Will Mennonite Church USA survive? Reflecting on three decades of struggle (part 1)

Ted Grimsrud

The denomination I have been part of since 1981, the Mennonite Church, is going through a bit of a rough patch right now. The longer-term trend for some time has been shrinking membership totals and an aging demographic.

Downward trends

The college where I teach, Eastern Mennonite University, was founded and has existed with the purpose (not always directly stated) of keeping Mennonite young people in the Mennonite community. When I began teaching here in 1996, the student body was a bit more than 60% Mennonite. Now, with the enrollment being roughly the same, the percentage of Mennonite students in our first-year class is about half of what it was 17 years ago. Not a good sign.

Another factor that has led to MC USA shrinking, besides smaller families and the younger generation losing its loyalty to the denomination, has been a steady stream of conservative congregations leaving the denomination—and numerous others continuing to threaten to leave. (It is an interesting phenomenon that it is only conservative congregations that are voluntarily leaving—the couple of progressive congregations that left MC USA since its current structure was established in 2001 with the merger of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Church were kicked out.)

In recent weeks I have heard dispirited speculation from several denominational leaders better informed and much closer to the centers of power than I am that MC USA may not be long for the world. I have no idea how realistic such speculation actually is. I do find it difficult to imagine that the denomination itself would die, but I suppose it is reasonable to imagine a significantly diminished institution.

I perceive that it would be pretty difficult to describe accurately all the factors that are contributing to these troubles. Most of those who talk about these things (including me) may have ideological axes to grind in our analyses. Our understanding of the why of the problem is often shaped by our ideals about what we want the denomination to do.

What I want to reflect on in this post is not so much a wide-ranging diagnosis of the factors that are troubling MC USA as taking one particular factor and thinking about how it might have contributing something to our current situation. This is my thesis: The soul of MC USA has been damaged by a tendency for church leaders and others to allow those who are opposed to efforts to make the denomination more gay-friendly to exercise influence by use of threats to leave the denomination. Our current crises follow—at least in part—from this tendency.

Mennonites have a long, long history of splitting. In fact, it could actually be the case that our current struggles are simply an inherent aspect of the Mennonite tradition. And the tradition, for the vast majority of its history quite decentralized and fairly non-institutional, has continued to survive. So it could be that some reconfiguration and diminishment of this one particular Mennonite institution (MC USA) will not actually damage the Mennonite tradition itself that much.

The current dynamic of congregations leaving or threatening to leave the denomination over the named issue of “homosexuality” has been going on for at least 30 years. It would be my perception, though, that “homosexuality” is only the surface issue—something that provides a focus for deeper and longer-term factors. It would certainly be worthwhile (even necessary) to work at understanding those deeper and longer-term factors of tension and disunity. Right now, though, I simply want to focus on the recent dynamics related to this one “surface issue.”

An ordination story

I have some personal history with the leave-and-threaten-to-leave-over-“homosexuality” dynamic that indicates how far back it goes. In 1988, as I finished my first year as the pastor of a west coast congregation, I agreed to enter the process of being considered for ordination. I assumed that it would be a mere formality since things were going well in my ministry and the process for my licensing when I began at the congregation had been quite routine.

The process turned out to be far more than a formality. The initial interview with the leadership committee went well until I was asked about my response to the recently adopted denominational statement on human sexuality (called the “Purdue Statement”). I said I like the statement pretty well and expect to use it in my ministry, but that I wasn’t sure I agreed with the one sentence that “homosexual genital activity” is inherently sinful. I never said I disagreed, but I was not willingly fully to affirm it. This is all I ever said about this issue, but over the next two years a very difficult process unfolded.

One member of the leadership committee refused to approve my ordination and left the committee at an impasse. He refused to budge in his opposition. Over the next couple of years, denominational leaders were called on to mediate. Discussions went around and around. Everyone in positions of power agreed that the conference was in a very fragile place. They feared that if they went ahead with my ordination, the conference “would fly apart.”

