Leadership: A word from Mennonite Church USA leaders
Mennonite Church USA is my spiritual home. I love this church that has nurtured, challenged and frustrated me and invited me to grow as a Christian. It has been my privilege to visit with congregations from the African Community Church of Lancaster, Pa.; to Bethel College Mennonite Church in North Newton, Kan.; Bahia Vista Mennonite Church in Sarasota, Fla.; Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind.; Kalona (Iowa) Mennonite Church and many others. All these communities have helped build my connection to this family of faith.
Congregations that have been regular homes for me are Living Light Mennonite Church in Lancaster Conference—where my spiritual journey began—as well as University Mennonite Church in Allegheny Conference. At University Mennonite I found the love, acceptance and tolerance that I needed to come home again to Jesus’ way of peace and justice. In that setting, where it was OK to explore different ways of understanding the Bible, I found a safe place for my questioning and searching. Here I experienced unity through Jesus, the essential center, in other things liberty and in all things love.
Following college, Living Light Mennonite became home again, and it remained so for Joyce, my wife, and our family for a number of years. It was a congregation that was changing from a rules-centered understanding of faith to one centered in Christ. I recall the pastor saying many times, “Cling tightly to Christ and in all else be flexible.”
Our current congregation is Ridgeview Mennonite Church in the Atlantic Coast Conference. For me, it has been encouraging to see how the congregation has grown in appreciation for the whole of Mennonite Church USA; it has called pastors from Atlantic Coast, Franconia, Lancaster and Central District conferences. After conflict over a theological issue several years ago, the Ridgeview body is now developing as a Christ-centered community shaped by Anabaptism.
In our Mennonite church polity, the local congregation is the central unit in the life of the church; the role of our area conferences and our national conference is “to develop and nurture missional Mennonite congregations of many cultures” (in the words of our purpose statement). Thus considerable discernment happens in the congregation. The three congregations that I have participated in have—through discernment—changed considerably. For example, today Audrey Kanagy is a pastor at Living Light—which would have been unthinkable when I was a youth and all leaders were men.
Collectively, these congregations have taught me that we are only united in and through Jesus Christ. However, we live in divisive times in a polarized culture where we are tempted to conform to the cultural divides.
In this cultural setting, congregations and denominations are separating into groups based on common beliefs and agreement on specific issues. This may be appropriate for political parties and clubs but not for the church. The congregations that have shaped me have taught that biblical unity is not based on agreement on the issues of the day but by our common confession that Jesus is Savior and Lord. They also have taught that when discerning the shape of faithfulness, it is important to give and receive counsel, gather around Scripture in the presence of the Holy Spirit and let discernment take considerable time.
A wise church leader said, “It is more important that we think together than that we think alike.” Thinking together means we listen to each other—especially to those we may disagree with—the way we want God to listen to our prayers. It means we will discern together the mind of Christ even when discernment needs to happen over extended periods of time. And as we learn to agree and disagree in love, it means we will be committed to each other and give appropriate freedom for local congregational discernment in our different locations and congregations.
My prayer for our future in Mennonite Church USA is that we will trust each other as sibling congregations in one body, even as our application of the one gospel differs from congregation to congregation based on Spirit-led discernment. When we live with a grace-filled, Christ-centered approach, we will flourish as God’s healing and hope flow through us into the world that God loves.
Dick Thomas became moderator of Mennonite Church USA at Pittsburgh 2011 last month after serving as moderator-elect for two years.