Constituency Leaders Council considers survey feedback, offers ideas for future of Mennonite Church USA
By Annette Brill Bergstresser for Mennonite Church USA
SCHILLER PARK, Ill. (Mennonite Church USA)—In the midst of uncertainty about the future, the presence of a monarch butterfly on the wall was a sign of hope for those gathered at the fall meeting of Mennonite Church USA’s Constituency Leaders Council (CLC) Oct. 6–8 in Schiller Park, Ill.
Eighty-two leaders representing area conferences, constituency groups and churchwide agencies participated in the meeting, which was chaired by Patricia Shelly, moderator-elect of Mennonite Church USA. The group reviewed results of recent surveys of leaders across the church, shared ideas about potential new relational structures within the denomination, and gave feedback on a leadership polity manual.
Themes of hope, the importance of Scripture, the reassurance of God’s presence, a call to love each other, and the power and necessity of granting and receiving forgiveness reappeared throughout the gathering. Donna Mast, conference minister for Allegheny Mennonite Conference, and Chuck Neufeld, conference minister for Illinois Mennonite Conference, led worship each day, inviting the group into the Emmaus Road story (Luke 24)—the theme text for the 2015 convention in Kansas City.
“We encountered the Spirit in prayer, song and Scripture, which helped us to bear the overall heaviness of this meeting,” said Karen Howard of Pittsburgh, Pa., chair of the Listening Committee. “We heard an undercurrent throughout the meeting that we are waiting to see what will happen in Kansas City [the 2015 Delegate Assembly]. And we heard that we hope to come to Kansas City with a surrendered mind and a clear sense of purpose and clarity in leadership.”
Area conference updates
Warren Tyson, conference minister for Eastern District and Atlantic Coast conferences, led the group in discussing written reports from area conferences and constituency groups. Conference leaders shared about conversations happening in response to questions of LGBTQ inclusion.
Duane Maust, conference minister for Gulf States Mennonite Conference, shared with sadness that the conference’s congregations plan to vote on Nov. 1 about whether to leave Mennonite Church USA as a conference.
Lois Johns Kaufmann, conference minister for Central District Conference (CDC), shared that a CDC congregation has called from within a gay member of the congregation to serve as one of their pastors and has requested licensing from the conference.
“Our leadership groups have prayerfully discerned that they are feeling called to license the pastor, and we are seeking counsel from the larger church about the timing of the licensing,” Johns Kaufmann said.
CLC members reviewed responses to a six-question survey of conference ministers about how LGBTQ inclusion is being discussed in their area conferences, as well as preliminary results from the August 2014 survey of credentialed Mennonite Church USA leaders. The survey had a response rate of 66.2 percent, representing 1,323 leaders.
Sociologist Conrad Kanagy continues to work on compiling, tabulating and analyzing the responses. Ervin Stutzman, Mennonite Church USA executive director, sought counsel from the CLC on how to release survey data.
CLC members raised concerns that those who completed the survey represent particular segments of the church and not the full diversity of the church in terms of age, educational background and Racial/Ethnic background.
“We have a snapshot, which is not perfectly focused,” Stutzman noted in response. “It is valid data, and we rejoice at having a high response rate, but it doesn’t tell us everything we need to know.”
Ideas for changes to the structure of Mennonite Church USA
At the September 2014 Executive Board meetings, the board appointed an ad hoc committee to explore possibilities for new structures for relationships within Mennonite Church USA. Two members were present at the meeting.
Stutzman invited each participant to spend time in prayer and provide written feedback to the questions, “As you think about the possibility of restructuring Mennonite Church USA, what would you hope that we achieve? avoid? preserve?”
“The idea of structure is broader than structure,” he said. “It has more to do with polity and culture than structure—with the kind of church we are and how we relate to each other. Tell us your longings. Ask the Holy Spirit what it would look like to begin anew.”
A Shared Understanding of Church Leadership: Polity Manual for Mennonite Church Canada and Mennonite Church USA
Stutzman recognized Terry Shue and Nancy Kauffmann, Executive Board staff members; and Karen Martens Zimmerly, Mennonite Church Canada staff member; for their work on this fourth revision of the leadership polity manual. He noted that it is a working document and that its purpose is to “name a common understanding of ministerial leadership.”
The revised document contains a statement taken from the Membership Guidelines about credentialed pastors not being able to perform same-sex unions. It was included in 2011 in response to a request written by the conference ministers, who felt that this piece of ministerial polity should be part of the leadership polity manual.
CLC members were invited to discuss in table groups whether this statement should remain in the manual or be published elsewhere, and what process of approval would be appropriate for the manual.
Presentation by Jewel Gingerich Longenecker (see sidebar)
Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, associate dean for leadership education at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Ind., shared from her doctoral dissertation about rethinking relationships with each other and the Bible. She challenged the group to advocate for a deepened commitment to communal Bible study across the church as a way of reclaiming our shared language and learning to speak with each other again.
