Ervin Stutzman is the Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA.
Last month, I wrote about a new polity statement of particular interest to church leaders, A Shared Understanding of Church Leadership: Polity Manual for Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA. It is intended to replace the current guidelines, A Mennonite Polity for Ministerial Leadership: A Statement by the Joint Committee on Ministerial Leadership, adopted in 1996. Both the old and new polities address some of the questions that congregations ask, particularly at times of leadership change: How do we go about calling church leaders? Are our models of leadership consistent with Anabaptist Mennonite belief and practice? What is the relationship of ministerial leaders to congregations, area conferences, and denominations? How do we respond to pastoral misconduct?
The ministerial polity is held jointly with Mennonite Church Canada, who has already adopted this new statement. The Executive Board have yet to decide if and how the document will be approved in Mennonite Church USA. Normally, a change of ministerial polity wouldn’t draw much attention, particularly after the statement was so carefully vetted by area conference ministers, pastors, scholars and other church leaders. The statement we’ve been using was approved in 1996 by the leadership boards of the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church, and then adopted a few years later by the newly configured denominations, Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA.
The adoption of the updated polity is freighted with some controversy, primarily because it contains a short section on human sexuality, added at the request of area conference ministers in the United States in 2011. They recommended that the ministerial polity restate a sentence that is currently in our denominational Membership Guidelines, because it has to do with ministerial leadership polity, not membership per se. It says: “Pastors holding credentials in a conference of Mennonite Church USA may not perform a same-sex covenant ceremony. Such action would be grounds for review of their credentials by their area conference’s ministerial-credentialing body.”
This short section on sexuality is the only part of this polity document that differs between the U.S. and Canada. The part written by Canadians refers to the process of discernment they call Being a Faithful Church.
Members of the Constituency Leaders Council (CLC) who met in early October were unsure whether or not the sentence from the Membership Guidelines should be included. Some felt that it would become a flashpoint of controversy that could stall approval of the entire document.
The CLC was also divided in its counsel regarding the level of approval that was needed for this document. Some thought it should have approval of Mennonite Church USA delegates at the biennial meeting. Others felt that delegates should have an opportunity to give feedback without voting. Others thought that the CLC could simply approve the statement without further discussion. Still others thought the Executive Board could approve it. So, up to this point, the new polity statement does not represent a fully shared understanding of church leadership when it comes to same-sex marriage (thus the question mark in the title of this column).
The differences in the CLC largely reflect the variety of leadership practices within the 21 area conferences across our church who currently hold the credentials for their leaders. They do not all agree on what it means to be recognized as a minister across Mennonite Church USA, not just within the confines of a local church or area conference. Many believe that while area conferences have authority to grant leadership credentials, they must do so in keeping with the written agreements made on the national level. In the current environment, that will affect the credentialing policies for persons who perform same-sex unions, or who are part of such a union. Others believe that area conferences should have freedom to interpret national polities as guidelines, not rules that govern practices regarding same-sex unions.
The feelings that accompany these differences of opinion are so strong that this matter will not easily be resolved. Most likely, the delegates at Kansas City in 2015 will speak to this question in one way or another.
Therefore, this column is a call to prayer and respect for each other, not only for the resolution of the matter at hand, but that we may all be prepared to seek God’s voice for the future of our church, and find a way forward in which we can all share ownership.