by Mark Reiff, Doylestown congregation
When I was in seminary, I had a professor start a class by sharing with us the background of the word “religion” (or in the Latin, religaire): “to bind.” He then asked us, What does it mean for our religion to bind us together?
I can’t remember where the conversation went after that question, but as I have participated in the Structure and Identity Task Force for the new, reconciled Conference, this has been the driving question in my mind:
“What binds us together as a conference?”
For many generations, this question has been answered by some geographic grouping, both at the conference level and at the congregational level. I have often been reminded by older members at Doylestown congregation about how many of the families who are still connected to our congregation have or have had farms near the church’s building. In the same way, conferences in our denomination generally grouped congregations based on geographic proximity.
Another significant piece of Mennonite church history was the work of bishops or overseers, who were responsible for ensuring that the congregations and households within their sphere conformed to a shared understanding of Christlike living. I have been told stories by older members of my congregation about their families hiding TVs or other “worldly” things when the bishop visited. These bishops played a significant role in binding up a shared identity through setting boundaries and disciplining congregations and families.
As technology has made our world smaller and allowed information to travel faster and as our lives have become more visible through social media, our attention has shifted towards binding our shared identity around other factors. As we continue to discern a way forward in our life together as a new Conference, a few reflections stick out in my mind:
- How we figure out a shared belief system will require more reflection, nuance, and grace given our polarized context. To some extent, when we declare that Jesus is Lord and the center of our faith, we are anchored together in that belief. Yet theological and ecclesial fault lines exist between and within our congregations; our cultural tendency is to take the convenient road of blasting someone with whom we disagree instead of doing the hard work of self-reflection on why their contrary belief bothers us so much. I imagine the work of Franconia’s Faith and Life Commission could offer us some further wisdom in this area.
- Even a completely successful reconciliation process could result in feelings of loss and/or grief. Many of the congregations forming this new conference have already experienced seasons of loss and grief because of broken relationships and shifting affiliations. As we come together to chart a new shared journey, it is likely that many congregations will encounter new losses, which could range from missing some past traditions to saying good-bye to familiar and beloved congregations who feel God’s call to connect elsewhere within the Church.
- God is good and can be trusted with our shared life. This work of creating a new conference is hard because of the energy it requires and scary because we might not always know what the end result will be. Since we have entered into this process through mutual discernment and prayer, however, we can have confidence that God will provide for us as a conference and as congregational families.
As we continue to discern our way forward as a new Conference, I invite you to reflect on your sense of belonging, both on congregational and conference levels. What binds you to your faith community and why? What binds your faith community to other faith communities and why?
As we reflect honestly on this and hear from one another, God’s path forward for us will become more clear and we will be better equipped to connect with others on the journey.