My friend and EMU colleague, Dave Brubaker (a.k.a., “Mr. Make-it-Practical”), who teaches in our Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, has challenged me to push out more some of the allusions I made at the end of my “Will Mennonite Church USA Survive” post concerning the future of our denomination. This is an exact quote from Dave: “I think a number of us have ‘imagined’ a different structural arrangement…the key question is how we get there.” So, all in good fun, I thought it might be interesting to spin out a fantasy about “how we get there.”
I want to emphasize that this is a fantasy. Not that I am not serious. But this is totally a thought experiment, not a serious proposal. I’m just the “ivory tower” thinker, right?
Cooperation from people at the top
In my fantasy there are key roles played by people at the top in MC USA and, even more so, by people at the grassroots. Certainly, it matters little what the people at the top do if they don’t have support from the grassroots. On the other hand, those at the grassroots might have quite a bit they can accomplish even without the cooperation of those at the top (at least, this is the case in the world of my fantasy). But it would be nice to have that cooperation.
The main thing the people at the top might do is publicly explicitly to promise to refuse to cooperate with any efforts to kick anybody out of the denomination—be it a congregation or conference. They could insist that we are all part of the same family, and that what that family-ness means is that everyone in the family has the responsibility to be there and to have their voice be part of the group’s discernment. Now, I can’t imagine exactly how we can get to the place where this promise would be given. Certainly, partly it may simply be a matter of luck in having people appointed or elected to these positions who would believe in making such a promise. At the same time, perhaps if strong and clear communication were given to people at the top from a sufficient number of grassroots people, they could persuaded to make and hold to such a promise.
It seems that a promise not to kick people out is a prerequisite for genuine discernment processes. However, people who truly care about the well-being of MC USA will insist on expressing their convictions regardless of whether they are promised safety or not. So, promises from the people at the top are not absolutely essential.
Something else people at the top could do is be willing to devote the denomination’s staff time, monetary resources, and publicity channels to support the kind of regional and local conversations I will sketch below. Again, such support may not be absolutely essential—people who care about the well-being of MC USA will work at creating contexts for conversation regardless of support from the top, but such support could help a great deal.
The goal: A critical mass of Mennonites with a couple of basic convictions
In my fantasy, what would contribute in essential ways to the healing of MC USA would be that enough people in the denomination would come to share a couple of crucial convictions.
(1) The first conviction is that churches and conferences and denominations should not be about boundary maintenance and exclusion. For a long time people have talked about the difference between “centered sets” where the emphasis is on core convictions and practices and people are given the freedom to join the community or not based on their own discernment and “bounded sets” where the emphasis is on defining what differentiates insiders from outsiders and the community (or its leaders) determines who is allowed in and who is not.
Being church (on whatever level) is about being committed to a conversation that includes all others in the faith community. To exclude or to use threats to leave in coercive ways undermines the community’s processes of discernment and listening to the Spirit. So the starting point toward creating a healthy MC USA is to insist on operating as a “centered set.” It may not be possible with the wave of a hand to transform the denomination from the top down on this issue, but if each person who affirms it began to advocate for a commitment to this approach things could change.
(2) The second conviction, which is actually simply the flip side of the first conviction, is to affirm that our denomination’s viability (as with our local congregations and our conferences) ultimately depends upon members’ willingness to live with trust—trusting that God’s truth has intrinsic power and does not rely upon coercion for its sustenance. In fact, truth is undermined most of all when it is “defended” in coercive ways. This trust is essentially an affirmation of the present, gentle, yet persevering power of God’s Spirit in guiding and sustaining communities of God’s people.
Neither of these two convictions provides much content for the formulation of doctrinal statements or even mission or vision statements. However, I believe they are essential prerequisites for the work of formulating statements and articulating bases of identity and creating coherent communities with a clear sense of why they exist and what their work is to be. The alternative is to continue in our present downward spiral where, in the words of evangelical pastor Ken Wilson, “”The church [exists as] an anxious system,…organized around the most anxious members, including those who threaten to leave if exclusionary policies aren’t upheld.”
So, how do we move toward implementing these convictions?
The main ways I see to get there: People write and talk about it wherever possible. We would hope to create a critical mass in the denomination of those who believe in a community that respects all people within it. We would advocate for a community that moves toward its mission of embodying the way of Jesus by including the perspectives of all people within it. We would spend time envisioning the kind of church we want and draft position papers to foster conversation that would articulate the fruit of this envisioning.
We recognize the centrality of congregations that implement in explicit ways these convictions. However, we would also see value in common life with others in our denomination beyond local congregations. We would come together with other Mennonites to talk about our common convictions and about our differences. But we would have an attitude of seeking, amidst these differences, to “call each other in” rather than “call each other out.” We would recognize that we are in this denominational project together and would see the differences not as barriers to fellowship but as opportunities to learn and grow.
