NORTH NEWTON, Kan. (Mennonite Church USA)—Eighty-four leaders from across Mennonite Church USA gathered for the spring meeting of the Constituency Leaders Council (CLC) at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., from Thursday, March 20, through Saturday, March 22.
The CLC members spent the majority of their time together offering feedback to six questions regarding church structure, polity and relationships, in reference to a decision by Mountain States Mennonite Conference (MSMC) to license a pastor in a committed same-gender relationship on Feb. 2. The questions were developed by a task force commissioned by the Executive Board (EB) and chaired by Moderator-Elect Patricia Shelly.
CLC members were urged to “trust God and trust each other,” to listen deeply and respectfully to one another and to spend time in worship and silence listening for God’s leading for Mennonite Church USA. Members of the Newton community set up a prayer room across from the CLC meeting space, and members of local Mennonite congregations were invited to come and pray for CLC members and their ongoing work.
Throughout the weekend, participants remarked on the care and respect that CLC members modeled for one another.
“The level of care for each other was extraordinary,” said David Boshart of Wellman, Iowa, task force member, CLC member and executive conference minister of Central Plains Mennonite Conference, in a report to the group on Saturday. “If we can carry that sense of extraordinary care to the rest of the church, they would be astonished at how God can work in human hearts.”
On Thursday, the meetings included time for MSMC leaders to share about the year-and-a-half-long discernment process that led to the decision to license Theda Good for ministry at First Mennonite Church in Denver.
MSMC leaders told their story using Scripture, prayer, worship through song and personal sharing. They also presented a timeline to CLC participants that illustrated the steps in their process. Those present had the opportunity to ask clarifying questions regarding MSMC’s process on Friday morning.
In response to what was shared, both Herm Weaver, MSMC conference minister, and Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, identified some points of regret and things they might have done differently throughout the process.
The CLC spent Friday responding to the following questions posed by the task force:
- Having heard from Mountain States Mennonite Conference (MSMC) and the report of the task force, what feedback does the CLC want to communicate to the leadership of the MSMC?
- What is God saying to us and to Mennonite Church USA, as we listen and reflect?
- Are there better ways than our current organization (and written statements) to cultivate relationships between congregations, area conferences and the denomination?
- How will we tend our common life as Mennonite Church USA, especially in light of differing beliefs and practices?
- What direction can the CLC offer the Executive Board as they tend to the relationships among congregations, area conferences and the denomination at this time in our history?
- What direction can the CLC offer the Executive Board as they respond to MSMC’s recent credentialing process?
CLC members discussed each of these questions in table groups and then reported back to the larger group. CLC members acknowledged that MSMC’s actions place the area conference at variance with the relational covenant the conference made when it joined Mennonite Church USA in 2005. Table groups offered suggestions for how the EB could respond to the variance reflected by the MSMC decision as it impacts relationships with the rest of the church. The task force will compile and synthesize the table groups’ responses and report back to the CLC by May 1. The task force will then draft a recommendation for consideration by the EB at its June 26–28 meeting in Chicago.
CLC members urged the task force and the EB to tend to the relationship with MSMC. In addition, they encouraged the EB and task force to address the broader conversations and disagreements across the church regarding same-gender relationships. The CLC also expressed a strong hope for finding a way to be together, suggesting that the EB explore new models for relationship among area conferences and congregations. The Purposeful Plan—a 10-year strategic plan for Mennonite Church USA—was held up as a guide for the work that churchwide agencies, area conferences and congregations can collaborate on in spite of disagreement in other areas.
The CLC also called for a confessional report recounting the process and interactions between the EB and MSMC. Task force members will engage this work as they compile and interpret the responses from the table groups.
The importance of face-to-face conversation was named repeatedly. Several area conference leaders said they are looking for ways to promote healthier and more frequent inter-conference conversation and relationship-building in the future.
In their concluding reflections, task force members said, “We were told by countless people that they were praying for the CLC and our Church during these days. God’s presence among us has been palpable, and we have sensed the moving of God’s Spirit. We are not leaving the same. As we leave this meeting, let us continue to pray that God will open a way for our Church to not only survive, but thrive.”