Conferences seek to engage differences with creativity and care

John Troyer of Clinton Frame Mennonite Church, Goshen, Ind., and Evelyn Mann of Community Christian Fellowship, Detroit, Mich., were part of a table group discussion on racism that used the Difficult Discussions format during IN-MI Conference’s June 2012 annual sessions in Detroit. (Photo provided by IN-MI Conference)

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By Hilary J. Scarsella

ELKHART, Ind. (Mennonite Church USA)—In a time of heightened polarity around issues such as politics, immigration and human sexuality, area conferences across Mennonite Church USA have been making efforts to address controversy in creative ways that strengthen relationships.

At the delegate assembly in Columbus, Ohio, in July 2009, delegates passed a resolution “on following Christ and growing together as communities even in conflict” that called on the Executive Board to work with area conferences to provide and encourage the use of resources that would assist conferences and congregations to engage in healthy discernment.

“We affirm the church’s commitment to ongoing dialogue and discernment, and ‘agreeing and disagreeing in love,’” the resolution stated. “We confess that we as a church (congregations, conferences, denomination) have rarely found a way to create a healthy, safe environment in which to have this dialogue, one that builds up the Body of Christ, and is respectful and honest about our differences.”

Various conferences have followed through on this resolution, focusing on relationships and creating safe spaces for respectful dialogue. This last summer, three conferences—Central District Conference, Western District Conference and Allegheny Mennonite Conference—were in the news as they worked with discernment on issues related to sexuality and sought to remain in relationship.

How have other conferences addressing polarities among their constituents?

While Mountain States Mennonite Conference (MSMC) has not addressed any one particular issue, leaders have attempted to be proactive by emphasizing the importance of strong and healthy relationships among individuals and churches.

“When MSMC was formed in 2006, relational accountability was adopted as one of the key points of conference culture,” says Moderator Rhoda Blough. She notes that MSMC regularly provides opportunities to focus on strengthening intra-conference relationships, “realizing the importance of communication in both speaking and listening, especially in times of disagreement.”

The theme of the 2012 Faith and Life Forum—an annual MSMC gathering intended to keep the focus on healthy relationships front and center—was “Listening and speaking with care.” It provided participants with techniques for discussing controversial issues in ways that would enhance relationships rather than incite polarization.

“This is a way for MSMC to encourage hard conversations in a way that has integrity,” Blough says. “We are geared toward supporting everyday personal relationships as well as equipping people to discuss hot-button issues like immigration and sexuality and the political system. For these reasons and more, it is extremely important that we who are the church have the ability to speak to each other honestly and with care.”

Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference also has developed a format that allows groups within the conference to have intentional and safe conversations about difficult issues. So far, the Advisory Council, Missional Leadership Team, regional ministers and delegates have used this format to discuss racism and same-sex relationships.

Moderator-elect Jane Stoltzfus Buller says that the hope in creating this discussion format was that these conversations would move participants who believe differently “to have greater love for one another, to really listen and hear each other, and to find a way forward on difficult issues.”

While there are more conversations to be had, she says, “We are becoming more aware of how our own stories and experiences make a difference in our belief systems and thinking, and these difficult discussions have deepened our connections and, hopefully, our love for one another.”

Southeast Mennonite Conference (SMC) has been working with differences related to its constituents having diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds. At least five racial/ethnic identities are significantly represented in SMC—including Garifuna, Hispanic, African-American, Haitian and Anglo-Saxon—and 60 percent of SMC churches are churches of color.

Seven years ago the conference decided to restructure to ensure that each racial/ethnic group is represented in leadership. Today, SMC bylaws stipulate that the board and all committees include members from each racial/ethnic group and be balanced in gender.

Conference Minister Marco Güete says, “In this new structure, the relationships among our churches have grown to be excellent. Churches with different racial/ethnic identities often get together for meals, fellowship and music, because it is important to us to spend time together. We know that everything we do must be multilingual, and we love it.”

Looking to the future, Güete adds, “At this point, it is implicit that multiculturalism is one of our central values, and that will not change. But we ask ourselves how we can work with people who are not ready for the changes that valuing multiculturalism brings. We want to help them embrace its gifts.”

Other conferences have worked with challenges related to polity. In response to leftover tensions from a previous attempt to resolve how Central Plains Mennonite Conference (CPMC) deals with issues of variance among member congregations, conference leaders organized a gathering in March 2011—called “Becoming a united church in a culture of division”—to address the issue of congregational autonomy.

Those who gathered for the conference affirmed eight commitments that now shape a foundational understanding of what it means to be a united church. Executive Conference Minister David Boshart says that CPMC has come to approach hard issues with the understanding that “our goal is not to strain to create unity but to understand that unity is something that comes to us as a gift of God’s grace.”

In response to a call from a pastor-peer group looking to explore healthy ways of addressing congregational conflict, Ohio Conference of Mennonite Church USA sponsored a Lombard (Ill.) Mennonite Peace Center workshop in October 2010 called “Conflict transformation skills for churches.” The workshop offered opportunities for self-assessment, insight into understanding conflict, communication skills, and training for managing group conflict.

David Maurer, pastor of Bethel Mennonite Church in West Liberty, Ohio, which hosted the workshop, says that those who attended learned that when addressing controversial issues, it is essential “to do the difficult work of listening to someone else without being threatened by what he or she has to say.”

“Remaining in relationship with those who see things differently testifies to the peace of God,” Maurer adds.

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Note: The denominational resource “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love” (first adopted in July 1995) is available at http://mennoniteusa.org/resources/agreeing-and-disagreeing-in-love/.

Image available:

ftp://ftp.e.mennonites.org/public/NewsPhotos/IN-MIConf_table_group_2012Jun.JPG
John Troyer of Clinton Frame Mennonite Church, Goshen, Ind., and Evelyn Mann of Community Christian Fellowship, Detroit, Mich., were part of a table group discussion on racism that used the Difficult Discussions format during IN-MI Conference’s June 2012 annual sessions in Detroit. (Photo provided by IN-MI Conference)