Throughout the physical distancing many of us are experiencing because of COVID–19, I have felt heartened by the generosity and mutual aid being practiced across the church. Ever so slightly, I am catching a glimpse of what it means to journey forward as church together, caring for one another during a time of crisis. But, believe it or not, I am still getting letters about the Membership Guidelines for Mennonite Church USA (MC USA). What surprises me the most is that, 19 years after their adoption, they are still draining energy from the life and mission of MC USA, rather than strengthening our witness. The next surprising thing is that most people are responding to what they think the Membership Guidelines say, not to what is in the actual document. In other words, the fear and anxiety expressed in most of the feedback I receive has little to do with the content of the Membership Guidelines. I thought it might be helpful to dispel a few myths related to the Membership Guidelines.
Why do we have the Membership Guidelines?
- The Membership Guidelines for the formation of Mennonite Church USA were created to define the expectations for member conferences as they joined MC USA.
- In 1999, the Membership Guidelines failed to pass due to a lack of clarity around the status of dual conference congregations that had been disciplined by one denomination but not the other for allowing openly gay members.
- In order for integration to move forward, section three was added to the Membership Guidelines to clarify MC USA’s expectations for area conferences on these matters. These guidelines were approved by both delegate bodies in 2001.
- The Membership Guidelines for the formation of MC USA were created to facilitate the integration of Mennonite Church and General Conference into a new denomination. They were to be reviewed for their ongoing usefulness in six years (2007).
- In 2007, the Constituency Leaders Council (CLC) began a review of the Membership Guidelines, but conflict over the place of gay persons in the church made the review difficult, and it didn’t move forward.
- In 2013, the Executive Board (EB) submitted a revised version of the guidelines to the delegate body as an administrative update. No delegate vote was taken.
- In 2015, the Kansas City 2015 Delegate Assembly adopted The Resolution on the Status of the Membership Guidelines, stating, “The Membership Guidelines, adopted by the delegates in 2001 and updated in 2013, shall continue to serve Mennonite Church USA as the guiding document for questions regarding church membership and same-sex relationships/marriages, alongside the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.”
Myth: Retiring the Membership Guidelines will allow MC USA to credential LGBTQ pastors.
Fact: Per the bylaws of MC USA: “Each area conference shall establish provisions and procedures for the credentialing of ministers.” Area conferences have discerned the question of credentialing same-sex married couples differently. Currently, four MC USA conferences have married credentialed leaders who identify as LGBTQ. We have no data on the number of single credentialed leaders in our 16 area conferences who identify as LGBTQ.
Myth: Retiring the Membership Guidelines means my congregation must accept LGBTQ pastors or members.
Fact: The Membership Guidelines do not govern individual congregational membership or the appointment of pastors. Congregations have the final authority to hire and fire their pastors as they see fit. Some, but not all, conferences require member congregations to have pastors who are credentialed by the conference. In that case, congregations are guided by conference credentialing guidelines. MC USA does not make hiring or firing decisions for conferences or congregations.
According to the bylaws of MC USA:
The congregation shall have the authority to determine the criteria and the responsibility to implement the process for membership of persons joining their congregation, and which shall be done in consultation with their area conference and in consideration of expectations for membership in MC USA.
Each congregation shall, insofar as it is possible, call ministers that are certified or registered by a member area conference of MC USA under the provisions and procedures defined by its own area conference as a credentialing body of MC USA.
Myth: Retiring the Membership Guidelines will allow same–sex marriages/covenant ceremonies to take place in MC USA.
Fact: Congregations, pastors and conferences discern the appropriateness of performing same-sex marriages in their contexts. The prohibition against credentialed MC USA pastors performing same-sex marriages in the Membership Guidelines is not an actively enforced policy in all congregations and conferences. Marriage is defined in both legal and religious terms. Since the adoption of the Membership Guidelines, the legal definition of marriage has changed across the United States.
According to the polity section of the Membership Guidelines:
“Pastors holding credentials in a conference of MC 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. (See A Mennonite Polity for Ministerial Leadership, p. 125 for a list of other actions that may prompt such a review.)” Note: This referenced polity document, A Mennonite Polity for Ministerial Leadership, has been updated. The polity manual is shared by both MC USA and MC Canada; the newer version, A Shared Understanding of Ministerial Leadership, reflects the missional evolution of both denominations post 2001.
Myth: MC USA Executive Board is not holding pastors, congregations and conferences to the rules.
Fact: Pastoral accountability is a function of the area conference who holds the credential. This is not the responsibility of the Executive Board. Congregations are accountable to area conferences. Conferences have broad latitude in determining membership and credentialing. The Executive Board can recommend the removal of a member conference to the delegate body if they deem it warranted.
The polity manual used by MC USA begins with the following: “The intent of the content is not to be a rule book, nor is there any assumption that every possible ministry question is addressed in these pages.” In other words, the rules the Executive Board is asked to enforce are not rules.