“I would very much like to be part of a church where studying the Bible is more central to our identity than our conservative and liberal labels,” she said.
The Listening Committee heard many expressions of gratitude for Gingerich Longenecker’s presentation and an eagerness to share her ideas with their congregations.
- Church planting updates and initiatives. André Gingerich Stoner, director for interchurch relations and holistic witness, reported on behalf of Mauricio Chenlo, denominational minister of church planting for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Mission Network. He invited three conference ministers to share about church planting developments in their regions: Marco Güete from Southeast Mennonite Conference; Herm Weaver from Mountain States Mennonite Conference; and Gene Miller from New York Mennonite Conference.
- Affirmation of new moderator-elect. CLC members affirmed the Leadership Discernment Committee’s nomination of David Boshart, executive conference minister for Central Plains Mennonite Conference, as moderator-elect for the 2015–17 biennium.
- Resolutions Committee appointments. The CLC appointed Shannon Walker Dycus of Indianapolis and Sonya Stauffer Kurtz of Rochester, N.Y., to serve as CLC representatives to the Resolutions Committee for the Kansas City 2015 Delegate Assembly along with EB members Isaac Villegas (chair) of Chapel Hill, N.C., and David Boshart of Wellman, Iowa. The EB will appoint a fifth person.
- Willard Metzger, executive director of Mennonite Church Canada, brought greetings to the group, and noted that their church is also engaged in conversations about LGBTQ inclusion.
“I don’t know where the church may end up, but I remind myself that while structures may be different, and how we are church may be different, this is not going to kill the church,” he said. “This is not a surprise to God. I can’t envision God panicking, and if God’s not panicking, I’m not going to panic. I have confidence that the Spirit of God will guide us to faithful response.”
- Two constituency groups gave reports: Grace Pam of Los Angeles spoke for the African, Belizean, and Caribbean Mennonite Mission Association; and Beny Krisbianto of Philadelphia reported for the Indonesian Mennonite Association.
The next CLC meeting will take place March 26–28, 2015, at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan.
The presence of this monarch butterfly inspired Constituency Leaders Council members at their Oct. 6–8 meeting in Schiller Park, Ill., as a symbol of metamorphosis, transformation and hope. (Photo by Annette Brill Bergstresser)
Constituency Leaders Council members affirmed the Leadership Discernment Committee’s nomination of David Boshart, executive conference minister for Central Plains Mennonite Conference (CPMC), as moderator-elect for the 2015–17 biennium. (above) Warren Tyson, conference minister for Eastern District and Atlantic Coast conferences, offered a prayer of blessing for Boshart, his family and the conference. Margie Mejía-Caraballo (at right) was one of three CPMC representatives at the gathering. (Photo by Annette Brill Bergstresser)
Donna Mast, conference minister for Allegheny Mennonite Conference, and Chuck Neufeld, conference minister for Illinois Mennonite Conference, led worship at the Oct. 6–8 Constituency Leaders Council meeting in Schiller Park, Ill., focusing on the Emmaus Road story (Luke 24)—the theme text for the 2015 convention in Kansas City. (above) Chuck Neufeld provided music. (Photo by Annette Brill Bergstresser)
Grace Pam of Los Angeles spoke at the Oct. 6–8 Constituency Leaders Council meeting in Schiller Park, Ill., on behalf of the African, Belizean and Caribbean Mennonite Mission Association (ABCMMA), which consists of 10 member churches across the U.S.
“We came together as a group that is part of Mennonite Church USA,” she said, noting that they felt like “a drop in the ocean.” “We began to ask, ‘How do we get to be part of what is going on?,’ because we feel the calling of God on our lives and we want to contribute and to represent the people who are part of our congregations.”
One of the ABCMMA’s priorities is to plant churches and evangelize. The group maintains connections with Mennonite congregations in their home countries as well as in London and Canada. (Photo by Annette Brill Bergstresser)
Byron Pellecer of Wichita, Kan.; Shannon Walker Dycus of Indianapolis, Ind.; and Rodger Schmell of Perkasie, Pa., portrayed the disciples and Jesus on the Emmaus Road during a dramatic reading Oct. 8 at the Constituency Leaders Council meeting in Schiller Park, Ill. CLC participants then shared communion before the meeting concluded. (Photo by Annette Brill Bergstresser)
Donna Mast, conference minister for Allegheny Mennonite Conference, and Chuck Neufeld, conference minister for Illinois Mennonite Conference, led worship at the Oct. 6–8 Constituency Leaders Council meeting in Schiller Park, Ill., focusing on the Emmaus Road story (Luke 24)—the theme text for the 2015 convention in Kansas City. (above) Donna Mast offers a communion prayer. (Photo by Annette Brill Bergstresser)