Showing Hospitality to Elephants

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)

Dying Discernment

This coming Monday marks an anniversary of sorts for MC USA.  For some it marks a milestone and a step forward, for others it marks a death knell and destruction.  It is the one year anniversary of the Mountain States Conference’s (a conference of Mennonite Church USA) decision to license Theda Good as a pastor.

What is so notable about that?  Women have been licensed as Mennonite pastors before.  What makes the licensing of this particular woman so momentous?  The answer is that she is in a committed same-sex relationship.   What this historic licensing has done is spark a year of turmoil.

It has started dialogues on whether we need to rethink the provision in the Confession of Faith that defines marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman.  It has also started conversations on what does the Bible really say about same-sex relationships.  It has us searching for answers to questions about whether homosexual relationships are always wrong, or could they be right if it is a committed relationship between two people.

It has been my experience that we as a denomination strive to include all of God’s children in our folds.  We all come with baggage, our own particular brands of sin and shame.   We are all humans living in a broken world.  However we don’t allow all to serve as leaders in our congregations, as leaders are held to a higher standard according to 1 Timothy 3:1-13:

The saying is sure:  whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task.  Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, and apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money.  He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way — for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?  He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.  Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil.

Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of faith with a clear conscience.  And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons.  Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.  Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)

So we have standards in place for the people who are leading our congregations.  We chose pastors to shepherd our flocks based on credentials and their moral character and worship and various other types of leaders based on their values and whether they have a heart for worship and/or leadership.  Those standards have been developed over the years by our denomination through conversations, prayers, and community discernment.

One of the good things that has come out of this is that the conversations are no longer being delayed and hidden.  The church body at large is going to have to address how we as a denomination move forward with multiple issues that arise when the topic of homosexuality comes up, not just in terms of leadership roles.

Do we begin the process that will change our Confession of Faith or do we reaffirm that Confession of Faith?  How can we address polity issues with grace and in love?  What measures can we utilize for accountability among conferences when we feel a conference is acting in violation of our shared beliefs?

In the days ahead the Mennonite denomination needs to have some challenging discussions on very personal topics.  We are being called at this moment in time to discern some very hard questions.

However there are also bad things coming out of this. Church dissention is running rampant.  Conferences have different views on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.  Congregations are withdrawing from conferences. Many are feeling let down by MC USA’s perceived lack of response to the Mountain States decision,  whether they were waiting for the church at the national level to levy support for the decision or administer discipline.  New networks are forming, which could possibly be a good thing, but are they forming prematurely?

In addition to churches withdrawing outright from their conferences, others are choosing to remain part of an MC USA congregation but to boycott the scheduled national convention this summer in Kansas City, MS.  They are choosing to stay away, and therefore are excluding themselves from the conversations.

And that is my biggest cause for concern.  We as a denomination have always valued community discernment on matters of theology and beliefs.  How does leading by the Holy Spirit occur in community discernment if we aren’t all showing up for the community conversations?

At the end of the day, no matter how this plays out, some will be happy and others will be angry or hurt. Inevitably there will most likely be some church divisions and splits, but we all need to be present and take part in the conversations going on now.  We need to prepare our hearts and minds and use prayer and scriptures for guidance as we relate with one another on our differing views.

Most of all, we need to proceed with love.  Show up and be present.  Pray for grace and mercy.   Discern together with the Holy Spirit and be open to where he leads us.  And no matter what, bring glory to God in all that we do.

Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another.  The Lord took note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name.  They shall be mine, says the Lord of host, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them.  Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him. (Malachi 3: 16-18, NRSV)