tightly that we will not see and seek to integrate suffering among us in a way that brings collective wholeness for our future,” Bixler said. “Valuing some harms over others leaves us all with gaping wounds.”
At the end of the assembly, incoming moderator Jon Carlson identified three priorities for the next biennium: peace, simplicity and family.
Regarding peace, he said, “When people notice a lack of harmony within us, it damages our witness.”
Regarding simplicity, he said the denomination has overly complex structures that need to be simplified.
Regarding family, he said delegates had sent a message that they want to be together more, not less.
“With all of our recent history, we still have this desire to be the family of God together,” he said, and the crowd applauded. He added that assemblies need to be done in a way that is fair to denominational staff and realistic about finances.