The church exists as a community of believers in the local congregation, as a community of congregations and as the worldwide community of faith.—Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective
During times of conflict and change, many of us turn naturally to leaders for support and direction. And particularly if we are concerned about the direction things are moving, we want to know who is in charge and how those leaders are being accountable to their constituents.
As indicated in the above quotation, “church” exists at several different levels. But in Mennonite Church USA, we give privilege of place to the local congregation.
The Purposeful Plan says, “We are a network of congregations joined by a common set of core convictions and commitment to an Anabaptist perspective on Christian faith. Along with area conferences and other communities beyond the congregation, the national conference exists to help congregations do what they could not do on their own. For this reason, we might call these conferences and various organizations beyond the congregation ‘supportive communities'”(lines 310-306).
Further, it says, “We believe that congregations are the primary expression of God’s work in the world. Following the lead of other fellowships of faith, we have also organized ourselves at the level of area conferences and a national conference” (lines 785-788).
So, while the majority of decisions about church life in Mennonite Church USA are made in local churches and area conferences, the Executive Board governs the decision-making and programmatic functions of our church at the national conference level.
It does so with accountability to the delegates that meet in the biennial assembly of the denomination, a group that met most recently in Pittsburgh (2011) and Phoenix (2013).
The board’s accountability to the delegates is succinctly described in the following sentences from the Mennonite Church USA bylaws: “An Executive Board shall be organized to give leadership and act on behalf of the denomination when the Delegate Assembly is not in session. Executive Board members, with accountability to their appointing/electing bodies, are not expected to be representatives of specific constituencies but are to act in the best interests of Mennonite Church USA as a whole” (Article VI.1).
The role of the delegates is also spelled out quite clearly in the bylaws. Two of the most authoritative aspects in the list of delegate functions are stated as follows: “Discuss and decide major issues of policy for the national conference and discern the voice and the Spirit in the midst of the Delegate Assembly” (Article V.1.b) and, “Provide opportunity to speak to the establishment of general policies and the development of programs to carry out those policies” (Article V.1.c).
Since 1995, the delegates from General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Church or (since 2001) Mennonite Church USA have adopted the documents that govern our denomination today.
In the order of their adoption, they are Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love,” The Plan of Merger (including Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws) and Membership Guidelines. More recently, the delegates gave considerable feedback regarding the content and use of the Purposeful Plan.
The bylaws adopted in 2001 gave the Executive Board authority to repeal or amend some aspects of the bylaws, but the delegates curtailed that authority in 2005. Now, the bylaws may only be amended “by a two-thirds majority vote of delegates voting at any regular or special session of the Delegate Assembly” (Article XI.1).
So, in short, my best response to the question posed in my title is that the duly appointed delegates to our national conference assemblies make the big decisions in Mennonite Church USA.
In my next column, I will describe how I hope that happens at Kansas City in 2015.
Ervin Stutzman is executive director of Mennonite Church USA. This column appeared in the October print issue of The Mennonite.