This post is part of Mennonite Church USA’s #BeTransformed series.
Marc Smithers lives in Western New York with his wife, Ailie; their two kids; and their border collie, Fly. He attends the Sojourner’s Mennonite Fellowship in Belfast, New York, and serves on its leadership team, as the coordinator of the Service Team.
I traveled a little over an hour to Clarence Center-Akron Mennonite Church in early February with a sense of apprehension. Though I have not had much experience with church conflict from which to draw, I had been selected as one of three delegates from our church to participate in what was called “A Day of Fellowship and Discernment” for the New York Mennonite Conference. Our church’s leadership team had discussed, at length, how the families in our congregation felt we should vote on the proposed Statement on Unity and Mutual Discernment, and our newly installed pastor, Tory Bonnors, and I discussed how we believed the day would unfold, as we rode together to the small suburb outside Buffalo, New York. The families that make up our small church are close enough to one another that, when there are moments of disagreement, we are usually able to work them out while sharing a meal as families or through a walk in the woods together on which we work through our thoughts and opinions. I could not imagine how we would go about working these conflicts out with people whom I had never met and whom I had been united with only through conference membership.
Upon entering the fellowship room of the church, though, the care with which the meeting’s planning team handled the day’s events was immediately apparent. We sat with members from other congregations, sharing our stories with one another over coffee and snacks. We heard about the great work being done by our various churches and their members, from an upcoming meat canning day to mission’s work in Eastern Africa to the work of a hospital chaplain. We sang together, led by the joyful voices of the worship team from the Buffalo Emmanuel Chin Church. A contingency of their youth danced for us. We even ended the day with a few rounds of Giant Dutch Blitz.
While we may have been called together in this space for the hard work of discussing a contentious matter, the planning committee ensured that we would be reminded throughout the day that our calling as a community of believers is greater than our disagreements.
They reminded us that it is the diversity of our experiences and expressions of faith that give us a richer vision of God’s kingdom, one in which we work through conflicts with one another, face to face, with hearts that are sensitive to the fears and concerns of those who make up the imperfect, yet beloved, body of Christ.
It was how the concerns were expressed in this space that will stay with me. Prior to voting, each person who attended was handed two index cards of different colors. On one card, we were asked to name something we had hoped for during our time together. On the other, we were to name a burden we were carrying into our discussion. The cards were collected, after a few minutes, and shuffled, as we circled around a small table. The leaders, then, gave a random card of both colors to every person around the circle, a tangible way in which we could each hold the hopes and fears of another person in our midst. We took turns coming forward to the table, reading aloud the hope and the fear of someone gathered in this space. In this simple act, there was a holy reverence that washed over me, as I saw each of us bear the burden of another person, speaking the intimate words of another’s pain, fear or anguish, as our own. We heard how God speaks with each of God’s children, in a manner that many of us found foreign but which was wholly familiar to that person. We saw how the church can be one body with many members, in which the concerns of one member are vastly different than another member, yet these can be held together, through sharing our burdens with one another, carrying them with one another.
Henri Nouwen speaks of this power of sharing our burdens with one another as a fundamental aspect of Christian community, saying that, “[c]ommunity is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another. Community is the fruit of our capacity to make the interests of others more important than our own.” This burden-sharing exercise enabled us to enter into the discernment portion of our time together with a fuller understanding of our ultimate calling as a church to, as the Confession of Faith In A Mennonite Perspective describes, “be built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
This did not make the discernment process easy. It was clear that disagreement among the congregations in our conference would persist. It also did not lead to unanimity, though the resolution did pass with overwhelming support from the majority of delegates. Nor is our future as a conference certain, as questions remain about our ability to do what we agreed to practice in the Statement, to: “offer grace, love, and forbearance toward congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ … walking together with love and respect, bearing together the burden of our ongoing disagreement.” This is difficult, messy and often painful work. This burden, however, is lessened when we bear it together, a vision of which we experienced in a powerful way.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
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