NORTH NEWTON, Kan.—“We are here and we’ve been gathered by God, and the truth is gathered, too,” said Chuck Neufeld, conference minister for Illinois Mennonite Conference, during a plenary session at the March 26–28 meeting of Mennonite Church USA’s Constituency Leaders Council (CLC) in North Newton, Kan.
CLC members spent time in prayer and worship; received input from Ruth Haley Barton on tools for discerning God’s will for the church; and offered counsel to the Resolutions Committee and Executive Board (EB) of Mennonite Church USA on churchwide statements to bring before the Delegate Assembly in Kansas City, Mo., this summer.
Neufeld’s reflections, offered after a half hour of silent discernment and prayer, were joined by those of other CLC members who called for mutual forbearance and care across the church in the midst of disagreements on how LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) individuals should be allowed to participate in Mennonite Church USA. Marco Güete, conference minister for Southeast Mennonite Conference, closed the sharing time with observations from his long career in the Mennonite Church, saying, “My reflection to God during this time was, ‘I love your imperfect church. Thank you for this opportunity to be a part of it.’”
Donna Mast, conference minister for Allegheny Mennonite Conference, led the CLC in times of worship and prayer throughout the weekend, incorporating movement and song. The theme Scripture for the gathering was Romans 12:1-5, in which Paul encourages Christians, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Counsel to the Resolutions Committee and Executive Board
The Resolutions Committee brought seven resolutions to the CLC for consideration. The CLC must affirm a resolution for it to move on to the Executive Board for approval to go before delegates. Resolutions must also meet submission criteria for consideration by the Delegate Assembly.
Three of the resolutions focused on questions of inclusion of LGBTQ individuals and represented three different perspectives on a way forward for Mennonite Church USA:
- The Lower Deer Creek Resolution, sponsored by Lower Deer Creek Mennonite Church in Kalona, Iowa, and endorsed by leaders of the North Central Conference of the Mennonite Church and four other individuals, urges the CLC to take a larger role in reviewing the actions and status of area conferences who have “… acted contrary to our Confession of Faith as it relates to performing same-sex covenant ceremonies or credentialing persons living in same-sex relationship.”
- The Chicago/Reba Resolution, sponsored by Chicago Community Mennonite Church, North Baltimore (Md.) Mennonite Church and Reba Place Church in Evanston, Ill., observes that there is no consensus within Mennonite Church USA about how LGBTQ persons are included in the life of the church, and states, “We call on all those in Mennonite Church USA to offer grace, love and forbearance toward conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions.”
- The Becoming a Just Church Resolution, sponsored by seven congregations from Atlantic Coast Conference, Central District Conference and Western District Conference, calls Mennonite Church USA to repent of the violence done to LGBTQ individuals by current documents and policies, and offers four concrete actions to work towards inclusion and healing.
In an introduction to the three resolutions, the Resolutions Committee wrote, “We believe that these statements represent the range of different views present in the church. They also represent three different preferred futures for our church. We do not believe that God is leading us in three directions. We believe it would best serve the discernment of the assembly to bring only one resolution to the Delegate Assembly.”
The Resolutions Committee invited CLC members to study the resolutions and give feedback through table group conversations and open mic time. Although the CLC expressed a variety of opinions and preferences, a majority of voices rallied around the Chicago/Reba Resolution, with counsel to include a clear reference to the current teachings in Mennonite Church USA foundational documents, including the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective and Membership Guidelines. The Resolutions Committee will review the table groups’ detailed feedback and write a recommendation to the Executive Board for processing at its April 6–8 meeting in Kansas City.
The CLC also processed four other resolutions:
- The Robotic Warfare Resolution and Faithful Witness Amid Endless War Resolution call for a recommitment to the way of peace and a rejection of mechanized (drone) warfare technologies.
- A Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse mourns the ways in which sexual violence has been present within Mennonite Church USA and offers several concrete commitments and steps to prevent future abuse.
- The Israel-Palestine Resolution offers support for continued Mennonite learning tours to the region as well as a commitment to the ongoing work for “just peace” in the region.
Because of the significant overlap in content matter of the Robotic Warfare and Endless War resolutions, the Resolutions Committee counseled the CLC to choose between them. CLC members affirmed the Endless War resolution for consideration by delegates. They also affirmed the consideration of the other two resolutions and offered counsel to the Executive Board on which resolutions should take priority in the event that time constraints would prohibit the Delegate Assembly from considering all of them.
The Resolutions Committee, appointed by the EB and CLC, is chaired by board member Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship. Other members include David Boshart, EB member and conference minister for Central Plains Mennonite Conference, Wellman, Iowa; Shannon Dycus, CLC member and pastor of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis; Rev. Olufemi A. Fatunmbi, CLC member from Royal Dominion International Church in Los Angeles, Calif.; and Sonya Stauffer Kurtz, CLC member from Rochester, N.Y.