Organize vision-generating conversations
So, maybe the first task would be to create opportunities for vision-generating conversations—starting on the local level within individual congregations and moving to those in geographical proximity. Ideally, these conversations would spread and grow to encompass ever-larger areas of MC USA members.
One idea of how these conversations would work is to attempt to create statements of core convictions and shared mission. I can think of a couple of efforts I have been close to where small groups of interested people have created such statements. Back in 2005, I was part of an active discussion on the MennoNeighbors listserve where I drafted a list of convictions, submitted them to the online community for conversation, and revised them in collaboration with a few colleagues. The resulting document, “An Anabaptist Vision for the 21st Century,” did not get a lot of traction, but I think it still remains a possible starting point. In my fantasy, numerous small conversation groups will wrestle with that statement (or perhaps an abridged version), freely adapt it, offering alternative themes and ways of expressing things. This process could provide a basis for a larger conversation and perhaps a reinvigoration of a sense of the mission of MC USA.
Much more recently, an ad hoc group of students from Mennonite colleges, gathering for their annual Intercollegiate Peace Fellowship Conference at Eastern Mennonite University, put together a more concise and quite incisive statement, the “Shenandoah Confession,” that also could serve as a catalyst for conversation.
The point of starting with such statements would be to encourage a sense of coherence among the various conversations. The point would not be to create another Mennonite Confession of Faith as an end product. Rather, the goal is simply to have constructive conversations that would generate energy for helping MC USA be a mission-driven entity that derived this mission from open discernment processes that include the voices of all those who want to be part of MC USA.
A central focus for conversation could be to discern what the shared convictions are currently that allow diverse Mennonites to work together across what seem to be major theological divides. Three major examples are Mennonite World Conference, Mennonite Central Committee, and Mennonite Disaster Service. These three quite different entities do not include all Mennonites, but they do manifest profound levels of cooperation for a wide diversity of Mennonites.
What are the shared convictions that allow for such cooperation? These shared convictions certainly do not cover all that matters with Christian faith. There are reasons for the separations that keep the diverse groups of Mennonites apart. However, energy spent on identifying and reflecting on the commonalities could be inspirational and could provide guidance for how MC USA might move forward in seeking to carry out its mission even while containing important differences.
Hold institutional structures lightly
During the 20th century and on into the 21st century, North American Mennonites have created many new institutions (denominational structures, schools, service agencies, financial institutions, etc.). These institutions have required many buildings and other kinds of infrastructure. Creating institutional structures means creating entities that require a large investment of resources of time, material wealth, and creativity.
One of the challenges when stresses enter a system such as MC USA is the sense of responsibility to sustain the structures that exist. We have invested so much in such structures that it seems the height of irresponsibility not to work hard to keep the structures afloat.
This loyalty to sustenance of institutional structures may, at times, be in tension with the sense of mission and vision that animates much of the energy that draws people to work together in faith-based communities. One big challenge that it seems those in MC USA face today is how to navigate the tension many feel between, on the one hand, a kind of loyalty to institutional survival and, on the other hand, an ability to respond creatively to evolving understandings of how Christian faith calls followers of Jesus to respond to current challenges.
The kinds of conversations I am describing above carry with them an openness to change and new approaches to denominational life. That is, they seem to require a certain degree of flexibility concerning the future of institutional structures. It seems necessary for the sake of the future of MC USA to recognize the need to hold these structures lightly. It may that a willingness to let some of the structures go might actually be the best attitude to have even for the sake of the on-going viability of those very same structures.
A practice-centered denomination
What I would anticipate, should my “fantasy” actually come true, is that MC USA would evolve to be more self-consciously what I would call a “practice-centered denomination.” Going back to the experiences of those involved with Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite Disaster Service, it does seem like a lot can be done when Mennonites focus on practical work of service and compassion—even in the midst of on-going theological differences.
Now, part of the power of MCC and MDS is that neither claims to be a denomination. The analogy between MCC and MDS, on the one side, and MC USA on the other, will only go so far. But the analogy is still useful. I believe that a denomination that understands itself to be decentralized, centered on local faith communities, accepting of differences among its constituent groups, and focused on practical service work in its common endeavors is imaginable. Actually, to some degree these characteristics already describe quite a bit of the MC USA self-understanding. So moving more self-consciously in that direction could be seen mainly as simply being more intentional about what we already say we want to be like.
Focusing specifically on the issues of how MC USA responds to the differences within the denomination in relation to sexuality, I could imagine that clarity about and shared affirmation of a sense of the mission of our common work could provide a context for accepting our diversity on this one set of issues.
A big part of the problem right now, it seems to me, is that those in MC USA do not have a strong enough sense of common mission and shared convictions. So we experience these intense differences as deeply threatening. Hence, my fantasy on how to move toward “a different structural arrangement” centers mainly on talking together about what matters and then letting those conversations provide bases for constructive and creative communal evolution.