Earlier this month, nearly 250 persons from Franconia and Eastern District conference congregations came to ask questions and to listen to Dr. Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA. Franconia Conference leadership invited Stutzman to two town hall meetings held at Swamp Mennonite Church (Quakertown, Pa.) on April 10 and Salford Mennonite Church (Harleysville, Pa.) on April 11. With dozens of questions submitted beforehand to conference staff, Stutzman took time to explain the current landscape of Mennonite Church USA, addressing the consistent themes of those questions but also taking questions from those gathered.
The majority of questions related to the recent turmoil and controversy following the licensing of Theda Good, a woman in a committed same sex relationship, for ministry at First Mennonite Church of Denver by Mountain States Mennonite Conference and Eastern Mennonite University’s listening process to review policies for employment of persons in same sex relationships.
According to Franconia Conference executive minister Ertell Whigham, the meetings provided a unique opportunity for persons from “the pew to the pulpit” to engage the MC USA executive. Stutzman calmly and transparently responded to an array of questions and explained the current circumstances in detail to offer a glimpse of history, complexity, theology, and possibility.
At the Salford meeting, Stutzman noted the tensions in the church but promised, “I don’t think there’s a single question that you can ask that I will try to avoid.” He observed that this time of turmoil in the church has resulted in an amazing outpouring of communication, concern, and prayer. “Our church cares deeply about this,” Stutzman reflected at the Swamp town hall. “God has our attention in a new way. We stand at the door of opportunities to be faithful.”
Franco Salvatori, pastor of Rocky Ridge congregation, particularly appreciated that Stutzman clearly explained the executive board’s process in response to Mountain States Conference. “I desired to attend the town hall meetings because I believe that the issue of same sex relationships is critical for the church in our time,” Salvatori said. “Unlike any other issue I have seen in recent history, this one seems to have the most potential for division, which always obscures the gospel.”
Stutzman articulated his own commitments to the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspectivebut admitted that the challenge from Mountain States Conference on the denomination’s membership guidelines will not likely result in that conference’s expulsion from Mennonite Church USA, a response which would require a 2/3 vote at the Kansas City 2015 convention. He also highlighted the work of a task force designated by the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board to chart a way forward. The task force’s recommendations will be discussed at the October meeting of the Constituency Leaders Council, a twice a year gathering with representatives of all Mennonite Church USA conferences and constituent groups intended to provide counsel to the denomination’s executive board and leadership.
Alice Eldredge of Ambler congregation appreciated the respectful way town hall participants interacted with Stutzman and one another. “Even though it was evident persons felt deeply, they asked questions mostly in a respectful tone and with care,” she said. “I felt hope in the abilities of the leadership of Mennonite Church USA, with Ervin as a representative. My hope is that grace may abound among us and love and respect for one another may prevail in the midst of disagreement.”
Listen to the podcasts:
Thursday, April 10, 7pm at Swamp Mennonite Church (Quakertown, Pa.)
[podcast]https://mosaicmennonites.org/media-uploads/mp3/Stutzman Town Hall (Swamp).mp3[/podcast]
Friday, April 11, 9:30am at Salford Mennonite Church (Harleysville, Pa.)
[podcast]https://mosaicmennonites.org/media-uploads/mp3/Stutzman Town Hall (Salford).mp3[/podcast]