Ed Willms had high hopes when he organized a Sept. 13 event for about 45 pastors and other leaders from the Ontario Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches to talk about LGBTQ welcome and inclusion.
Willms, then executive director of ONMB, wanted to provide a “safe place to listen, learn and hear from each other on a topic we all know needed more discussion and reflect together on what type of family of churches we envision growing into in the days ahead.”
Regrettably for Willms, his effort resulted in his being terminated without cause by the ONMB board. His last day was Oct. 31.
At the daylong event, participants had a chance to hear leaders from two ONMB churches — FreeChurch Toronto and Southridge Community Church in St. Catharines — share about their journey of LGBTQ welcome and inclusion.
Less than two months later, both congregations had their conference membership suspended.
The gathering “was designed as a safe space for leaders from the two churches to share their stories and also for others to ask questions,” Willms said. “The conversation was not about changing our Confession of Faith or expecting churches to change their beliefs.”
Willms thought the day “was healthy and rich.” But not everyone agreed.
In the days that followed, the ONMB board received numerous calls and emails from concerned church leaders about the meeting. Some indicated they would leave the conference or withhold financial support because of it.
After processing the fallout, the board “made the difficult decision that it would be best to move forward without my services,” Willms said. “It became evident that this would be best for all concerned.”
For Willms, the board’s decision was disheartening.
“I think they found themselves in a very difficult spot,” he said. He wishes they could have mustered “the courage” to stay the course by encouraging more conversations on the topic.
“We need safe places to talk about this complex issue,” he said. “The truth is, this issue isn’t going away. We will need to be more creative in finding solutions and a path forward.”
If the event had been successful, Willms hoped it might have become a model for other provincial Mennonite Brethren conferences, and perhaps the national conference, too.
The goal of such gatherings would not be about changing the Confession, he emphasized.
“They could be opportunities to wrestle with what kind of denominational family we want to be, knowing that there is already great diversity within our family,” he said.
Right now, Willms observed, there are only two options for Canadian MB churches attempting to be more inclusive: reaffirm the official line on sexuality and same-sex marriage or be suspended and removed from membership.
“But that’s not how families operate,” he said. “We tell our kids the door is always open and you are always welcome, no matter who you are or what you do. The conference would be richer and more welcoming if it chose to live out that posture.”
Willms acknowledged it’s complicated both on the church front and even more so as a denomination, as there are divergent and strong points of view.
But it’s “still a worthy goal to strive to live out Jesus’ prayer that Christians love each other and live in unity,” he said. “That meeting was my feeble attempt to encourage us to do that.”
Willms would like to see a “landing place for borderland congregations” — churches that want to explore this topic without worrying it will put them offside with the conference or the Confession of Faith.
“We need a new approach,” he said, admitting “it requires a nuanced conversation and not everyone is comfortable with that.”
The ONMB board chair did not respond to a request for comment on Willms’ termination.
In a message to ONMB churches on Nov. 7, board chair Michelle Knowles said Southridge Community Church had been placed under suspension due to publicly communicating its intention to invite members of the LGBTQ community into all levels of participation, leadership and decision-making.
FreeChurch Toronto also was suspended, effective Oct. 14, based on their “articulated position on full inclusion and their desire to be a fully affirming church, which is also outside of our Confession,” Knowles stated.
The suspensions are effective until the ONMB convention in February, at which time the ONMB board will recommend revocation of membership unless a resolution is achieved before that date.