Mennonite Church USA loses congregations in bunches and in trickles. Although it has seen five of 21 conferences withdraw — most recently, South Central Mennonite Conference — the more common way for congregations to leave is one at a time.
South Central’s July 22 decision, which removed 30 congregations from MC USA, accounts for less than half of the losses over the past three years.
Since January 2021, 34 congregations withdrew individually, according to MC USA statistics and a survey of conference ministers by Anabaptist World.
The loss of 64 is offset by a gain of 11. Twenty congregations have closed. Currently, MC USA claims 477 congregations (although a dozen or so of these don’t claim it).
There’s also an occasional transfer within MC USA. Since 2021, five congregations have switched conferences — three to find a more progressive/liberal home and two seeking a more traditional/conservative one.
The realignments stem from a desire to affiliate with others more compatible in belief and practice. Seeking agreement on how to relate to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people is a leading reason, though not the only one.
For some, disagreement with the LGBTQ-affirming Repentance and Transformation Resolution that MC USA delegates passed in May 2022 in Kansas City, Mo., prompted the decision to move.
“In the afternoon of the day when the affirmative vote of Repentance and Transformation happened in Kansas City, I received a call informing me that Maranatha was initiating a process of migrating their affiliation from the PSMC,” said Stanley Green, conference minister of Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference.
Green said the congregation, Maranatha Christian Fellowship Northridge in Los Angeles, moved to LMC, the Lancaster, Pa.-based Anabaptist denomination that withdrew from MC USA in 2017.
Pacific Southwest congregations represent three kinds of movement — out of, within and into MC USA.
Within MC USA, Los Angeles Faith Chapel transferred to Mosaic Mennonite Conference, a Pennsylvania-based group that is a merger of Franconia and Eastern District conferences.
Joining MC USA, Willow Avenue Mennonite Church of Clovis, Calif., came from the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.
Pacific Southwest is “happily discovering” that members of Willow Avenue are “our spiritual kin,” Green said, adding: “We lament the losses across the church while at the same time feeling hopeful about the greater clarity about our identity that has resulted from these shifts.”
Some realignments break relationships of exceptional length. Towamencin Mennonite Church of Kulpsville, Pa., had been a member of Franconia/Mosaic Conference for more than 300 years.
Two other departing congregations — Franconia, Mosaic’s largest congregation; and Line Lexington — were similarly long-tenured, members since before the United States existed.
Towamencin’s withdrawal — by a vote of 92-0 on June 4 — was due not only to disagreement with MC USA on matters of sexuality but also to concerns about biblical authority, said Charles Ness, associate pastor at Towamencin, responding to questions from AW.
Sexuality is “simply the presenting issue of a deeper problem,” Ness said. “It seems to us that some interpret Scripture through prevailing culture rather than interpreting culture through Scripture.”
Ness said it was difficult to end a valued relationship with Mosaic, but the congregation felt it needed to differentiate itself from LGBTQ-affirming churches.
“There has been disappointment with lack of decisive action to deal with congregations and pastors who have deviated from the conference position on sexuality,” he said. “This has caused confusion in the community with people asking if Towamencin Mennonite is like the Mennonites of the churches in our area who have taken affirming positions on sexuality.”
Biblical authority was a concern several conference ministers mentioned when describing congregations’ reasons for leaving.
In Virginia Mennonite Conference, “disagreements around human sexuality are compounded by differing views of scriptural authority and ecclesiology,” said Caleb Schrock-Hurst, one of six people serving on an interim leadership team. Ecclesiology refers to the nature and structure of the church.
“Progressives and traditionalists here don’t just disagree about sexuality, it seems, but also about the role, mission and boundary line of who makes up the church,” he said. “At least here in Virginia, the churches on the more traditional end of the human sexuality conversation tend to aspire to a much tighter ecclesiology, desiring active agreement on key issues for the conference and the denomination, not just individual churches.”
Virginia Conference lost nine congregations: four traditional, all moving to Rosedale Network (the former Conservative Mennonite Conference); and two progressive, The Table in Harrisonburg, Va., and the exchange in Winchester, Va., both transferring within MC USA to Allegheny Mennonite Conference; and three closures.
Virginia Conference is in a discernment process about its affiliation. A Denominational Affiliation Work Group is assigned to bring a recommendation to delegates no later than next summer.
“I hope all our churches within the broader Mennonite and Anabaptist movement continue to seek ways to live at peace with one another and put kingdom-building first,” Schrock-Hurst said. “At times, this means we may choose not to pour our energy into attempting to keep close relationships which are no longer life-giving.”
