This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

What’s the answer if a covenant isn’t working?

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Constituency Leaders Council of Mennonite Church USA heard plans for moving forward on addressing the denomination’s membership guidelines Oct. 17-18 at Trinity Mennonite Church.

At the CLC meeting in Hesston, Kan., earlier this year, Michael Danner, MC USA associate executive director for church vitality, led a process of looking at the guidelines. Out of that meeting came eight recommendations, which were refined and presented to the MC USA Executive Board.

Constituency Leaders Council participants meet around tables at Trinity Mennonite Church in Glendale, Ariz. — Gordon Houser/The Mennonite
Constituency Leaders Council participants meet around tables at Trinity Mennonite Church in Glendale, Ariz. — Gordon Houser/The Mennonite

The Executive Board looked at them and gave feedback, then asked Danner and Iris de León-Hartshorn, MC USA associate executive director for operations, to come up with a two-year process to look at this issue. Danner and de León-Hartshorn developed a proposal, but the Executive Board decided not to act on that at the delegate assembly in July.

Instead, the Executive Board asked delegates two questions: Should we address this issue? Sixty-nine percent agreed or strongly agreed. Do you have the time and resources to work on this? Forty-three percent agreed or strongly agreed.

At the Executive Board meeting in September, Danner and de León-Hartshorn made a proposal to the board, and the board agreed to move forward.

During the CLC gathering, Danner and de León-Hartshorn said the plan is to pull together an advisory group of no more than 24 people representing various stakeholders. The group, which will meet Nov. 15-17, represents many regions and is half female, half male, said de León-Hartshorn. What they come up with will go to the Executive Board in January, then to the CLC in spring.

Cyneatha Millsaps, executive director of Mennonite Women USA, affirmed this approach. She said she hopes people realize no one will get everything they want.

Glen Guyton, the denomination’s executive director, noted that this is an advisory group. The Executive Board will make the final decision to present to MC USA delegates.

Inconsistently applied

Conflict over the membership guidelines centers on issues of sexuality and inclusion. The guidelines define marriage as between one man and one woman and say pastors may not perform same-sex marriages. Conservative members ask why the guidelines aren’t enforced, while progressives advocate that they be changed or dropped.

Clyde Kratz, conference minister for Virginia Mennonite Conference, asked, “How do we hold with integrity the covenant we’re currently living under?”

De León-Hartshorn said: “Let’s be honest. We aren’t living under that covenant consistently at present. And that will be one of the topics discussed. If the cov­enant isn’t working, what does that mean?”

Danner said delegates need to deal with this because they agreed to the original guidelines, which are part of the MC USA bylaws.

“The most common comment from delegates [at MennoCon19 was] that congregations have already discerned this,” he said. “Maybe that can help the delegate discussion.”

De León-Hartshorn said: “Some of the people most affected by the guidelines are not represented in CLC.”

Sandra Montes-Martinez of Iglesia Menonita Hispana (Hispanic Mennonite Church, or IMH) said she was glad for the advisory group. “We need to be careful how we handle this document because this is what holds many of us together,” she said.

Assets and needs

Representatives from area conferences and constituency groups each gave a report about their group and responded to these questions: What essential functions does MC USA provide to empower your ministry? What is missing? What relationships in MC USA do you find most supportive in the fulfillment of your mission? What does your constituency fight about or experience strong disagreement over, and how does this reflect the priorities of your constituency?

Many of the conferences affirmed the help they received from MC USA in helping congregations find pastors. Many mentioned the value of relationships across the denomination.

Among the desires for what is missing, Western District Conference mentioned more guidelines on sexual misconduct by credentialed and noncredentialed people and help with organization and governance at the conference level.

During the IMH report, Montes-Martinez appealed for including Hispanic Mennonites: “We are already at the table. We are not distant cousins but brothers and sisters together.”

Few of those reporting wanted to use the word “fight” but acknowledged that disagreements exist. These range across a variety of issues, though the question of LGBTQ inclusion was often mentioned.

On Oct. 18, Shé Langley and Ashley Shuler of led a seminar on tools for digital discipleship. Langley said, “People have not lost interest in churches; churches have failed to make themselves known.” Churches tend to communicate among themselves rather than reach outsiders.

Langley and Shuler looked at three areas of focus on mission: a church’s website, its use of social media and telling stories.

After the meeting, a group of 20 people from CLC left for Tucson to take part in a learning  tour of ministries supporting  migrants.

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