Is the survival of Mennonite Church USA now less likely?

Ted Grimsrud—July 1, 2014

It’s difficult for me not to be discouraged by the report from Mennonite Church USA’s Executive Board released today concerning MC USA’s Mountain States Conference and the licensing for ministry of my friend Theda Good, a married lesbian pastor. As is typical for such reports (produced by several hands in times of stress and intense disagreement), this one is full of ambiguities and even internal contradictions, not to mention convoluted and passive-aggressive sentences that may taken to support various interpretations.

Still, the main thrust of the report seems to be to rebuke Mountain States for its action. One point that is clear is the insistence that conferences are being told that they should not take actions that are at variance with denominational positions. A big question is whether this insistence has any teeth. It seems to be a historical fact that over and over again Mennonite conferences have indeed taken actions that are at variance with denominational positions—just in relation to ordination of pastors we might think of the ordination of non-pacifist pastors, the ordination of divorced and remarried pastors, and, maybe most relevant to our current situation, the ordination of women.

The language in this current statement, when scrutinized, seems more to be language of “this is what we (the Executive Board) want” than of “you must do this or you will pay.” Perhaps such language reflects a desire by the report writers to be as gentle as possible—or, maybe more likely, the implicit recognition that the Executive Board doesn’t really have a lot of leverage against a dissenting conference. The historical examples indicate that usually conferences have gotten away with whatever variances they have chosen. At the same time, we must recognize that our current environment seems utterly unique. Already many other unprecedented actions have been taken to censer, exclude, and punish those at variance with the stated positions of the denomination concerning homosexuality.

I decided a number of years ago to try to pay less attention to internal politics in my denomination of choice, Mennonite Church USA. The last General Assembly I attended was Wichita ’95 (which I should say, was a terrific experience—I’m kind of glad that my last Assembly was one I can remember with much happiness). I haven’t followed denominational issues very closely—including this current situation with Mountain States. So I don’t have any inside information or special insights about it. But it still has piqued my interest, no matter how reluctant I may feel about caring much about such institutions and their struggle not to self-destruct.

Last February and March, I allowed my interest in MC USA’s future to stimulate me to write what proved to be the most popular piece I have ever posted, “Will Mennonite Church USA Survive?” And I followed this up with “How Mennonite Church USA might survive.” [I will admit I that did harbor the tiniest hope that some folks from MC USA’s Executive Board might want to converse with me about the ideas I share (since I assume that at least a few of them were among the thousands who added to my “hit” total). That none did may add to my distress at what they came up with last weekend.]

This current report, which I do not plan to read real closely or try very hard to understand, stimulated a couple of thoughts. I’m taking the opportunity here to share them hoping for further conversation.

An encouraging (or discouraging) trend

Last week, as I read about a large congregation, Clinton Frame Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana, switching from MC USA’s Indiana-Michigan Conference to the South Central Conference, I thought how this reflected a trend that may or may not be helpful for the healthy future of the denomination. My idea was that what happens with the Mountain States issue over the weekend would indicate how hopeful this trend might be.

In the past several years, a number of MC USA congregations have switched conferences. It’s an interesting dynamic. At the time of the merger that created MC USA in 2000, congregations that were members of both denominations and hence two different conferences (the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church), had three choices—they could stay in both conferences, they could choose one over the other, or they could work to merge the area conferences from the two denominations into a single conference (interestingly, Mountain States [which had been an MC conference] agreed to join the GC Western District and the MC South Central Conference; Western District also agreed to this merger, but South Central didn’t quite have strong enough support to make the change—hence, the three conferences remained distinct; this entire issue would have played out differently had that merger happened). From the beginning, a few congregations decided to end their membership in one of their conferences, surely due to a sense of less ecclesial compatibility.

I may not have this history completely accurate, but as I remember it at least one congregation—Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship—was “orphaned” with the merger. It had been kicked out of its MC conference and belonged to the GC as an independent congregation. The new MC USA polity did not allow for independent congregations to be members, so Atlanta needed to find a conference that would accept it. The Central District Conference, a former GC conference, with a long history of tolerating differences, agreed to accept Atlanta even though Georgia did not fit within the existing Central District geographical footprint. (Geography was not a stated criterion for conference membership in the new denomination.)

About the time of the process that led to Atlanta joining Central District, the congregation I belong to, Shalom Mennonite Congregation in Harrisonburg, Virginia, became increasingly anxious about its future in Virginia Conference—anxiety greatly exacerbated when Virginia Conference summarily kicked Broad Street Mennonite Church out due to dissenting views on homosexuality. We desired a conference that we would feel safe in, though at that point no disciplinary procedures had begun against us. As far as I know, Shalom was the first congregation in MC USA that was in good standing in one conference that wanted to switch to another. The Atlanta precedent helped Central District be open to including another congregation from outside its geographical footprint.

We were given the idea then that we had gotten in the door just in time. That our ability to switch conferences (thus remaining in MC USA) and remain theologically at variance with MC USA’s stated positions on homosexuality troubled many. The sense was at that time that the denomination would try to make it harder for congregations to make such a switch (though after our move, St. Paul Mennonite Fellowship in Minnesota joined Central District—so it’s possible my memory makes this opposition to our move stronger than it actually was).

