At the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board (EB) meeting Nov. 10 in Newton, Kansas, a concern was brought forward regarding the “Year of Recommitment” that Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference (PSMC)—one of the most diverse conferences in Mennonite Church USA—has undertaken to assess where they are as a conference. Terry Shue, Mennonite Church USA director of Leadership Development, and Iris de León-Hartshorn, director of Transformative Peacemaking, were asked to follow through and see how to respond to the concerns expressed.
A phone conference took place soon after the EB meeting with Shue, de León-Hartshorn, PSMC moderator Femi Fatunmbi, moderator-elect Kathi Oswald, PSMC board secretary Tina Schlabach and board member Joyce Welch.
The recommitment process had initially been communicated to congregations via an email that included a letter and a list of financial, organizational and membership-related documents needed. Some immigrant church leaders said they experienced the communication as “rushed” and “impersonal,” and some felt their congregations were not wanted in the conference.
“Most immigrant congregation leaders feel invited to the PSMC table but with their hands somewhat tied and voices not given adequate expression in this vital process,” Fatunmbi said.
Oswald apologized as soon as she realized how some of the immigrant churches were experiencing the communication of the process, and she and conference minister Clare Ann Ruth-Heffelbower started contacting congregations and talking with key leadership.
PSMC is currently in the midst of the recommitment process and is committed to seeing it through, while also providing openness and flexibility to bring leaders and congregations on board.
“The purpose of the membership recommitment process is to strengthen the relationship between the conference and its member congregations,” Ruth-Heffelbower said. “Documents were requested as part of that process to assess and encourage the health of congregations, and to assist the conference in responding to issues that arise within congregations. As we work together with strengthened relationships, mutual trust and transparency we will be better equipped to carry out the mission God has given us in the Pacific Southwest.”
The fact that four of the five people of color on the PSMC board were not at the meeting when the final decision about the recommitment process was made, however, has revealed a need to look at the importance of decision-making processes that affect the entire conference. PSMC will examine some alternatives for decision-making, from looking at the location of meetings to ways that ensure everyone can be part of a decision.
“What PSMC is experiencing is not unique to them alone,” de León-Hartshorn said. “As conferences become more diverse, it is more important than ever to pay attention to issues around communication style, decision-making processes and looking at how resources and power are used.”
“The reality is that this is a journey,” she continued. “PSMC’s experience and their willingness to share their story is a gift to us as an intercultural learning experience.”