Since 2011, Franconia and Eastern District Conferences have come together for an annual fall Assembly holding separate business sessions, yet enjoying joint times of worship on Friday evening and Saturday morning, sharing in the recognition of newly credentialed leaders, and lunch. This year on November 3 and 4, 2017 they gathered at Dock Mennonite Academy in Souderton, Pennsylvania to do the same. However, new this year, a time of joint meeting was held on Saturday afternoon that focused on reviewing recommendations from the Exploring Reconciliation Reference Team that the two Conferences voted to commission at the 2016 Assembly.
The Assembly was centered on Psalm 133:1,3b, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.” The theme was Life Together, as the focus of the Assembly was that while these two conference may have split 170 years ago, they continue to do life together. A large part of the Assembly business this year was to look at whether these conferences would take the next step in their relationship, to look even more intentionally at reconciliation and what it would look like if they were to merge into one conference.
The weekend began with Friday night worship led by Tami Good of Swamp Mennonite Church, which included a worship team of folks whose first languages were Indonesian, Spanish and English and who came from congregations in South Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Upper Bucks and Montgomery Counties. The opening prayer was given in Indonesian, Spanish, English and even Pennsylvania Dutch. Videos were shown that highlighted Souderton Mennonite Church’s Vocation as Mission internship program, “for young adults actively pursuing God’s kingdom in local communities.” Highlighted were the fact that the interns come from congregations across both conferences — most not even realizing there were two conferences — and the relationships built between the interns through Bible study, leadership and social issues trainings, as they worked side by side with local non-profits, businesses and ministries. The other video shown was about the ministries of Deep Run East and Deep Run West — one Franconia Conference church and one Eastern District church that happen to be across the street from one another. Their pastors, Ken Burkholder of Deep Run East and Rodger Schmell of Deep Run West, shared about how their congregations do ministry in such close proximity and how their relationship has changed over the years since their initial split. The worship time was followed by the annual ice cream social provided by Longacres Dairy.
Saturday morning, delegates began their day in separate Eastern District and Franconia Conference business sessions. This was a historic day for Franconia Conference as they became bi-coastal and accepted four new congregations as members, one from Flushing, New York and three from the Los Angeles, California area. Bethany Elshaddai Creative Community in New York is pastored by Hendy Stevans and has been connecting with Franconia Conference for about two years. Hendy is currently a student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, attending classes at the Lancaster, Pennsylvania campus. The congregations in the Los Angeles area consist of Jemaat Kristen Indonesia Anugerah (JKIA) pastored by Virgo Handoyo, Indonesian Community Christian Fellowship pastored by Makmur Halim, and International Worship Church pastored by Buddy Hannarto. All three have had relationships with Franconia Conference for over a decade. The four congregations’ members are largely from Indonesia and joined with Franconia Conference pastors Aldo Siahaan of Philadelphia Praise Center and Beny Krisbianto of Nations Worship Center to share in a song. To learn more about these congregations check out their congregational profiles here. Following the 98% vote of affirmation to welcome these congregations, the delegates joined in singing songs in both English and Indonesian as a welcome.
The joint Franconia and Eastern District Conference Saturday worship was a time of song, remembering those who have passed on in the last year, and anointing 15 newly credentialed leaders. Following the anointing of the newly credentialed leaders, the leaders were dispersed throughout the auditorium and those in attendance were invited to be prayed over by them. It was truly a time of commissioning and sending forth. There was also a time of recognition of the Centennial of Mennonite Women USA and a video celebrating Eastern District and Franconia Conference’s shared Sistering Committee, a local chapter of Mennonite Women USA.
Following lunch by Landis’ Market, the delegates from Eastern District and Franconia Conferences joined one another around tables to hear from the Exploring Reconciliation Reference Team. The team reviewed their report that had been previously sent to the delegates, which can be accessed here. They also highlighted their recommendations. At their tables, the delegates were then invited to discuss any affirmations, concerns or questions they had regarding the report or the recommendations put forth. These were recorded on sheets of paper and submitted to be compiled and shared with those tasked at carrying out the recommendations, should the delegates vote to move forward with them.
The core recommendation from the team is that Eastern District and Franconia Conference “enter a formal engagement process for the purposes of healing and reconciliation and with the intention of becoming a single, unified conference by November 2019.” In order to do this, the team recommended the forming of two teams: one to work intentionally at addressing the “spiritual and emotional components of reconciliation,” known as the “Healing and Reconciliation Team”, and the other being the “Identity Development and Structural Implementation Team,” tasked with managing “the process of forming a single unified conference, with particular attention to the structure, staffing, financial, and cultural realities of creating a single conference from the two existing conferences.”
Nancy Kauffman, Mennonite Church USA Denominational Minister for the two Conferences, closed the joint time in prayer.
After a short break, the conferences gathered in separate rooms where their delegates recorded on flip chart paper their largest affirmations and concerns regarding moving forward with the recommendations. Present were David Brubaker and Roxy Allen Kioko, consultants from Eastern Mennonite University who had been hired in 2016 and were working with the Exploring Reconciliation Reference Team. Following this and some open microphone time for questions and answers, the delegates voted. With a 90% affirmation from Franconia Conference and a 99% affirmation from Eastern District Conference, both agreed to move forward with working at reconciliation and exploring more formally what a merged conference will look like.
This means that over the next few weeks, both Conference Boards will be looking for nominations for the two teams presented in the recommendations. The goal will be to have these teams appointed no later than the end of the calendar year. According to the recommendations, there is a goal for the Healing and Reconciliation Team to hold a Reconciliation service at a Spring 2018 Assembly, and planning will therefore need to begin quickly. The Identity and Structural Development Team will, over the next two years, work to develop a shared mission and vision, a new organization chart and budget to be presented to the delegates in 2019. Therefore, a decision on whether or not these two conferences will merge will not come until 2019. Over the next few weeks, leaders of both conferences will work to address questions raised about the process. Keep your eye out for more information on that. Nominations are due by Friday, December 1 at midnight.
To close this historic day, the two conferences joined together in song as they continue to look forward to Life Together.