Why we want to hear from you: The primacy of local congregations

Ervin Stutzman is executive director of Mennonite Church USA

By Ervin Stutzman

“The church exists as a community of believers in the local congregation, as a community of congregations, and as the worldwide community of faith.”  Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, p. 40

Most of us experience “church” on many different levels. For example, we may feel the presence of God’s Spirit where we are gathered in the name of Jesus with one or two others. Or, we often speak of “going to church,” meaning regular worship in a local congregation. Further, as church leaders or delegates, we often participate in church meetings in regional gatherings, area conference assemblies, and national convention. Some of us participate in the broader gatherings of Mennonite World Conference or other ecumenical church bodies.

All of these are “church” to some extent, but in Mennonite Church USA, we privilege the local congregation. The Purposeful Plan says, “We are a network of congregations joined by a common set of core convictions and commitment to an Anabaptist perspective on Christian faith. Along with area conferences and other communities beyond the congregation, the national conference exists to help congregations do what they could not do on their own. For this reason, we might call these conferences and various organizations beyond the congregation ‘supportive communities’” (lines 301-306).

Further, it says, “We believe that congregations are the primary expression of God’s work in the world. Following the lead of other fellowships of faith, we have also organized ourselves at the level of area conferences and a national conference” (lines 785-788). The Mennonite Church USA Executive Board coordinates the decision-making and programmatic functions of our church at the national conference level.

In this column, I will attempt to show how the Executive Board hopes to give privilege of place to the leaders of local congregations as we deal with tensions related to strong differences of convictions regarding same-sex relationships. At its June meeting, the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board took a number of actions, including the following:

•     that the denomination will develop new processes, including an exploration of new structural models, in the pursuit of healthy ways to promote our unity in Christ in the midst of diverse expressions of faith and the serious differences that have arisen between and among our area conferences, and

•     that we engage all member congregations, initially via a survey of all credentialed ministers, in order to strengthen our common commitments in Christ in preparation for a time of significant discernment of future direction by the delegates at our biennial convention in July 2015

The idea for the first of these actions came from the March 2014 meeting of the Constituency Leaders Council (CLC). They invited the Executive Board to explore alternative models for a denominational structure, such as a more loosely-connected network, alliance, or affiliation, or perhaps a model such as Mennonite World Conference (MWC). (In the latter model, Mennonite Church USA would likely function as a convening place for largely autonomous area conferences in the U.S., just as MWC does for largely autonomous national conferences around the world).

Such structural changes could significantly alter the place of the local congregation within the broader church.  For example, some area conferences might seek a less formal, and more fraternal connection with Mennonite Church USA.

In regard to the second action above, the Executive Board has been considering a survey of pastors and assembly delegates for some time. But in the June meeting, the board decided to conduct the survey in two stages, perhaps with different questions. The first survey will be sent to all credentialed ministers, so that those results will be available to all delegates when they are surveyed some months later.

We want to hear from you as credentialed ministers via a survey for several reasons. First of all, since the local church is the primary gathering of God’s people, and other levels of church are “supporting communities,” it is essential that the Executive Board check with congregational leaders from time to time to see how well these “supporting communities” are serving the local church. A number of questions on the survey will seek this kind of information.

Secondly, since congregations may be affected by upcoming discussions about church structure, it seems appropriate to give credentialed leaders a chance to speak about their preferred connections to the church beyond the local congregation. Therefore, several questions will relate to church structure.

Finally, since tensions in the broader church regarding same-sex relationships have motivated several groups of pastors/credentialed leaders to share their convictions via open letters to the broader church, we deem it important to give opportunity for all credentialed ministers to voice their personal convictions on questions regarding same-sex relationship, even if they are reluctant to sign open letters.

We hope that when the survey arrives in your email inbox before long, you will take it very seriously. We look forward to hearing from you.

You can view the full list of survey questions online. 

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17 thoughts on “Why we want to hear from you: The primacy of local congregations

  1. Whenever the church puts unity above knowing and following the truth, the church is neither biblical nor a salt and light to the culture.

  2. I wait patiently for the national church to model the kind of dialogue and diversity that may be part of a solution to the polariztion within our Mennonite USA community. I believe that the latest decisions and dialogue of the CLC and the Executive Board lead us in that direction. I will advocate strongly for a church that holds to a center of core beliefs and yet allows congregations and conferences to stretch in both conservative and liberal directions. I believe this model shows a trust in the Holy Spirit’s guidance around differing interpretations of the Word. And in many ways, the posture of Gamaliel (Acts 5:29-42) may be a way to trust God in ways that we are not currently able to do in our own posturing.

  3. Just wondering how you plan to define credentialed ministers. If the Executive Board gives privilege of place to the local congregation, then is the credential given by the congregation and area conference recognized, even if it is not registered in the data base of MCUSA? Obviously I’m wondering if Theda Good will receive a survey.

    1. Good question as there are many categories of credentials in our system. We will be sending this survey out to persons who are recorded in our national data base with one of the following credentials: Ordained, Licensed Toward Ordination, Licensed/Commissioned for Specific Ministry and have a status of either active, active w/o charge, or retired. Based on the EB statement, Theda Good’s credentials are not listed in this data base.

