Tending our Common Life

Ervin Stutzman is executive director for Mennonite Church USA
Ervin Stutzman is executive director for Mennonite Church USA

By Ervin Stutzman

When the Constituency Leaders Council (CLC) met on March 20-22, leaders from the 21 area conferences and constituent groups wrestled with seemingly irreconcilable differences among us.  Our conversations revealed the depth of differences among us and across the church, with no simple solution for a way to move forward together.

We all feel the pain caused by the tensions in our church, yet we long to find ways to stay together and learn from each other. Personally, I have come to love all parts of our church, and long for us to find ways for us all to thrive in the calling we have from God.

Table groups at the CLC discussed the task force’s question: “How will we tend our common life as Mennonite Church USA, especially in light of our differing beliefs and practices?” Because of the varying convictions among area conferences, the CLC recognized that we may have to rethink our current organization and polity.

After discussion, groups suggested a variety of organizational models such as a federation, alliance, or association. Some respondents drew inspiration from the Mennonite World Conference model, which comprises a loose affiliation of independent national bodies with a small core of common convictions.

Others were quick to name the unintended consequences of any move away from our current written commitments. For example, some warned that we might too easily cluster into homogeneous groupings with less cross-cultural capacity, or lose the ability to hold each other accountable to our Anabaptist ideals. Some worried that we might lose the capacity to learn from each other’s differences in a less diverse body.

Since this is the first time I’ve heard the CLC name such public suggestions for reimaging our common life, I listened to the discussions with particular interest, and read the table group feedback with an eye to the future. We may be poised to do something genuinely new. I hope we don’t waste this opportunity to discern the way that God is moving among us. As we seek God’s will for the future, I hope we consider a range of options.

Since the CLC gathering, I’ve gotten hints that people across our church are talking about new possibilities. For example, I received a message from a young pastor which reflected careful thought and hope for the future. Among other things, the young pastor wrote:

I would like to note that some Mennonites of dramatically different opinions are having really good discussions about the issue of same-sex marriage. As Sara Wenger Shenk, president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, noted in a recent blog this is indeed a time for potentially exciting possibilities.

Those who are having difficult discussions may not be changing each other’s minds, but they are probably helping each other to hold their own views more biblically, respectfully and wisely. I think these conversations seem to happen more easily in groups that don’t need to come to a final decision.

We need enough courage and clarity to share our faith with conviction, spur each other toward Christlikeness, and to take risks of obedience in our understanding of God’s will. But we also need conversation partners who will keep us from being too sure of ourselves, who will challenge us to sort out essentials from peripherals, who will partner with us in some essentials, and who will teach us to show respect even when arguing about other essentials.

We need to recognize both the opportunities (for learning from each other and for discovering more fruitful forms of partnership) and the dangers (of compromise or isolation) presented by the present crisis, and we need to find a course of action that will take both into account.

I don’t know what the Task Force may recommend to the Executive Board after they’ve carefully sorted through the counsel from the CLC. Whatever they recommend, I pray that it helps us be more faithful to Jesus, moves us to greater commitment to be a missional church, and helps us tend our common life in a way that brings greater healing and hope to the world.