As the arctic air subsides and the frozen tundra known as North East Ohio begins to thaw we start to look for the first signs of spring. For me, one of those signs that spring is upon us takes the shape of the Annual Conference Assembly of the Ohio Mennonite Conference of the Mennonite Church USA.
The past year has taken a toll on our conference and it was with some feelings of trepidation that I set out with our group from Midway this morning to drive to Martins Creek Mennonite located in Millersburg, Ohio. The somber air of the business sessions that took place today are a testament to all of the issues that are currently circulating, as we all try to ignore the elephant in the room that has become a regular member of our assembly.
There are some spaces at our round tables that are now permanently empty because the unrest and turmoil has led some of our congregations to decide to leave our conference over polity issues. Their exodus has left a gaping wound that many of us are still trying to understand and seems to be at odds with the scripture theme that was chosen for this assembly, love and hospitality, which is found in Romans 12: 9-13:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (NRSV)
The lighter moods of past assemblies have vanished. In their place is a thick blanket of tension that is hanging in the air, making it hard to articulate intelligent conversations that are open and honest during our table discussions. The atmosphere of grace and love that characterized the conversations that took place at the special delegate session last August is nowhere to be found.
Further frustrations are being caused by the presence of talking pieces (TP), new to the tables this year, that limit each person to talking for just one minute at a time. You may only speak when you are physically holding the TP. Perhaps the intention of including this new circle table format was an effort to ensure everyone had a chance to speak, but the reality of it is that it is hampering the flow of discussion. It is also shifting our focus each time we have to stop and wait for the TP to be transferred to the next person with something to share, preventing real conversations from taking place.
We are stepping on the sacred toes of group discernment which is a key hallmark of our Anabaptist beliefs, and what sets us apart from our Catholic and Protestant sisters and brothers.
The resolution that has been brought to the table, that is supposed to help calm the tensions caused by the decision by Mountain States Conference to license a pastor in a committed same sex relationship, still lacks the clarity that we as delegates keep seeking. It is all well and good to say that we affirm Article 19 of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, which is one of the governing books that contains the articles of what we as Mennonites believe together. However, if we don’t draw a clear line in the sand, how can we say that we are affirming it? The ambiguity created by this lack of a clear stand makes it impossible to determine what the appropriate sanctions should be for pastors and/or congregations that step across the line.
In addition, the lack of clarity makes it hard for our pastors to make decisions within their own congregations. How can they make a stand on one side of the line or the other if they don’t have feel like they have the full support at the state conference level to back them up? This current haze is leaving our pastors partially crippled in their duties instead of bolstering them up as they go about their kingdom work.
By the end of the second business session it felt to me as if there was a growing distrust for the leadership in general. The delegates and their congregations are having a hard time trusting that the leadership of Ohio Conference will lead us in the direction that the majority of our congregations have clearly stated we want to go.
At the same time, the leadership seems to be nervous about losing more congregations. They are trying in every way possible to find out if any more of the remaining congregations are on the verge of leaving the conference. This is causing, in my opinion, the leadership to lose focus of the important polity matters at hand during this assembly. They are focusing instead on the resources they provide for congregations. What they provide is very important to help each individual congregation achieve the good works they are persuing, but it doesn’t feel like this is the right time and place to be discussing those resources.
One of the things that I have always appreciated about the annual conference assembly is the variety of ways and styles of worship we see as we all gather to worship together. We embrace and celebrate the various ways we see our sisters and brothers of the Ohio Mennonite Conference preaching, teaching, and worshiping in song. We give thanks for all of the different Spirit filled ways we see people being led. I come away from those experiences refreshed and renewed with fresh fuel for the fire that is burning in my soul to do my part to help spread the love of God.
How do we figure out a way to convert that openness and acceptance we have for the different worship styles among us into how we enter into the conversations that need to be going on during the business sessions? If we can bridge this gap we might finally be able to not only address that elephant that has been with us during our sessions this past year, but actually start to extend some of that hospitality to the elephant and begin to move forward. Until we can extend that hospitality to the elephant, we will never be able to come together to dig in and to do the work that is at hand.
We live in a broker world that seems to be getting darker and more evil with each passing day. It is up to us to come together and to discern a clear path for our denomination which will in turn direct our future. We are responsible for sowing the seeds of the kingdom. Let us come together in love and fearlessly let the Holy Spirit move among us to facilitate our conversations and to direct our path as a body of believers.
So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have a opportunity let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. (Galatians 6: 9-11, NRSV)