In a the landscape of the still fledgling denomination known as Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA), there are a number of clear signs that the merger of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church is not complete. Quite frankly, even though the merger was official about 9 years ago now, we’re not even close being of common mind and goals. We share a denominational structure, and that’s about it.
In Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas there are two overlapping area conferences of Mennonite Church USA. South Central Conference (SCC) and Western District Conference (WDC). SCC is the former Old Mennonite (MC) conference and WDC is the former General Conference (GC) area conference. As MCUSA was being formed through the late 90’s, WDC and SCC also had talks about coming together. These talks fell apart about the same time at a joint conference held in Dallas, Tx. The reasons for this are many and varied.
I find myself in something of an interesting position at this point in my life. I grew up in Goessel, Ks, a GC stronghold in central Kansas. I grew up as a strongly loyal WDC kid. After going to Bethel College, I worked for Buhler Mennonite Church in Buhler, Ks another strong WDC church. I then finished up schooling at AMBS in Elkhart, In. After the graduation, my process of finding a church to work at led me to Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church in Harper, Ks. PVMC is one of the key churches within South Central Conference. While I have since found out that I am actually related to about half of the church, Harper and PVMC were not in my sphere of consciousness until I applied for the job. Since that time, I have come to learn the history and culture of both PVMC and SCC in a way that I had not previously understood it.
This merging of my own worlds has led me to do some re-examining of the relationship between WDC and SCC. The main question that I’ve been wrestling with is, “what would need to happen in order for there to be a truly life giving merger of these conferences?” These thoughts are a work in process, but I felt like I needed to at least get them written down somewhere.
1- We must find a shared telling of history. Specifically, the past 15-20 years. An example. In the early 2000’s Bethel College Mennonite Church went through a process of discerning what their response to homosexuals in the church should be. The end result of that process was the addition of a welcoming and non-discriminatory statement in their bulletin. I remember when it happened but didn’t think much of it. The polity (church structure) of WDC is such that each individual church has a high level of autonomy, meaning that this decision was simply representative of that churches own decision process and that they had the authority to do that. The conference was not really involved, nor did they need to be. What’s more, it certainly didn’t represent the conference as a whole.
Fast forward to this past summer. Shortly after I began at PVMC, I was having a conversation with my conference overseer and this particular event. She made the point that Bethel College Mennonite’s decision came just before the joint conference in Dallas where the merger talks ultimately fell apart. As she recounted the story, Bethel College, and even all of WDC, had made this this statement as a flaunting of their power as if to say, “we can do whatever we want and you can’t do anything to stop us!” As she told the story, the Bethel College Mennonite welcoming statement was an intentional affront to SCC at a critical moment.
Reconciling our history (this story and many others) and finding a way to tell it that everyone can agree is accurate is a key step.
2- Repentance and forgiveness. Both conferences must admit that they have hurt each other, both intentionally and unintentionally. We must genuinely ask for forgiveness from each other. In addition, we must both be ready and willing to extend forgiveness to each other.
3- Hold up the value of the other conference. Both WDC and SCC have rich histories that need to be sufficiently honored and valued. On a more basic level, however, both conferences simply need to be able to say that the other conference has something of value to offer the other conference.
4- Create a new conference. In the way that it was necessary to create a new denomination, not simply have the GC’s join the MC’s or vice versa, the merger between WDC and SCC would need to form a new conference. Bluntly put, both WDC and SCC would cease to exist and a new organization would take it’s place. This is not to say that the history of both conferences would not be preserved. On the contrary, the new conference would be the keeper of stories and history of both SCC and WDC.
So what’s the chance of this happening? Even though these suggestions are basic and sound simple, for many people in both conferences, they are things that they are unwilling to do. Having worked in both conferences, I can safely say that there is a feeling on both sides that, basically; if you want to come join what we’re doing that’s great, but we’re doing things the right way. Even the idea of admitting that we’ve done something wrong is a hard pill to swallow for people in both conferences. Not to mention the hard work of reconciling and preserving history.
Is it possible to for these conferences to come to this kind of productive place? Yes. But it will take a massive amount of humility on the part of both conferences. And humility, at least in the case of this relationship, is a trait that everyone involved has been pretty short on.