Reflections on unity for MC USA

Ervin StutzmanErvin Stutzman will end his term as executive director of Mennonite Church USA on April 30.

Sometimes I ask myself, was it “worth it” for me to give such a large chunk of my life to the vision of church unity embodied in the group we call MC USA? In 1995, I was dubious about the prospects for a merger that would hold all parts of the church together. I essentially agree with what George R. Brunk III wrote in 1988, that:

An Anabaptist–Mennonite perspective would point to living fellowship more than an institutional structure as the essential concern of unity. The quest for unity proceeds most authentically “from below” rather than “from above.”

On the one side this would mean that Christian unity is not so much a matter of organic (structural) union of entire “denominations.” On the other side, this would say that unification should proceed from the local to the general levels.

Ever since 1999, when I took up the role of Moderator-Elect, I’ve looked for ways to cooperate with the broader church to express the unity for which Christ prayed (John 17:20-21). In that quest, I worked shoulder to shoulder with other board leaders to cast a vision for a “big tent” that could house many disparate groups, welcoming each part to share its own identity and calling with the whole. From the beginning, we knew that unity would never be achieved through an attempt at uniformity.

To clarify the vision for our life together, we adopted the 1995 statement on Vision: Healing and Hope and the 1999 Membership Guidelines, built on four Biblical principles — covenant, accountability, unity and diversity. We named these values as an effort to unite in faith and mission, building on the true foundation of Jesus Christ as reflected from an Anabaptist perspective. Along with these four values, I brought the expectation that when we faced difficult decisions, we would attempt to discern God’s will together, seeking group consent (if not consensus) where possible.

As a denominational leader, I soon discovered the limits of my understanding as I attempted to put these values into practice. My interaction with diverse constituent groups across the country taught me that the meaning and significance of these four values is highly dependent on context. I found that even within the same extended family or congregation, people view the meaning of covenant, accountability, unity and diversity in very different ways. I have always known this to be true, but my experience as a leader taught me that these differences are often rooted in genuine spiritual convictions, not just cultural bias or unwillingness to agree.

Further, I’ve come to see that unity and consensus are sometimes superseded by other values in our church, at times for legitimate reasons.

Consensus forged in large groups such as our delegate assembly can sometimes reflect the unfair biases of the leaders who set the agenda or the tyranny of a majority vote, devaluing or even muting legitimate dissent. In other words, the press for unity can at times ignore the wisdom of disparate voices, offending the spiritual convictions of persons or groups who remain in the minority.

Our pursuit of unity must pay attention to the heartfelt convictions of individuals as well as niche groups, particularly since the rise of social media. Articulate people with access to a smartphone can now gain a following which the most sophisticated news organizations would have paid dearly to gain even a decade ago.

Further, I’ve learned that communal discernment on very specific questions can only work effectively where there are broadly shared values. Where people differ on basic values, it will be difficult for them to listen for God’s voice together, or to agree on what God is saying. I’ve needed to concede that the broader and more diverse the group, the more difficult it is to do communal discernment on specific questions. When it comes to controversial issues, even nuclear families find themselves on opposite sides. How then could we expect that congregations and area conferences would come to ready agreement?

Because I respect the spiritual life and convictions of diverse groups in MC USA, I believe that decisions about important matters in our church are best handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority available.

This principle is ensconced in the Membership Guidelines (and more recently in the Forbearance Resolution), which gives congregations the authority and responsibility to decide many important matters in church life. Congregations look to area conferences (or Racial/Ethnic constituent groups) as needed for guidance on issues affecting a group of congregations. These groups in turn confer with each other in denominational settings for guidance and direction on church-wide issues, governed by the principles covenant, accountability, unity and diversity, as named above. Given the strong differences among us regarding the importance and implementation of these principles, we’ve often struggled to find our way forward together on important matters. Consequently, we’ve lost individuals and families on all “sides” of various issues.

Part of the failure of our “big tent” approach was rooted in the process of developing the Membership Guidelines. Although the guidelines were adopted by strong majority votes in the CLC and the delegates at Nashville 2001, I’ve since come to understand that people voted with very different assumptions about their meaning and implementation.

Some have asked me, “would we have been better off not to merge GCs and MCs?” I don’t spend much time pondering that hypothetical question for several reasons. First, it’s a form of magical thinking, because we can’t go back now. Secondly, I’ve learned that there were as many differences within each denomination as there were between them. Each group would still have needed to deal with many of the same issues and problems we faced in the merger, but with different cultural assumptions and people to blame for the problems. (Along the way, former MCs and GCs have lost about the same proportion of members). One of our most unhelpful tendencies during times of struggle is to compare the best traits of our own group with the worst traits of the group that we differ with at the time. Thirdly, the discussion about merging MCs and GCs tends to exclude the vital concerns of members who’ve joined since 2002, as well as Racial/Ethnic groups who often feel marginalized by the debate. Finally, arguing about what could/should have been done differently in the past will distract us from the task that lies before us now. Winston Churchill said it in a different way: “If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

Taking the above ideas into account, I don’t regret the time, energy and money I’ve invested in MC USA.

Although I’ve needed to adjust my expectations to reflect the realities across our church, I’ve not lost the vision for unity in Christ. I’m committed to keep on bucking the headwinds of our political culture which sweep us toward polarization and increasing fragmentation.

I believe that a church committed to Christ’s peace can surely find healthier ways to live and work together.

As I head toward retirement from my role, I pray God’s blessing on MC USA, the church I’ve come to love so deeply. I pray that people from across the church will participate in the Journey Forward process, leading us to a new expression of unity based on Christ’s call to discipleship. Christ prayed for his disciples to find unity, so I’ll keep praying for it too.