Finally the other members of the leadership committee decided that they needed to act. The one dissenter resigned from the committee in protest. He joined with two other pastors to meet with the conference minister two days before my scheduled ordination service to issue an ultimatum: either the ordination be stopped or they would take their congregations out of the conference. The conference minister worked out a compromise and my service went forward and I was ordained.

Several months later at the conference’s annual delegate meeting, a motion was made to refuse to accept the leadership committee’s report that included record of my ordination in hopes that that might invalidate the ordination. When the vote was taken, the motion failed by one vote. A revote happened with the same result. My ordination stood. At this point, the dissident pastors acted to remove their congregations from the conference. As it turned out, the congregation that the leadership committee dissenter pastored refused to leave the conference, so he left that congregation instead.

This use of the threat to leave the denomination seems to have had a pretty powerful impact in these past 30 years. It is interesting that I have heard that the post-split dynamics in the area where I was ordained were far more positive than people feared. The congregations that split from the conference remained connected with the other Mennonites through work with Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service, and the local Mennonite high school. Personal relationships were more cordial without the conference conflicts coming between people. For me personally, though, it became clear that I would not have a comfortable life working in that conference, so I moved on in 1994.

A litany of threats

Even though my ordination controversy had a somewhat happy ending for me, I still see it as part of the dynamic where these threats to leave have significant power in shaping the responses to the “homosexuality” issue. These responses, time after time for over 30 years now, have actually empowered dark or destructive forces within the denomination that have helped move us to our current sense of crisis.

According to Lin Garber’s historical account, Mennonite engagement with our issue have a key point of origin in the emergence of small Mennonite communities in various major American cities during the 1970s—a time following the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969 that began the gay liberation struggle. Garber cites an anonymous letter to the Mennonite Church’s denominational magazine, the Gospel Herald, in August 1977 as the first public comment arguing for openness to inclusion of gay people in Mennonite congregations. In 1978, Rainbow Boulevard Mennonite Church in Kansas City, KS, became perhaps the first Mennonite congregation in North America explicitly to state that it would welcome gays and lesbians as members in its fellowship.

Over the next several years, several consultations were held under Mennonite auspices. I remember in 1982 talking with a friend who was attending Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries. He told me something was happening there that he couldn’t tell me about. With my curiosity piqued I pressed him for more information but he refused to reveal what was going on. Several months later I learned that the seminary had hosted a top-secret conference that included speakers with various views on the topic, including some openly gay people.

In the mid-1970s, an organization known as the Brethren and Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, and Bisexual Interests (BMC—its current name) was formed to offer support of gay Mennonites and Brethren and to work at educating the broader denominations about the experiences and perspectives of gay people in their midst.

By 1983, BMC had grown to the point where several of its members were ready to request a formal presence at the Mennonite Church General Assembly in Bethlehem, PA. The request was granted and for the first and only time at a Mennonite Church General Assembly BMC was approved to have a booth. After only a few hours, though, this booth was dismantled by denominational leaders.

I don’t know the details of that incident, but it may serve as a key moment in our larger story by establishing an on-going pattern that has undermined the spiritual health of the denomination. What if the courageous offer of the BMC participants to have a vulnerable presence at the General Assembly and provide opportunities for conversations and education with the denomination’s blessing been accepted?

I think two important negative consequences followed from the decisions to dismantle the BMC booth and subsequently to refuse permission for BMC to have an on-site presence at any General Assembly since. The first negative consequence was the lost opportunity for genuine conversations and mutual give-and-take for an entire generation of Mennonite convention attenders. The second negative consequence was an enabling of the tactics of threat, intimidation, and hostility that have and continue to shape the Mennonite Church’s response to the persistent interest in many of its members for such conversation and give-and-take.

Despite the continual effort of those opposed to the presence of gays in Mennonite congregations and denominational gatherings, this presence has not abated—and now shows signs of growth and increased power in shaping the direction Mennonite communities take.

