Over the past few months, I have used this column to write about ways to deal with conflicts and misunderstanding. At times when conflict arises in Mennonite Church USA, someone makes reference to “agreeing and disagreeing in love.”
The phrase comes from the title of a document that was adopted at a churchwide convention in 1995 by the two predecessor denominations of Mennonite Church USA. It was the same convention when delegates adopted two other key documents:
- Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective
- A Mennonite Polity for Ministerial Leadership.
The leaders of the integration process envisioned these three documents as foundational polity documents for the merged church.
Clearly, Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love has not functioned in the same way as the other two. Sometimes I wonder if it is being used to full advantage. For example, an individual sent me an email, citing the title of the document as “Agreeing to Disagree in Love.” It may well have been a Freudian slip, since it reveals a common approach to conflict in our church. It assumes that we must simply agree that we are going to disagree and go our separate ways. While that may be true at times, that is not what the churchwide document is about!
On the contrary, Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love was written to help parties in conflict come to agreement without resorting to legal means. When used properly, the document can give us the confidence and assurance of safety to engage in difficult conversations that we would otherwise avoid. But I have the sense that we have not used the document as helpfully as we might.
It seems that we have not used the document to help us deepen our capacity to give and receive counsel, or to enter into dialogue and discernment on differences that deeply divide our church. We struggle with the relationship between dialogue and decision making, specifically in regard to church statements. We wonder how much dialogue is needed before we make tough decisions. And we wonder how much authority our church statements (even the Confession of Faith) have in church life.
Because of differences in the way Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love is perceived, it has at times functioned more as a “feel-good” document than a guide to genuine engagement. And although the wording of “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love” states the contrary, some perceive it as an alternative to the Membership Guidelines adopted in 2001.
Perhaps we would do well to take stock of the ways we have used the statement on “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love” across Mennonite Church USA. In this vein, I am inviting you to do two things:
- Read the statement in full.
- Send me an email at ErvinS@MennoniteUSA.org if you have used the statement in your ministry, whether in the congregation or beyond. I am eager to see how it has been used, and any suggestions that you may have to increase its usefulness.
Since we are a peace church, we must continue to practice ways to build peace in the face of conflict. May God enable us to that end. I look forward to hearing from you.
Ervin Stutzman is executive director for Mennonite Church USA