As current and former Mennonite Church USA conferences deal with shifting congregational alignment, two pairs of conferences are looking at closer relationships.
Franklin Mennonite Conference is considering a possible merger with Lancaster Mennonite Conference, and Allegheny Mennonite Conference is exploring a relationship with Central District Conference.
Franklin conference minister Allen Lehman said a committee discussing affiliation presented a recommendation to the conference board to become a district of Lancaster Conference.
“We are still in conversation with our people about that possibility,” Lehman said.
Committee member Allen Eshleman said the proposed Franklin District “would continue to have its own distinct flavor and identity.”
Lehman said the feedback he has heard so far has been mostly positive.
A group of 14 congregations with about 1,000 members in Pennsylvania and Maryland, Franklin voted to leave MC USA in April 2016, following Lancaster’s November 2015 decision to withdraw. Lehman said there is currently no geographical overlap between the two conferences, but geography is a primary reason Franklin is interested in Lancaster.
“We’re close, and we have historically worked together,” he said. “People intuitively know being small isn’t an enviable position.”
Lehman said there had been some initial consideration of connecting with the Evana Network, an evangelical Anabaptist group largely made up of congregations formerly affiliated with MC USA. But “the Lancaster connection just gained traction,” he said. “Our people are very, very familiar with Lancaster. To push for another conference or another entity would have been a harder position to take.”
Lancaster Conference moderator Keith Weaver could not be reached for comment.
Freedom and diversity
Allegheny Conference, with 12 congregations from Delaware to West Virginia, had looked at five potential conference relationships but decided to pursue a connection with Central District, said interim conference minister Dave Mishler.
A network group of people from both conferences has been assembled to explore the idea.
“Their posture on diversity on a variety of levels, including what we are calling place-based ministry in Allegheny Conference, allowing more congregational autonomy in decision-making — those were two of the factors that leaned us toward Central District,” Mishler said.
Place-based ministry, he said, refers to the interaction between a congregation and the community around it.
“We believe that rural and urban context will by necessity generate different styles and even different types of ministries,” he said. “We would expect and encourage that, and not mandate that any one congregation be pushed into a mold that doesn’t fit their local context.”
Mishler said the people in the networking group from Allegheny hope to have a clearer idea of their direction by November.
“I could say, ‘We just started dating; in November we might decide to go steady and to explore what an engagement might look like,’ ” he said.
Central District conference minister Doug Luginbill said four people from Allegheny visited Central District’s annual meeting June 22-24, and three from Central District would attend Allegheny’s Celebration of Congregations and Conference Aug. 4-6.
“We’re willing to explore various options,” Luginbill said. “We haven’t really gone down that road very far.”
Mishler said the step was driven by questions about Allegheny’s viability as a conference. Allegheny lost about half its congregations in 2015 after a decision to view the Confession of Faith as a guiding document rather than a disciplinary document, he said. Since then, other congregations have left the conference or are close to leaving.
“With our remaining congregations, there is a new energy to look to the future,” Mishler said. “We believe the withdrawals are at or very close to an end. . . . We’re very committed to Mennonite Church USA.”
He said those remaining in the conference resonated with Central District’s openness to diversity, particularly related to opinions about same-sex marriage.
“In our conference, there is still a wide range of theological diversity,” he said. “We think that is healthy.”