Then something that perhaps had been unexpected began to happen. Congregations that were more conservative than their conferences began to switch—most notably, First Mennonite Church in Berne, Indiana, one of the largest of all MC USA’s congregations left Central District (perhaps in part due to Atlanta, Shalom, and St. Paul joining) and became part of the Ohio Conference. Now this current switch of the Clinton Frame congregation, seemingly for similar reasons (Berne is near Ohio, but Goshen is outside the geographical footprint of South Central Conference). Apparently several other congregations have or will soon make similar moves.

There are major differences between the impulse that led Shalom to switch conferences and that of Clinton Frame. This isn’t just a simple trend with identical motivations from both “left” and “right.” But one key effect of all the switches is the same—the movement toward less ideologically diverse conferences combined with (at this time) sustaining the diversity of the larger denomination.

This is where this trend gets interesting, and where the response to Mountain States perhaps becomes a harbinger of the near future of MC USA. Congregations switching conferences due to ecclesial compatibility could have the impact of increasing the chance of the larger denomination managing to persevere through our current crises. If the denomination is willing to live with the diversity among the conferences and allow each a fair amount of autonomy. Or, it could be that the large, conservative congregations switching conferences could actually strengthen the tendency toward purging those at “variance”—maybe in the future on the level of removing conferences and not only congregations.

I thought of this last week: that the decision concerning Mountain States would give us an indication of how this is all trending. The rebuke of Mountain States that I see in the Executive Board’s report, then, says to me that the forces who want to purge MC USA of “variant” perspectives are dominant right now. In my view, this can’t be good (see my “Will Mennonite Church USA survive?” post for more analysis of why this would be the case). Those who support the rebuke of Mountain States are fighting a battle they can’t win—they will either “succeed” and manage to exclude a few MC USA congregations (but the point of view reflected by Mountain States’s action will remain present in the denomination) or they will simply delay the day when the denomination as a whole reaches the point of accepting its diversity, but with a lot of damage done in the meantime.

A fascinating precedent

I also had another thought—and here even more am I relying on faded memories. It seems that there are some important parallels between this current controversy over credentialing pastors and one that was flaring brightly thirty-some years ago when I first connected with Mennonites. My wife, Kathleen Temple, and I attended the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries (now, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) in the Fall of 1980. We affiliated with the Mennonite Church part of AMBS (that was the affiliation of the congregation in Eugene, Oregon, that first acquainted us with Mennonites in the flesh). At that time, there was only one ordained woman, Emma Richards, serving an MC congregation. As I understood it, that ordination had been quite controversial and involved some acting in “variance” from first the congregation and then the conference. The ordination occurred in 1973 and still by 1980 had been followed by no others in the denomination.

That time at AMBS in the early 1980s was actually a watershed period. Probably one-half of the students training for ministry were women—in a denomination that at that time had only one ordained parish pastor. There were no tenured women professors. Change was in the air, and change did come quite quickly (even if not adequately). One part of the change was that even though the actions that led to Emma Richards’s ordination involved some violation of stated denominational positions, the response did not have the intense hostility that the current response to Theda Good’s credentials has had.

It took awhile, but the Mennonite Church before long came to welcome women pastors—even while respecting those congregations as full members who did not share that welcome. It would be interesting to have an informed conversation about similarities and differences between these two issues—credentialing women pastors when doing so went against unanimous denominational policies and credentialing married lesbian and gay pastors when doing so goes against unanimous denominational policies.

I tend to think that one way through the current impasse would be to invoke that past precedent. We learned that we could live with diversity, that we didn’t need to rebuke and threaten to exclude those at variance, and that in fact female pastors turned out to be just as gifted and suited for ministry as male pastors. I believe the same thing could happen with gay and lesbian pastors.

If MC USA is not willing to follow a similar trajectory in the present, it would be helpful to have a conversation about why this is. What is that makes credentialing Theda Good so different from credentialing Emma Richards that would lead to what appear to be quite coercive threats that if carried out could cause extraordinary damage to our denomination? I suspect the answer to this question would require an answer to the broader question that has not heretofore been answered—Why is the “homosexuality” issue important enough that our denomination and its member congregations and institutions would devote the kind of time and energy to resisting change that it has in the past thirty years (see my critique of this dynamic of resisting change, “The Logic of the Mennonite Church USA ‘Teaching Position’ on Homosexuality”)?


30 thoughts on “Is the survival of Mennonite Church USA now less likely?

  1. I predicted, as you may remember, that the merger would result in three conferences: the Mennonite Church USA, a conservative break off and a liberal group that had been expelled or may have left. Perhaps I was too cautious. Maybe we will have four, or even five. But the crux of the matter is that Mennonites, like so many other small denominations in the past, are assimilating and will soon simply reflect the political and cultural groups within which they are located to a greater extent then their spiritual culture of origin. There are likely to be a few enclaves that will retain the old practices, but they will be few. This, I might add, is not something that is new. When I practiced in Harleysville PA many of my non-Mennonite patients referred back to Mennonite ancestors, most of whom had left the Mennonite church over its strict and demanding discipline. The Mennonites, like the Quakers, probably have had a greater genetic impact on the population then they have had a spiritual one. Would t’were the other way around.