Short-circuiting conversation

In the early 1980s, the Mennonite Church and General Conference church approved a study process on the topic of human sexuality, including explicit attention to “homosexuality.” A study committee with representatives from various professions, both denominations, and the United States and Canada, devoted many meetings and hours of research to producing a study book for congregations in the two denominations to share. This book, Human Sexuality in the Christian Life, turned out to be a  balanced and perceptive resource. The committee members became a kind of community of discernment.

The study book did not try to dictate a single approach to the issue. But it included as one possible action that churches “accept the person and the practice of a monogamous covenantal homosexual relationship” along with other more restrictive options. It concluded “if the church should err, let it be on the side of caring for and loving a group of people who are much persecuted in our society.”

This committee’s assignment, in part, was to help guide the creation of denominational statements that were to be considered at the 1986 GC convention in Saskatoon and the 1987 MC convention at Purdue University in Indiana. The committee was stunned when their recommendations for openness to various perspectives were discarded by denominational leaders.

The resultant “Saskatoon Statement on Human Sexuality” and “Purdue Statement on Human Sexuality,” both approved by the respective delegate bodies, committed the two denominations to explicit affirmations that all same-sex sexually intimate relationships are sinful and to be rejected as acceptable for Christians. As a sop to the committee’s work, the two statements commended the use of the study book in the congregations. As it turned out, few congregations actually did use the study book and its influence in the actions of denominational leaders in the years that followed appear to have been minimal.

However, dissent toward the anti-gay declarations of the two statements was strong enough that denominational leaders agreed to foster continued conversation by forming a Listening Committee for Homosexual Concerns in 1990 to gather information by talking with church members across the two denominations. The Listening Committee had a presence at both the MC convention in Eugene, OR, in 1991 and the GC convention in Sioux Falls, SD, in 1992. The Committee was then disbanded.

Similarly to the Human Sexuality Committee, the Listening Committee included a diversity of people from both denominations and from the US and Canada—and they also evolved to be a community of discernment. When the Committee was disbanded in 1992, it completed its final report along with a list of recommendations. This report, like the Human Sexuality study book, reported on existence of a diversity of viewpoints within the denominations and on a variety of options in responding to “homosexuality”—including to “accept homosexual orientation, friendships, monogamous homosexual sexual union.” This report was received by denominational leadership but then was shelved and not made public. The recommendations were explicitly rejected.

In the meantime, rather than take the Listening Committee’s report to heart and acknowledge the diversity of views within the Mennonite churches—and the need for respectful discernment work—the MC’s Council of Faith, Life, and Strategy issued a “clarification” in 1995 that stated: “The words ‘remaining in loving dialogue’ found in [the 1987 Purdue Statement] should not be construed to mean that the homosexual issue is unresolved or that the position of the church is in question.”

Of course, this attempt to assert from the top down that it would be wrong to think “that the homosexual issue is unresolved” not only ignored the results of the denominations’ one attempt to discern the state of the churches (i.e., the Listening Committee) but ignored the on-going ferment in the churches and broader society that saw increasing numbers of people within and outside of the churches become more open to the acceptance of same-sex relationships.

[Here is the link to part 2 of this post]



18 thoughts on “Will Mennonite Church USA survive? Reflecting on three decades of struggle (part 1)

  1. Thanks, Ted, for offering your thoughts about MC USA here on your blog — for caring enough about the church to try to understand her and (especially!) to try to help her survive!

    Your thesis is that “those who are opposed to efforts to make the denomination more gay-friendly” are being allowed “to exercise influence by use of threats to leave the denomination.”

    I believe few of the persons you are describing would recognize themselves in your description of them. It’s always ticklish to describe someone’s motive. You ascribe their motive as one of wanting to make a threat. No, their motive is just to describe what their conscience is telling them: that if their church home abandons something “essential,” they will no longer feel at home there. (‘In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity’ — the former GC church motto, borrowing from Augustine.) Yes, from outward appearance, these persons’ behavior looks the same as a threat (when they alert conference or denominational leaders how they are feeling). But, like the Lord, let’s look at the heart, not the outward appearance.