  4. RE: Credentialed ministers:
    I was ordained as a Mennonite Minister in 1946. I pastored churches in Miss., Col. Mich. and Oregon. Since retiring in 1989 I have served as interim pastor in two congregations, still officiate at weddings and funerals, teach a weekly Bible Study class and am chairman of our congregation Board of Elders. I fill pulpits whenever I am asked, but I am no longer installed as Pastor of a specific congregation. By the Grace of God I know that my name is written in The Lamb’s Book of Life. But I wonder about the data base of MCUSA, is my name written there? Will I receive a survey?

    1. Hello Edward,
      Sounds like you have had a rich life given to ministry. About your credential, you will need to talk with the conference office in which you were most recently credentialed. They will be able to tell you the status of your credential. The way it is set up, this survey is drawing upon the data base of all these credentialed persons. Only persons who have an active or a retired credential which has been recorded by the conference in our system will receive a survey. This is not an attempt to exclude anyone but to define the parameters as clearly as possible for this survey. Hope this is helpful.

  5. Does MCUSA really want to hear from me? I’ve posted comments here, people try to interact on Facebook or Twitter, and I rarely see any response. Is my input so unimportant that the only way people want to hear from us is by a survey?

    Also, the very fact that we are putting all this effort into this question leads me to believe that MCUSA is becoming a failed denomination. Whatever happened to forgiveness and acceptance? Mennonites do a whole lot of good — but to look at our recent conventions, you’d think we have a passion for excluding people rather than for peace.

    If the Confession of Faith has become a weapon, it should be thrown out.

    Can’t we just say that “Mennonite Church USA seeks to peacefully embrace The Way of Christ, lovingly sharing it with all”?

    1. Hi John – Thanks for your comment. We are grateful for your comments and the comments of all those who post here on the blog, as well as on Facebook. Unfortunately we have a very small communications staff and are experiencing a high volume of contacts through all mediums – email, internet, phone, etc. – right now. We are doing our best to keep the broader executive board staff informed of the comments that come through these channels, and I’m really sorry if it feels like your comments have landed on deaf ears. We’ll keep trying to be better and more responsive.

      The survey was certainly only meant to be one channel to hear people’s thoughts and voices. Like I said, we have been passing these comments on. Thanks.

  6. I will be a part of a denomination that provides accountability and discerns the will of the Holy Spirit as a broader church body. For years I was a member of a non-denominational church. I learned that there are great dangers associated with such freedom and lack of accountability. If we no longer hold one another accountable, I will likely find another denomination.

    1. I’m not confident that a system that imposes the will of the majority of people who are unfamiliar with the individuals with whom congregations interact (both within and without) in the name of “accountability,” is better able to discern the will of God regarding matters of love, guidance, correction, or support. While such an organizational structure offers an illusion of accountability in the institutional sense, it is not an effective method for followers of Christ to best understand how God is calling them to interact with people they know and love.

  7. I so appreciate the autonomy of local congregations over the more typical top-down organization that dominates institutional religion. It is here that people are known and loved as people, and are not, as is necessary in a centralized structure, known as people of some group or another. Relationships and ministering are actual and not theological or “spiritual” activities. I pray that local autonomy be the determinant model in any united effort to follow Christ. I am thankful for a body that finds its identity not in its power and authority, but in its following of Christ.

  8. Good question as there are many categories of credentials in our system. We will be sending this survey out to persons who are recorded in our national data base with one of the following credentials: Ordained, Licensed Toward Ordination, Licensed/Commissioned for Specific Ministry and have a status of either active, active w/o charge, or retired. Based on the EB statement, Theda Good’s credentials are not listed in this data base.

  9. Well, Theda IS listed as a credentialed pastor in the Mountain States Mennonite Conference. I should think that national would want to hear from her, since her credentialing is the reason this survey is taking place.

  10. On the one hand, the title of this post suggests that local congregations have primacy. On the other hand, because the Executive Board made an ambiguous statement based on an ambiguous polity, Theda Good, a licensed minister hired by a local congregation and licensed by her area conference after a long period of study and discernment, is “not listed on the data base” and therefore not qualified to receive a survey–a survey which is supposedly being conducted because the executive leadership of the MCUSA wants to hear from local congregations, because, again, local congregations have primacy.

    I think you have to stop pretending that there is an official, unavoidable reason for not sending a survey to Theda. The pretense is hurtful and dishonest, and more than a little bit silly. MCUSA leaders are excluding her from this survey because of who she is–not because of a database.

  11. Dear Ervin,

    As a member of a congregation, Corvallis Mennonite Fellowship, that chooses not to have a paid pastor, I am disappointed in your framing of this survey as representing the “primacy of local congregations.”

    Our congregation, and others like us, will not be represented by this survey. Yet we also have leaders, just not credentialed pastors. How will congregations like ours have a voice? How does our exclusion represent the “primacy of local congregations?” Moreover, how does it support your basic assertion that you want to hear from us?

    We know we are unusual, structurally, but we didn’t know that our differences meant that we could be so easily excluded.

    I would respectfully request that you formally send a survey to the leadership team of all congregations without a credentialed pastor, requesting that they fill it out and return it to you, just like pastor-led congregations.

  12. Hi Dave,
    Yes I can understand your frustration but in creating the pool of respondents it required us to define the group in as objective of a way as possible. We determined that to be credentialed leaders who are active or retired. There may have been other ways to clarify this group but this was what was decided upon for the purposes of this survey. The questions to this survey have been posted on our website and if your congregation would like to work through them and send in your responses to us directly that would be fine. Also, just so you are aware, the EB is very likely going to do some sort of survey for delegates of congregations in the near future which I hope your congregation participates in.

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