The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective was adopted in 1995 before the creation of MC USA. The document does not call itself a polity manual or rulebook. It defines itself in six ways:
- Guide for the interpretation of scripture.
- Guide for belief and practice.
- Foundation for unity.
- Outline for sharing of information with new members or the inquisitive.
- An updated interpretation of belief and practice during change.
- A discussion tool when talking with non-Mennonites.
Neither the Confession of Faith in Mennonite Perspective, the Membership Guidelines, nor A Shared Understanding of Ministerial Leadership seem to supersede our Anabaptist traditions of communal discernment and the rejection of papal authority. We also must consider our corporate bylaws which give the area conference and the local congregations the legal right to: manage their own affairs of organization, personnel, program and management of property as it relates to MC USA.
Myth: The elimination of the Membership Guidelines will force pastors to perform same-sex marriages.
Fact: Pastors in MC USA are always free to not perform any wedding.
Myth: Retiring the Membership Guidelines would change the ways that LGBTQ people participate in MC USA.
Fact: Inclusion and the membership status of LGTBQ individuals varies widely by conference and congregations. The Membership Guidelines refers to “homosexuality” and same-sex marriage by referencing the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective and other church statements. Retiring the Membership Guidelines does not impact the standing of these reference documents in our system.
Myth: The Report of the Advisory Group on MC USA Membership Guidelines is a report for feedback on recommendations going to the delegates.
Fact: The Advisory Group report was for feedback to the Executive Board and staff only. The report was released to the public for transparency and accountability. The board identified the following next steps in the discernment process:
- The CLC will provide feedback to the Executive Board after engaging the report during the CLC’s meeting on March 26-28, 2020, in Kansas City. (This meeting was canceled due to COVID–19).
- The Executive Board will review the CLC’s feedback and continue discernment at the Executive Board meeting on April 23-25, 2020, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (This meeting became an abbreviated video conference due to COVID-19).
- Glen Guyton, MC USA executive director, said, “The convening of the Membership Guidelines Advisory Group is an important part of the process of building trust and listening to diverse voices. It’s part of the larger discernment process that includes church leaders, conferences, congregations and delegates.” (We are revising the discernment process and reexamining our denominational priorities because of COVID–19 and our inability to meet in person.)
Myth: The Executive Board “stacked the deck” of the Advisory Group with agenda–driven progressives.
Fact: The Advisory Group members represented all regions of the country and were selected to ensure balance of age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and identity and theological breadth. All participants were members in good standing of MC USA, with two non-MC USA participants who brought particular expertise.
“Beyond diversity, we sought people who would form a good working group by meeting seven specific criteria,” Iris de León-Hartshorn, associate executive director for MC USA Operations, explained. The criteria for members included a willingness to:
- Demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit, as defined by Galatians 5:22-23 as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
- Thoroughly read MennoCon19 delegate responses and background material and take them seriously.
- Listen deeply.
- Engage in constructive dialogue as sisters and brothers in Christ.
- Exhibit a collaborative spirit.
- Fully participate for the entire process.
- Commit to the Renewed Commitments.
Details about the Advisory Group and member names are available at http://mennoniteusa.org/news/mc-usa-announces-mg-advisory-group.
Myth: The MC USA Executive Board has an agenda related to LGBTQ inclusion.
Fact: According to our bylaws, major changes to denominational policy must come from the delegate body, acknowledging that the Executive Board has the power and authority to vet resolutions coming before the Delegate Assembly. The guidelines for developing resolutions can be found on the MC USA website: http://mennoniteusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Developing-Resolutions-for-MC-USA-Approved-January-2020.pdf. The most obvious plan from the denominational staff is expressed in the Renewed Commitments for MC USA, which were birthed out of the 2017 delegate assembly process.
If your conference or congregation has significant concerns about the status of the Membership Guidelines, we recommend this discussion happen within your conference delegate structure. What type of feedback regarding Membership Guidelines is most helpful and impactful on the leadership of MC USA as it seeks to give leadership when the Delegate Assembly is not in session?
I would suggest these questions to shape the feedback from credentialed leaders and potential delegates:
- Based on the information provided above, how would you or your local leaders respond if MC USA clarified that all congregations and conferences can discern their membership and credentialing practices?
- Given our current polity, how do we manage:
- the diversity of practices across MC USA congregations around same-sex marriage?
- the diversity of practices across MC USA conferences around credentialing women, those who perform same-sex marriages and those who are in same-sex marriages?
- the lack of integrity between documents and practice?
I have tried to lay out facts about what is contained in the Membership Guidelines. Instead of entertaining myths or responding without adequate knowledge, what should now address the underlying question for any assembled body of followers of Jesus Christ is, “How can we journey forward together?”