Saving a denomination

This is a reflection about the MCUSA national convention in Pittsburgh shortly after I returned home.  On the urging of a fellow YARer, I offer this reflection here and would ask for your perspective.

Originally posted here on July 12, 2011

I have a variety of reflections from the Mennonite Church USA national convention that was held in Pittsburgh, PA this last week.  This is just one, hopefully there will be more coming yet.

I went to this convention not knowing for sure if MCUSA would survive past the convention.  The reason was because it felt like there is currently an abnormally large amount of tension in the denomination right now.  There are a lot of issues that are causing tension but the big one is homosexuality, mainly because of one particular situation.

In the spring of this year a Mennonite pastor in Western District Conference performed a same sex union ceremony.  This has been done before, but every other time the pastor was disciplined in some form by their local conference.  This time, however, the area conference credentialing committee reviewed her credentials and found them to be in good order.  That’s a first.

The conference that I’m in (South Central Conference) overlaps with WDC and they have been at odds with each other for their whole history.  There are a lot of reasons for this that I won’t go into, but the short of it that they’re not exactly thrilled with each other to begin with.*  At the SCC annual gathering in June, the tension in the air was palpable.  From a variety of conversations I had the sense that I got was that this tension, and even outright anger, at WDC was not limited to the neighborhood and that it was shared by other conferences throughout the denomination.  Perhaps it is simply because of where I live, but the tensions over this seemed so great that I fully expected a full on, knock down drag out fight on the delegate floor at convention, possibly even resulting in entire conferences leaving the denomination.

This didn’t happen.  I think there are three reasons why.

1) Shane Hipps opening message.  Shane brought the most pointed and most gutsy sermon I’ve heard in a very long time.  I knew that he was right on because half of the time I found myself cheering what he was saying and half of the time I was ticked off because he hit me where it hurt.  Most importantly, though, he named the theological tension in the air (i.e. purity or righteousness) and re-framed them both in light of reconciliation as the higher value.  That sermon called out two groups who came to the convention ready for battle and set a tone of reconciliation and common ground rather than trying to defeat an adversary.

2) The conversation rooms.  A new feature of the convention was the conversation rooms.  It was a space set up to discuss the most contentious issues in the church with trained mediators to help focus and direct the conversation in a positive and helpful way.  Ultimately, they weren’t perfect and there is room for improvement.  However, the effect they had on the delegate sessions was significant.  People want to talk about these issues and they want to be heard.  The open mic time at the delegate sessions is an exceedingly bad place and way to do that, but at previous conventions it was the only place to attempt to be heard.  To be sure, there were some pointed, direct and personal comments made during the main open mic time, but the level of hostility and divisiveness that I was expecting just never showed up.  I suspect that this is due in large part to the fact that people had a place to actually have the conversations and arguments on a large scale in a place where they could be heard, thus reducing the need for people to try and hijack the open mic time.

3) Ervin Stutzman.  I’ll be the first to admit that I had serious questions about Ervin when he started as Executive Director of MCUSA.  As I’ve come to have more time and experience with him, my respect for him has increased by leaps and bounds.  This is mainly for a couple of reasons.  a) his has the ability to speak to people of all points on the Mennonite spectrum in a way that is deeply respectful and takes each one seriously as a part of the body of Christ and members of the church.  b) in the midst of some very tense situation he has a non-anxious presence that reduces everyones anxiety level.  c) he (and the exec. board) has worked very hard to paint a picture of a vision for MCUSA that does not deny the existence of difficult issues, but that does not let them dominate our work and mission as a church.  All of this came out at the convention from top to bottom.  Am I going to agree with him all the time?  Nope, not by a long shot.  But I do respect him and trust him.

I genuinely don’t know the future of the denomination.  There is much that I’m very hopeful for, but there is not guarantee that we’ll be celebrating 20 years as a denomination.  Even 6 months or a year from now the denomination could look very different.  But for the moment, we’ve taken a step in the right direction as a denomination.

* Note: As I was corrected by one commenter on my blog, this is an oversimplification of the relationship and does not take into account the very real good will between the two conferences at times nor the genuine attempts at merger and cooperative work.

Comments (8)

  1. Amy Yoder McGloughlin

    It’s interesting how six thousand people can be at one place, and have six thousand different views on the event.

    I’d agree with you about the conversation rooms, Alan. They were helpful, though imperfect.

    The opening session with Shane was helpful–somewhat. I really took issue with the either/or thinking. That we are either seeking purity or righteousness is an oversimplification of a very complex matter. However, it was helpful for me to think about it on a continuum.

    The difficulty with the third way of reconciliation that Hipps put forward is that it still means that people on the margins don’t have access to that reconciliation. The center is the only place where people are happy. and, from what I saw at the convention, no one feels like they are in the center of the Mennonite church. Everyone seems to think that they are on the margins. So then, who is this third way for?

    What Hipp’s conversation did ultimately (though it was not stated explicitly)was remind us that we are all all one body, and should treat each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. And that was extremely helpful.

    Ervin Stutzman was not the bridge I hoped he would be. In fact, I found his words–in many cases–to be quite troubling. Especially at the Friday delegate session where he felt the need to define what it means to be a member of the Mennonite church–membership means adhering to the denomination’s confession of faith as it pertains to sexuality. The other statements in the confession were not referred to. It seemed like this statement from Stutzman came out of nowhere, and it really dampened my enthusiasm for what was happening that week.

    Though I was not sure what I thought about the no voting idea at first, I ultimately thought that was the right thing. People didn’t have to get riled up about things; they could instead plan, dialogue, and build consensus.

    I came away from convention feeling hopeful. But not necessarily because of anything that happened from the main stages. I was encouraged by conversations, willingness for people to dialogue informally, and late night laughter over drinks.