Feedback to the Executive Board
CLC members also were invited to offer counsel to members of the Executive Board and their fellow area conferences. At their January meeting, the board recommended that a motion be taken to the Delegate Assembly that the current Membership Guidelines remain unchanged and be used as interpreted in the EB’s June 2014 action. In June, the EB had cited the Membership Guidelines as a foundational denominational document that guides the work of Mennonite Church USA and that the EB holds in trust. Based on the guidelines and other foundational documents, the Executive Board noted that Mountain States Mennonite Conference and any other groups who would move to credential persons in same-sex relationships would continue to be found at variance unless the Mennonite Church USA Delegate Assembly changes the stated policy on same-sex relationships.
Table groups gave feedback to this proposed resolution from the EB. The EB will examine it, along with the findings of the ongoing delegate survey, and decide on a motion to bring before delegates. (Note: Only delegates who are registered for convention can complete the survey. The EB will consider all submissions received prior to April 1.)
Input from Ruth Haley Barton
Ruth Haley Barton, founder of the Transforming Center in Wheaton, Ill., and author of Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups, joined the CLC on Thursday to teach her model for discernment around difficult decisions.
“We are about the work of discerning God’s will so that we can be aligned with it,” she said. “The church has a need to experience the leadership of Christ as its head. … As leaders we should be seeking the mind of Christ together.”
Haley Barton walked the CLC through the steps involved in a group discernment process, including spending time in silence and solitude, hearing and listening to Scripture, and developing a group covenant to guide discussions and discernment.
Other agenda items
The CLC also spent time listening to stories from each other’s area conferences, particularly related to conversations or actions taken regarding inclusion of LGBTQ individuals. CLC members had opportunities to ask direct questions or offer feedback to one another.
Executive Director Ervin Stutzman also offered a verbal report, highlighting the work of national Executive Board staff members and reflecting on the state of the Church. Stutzman shared a personal journal entry from 1999, which he felt was still relevant today. In the midst of disagreement, he had written, “This morning I woke up very early, with the CLC on my mind. I had a profound sense of the need for us as a church to repent, to seek forgiveness together and to pray for each other. That would be a ‘new’ way for us to get started, as a ‘new’ Mennonite Church.” Stutzman also reflected on the differences in culture among area conferences and called for unity and forbearance.
André Gingerich Stoner, director of holistic witness and interchurch relations for Mennonite Church USA, also distributed the newly published pamphlet, Shared Theological and Missiological Commitments for Church Planting. This resource was developed with feedback from the CLC and is now available online in English and Spanish.
The group also heard a report from Pastor Chaiya Hadtasunsern of Denver, Colo., representing Asian Mennonite Ministries. He noted that their constituency group is actively working to plant more Anabaptist congregations and is connecting with growing groups of Mennonites in Thailand and Laos.
In her final report as chair of the Listening Committee, Karen Howard, of Pittsburgh (Pa.) Mennonite Church, exhorted CLC members to remember, “Jesus can handle all our doubts and questions. None of our conversations or fears are too big for him to hold.”
CLC members left the meeting encouraging one another to carry the spirit of friendship and trusting relationship they experienced at the meeting back to their own area conferences and congregations.
The CLC’s next meeting is Oct. 19–21, 2015, at Sauder Village in Archbold, Ohio.
—Mennonite Church USA staff
Members of the Constituency Leaders Council discuss in table groups during their March 26–28 meeting in North Newton, Kan. Members of table two, from left to right, included Cal Zehr of Illinois Mennonite Conference; Keith Weaver, Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite Conference minister; John Denlinger of Atlantic Coast Conference; Iris de León-Hartshorn, director of transformative peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA; Ron Guengerich of Central District Conference; and Ellen Fox of Mountain States Mennonite Conference. (Photo by Hannah Heinzekehr)
Dean Beck of the Ohio Conference of Mennonite Church USA, Moisés Augustía of Iglesia Menonita Hispana and Karen Sensenig of Lancaster Mennonite Conference at the March 26–28 meeting of the Constituency Leaders Council in North Newton, Kan. (Photo by Hannah Heinzekehr)
Patricia Shelly, moderator-elect and chair of the Constituency Leaders Council (CLC) from North Newton, Kan., talks with Isaac Villegas, executive board member and Resolutions Committee chair of Chapel Hill, N.C., at the March 26–28 CLC meetings. (Photo by Hannah Heinzekehr)
Annie Lengacher Browning of Mountain States Mennonite Conference and Shannon Dycus of Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference at the March 26–28 meeting of the Constituency Leaders Council in North Newton, Kan. (Photo by Hannah Heinzekehr)