Even in “a deeply painful season of loss,” Schrock-Hurst said, “it is, perhaps ironically, joyful to see many people passionately study and discern what it means to be a radically faithful follower of the Prince of Peace.”
Among congregations that have left MC USA, the most common new affiliation is LMC, with six, according to the survey of conference ministers. Evana Network and Rosedale Network each gained four. The Fellowship of Evangelical Churches (former Evangelical Mennonite Church) and Patria Ministries each gained one.
About two-thirds of the 34 congregations that left MC USA have either chosen to remain independent, are still deciding where to affiliate or did not indicate their plans.
A new affiliation for South Central Mennonite Conference remains an open question. The withdrawal resolution says the conference will join another Anabaptist/Mennonite group by October 2024. On Sept. 13, network chair Phil Rosenberger said the list of possibilities had not been narrowed down.
One South Central congregation, Hesston Mennonite Church in Kansas, indicated its desire to stay with MC USA “because it allows for the wide variety of perspectives that we have across our own congregation, which we see as a strength,” delegate Don Weaver said, reading a statement from the congregation at the July 22 assembly.
South Central lost a congregation in July when Herold Mennonite Church of Bessie, Okla., joined the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. It was Herold’s second move in 10 years. In 2013, it moved from Western District Conference to South Central.
Among transfers within MC USA, Central District Conference has found itself on both the receiving and the releasing end. Seeking a more conservative affiliation, Trenton Mennonite Church in Ohio moved from CDC to Ohio Conference. Seeking a more progressive affiliation, St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship has requested a move to CDC from Illinois Conference.
Central District also is gaining a transfer from another denomination: Keller Park Church in South Bend, Ind., which came from the Missionary Church USA.
Another addition to Central District, Grand Rapids Mennonite Fellowship in Michigan, is an emerging congregation organized by people who did not grow up Mennonite but were drawn to Anabaptist theology and decided they wanted to be a part of MC USA.
Each of the three — St. Louis, Keller Park and Grand Rapids — wanted a conference “where there would be no negative consequences for being welcoming and affirming” of LGBTQ people, said Doug Luginbill, conference minister.
“I have been heartened by the many conversations I’ve had with potential pastors and congregations who are exploring being part of CDC and MC USA,” Luginbill said. “They are looking for people who take the Bible and the life and teachings of Jesus seriously, who teach and live nonviolent lives, who recognize a healthy separation of church and state (not Christian nationalist) and who can entertain open and honest theological and biblical questions in a safe and respectful environment.”
In Ohio Conference of Mennonite Church USA (which lost two congregations to Evana) and Illinois Mennonite Conference (which lost three — Carlock, Norwood and First of Morton — in addition to St. Louis Fellowship’s transfer), conference ministers pointed to the Repentance and Transformation Resolution as a source of conflict.
Darrell Miller, conference moderator in Illinois, said the resolution had “re-energized divisions by denigrating those who don’t affirm same-sex marriage. There was no hint of ‘let us walk and serve together with our conflicting views around same-sex marriage.’ ”
Dick Barrett, conference minister in Ohio, said: “Many who represent a more traditional or orthodox scriptural understanding of sexual ethics and marriage have not sensed forbearance on the part of the larger denomination.”
Throughout 2022, Barrett said, Ohio delegates worked to discern whether the conference should continue to affiliate with MC USA. At their annual assembly in March 2023, delegates could not reach consensus. Now they are in the second year of a process to “seek God’s future vision for the conference,” he said.
Ohio, along with Virginia and Mosaic, permits congregations to be members of the conference but not the denomination — an arrangement that MC USA does not recognize (because MC USA’s members are its conferences, and congregational membership is derived from conference membership). About 15 congregations claim this status.
Like Ohio and Virginia, Mosaic is in a discernment process about affiliation. Delegates will discuss findings from the first half of the two-year process in November.
“As a conference formed out of healing a 150-year rift [with Eastern District], . . . we continue to believe that the Spirit can bring healing in times of change, conflict and disagreement,” said Mosaic executive minister Stephen Kriss.
In Central Plains Mennonite Conference, which is losing three congregations (one to Evana), a church split produced a house church “born out of a painful situation, . . . and so welcoming them in took some finesse and a lot of conversations,” said executive conference minister Nathan Luitjens.
“We continue to work hard at trying to be a big Anabaptist tent with space for people who think and believe differently to have a place and a voice,” Luitjens said. “It is difficult to know if this can work or if our differences around LGBTQ inclusion are too much for us to overcome.”