  2. AlanS (Post author)

    Amy, thanks for your thoughts. In relation to Ervins statements about re-affirming the denominational position, I have some similar feelings that it felt rather random for him to bring that, and only that, up when he did. Two thoughts/realizations that might explain it (but I’m only speculating)

    1) If memory serves correctly, his statement came after the professor from EMU got up and had a bit of a rant. Maybe I have the order mixed up, but I do remember the topic beginning to rise in the open mic time.
    2) I found out later that while it didn’t come out on the delegate floor, there were a number of fairly large constituency groups that had been pressuring Ervin behind the scenes all week long about this issue. I have no doubt that he had a lot of pressure to say something at some point in the week.

    I’m also curious to hear what you’d have to say about Evert Thomas’s article in the latest The Mennonite. His argument as to why Ervin’s statement was an act of bridge building doesn’t hold very much water for me, but maybe I could be persuaded otherwise.

  3. Amy Yoder McGloughlin

    I don’t believe that Stutzman’s statements had anything to do with the open mic time. It appeared to be quite planned. If anything, I had been encouraged by some of the statements from the open mic, especially from one particular conference minister, who talked about those things that should hold us together–I’m struggling to remember what they were, but they might contribute to the conversation started by Isaac in an earlier YAR post.

    I also have heard from several different people about about the pressure put on Stutzman to make such a statement. If this is true, I find it to be deeply troubling, a sign of continued back door politicking that infects our tradition.

    It was not a bridge, as Thomas might believe it to be–it blew up one side of the bridge. I haven’t heard both sides upset about this–I’ve only heard one side upset. Flawed as Hipp’s sermon may have been, it made a first attempt at a bridge. It was his talk that made both sides uncomfortable, and challenged both sides to look at each other with compassion.

  4. isaac

    I agree with Amy; the bifurcation of purity and justice seems wrong-headed. For example, our commitment to nonviolence is both a commitment to purity (or, better, holiness) and justice. To set up a category called “purity” over against something called “justice” is a cheap rhetorical move.

    I also agree with Amy regarding the delegate session when the MCUSA executive director used the authority of his microphone on the stage to interrupt the flow of sharing from the open microphone time on the delegate floor. It felt like he was speaking ex cathedra, with something like papal authority. I think it would have been more in line with our Mennonite understanding of authority for him to come down off the high stage and share what he felt needed to be said from the floor mics like all the rest of us.

  5. AlanS (Post author)

    Amy – The backdoor politicking is the single greatest troubling sign to me over the last 10 years. I’ve seen it come up at my home congregation, at Pittsburgh and at the two local conference gatherings I was a part of this summer, as well as numerous other places. That stuff starts with the assumption that the enemy is the other group in our own church that we disagree with, which leads to a mentality of trying to defeat our own brothers and sisters. This topic actually came rushing into my mind last week when I brought in the Works of the Flesh/Fruits of the Spirit into a sermon. There were 4 works of the flesh, right in a row, that really jumped out at me “

    anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions….I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

    That gave me some serious pause this week.

    Isaac – I also have similar feelings about “bifurcation of purity and justice”. One conversation that I had with a friend recently about that rhetoric where he reminded me of an interesting point. When Shane was setting up those to categories, if memory serves, he was occasionally using the word “righteousness” interchangeably with “purity”, thus occasionally setting “justice” vs. “righteousness”. But the great part of it is that in Hebrew, justice and righteousness are the same word. As I ponder that sermon, the lasting message is not simply that there’s a higher calling of reconciliation, as Hipps argued, but that it might be accurate to describe the current landscape as having two distinct camps: a purity/righteousness camp and a justice camp. Biblically, however, the message is probably more along the lines that it is ultimately impossible to have one without the other. That’s even more challenging than what Hipps originally said, at least for me. (now, my memory on all of this might be fuzzy, and I may have muddied everything up, but I think the ultimate point I’d like to hang on to)

  6. isaac

    Alan, great point about righteousness and justice; biblically speaking, it’s the same word!

  7. Sam

    The conference minister who spoke was Chuck Neufeld from Illinois Mennonite Conference.
    He’s been working on a four fold criteria for community in IMC. Churches (and individuals) should be able to answer yes to the following questions.

    1. Is Christ Lord?
    2. Is Scripture authoritative?
    3. Is the “Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective” your confession?
    4. Is the church prayerfully seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance?

    I really like it. I think his insistence that this is both a necessary and sufficient criteria for membership has helped ease some of the historic tensions in the conference.

    He’s really open to talking about how he came up with these, and invites other groups to use a similar format. I know Central District and Indiana Michigan have both been talking about them as possibilities.

  8. JamesR

    Not having been at Pittsburgh myself, I must base my opinions upon what I have read. Please bear with me expressing my opinion anyhow.

    It is important to remember that particularly as Anabaptists, those with whom we go to church are our brothers and sisters. Alan’s warning about political schism and schismatic thought is quite relevant, but none of this is easy, particularly when some folks are made to feel attacked by others.

    Though it is always difficult to truly love and recognize the gifts of another through their faults, it is particularly so when the fault is racism, sexism, hetero-sexism. If Joe refuses to recognize the gifts of Tim or realize his equal value because of a trait with which Tim was created, then it becomes difficult for me to recognize the good in Joe. Purity and justice are one and the same in this case, but the interpretation of what these things mean is different.

    Similarly, I like centrist thought behind Chuck Neufeld’s four-fold criteria. The rub comes with how rigidly we must adhere to the third point. Though I find that the “Confession of Faith from a Mennonite Perspective” most closely matches my faith, I must firmly disagree with certain aspects of the confession, particularly sexuality. So, not that it matters to me, but for the sake of argument, would I still be a Mennonite according to Irvin Stutzman?

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