    As I told the MC USA Executive Board in 2005, I am willing to not have homosexuality be an “essential” (Google what is in the brackets to read what I said: [ “See the essentials” gaymatter ]). But it’s hard for most conservatives to go there. And when they say so, it’s good not to take their words in the worst possible way they can be taken. Not if you want your words in response to connect with them.

    1. Good to hear from you, Harold. As I am sure that you know from your writing, it is difficult always to be clear and say precisely what we mean. However, just to try again, I don’t mean to be describing people’s motives so much as their actions (or proposed actions).

      Maybe their motive is, as you say, simply “to describe what their conscience is telling them.” However, the form of that description often takes is a demand that the denomination take action against movements toward inclusion with the implication (sometimes explicit as in the recent Lancaster Conference bishops’ statement) that those “describing their conscience” may well leave the conference or denomination if such action isn’t taken.

      I really don’t think describing such statements as “threats to leave” is inaccurate, do you? Do you think concern about whether Lancaster Conference (at least in part) or other major segments of the proposed MC USA might leave (or not join the merger) didn’t play a major role in the formulation of the Membership Guidelines? I really think I’m just offering the most obvious and straightforward interpretation of what has been and is currently being said.

      You are correct that a major motivation in my writing about these issues is that I hope that MC USA can survive (and thinks for the charitable reading of my motives!). However, I try to be clear that I see only two ways for MC USA to survive—and both involve the denomination embracing the principle (as was characteristic of the old General Conference Mennonite Church) of what has been called “congregational autonomy” in the sense that there is no provision for kicking congregations out.

      Accepting this principle is the only way the denomination can exist amidst its current seemingly irreducible diversity. The two ways that this can be embodied are (1) the current conferences accept this principle or (2) the conferences and congregations that cannot accept this principle hive off and the only ones left are those who do accept the principle.

      1. You are so right that it is “difficult always to be clear and say precisely what we mean.”

        Is it a “threat” when someone is expressing their conscience and wouldn’t mind if it had an impact on the church? Maybe. I was thinking it’s a “threat” when they’re doing it to be manipulative or throw perceived weight around — which definitely describes the pastor in Oregon who opposed your ordination.

      2. So this is an interesting thought: I have thought that my experience with the pastor in Oregon was something that gave me insight into the events of our day and the way what I am calling “making threats” works. I still think that, but it is also possible that I am failing to perceive that there might be differences too. I should not assume that all these later cases are to be seen as precisely the same kind of phenomenon. They should be seen in their own light.

        That said, there seems to be difference in thinking of following one’s “conscience” in (like with COs) saying (1) I will not do something I am convinced is wrong versus (2) saying that I will not allow you to do something I am convinced is wrong. I am not sure I would call #2 “following one’s conscience.”

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  3. those of us, (and yes, i am one who is not comfortable being in a church denomination that excepts and affirms gay sex) you refer to as threatening do not see this as threatening, but a need to follow Jesus. isn’t that the Mennonite mantra? Following Jesus? the trouble is, we forget that Jesus went to a cross and died for sin–all sin, and that includes sexual sin. The atonement is the doctrine being ignored in this issue. if we cannot proclaim sin as the problem for all humans, and the answer to it is grace through Jesus, we have lost the only essential part of the gospel that can help any of us. Sorry, but followers of Jesus should not follow the world and its darkness, but come to the light of repentance and forgiveness by the blood of Jesus.

  4. The length of this article says it all. Simple belief in God’s Word does not require this type of defense. There is a reason MC USA is declining. So sad.

  5. Dear Jesus Christ, Thanks for dying on the cross for all of our sins. But recently, we the leadership of the MC USA declared homosexuality an unsin by the power of LOVE. We know You didn’t really mean everything You said in Your Word about homosexuality. We will let You know what we will work on next. Thanks again!

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