Several conference ministers mentioned the pain of seeing longstanding relationships end — losing a “longtime pillar of the conference,” as Miller described First Mennonite Church of Morton, which left Illinois Conference for LMC.
“For those of us who are older, these separations end lifelong experiences of serving the church together,” he said. “It is good to keep connections around relief sales, camp and Mennonite Disaster Service.”
Some noted the probability of more losses. Amy S. Zimbelman, conference minister of Mountain States Mennonite Conference, which lost one congregation to LMC and gained one church plant, said: “We will likely lose one more congregation next year (the oldest in our conference), and that will be more difficult.”
New York Mennonite Conference had three withdrawals (one to LMC) and three closures. The latter were immigrant congregations whose members have relocated, said Connie Zehr, conference minister of denominational relations.
A New York congregation that moved to LMC said MC USA had “shifted away from the Great Commission to some social justice priorities that do not reflect the core of what we are about.”
Zehr said congregations’ discernment about affiliation prompted efforts to discuss and listen that “were met with mixed reactions.” Some left without entering the discussion, but others welcomed it. Those that remain “are finding joy in connecting and reconnecting with each other,” she said.
Atlantic Coast Conference of Mennonite Church USA lost charter members Conestoga and Oley Valley. Both had “significant history and involvement in the formation of ACC and church-planting efforts,” said conference minister Joanne Dietzel.
These losses and one other “greatly reduce our theological diversity and our connection to rural communities that were, in large part, the core of ACC’s founding group in the 1970s,” she said.
Dietzel said the Repentance and Transformation Resolution and “ACC’s decision in February 2023 to credential persons recommended by congregations regardless of their sexuality seemed to finalize their decisions to leave ACC.”
Western District Conference had two withdrawals, while gaining two full members and two church plants. All four additions are Spanish-speaking congregations. Two are in Guatemala, expanding the conference’s geography.
Both churches that left, Goessel in Kansas and Turpin in Oklahoma, “had been part of the conference for over 100 years, so their departure represents a deep loss of spiritual gifts, context, perspectives and connections that are both historical and contemporary,” said conference minister Heidi Regier Kreider.
“It is also painful for members who did not support the decision of others in their congregation to withdraw from WDC and were not given a clear process by which they might continue as members of Mennonite Church USA.”
Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference had four withdrawals, including a charter member, Holdeman in Wakarusa, Ind., which moved to Evana.
“Their departure came after a very close majority vote,” said Clayton Gladish, administrative coordinator for Indiana-Michigan and pastor of administration and outreach at Silverwood Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind. “Many wanted to stay.”
Gladish has found the grief of loss is tempered by joyful worship and collaboration on initiatives such as confronting racialized violence and cultural exclusion.
The only conference with no gains or losses was Gulf States Mennonite Conference, a group of five congregations.
Allegheny Mennonite Conference was the only other conference with no losses. In addition to its two transfers from Virginia, Allegheny gained another member — a congregation that had related to the conference for years, conference minister Dave Mishler said.
A “posture of welcoming diversity” and LGBTQ inclusion made the conference attractive to those who transferred in, Mishler said. “Allegheny sees the current trajectory of MC USA, its vision and actions, as very much compatible with our own vision.”
Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference lost six congregations: Lebanon, Calvary, River of Life, Iglesia Menonita Roca de Salvacion, Iglesia Menonita Rio de Vida and Jerusalen Iglesia Menonita. All cited LGBTQ-affirming decisions in the denomination and the conference, said executive conference minister Eric Massanari.
Pacific Northwest gained two church plants that are not yet full members: Iglesia Anabautista Ebenezer in Keizer, Ore., and Community of Hope in Bellingham, Wash. The latter was established “to do church in a queer way,” affirming LGBTQ people and their allies, Massanari said.
“We affirm that the departing congregations have come to these decisions after careful, prayerful discernment and that their decisions were made in good faith,” he said. “We believe that this parting is happening with mutual love and respect.
“I firmly believe that although we are no longer in formal, ecclesial relationship with these six congregations, we remain siblings in Christ. Our bonds in faith and discipleship transcend our differences and the decisions we may make around denominational and conference affiliations.”
Rachel Ringenberg Miller, MC USA denominational minister of ministerial leadership, said discerning where to belong has been a theme for Christians for centuries.
“The focus of the Executive Board staff is on those who remain committed to the values and commitments of Mennonite Church USA,” she said. “Together, we participate in the ministry of Jesus, who calls us to relentlessly spread God’s love within our communities and beyond.”
Paul Schrag is editor of Anabaptist World.