New York Mennonite Conference will continue to be a conference. Delegates at a Feb. 11 gathering made the decision as dwindling numbers have called into question the viability of one of Mennonite Church USA’s smaller conferences.
The conference had 14 congregations at this time a year ago, but three departed after MC USA’s special delegate session passed an LGBTQ-affirming resolution last May. Two churches became independent, and one joined LMC. Of the remaining 11, six sent delegates to the February meeting.
“We grieve the loss of these relationships,” said acting conference minister Connie Zehr, who estimated the remaining congregations number about 600 people.
“Yes. We will be a conference, but we don’t know what that will look like now, because it will be a smaller group,” she added. “It’s going to take a lot more discernment regarding what we will be able to do and what we won’t be able to do.”
Clarence Center-Akron Mennonite Church in Akron hosted the gathering, with an agenda divided into two main sections. The afternoon discussion was originally planned to focus on conference viability but turned into a discussion of conference vision and direction. This followed a morning session to affirm a “Statement of Unity and Mutual Discernment” originally shared at the conference’s September Celebration.
The one-page document articulates how a decadeslong conflict over issues of sexuality has diverted churches from their central mission. It recognizes a lack of consensus in the conference and within congregations, understanding “forbearance” to mean walking together with love and respect, bearing together the burden of ongoing disagreement.
“We believe that the answers we seek are best found in dialogue and mutual discernment, rather than denunciation and separation,” it states, noting that pastors are never required to officiate any wedding they are not comfortable with and that the conference will not discipline pastors who perform or enter into same-sex marriages with their congregation’s approval.
The statement passed with 74% approval. Nine delegates approved the statement outright, five affirmed with reservation, and five did not affirm.
“I have this notion that we should be able to forbear about this, and I’ve been called naive and other things by both sides,” Zehr said. “I have to believe that we can accomplish great things by the grace of God, forbearance being one of them.”
She finds it interesting that people on both sides of the spectrum defend their positions with “the same language and attitudes and posture of belief” as those they disagree with.
She finds hope for the conference’s future in young pastors. On consecutive Sundays she participated in services of licensing toward ordination for Pastor Van Biak Lian at Buffalo Chin Emmanuel Church and Pastor Tory Bonner at Sojourners Mennonite Fellowship in Belfast.
“We have not had many younger people in leadership — that’s another thing that ups the game a bit,” Zehr said. “It’s younger people who want to be a part of us. That is something positive.”
She hopes there can be more conference gatherings and opportunities for congregations to engage with each other. She cited the example of Sojourners and Rochester Mennonite Fellowship meeting annually for a worship service and picnic, though they are an hour and a half apart.
“Several mentioned doing things like that to get to know each other,” she said. “When you have disagreements and that’s all you know, you don’t think of the benefits of relationships.”
That perspective was reinforced by a table group that suggested New York Mennonite Conference needs more fun, which they wrote in big red letters.
The small gathering concluded with a big game of Dutch Blitz.
“In playing this game, we saw that different people are needed and there are different gifts,” Zehr said. “One person who is fast runs the card, another looks where the next card will be, one person flips the card, another watches and cheers. Even in this silly game, we have different gifts that are needed.”