This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Under review: Reflections on being peer reviewed

Joel Miller

Joel Miller is Pastor at Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church. 

 “Confusion and suspicion have no home here.”

These were a few of the words read by the Peer Review team as an opening meditation for our four hours together on a Friday afternoon in August. We met in Faith House, a hospitality house in Goshen, Indiana owned by Faith Mennonite Church, a congregation of Central District Conference. There were 12 of us seated in a circle in the large living room. Three were from the Peer Review team, and nine of us were from CDC, including Mark Rupp, fellow pastor of Columbus Mennonite Church, whom CDC licensed for pastoral ministry last summer.

The opening meditation was a lengthy Message-like translation of a Psalm. Members of the Peer Review team read it, asking that we pay attention to a phrase that stood out to us. As soon as I heard “confusion and suspicion have no home here,” I had my phrase.

These are indeed days of suspicion and confusion in Mennonite Church USA.

I knew LGBTQ friends and allies were suspicious of this Peer Review. One of the key reasons was that no one outside church leadership circles knew it was happening. I also knew that those of us from CDC were confused about the goal and potential outcomes of such a review. What surprised me, however, was the level of confusion the Peer Review team shared with us about their task.

At the Kansas City Convention in 2015 the delegate body passed two related yet clashing resolutions. The Forbearance Resolution, passed by the widest margin, calls “on all those in Mennonite Church USA to offer grace, love and forbearance toward conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions.” A second, Executive Board-initiated resolution about Membership Guidelines states, in part: “We also call on the CLC to exercise mutual accountability by engaging in conference-to-conference peer review when area conferences make decisions that are not aligned with the documents named above, and to make recommendations to the Executive Board if necessary.

Although “mutual accountability” is a worthy goal, no delegates who voted on that resolution knew what a “conference-to-conference peer review” is. No one could have known, because it hadn’t yet been constructed.

On Friday, the Peer Review team was up front that this was a pilot process they had been asked to lead. One of the team members stated that through this conversation, “Hopefully we can construct something constructive.”

They were charged with reviewing CDC’s decision to credential Mark for pastoral ministry. The Peer Review is not intended to be punitive, but an opportunity for mutual accountability. The Peer Review was divided into three focus areas: 1) Seek to Understand the Context, 2) Examine the Decision Making Process, 3) Impact Reflections. Each area contained a number of more specific questions.

Before the gathering we had provided the Peer Review team with 10 different documents detailing our credentialing process and communication within and beyond CDC. We also provided an eight page, single-spaced, written response to each of the questions under the three focus areas.

So they had a chance to look over our documents in advance. After addressing a few questions of clarification, we had plenty of time for wider discussion, and a surprising amount of this was directed toward the Peer Review process itself.

Who appointed this Peer Review team? Why is this the only situation being reviewed, but there is no Peer Review process in place for other situations? What are the possible outcomes of this and other Peer Reviews? Since CDC will continue credentialing LGBTQ folks, is a Peer Review a one time thing, or does it keep recurring?

To these and other questions the Peer Review team was graciously humble. They didn’t know most of the answers, and they had by no means appointed themselves to this team. They were asked by a committee within CLC to lead this pilot Peer Review. What happened that day would help form Peer Reviews going forward.

One of the most powerful parts of the afternoon was Mark’s testimony. He shared how he had gone back and forth about whether he even wanted to be present, feeling no obligation to further justify his well-established call to pastoral ministry. He and the rest of us heard delegates at our CDC Annual Meeting request that there be an LGBTQ presence at the Peer Review (and not just one person!) and Mark took this as a call to speak his truth. He shared his story about how the Mennonite Church has both formed and harmed him. He also shared that this Peer Review process, just by existing, is harmful.  I wrote down this quote: “The fact that it happens is punitive.”

So, the nine of us from CDC were being asked to help form and create a “constructive” process which is inherently destructive – which inherently misreads power dynamics and marginalization in its attempt for mutual accountability.

After four hours of Peer Review conversation, I felt that those of us representing CDC were able to communicate who we are. We are both committed to wider church relationships and committed to credentialing people for ministry regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression. I’m pleased several of us expressed why the Peer Review is inherently punitive and institutionally hostile.

Whether this results in the end of Peer Reviews of this nature waits to be seen. Unfortunately the decision will be made by people who weren’t in the room during this Spirited conversation.

It is my hope that this pilot review can be piloted to a clear landing, the plane parked in the hangar, not to be flown again.

I ended the time feeling grateful that we were all able to speak our minds forthrightly, and that we listened non-defensively to one another. I was grateful that two gay men had chosen to bless us with their presence and words. I was grateful that the Peer Review team genuinely engaged with us. These were warm feelings.

But I also went away feeling…gross. The Peer Review was personally friendly but institutionally hostile. It’s a gross feeling to participate in a gathering that puts someone’s humanity on the line. Even if we’re all speaking and listening well with each other, such a targeted Peer Review feels like the moral equivalent of gathering to review whether a woman or person of color ought to be considered pastor-worthy.

It’s also gross knowing that the decision about how to move forward falls into the hands of those who weren’t in the room, who may already have a certain vision of what “mutual accountability” ought to look like in denominational life.  As has been demonstrated repeatedly in the last 30 years, church structures have no intention of being mutually accountable to LGBTQ folks.

Until mutuality means something very different than it currently does in our common life, confusion and suspicion will continue to be quite at home among us.

You can read full coverage from The Mennonite of the Constituency Leaders Council meeting where the Peer Review Process was discussed

The “Opinions” section of our website provides a forum for the voices within Mennonite Church USA and related Anabaptist-Mennonite voices. The views expressed do not necessarily represent the official positions of The Mennonite, the board for The Mennonite, Inc., or Mennonite Church USA.   

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