Photo: People from Iglesia Evangelica Menonita Shalom at College Hill Mennonite Church in Tampa, Florida. Photo provided by Marco Güete.
In an effort to be part of Mennonite Church USA, six congregations in Florida have decided to leave Southeast Mennonite Conference and intend to join Franconia Mennonite Conference. A church plant that was in the process of joining Southeast Conference also intends to join Franconia Conference.
Delegates and pastors representing the congregations—which are listed at the end of this article—met Aug. 10 at Iglesia Menonita Arca de Salvación in Fort Meyers, Florida. Noel Santiago, leadership minister at Franconia Conference, joined them.
Since April, the congregations were asking questions about what it would look like potentially to join Franconia Conference, says Marco Güete, who since March 15 has been employed by Franconia Conference as an interim leadership minister supporting congregations in Florida seeking to remain with MC USA. They got most of their questions answered ahead of the Aug. 10 meeting.
“There were not many questions left by the time we met last week, except whether we would join Franconia as a group or individually,” Güete said in an Aug. 15 interview. They will, in fact, plan to join Franconia Conference individually.
Güete cited three primary reasons the congregations want to remain with MC USA. “Since the majority are people-of-color congregations that have helped MC USA become more open to people-of-color leadership, they feel that entering another denomination would be like starting over,” he said. The other reasons are that the congregations believe MC USA “is their family” and they are “tired of division.”
The seven congregations plan to meet as “Franconia Florida churches” at least four times per year for friendship, fellowship and how to work together, Güete said, and they hope to “maintain good fraternal relationships” with Southeast Conference leaders.
Following a three-year discernment process, 27 Southeast Conference delegates representing 16 of the conference’s 25 congregations voted in October 2018 on a proposal to leave MC USA brought by the conference’s seven-member Leadership Board. The proposal, which passed, also directed the Leadership Board to bring delegates new affiliation options by March. All delegates from congregations now joining Franconia Conference voted “no” to leaving MC USA last October.
At a March 2 meeting, Southeast Conference leadership presented LMC (formerly Lancaster Mennonite Conference) as its choice for where to collectively affiliate. After much discussion, Southeast Conference moderator Michael Zehr made a recommendation, and delegates agreed, to delay taking action on where to collectively affiliate until later this year. “It became clear to me that we weren’t ready to make a decision,” said Southeast Conference moderator Michael Zehr at the time. That day, representatives from nine congregations, including the ones now leaving Southeast Conference, reaffirmed their desire to remain with MC USA.
The 23 congregations that have most recently comprised Southeast Conference exited the denomination on March 16. For pastors who wish to remain a part of MC USA, the denomination will hold their ministerial credentials for a period of one year upon request as they discern future affiliation.
Güete expects ministerial credentials later this month to begin transferring to Franconia Conference for leaders of the seven congregations leaving Southeast Conference.
Meanwhile, Franconia Conference is experiencing its own transition. This fall, the conference hopes to complete a two-year reconciliation process with Eastern District Conference that would result in the two conferences becoming one. As a result, the seven Florida congregations are not expected to join the new conference—which may or may not be called Franconia Conference—until fall of 2020.
“We are prepared to support the Florida congregations as we do any congregations looking to join us,” said Steve Kriss, executive minister of Franconia Mennonite Conference, in an Aug. 15 interview.
Southeast Conference moderator Michael Zehr said in an Aug. 16 interview that it’s “difficult to have these congregations withdraw right now” because within the conference “there is an overall desire to find a way to stay together as much as we can.”
The Southeast Conference fall assembly will be held Oct. 4-5. At that gathering, delegates will pick up the question of where to collectively affiliate given that these congregations have left the conference and because delegates at the March 2 meeting agreed to look at affiliation options later in the year, Zehr said.
As of Aug. 16, Southeast Conference has 16 congregations, down from 25 in October.
“What keeps us most unified?” Zehr said in reference to the remaining Southeast Conference congregations. “Would that be affiliating collectively with LMC? Would that be affiliating collectively with MC USA? Or would that be something else? Delegates will decide in October.”
The congregations intending to join Franconia Conference are:
College Hill Mennonite Church, Tampa, Florida
Homestead Mennonite Church, Homestead, Florida
Iglesia Evangelica Menonita Shalom, Tampa, Florida
Iglesia Menonita Encuentro de Renovacion, Miami
Iglesia Menonita Luz y Vida, Orlando, Florida
Iglesia Seguidores de Cristo, Sarasota, Florida
North Tampa Christian Fellowship, Tampa, Florida