On Jan. 16-17 more than 170 leaders gathered in Hartville, Ohio, for a consultation regarding a new network of churches separate from Mennonite Church USA. Photo by Kelli Yoder of Mennonite World Review.
A new network comprised mostly of churches who have already left or plan to leave Mennonite Church USA is anticipating a launch date of Sept. 1.
The name of the new network is yet to be determined.
The new network is already meeting and working together.
On Jan. 16-17, more than 170 leaders representing 75 churches gathered in Hartville, Ohio, for a consultation around the theme of “Reimaging New Life Together.”
A Vision Values and Core Commitments document was discussed at the January consultation.
The focus of the network is obedience to Scripture as expressed in the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective; planting churches; evangelism; and mission around the world.
A group of 15 pastors and church leaders—all men—planned the consultation. Ten of the 15 are part of Anabaptist Renewal Circles. ARC facilitated the weekend, but will not be a part of the new network.
The leaders were from churches in California, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. Some represented Franklin Mennonite Conference, South Central Mennonite Conference and New York Mennonite Conference.
A perceived lack of accountability and lack of common theological understandings propelled this group to move forward and consider ways to be together outside of Mennonite Church USA, according to Matt Hamsher, pastor of Longenecker Mennonite Church in Winesburg, Ohio, and one of the leaders of the network at this point.
The question of LGBTQ inclusion in Mennonite Church USA, especially events that unfolded with Mountain States Mennonite Conference and the process of reviewing a change in the hiring practices at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va., contributed to this perception, he said.
In the working document mentioned above the network states its beliefs regarding sexuality: “We believe the Bible teaches that sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage and that God intends for marriage to be a lifelong covenant relationship between one man and one woman.”
On Jan. 30, Hamsher, Sunoko Lin, James Wenger and Nahemiah (Nemi) Chigoji will join the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board at its meeting in Kansas City, Mo. This invitation came from Ervin Stutzman, executive director, and Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, moderator, as they are interested in an update from the the consultation at Hartville.
Hamsher responded to these questions in a phone interview on Jan. 28.
What is the timeline for the new network?
We plan to have the new network in place by Sept. 1, but we have a lot of work to make things a reality before then. If we wait too much longer, it will be harder to keep the churches who have already left Mennonite Church USA engaged.
Do churches have to leave Mennonite Church USA to join the new network?
No. We are open to any congregation that desires to join in covenanting with us and agrees to be mutually accountable to the rest of the group. We will not require congregations to leave Mennonite Church USA in order to be a part of the new network. We are also hopeful about the possibility of exploring conversations with other Anabaptist congregations or groups with similar theological convictions. At the Hartville consultation, there were pastors and representatives from churches who have already left Mennonite Church USA; those in the process of leaving; or who will be considering leaving in the next year (the majority), as well as some congregations and pastors that resonate with the vision of ARC but who may remain a part of Mennonite Church USA.
What do you estimate the size of the new network to be?
The 170 individuals at the event in Hartville represented about 75 churches. We have at least two dozen churches that are ready to join the network. I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that there will be 100 or more churches by the end of the year that want to join the network—and perhaps some whole conferences.
What are the hopes of this new network?
We want to be clear about our relationships with one another from the beginning rather than trying to clarify that along the way, and with that I mean the polity differences. In our document we state, “We believe an organizational system of high accountability with low control is the healthiest environment for nurturing our relationships with one another.” We’re looking for that kind of commitment for one another. We recognize that separating from Mennonite Church USA does not solve all our differences. It doesn’t mean that there is automatic conformity. What we do hope is that the direction we’ve put forward is a compelling one that seems to be resonating deeply with a wide group of people that are not feeling connected to Mennonite Church USA at this point.
Who are the leaders of the new network?
We are in the process of forming a leadership team and will make the announcement of who is on that team in the next couple weeks.
How is Anabaptist Renewal Circles involved in this new network?
Anabaptist Renewal Circles, founded in 2011, facilitated the weekend in Hartville and will continue to be part of the ongoing conversation. However, ARC will not be an official part of the network, as it is committed to be a voice of renewal within Mennonite Church USA. We do have overlapping constituencies.
What about Kansas City 2015? Will the network be represented?
There are no plans for that group to be present or have official representation at Kansas City.
How have you related with Mennonite Church USA leadership?
At the consultation in Hartville, Ervin Stutzman offered a word of release and blessing, which meant a lot. We would be interested in modeling to the church of what it looks like to part in peace. We’re also asking if there could there be a way for us to model a better parting than what we’ve seen in other denominations and in our own history.
How will the new network relate to Mennonite Church USA agencies?
It is too early to tell about relating with the Mennonite Church USA agencies. I can say we are open to partnering in ways that honor the covenant we make with one another in the new network. Until we clarify other things, we’re not ready to say what the relationship will be.
What do the participants in this new network believe about the women in church leadership?
We support the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective that includes the understanding that God calls men and women to ministry.
Read Matt Hamsher’s commentary on the Mennonite Church USA credential leaders survey.