I have a variety of reflections from the Mennonite Church USA national convention that was held in Pittsburgh, PA this last week. This is just one, hopefully there will be more coming yet.
I went to this convention not knowing for sure if MCUSA would survive past the convention. The reason was because it felt like there is currently an abnormally large amount of tension in the denomination right now. There are a lot of issues that are causing tension but the big one is homosexuality, mainly because of one particular situation.
In the spring of this year a Mennonite pastor in Western District Conference performed a same sex union ceremony. This has been done before, but every other time the pastor was disciplined in some form by their local conference. This time, however, the area conference credentialing committee reviewed her credentials and found them to be in good order. That’s a first.
The conference that I’m in (South Central Conference) overlaps with WDC and they have been at odds with each other for their whole history. There are a lot of reasons for this that I won’t go into, but the short of it that they’re not exactly thrilled with each other to begin with. At the SCC annual gathering in June, the tension in the air was palpable. From a variety of conversations I had the sense that I got was that this tension, and even outright anger, at WDC was not limited to the neighborhood and that it was shared by other conferences throughout the denomination. Perhaps it is simply because of where I live, but the tensions over this seemed so great that I fully expected a full on, knock down drag out fight on the delegate floor at convention, possibly even resulting in entire conferences leaving the denomination.
This didn’t happen. I think there are three reasons why.
1) Shane Hipps opening message. Shane brought the most pointed and most gutsy sermon I’ve heard in a very long time. I knew that he was right on because half of the time I found myself cheering what he was saying and half of the time I was ticked off because he hit me where it hurt. Most importantly, though, he named the theological tension in the air (i.e. purity or righteousness) and re-framed them both in light of reconciliation as the higher value. That sermon called out two groups who came to the convention ready for battle and set a tone of reconciliation and common ground rather than trying to defeat an adversary.
2) The conversation rooms. A new feature of the convention was the conversation rooms. It was a space set up to discuss the most contentious issues in the church with trained mediators to help focus and direct the conversation in a positive and helpful way. Ultimately, they weren’t perfect and there is room for improvement. However, the effect they had on the delegate sessions was significant. People want to talk about these issues and they want to be heard. The open mic time at the delegate sessions is an exceedingly bad place and way to do that, but at previous conventions it was the only place to attempt to be heard. To be sure, there were some pointed, direct and personal comments made during the main open mic time, but the level of hostility and divisiveness that I was expecting just never showed up. I suspect that this is due in large part to the fact that people had a place to actually have the conversations and arguments on a large scale in a place where they could be heard, thus reducing the need for people to try and hijack the open mic time.
3) Ervin Stutzman. I’ll be the first to admit that I had serious questions about Ervin when he started as Executive Director of MCUSA. As I’ve come to have more time and experience with him, my respect for him has increased by leaps and bounds. This is mainly for a couple of reasons. a) his has the ability to speak to people of all points on the Mennonite spectrum in a way that is deeply respectful and takes each one seriously as a part of the body of Christ and members of the church. b) in the midst of some very tense situation he has a non-anxious presence that reduces everyones anxiety level. c) he (and the exec. board) has worked very hard to paint a picture of a vision for MCUSA that does not deny the existence of difficult issues, but that does not let them dominate our work and mission as a church. All of this came out at the convention from top to bottom. Am I going to agree with him all the time? Nope, not by a long shot. But I do respect him and trust him.
I genuinely don’t know the future of the denomination. There is much that I’m very hopeful for, but there is not guarantee that we’ll be celebrating 20 years as a denomination. Even 6 months or a year from now the denomination could look very different. But for the moment, we’ve taken a step in the right direction as a denomination.