At the end of the Virginia Mennonite Conference annual assembly, July 21, assistant moderator Kevin Gasser encouraged us to stay together. Spoken from his heart, unrehearsed and on the spot in front of the delegates, Gasser, pastor of Staunton (Virginia) Mennonite Church, encouraged delegates to “please stay together.” These wise words of counsel from a relatively young conference leader were much appreciated. Churches have left in the past, but here are my thoughts on why VMC has had a reasonably good track record of staying together.
Historical consciousness: There’s a deep sense of shared history. It’s been over 180 years since the first conference assembly that kept minutes, but the first congregation, Trissels, is approaching its bicentennial in 2022. At the beginning, in the 1820s, Virginia Mennonites almost divided over whether meetinghouses should be built and whether revivalist preaching would be allowed. There have been other times in the history of VMC when we almost split apart, but leaders stepped forward and urged unity, as did Pastor Kevin Gasser, when VMC met at Calvary Community Church, Hampton, Virginia. It is remarkable that in these fractious and difficult times, VMC is moving steadily ahead with a history book project, not even knowing where the conference will be when the book is completed, in four or five years.
Cordial acceptance: Respect for elders has been a historic practice in VMC. In deference to age and experience, older people were called “Aunt” or “Uncle.” Mennonites who have been a part of the conference for generations accept those who move in from elsewhere, like myself, seldom object to significant changes and roll up their sleeves to help, with little fanfare. The southern practice of hospitality is a tangible cultural value held by many in Virginia. Combined with Christian virtues of love, respect and understanding, this serves as part of the glue keeping VMC together almost 200 years.
A mission board: A wise pastor in another conference of Mennonite Church USA has told me that VMC’s mission agency helps keep our churches together. This was not an overstatement. At our annual meetings, delegates are inspired with stories of mission activities. When times get tough, as they are now, we often find common interest and focus through outreach, service and evangelism. Virginia Mennonite Missions is part of the Spirit glue that helps keep VMC churches together.
Good leadership: In 1944, when difficult times in the Mennonite Church threatened to split the denomination apart, moderate Virginia bishop Timothy Showalter was asked to preach a sermon at a tense gathering of 90 bishops and more than 300 ministers from across the United States. Showalter urged moderation, respect for those who were different and cordiality toward others on the divisive nonconformity issues of his day. A stenographer likely copied the sermon, and one of this historian’s prized finds was discovering a copy of it in the denominational archives. It felt like Kevin Gasser, outgoing assistant moderator, was channeling Bishop Showalter’s counsel to “please stay together.” Wise words indeed.
Elwood Yoder teaches history and Bible at Eastern Mennonite High School, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and attends Zion Mennonite Church, Broadway, Virginia.