I travel quite a bit for work, so I pretty much have leaving home down to a science. I am well prepared. I have a gadget bag that contains all of the stuff I need for the road: auxiliary cables; monitor cables; Bluetooth speaker; safety pins; car charger; air freshener; cell-phone window mount; and a spare battery. My travel toiletry items have a special drawer in my home, so that I can grab them and go. I am always well-prepared, saving time and money each time I leave home.
Well, except for this last time.
I was unprepared for my trip to Canada. I followed my normal routine, but I overlooked one important detail: my passport. I left home and got all the way to Buffalo, New York before realizing that my passport was sitting on my bookshelf at home. Not thinking about this one detail cost me a lot of time and money. It was very frustrating. Needless to say, my usual checklist for leaving home just got a little longer.
Some congregations and area conferences of Mennonite Church USA are deciding if they want to leave the denomination. When considering a decision like this, the stakes are much higher and more permanent for these groups than they are for me on my temporary excursions. These groups are determining if the perceived spiritual direction of Mennonite Church USA is unacceptable and simply too much for them to bear. They are making choices about whether they want to continue to be a part of this broader denominational family.
These are fair questions for them to ponder. But what is the cost of leaving? Other than the spiritual, emotional, and historic repercussions, what things should congregations consider before they permanently leave or cleave to the denomination?
What is our Tax-Exempt Status?
Some churches and area conferences are part of the group tax exemption for Mennonite Church USA. Not that all churches need formal 501(c)(3) status, but if you don’t have formal tax exempt status, you should check with your accountant or with the IRS. A good place to start if you have questions is the IRS website.
Will we have access to Mennonite Church USA programs?
Many of our agencies and institutions already serve non-Mennonites. So leaving the denomination may not impact your access to programs or events. But leaving could affect your ability to shape the future of these programs and institutions. Most of our leadership boards require that board participants be members of a Mennonite Church USA congregation.
One clear concern is the ability of underrepresented groups to be represented on denominational boards. One area conference that is considering withdrawing from the denomination has the largest number of Native American churches in the denomination. Under the current policy, if their congregations leave, those members would not be eligible to serve on many of our denominational agency boards and committees.
Will we have access to Mennonite Church USA benefits?
One thing that people who have medical and retirement benefits via Mennonite Church USA need to ask is, “What happens to my benefits?” Make sure you know BEFORE you leave. Is your church a part of The Corinthian Plan? Do you need to sign-up for Obamacare?
Of course, each congregation and area conference will have to make the decisions they feel are in their best interest, but as leaders and good stewards, we have to understand all the implications of our decisions.
I don’t want to be insensitive to the obvious loss of fellowship that happens when congregations and area conferences leave a denomination. If it were up to me, I’d ask you all to stay! We are truly better together. But, if you do consider leaving, there are numerous practical considerations that will effect families. We need to not only think of ourselves, but our whole constituency as well. Without a careful plan of action, we can find ourselves on the wrong side of the border, like I did, especially with decisions that will have lasting repercussions. Without all the facts, we can find ourselves in a situation worse than the one we are fleeing. The grass may be browner on the other side.
By the way, I never made it to Canada for my meeting. With all the border issues, racism, and heighted security, I decided not to risk a late night border crossing with only my driver’s license. Also, there was not enough time to get to the meeting and do all the “overnighting” of passports that was required. I turned around and came home. It is always good to have a place you can come back to.