Mennonite Church USA Membership Guidelines process, review of the bylaws, and an immigration learning tour in Tucson were among the highlights
GLENDALE, Arizona (Mennonite Church USA) — Working and remaining together through tough challenges was the driving theme at the October 17-18 meeting of the Constituency Leaders Council (CLC), a denomination advisory group of conference, agency and constituency leaders, in Glendale, Arizona.
Sixty-eight conference and ministry leaders from across Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) gathered at Trinity Mennonite Church to connect, worship and share updates, including reports from the Executive Board (EB) staff. Michael Danner, associate executive director for Church Vitality and Engagement, and Iris de León Hartshorn, associate executive director for Operations, updated the gathering on the Membership Guidelines process. In its September meeting, the Executive Board approved the staff’s recommendation to form an advisory group representing a variety of constituents from across the denomination to offer input to the EB. Danner and de León Hartshorn reached out across the denomination for about 20 volunteers to serve on the advisory group. The group will be facilitated by Catherine Barnes of Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding. The EB will make the final decision regarding membership guideline changes to present to the 2021 Delegate Assembly for a vote. CLC participants affirmed the inclusion of the advisory group as part of the overall discernment process. The advisory group is scheduled to meet Nov. 15-17.
Referencing Ephesians 4:16, which emphasizes unity in the body of Jesus Christ, MC USA Executive Director Glen Guyton said he hopes for a unified church that “is healthy and growing and full of love.” Guyton reported that MennoCon19 re-energized this hope. Despite the lower than planned attendance numbers because of fewer MC USA congregations, the convention had a family-event atmosphere that was praised by many attendees, he said. The convention is among the key programs of MC USA membership. Guyton said staff is also working on clearly defining the overall value of MC USA membership. An important step toward achieving this is providing a clear understanding of the denomination’s bylaws, he emphasized.
Guyton and Danner led the gathering through a bylaws review session. Guyton said a lot of MC USA members misunderstand that MC USA intentionally does not have a top-down structure. Rather, MC USA has an “interdependent polity,” which is designed to encourage working together, Danner added.
Danner explained that congregations, conferences and the Executive Board each have certain rights and responsibilities. The Delegate Assembly body has the most authority when it meets. In between the delegate meetings every two years, the Executive Board runs the affairs of the denomination based on the bylaws and what the delegates have ratified. Congregations obtain membership in MC USA by being part of a MC USA conference. Based on the bylaws, once a conference leaves MC USA, its congregations are also no longer part of MC USA.
“We are our congregations,” Danner said. “No congregations, no conferences. No conferences, no Mennonite Church USA.”
“Mennonite Church USA is the conferences and their congregations,” Guyton said.
“It’s what we mean by mutuality,” said Linda Dibble, MC USA’s moderator-elect and chair of the CLC gathering. “It’s an up-down and side-to-side relationship.”
Also, Mennonites must more clearly communicate the totality of who Mennonites are as Anabaptists and what we believe to the broader community, Guyton said. Guyton cited a Facebook post where a non-Mennonite talked positively about their recent experience sharing a meal with a Mennonite couple. The person talked glowingly about the couple’s hospitality – homecooked food and beautiful a cappella singing – all things that Mennonites definitely value highly and should be proud of, Guyton said. It was certainly, a well-meaning post, “but what do we want the story to be when people talk about Mennonites?” Guyton asked. “Is it about pie or is it about peace?”
Guyton urged leaders to help make MC USA more broadly known as a denomination that is actively working for peace and justice in the community and the world. This is particularly important in the nation and world’s fractionalized and contentious climate. Mennonite diversity is also a strength to be leveraged to this end. Diversity, in terms of race and ethnicity, but also different points of views across the denomination as we do ministry in our context, Guyton said.
“When I travel, I get to see how Mennonites are different, but also how we are the same,” Guyton said. “When the church is monolithic, it loses its opportunity to grow.”
Conference and constituency group leaders gave individual reports. Prior to the gathering, EB staff provided the following prompts: What essential functions does MC USA provide to empower your ministry? What is missing? What relationships in MC USA do you find most supportive in the fulfillment of your mission? What does your constituency fight about or experience strong disagreement over, and how does this reflect the priorities of your constituency? Common themes reported were how congregations and constituent groups are addressing challenges and differences.
Scott Peterson, leadership pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church, shared how his congregation is aspiring to be a community that intentionally works together at coexisting despite disagreeing on certain issues. Peterson said a lot of people in his congregation have been in church most of their lives yet are confronting real issues that are challenging their faith.
Advice on how to use online digital tools to grow congregations was provided by Shé Langley and Ashley Shuler of evangelism.pro. Langley, a member of Calvary Community Church in Hampton, Virginia, said many congregations fear millenials are rejecting church, but data shows they are actually very interested. Langley and Shuler explained the Internet is a valuable tool for evangelism and discipleship because of the masses of people that can be reached. They advised that congregations should first determine their goals and audience and then adjust their church website and social media presence accordingly and as needed.
After the CLC meeting, 22 participants traveled to Tucson for a two-day learning tour hosted by Shalom Mennonite Church. They learned about ministries that are assisting migrants and heard stories from people who are migrants, including children, of gut-wrenching experiences crossing the southern border and being held in U.S. detention centers.
The CLC is a gathering of leaders from each area conference, agencies and constituency groups that meets at least twice each year to counsel and advise the Executive Board and have conference-to-conference dialogue. The CLC is a primary forum for worship, conversation and networking. The next CLC meeting is March 26-27, 2020, in Kansas City, Kansas.