I was a delegate to the Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, Fla., July 4-8. I last attended a denominational convention in 1991, when the Mennonite Church gathered at the University of Oregon. Much has changed in 26 years. Instead of dormitory rooms and dining halls, we would stay in hotels and meet in one of the country’s largest convention centers. Most important for me, in 1991 I was a “closeted” male working for a church agency. This time, my partner of 22 years, John, would attend with me.
Since coming out, I wasn’t interested in attending church conventions. For too long, the only issue that seemed to matter was what to do with us LGBTQ folks. Several people told me, and others implied, that people like me were causing the denomination to split. It didn’t make for a welcoming feeling.
I wondered what I’d find in Orlando, since the theme was “Love Is a Verb” and the main focus was a Future Church Summit, promoted as a denomination-wide conversation for dreaming together and setting priorities to follow Jesus as Anabaptists in the 21st century. As a delegate, I would also participate in the summit.
Before the summit began, I attended several seminars. One, led by four pastors of LGBTQ-affirming congregations, was packed to capacity, as was an Inclusive Worship Service organized by a coalition of LGBTQ groups. There were many younger people in attendance. There was great interest in learning how these congregations had made themselves welcoming for LGBTQ people. The Inclusive Worship Service, as well as the convention’s opening service, included anointing rituals, which were highlights of the week.
The Future Church Summit was a lot of hard work. We worked in tables of eight people and discussed 12 thematic questions around being the church today. I heard no mention of keeping LGBTQ people from being an integral part of the church. Rather, I heard a willingness to welcome us. Several people complained of feeling unsafe or not being heard, but that was not my experience. I heard no threatening words and found lots of opportunities to be heard.
The delegates had a positive spirit and showed a commitment to following Christ and living out our values. It did not feel like the delegates were ready to give up and let MC USA sink. I sensed a desire from the vast majority to stay together. If congregations that don’t like the denomination’s direction didn’t send delegates, do they deserve to be heard now that convention is over? It’s time to move on.
Leaving the convention, I felt optimistic about MC USA. There are things we can criticize — the hurried change in the final resolution being one of them — but planners took great care to have the diversity that is MC USA represented in the Future Church Summit. The participation of many youth and young adults was evident.
For some congregations and individuals, to stay together may mean a move to another congregation or conference, or a shift in polity. But I sensed spiritual togetherness.
I believe new winds are blowing, driven in large part by younger people and those who value diversity. This is the future of the denomination.
If MC USA can implement the findings of the Future Church Summit, I believe it will thrive. These are the people I want to follow Jesus with.
JB Miller lives in Sarasota, Fla., and attends Covenant Mennonite Fellowship.