    J. Lamar Freed, Psy.D.

    1. I do remember your prediction, Lamar. I also remember back in 1995 that others were saying similar things at the Wichita general assembly (referencing other denominational “mergers”) and some leaders responded with, “We’re Mennonites, we’ll be different.”

  2. I am sad that not a single Executive Board member reached out to you. It’s not because they didn’t know about your blog. I, for one, and probably not the only, shared your blog with the entire Executive Board and including Ervin Stutzman. I will probably blog an email exchange I had with him in the coming days as he hasn’t replied to me in a week.

    Honestly, I think it boils down to fear and money just as you said it was about fearing those who would threaten to leave. I do not fear a split of MCUSA – my only wish is that my own church switches to Central Conference before that happens.

    1. Becky, as I said in my earlier post, it could be that Central District will be the future of MC USA one way or another. The denomination can imitate CDC’s welcoming spirit now and hold together most of its conferences and institutions, or the people who are left after things fall apart will be the one’s committed to the welcoming spirit. I fear, in light of this report, that it’s a little more likely today that we will end up with the second outcome.

    1. All I know of, Jerry, is the report that they issued today. I link to it in the opening sentence of my post above—it’s the part that’s underlined.

  3. Ted, I’m not surprised that the Executives didn’t address you and your ideas. Even though you have been in the Mennonite Church for many years, you still are not of the Mennonite Church and tribe.

      1. The Executive Board is made up of folks from Mennonite churches, most of them pastors or leaders in their conferences or contexts, but not all of Mennonite heritage. ( I doubt they are ignoring Ted for that reason. Perhaps they are busy people who don’t have time to engage everyone with ideas on this topic? Or perhaps Ted should contact one or two of them directly for a more in-depth conversation? (Contacting a whole Board with one email can lead to “the tragedy of the commons”, where no one recipient feels responsible for responding. I’ve experienced this with many intra-committee emails.)

  4. Dave, you may be right. It has been my experience that influence and power among Mennonites come by way of who you know, which part of the ethnic family you come from and/or if you have married into the clan/tribe/church. Ted knows some people and has some clout as a professor/scholar in a Mennonite institution, but he lacks the other connections.

    1. Gary, that is sometimes the case, I know. But Ted has been part of the Mennonite Church for 35-40 years (I think), has taught at a Mennonite college for at least 20, and writes extensively. That’s quite a bit of power, actually. Probably more than an EB member, given the number of students Ted has directly influenced over the years. (Thank God for professors like Ted!)

      My main point is that the EB members are ordinary people just like us, and to dehumanize them into some amorphous “Executive” that has bad intentions is to make it harder to communicate with them (and, by extension, to try to convince them of your point of view). If you want to communicate with a Mennonite leader, just do it, respectfully. They will likely be happy to hear from you, even if they don’t agree.

      Disclaimer: I have been in positions of leadership within my conference, and am a living example that it doesn’t take having the right parentage or heritage or whatever. Sometimes it just takes interest and willingness. But that could be because I’m out here in the Pacific NW.

  5. Ted, I just want to clarify that no decision as to which conference Clinton Frame will become a part of going forward. The discernment process that resulted in a vote to leave IN/MI was limited to leaving and not joining. Although our leadership is indeed looking at South Central as a possible place to go, that decision has not been made yet. I just wanted to clarify that so that there is no confusion later on.

    Matthew Yoder
    Pastor of Community Life
    Clinton Frame Mennonite Church

  6. My impression is that it is easier for individual congregations on the conservative side of the LGBTQ issue to switch conferences with the full blessing of MCUSA and the area conferences involved than for more liberal churches to do so. My impression is that the liberal churches wishing to leave an area conference for the most part only have the choice of leaving MCUSA altogether while conservative churches have more options in terms of remaining in MCUSA although of course many still choose to leave. This ease of changing conferences but remaining in MCUSA would seem to be in conflict with the teaching position of continuing to remain in dialogue on this issue. Or is my impression regarding the disparity and the teaching position on dialogue incorrect?

    1. I’m not sure what the answer is to this, Herbert. I’m not aware of anyone who knows more than I do (which isn’t much) who has reflected on the phenomenon since this latest series of switches (or prospective switches).

      It seems like it was much easier for First Mennonite of Berne to switch than it was for Shalom. But that may be in part because we were the first to do it as a congregation in good standing in our old conference and we thus paved the way.

      One issue that has complicated things is that several of the “liberal” churches that have switched or wanted to switch were in some sense under discipline in the conference they were leaving. The new denomination has a policy that congregations under discipline can only switch with the blessing of their old conference. None of these “conservative” congregations have been or are under discipline as far as I know.

      You are implying that it might be more difficult for a “liberal” congregation to find a receptive conference than for a “conservative” congregation. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.

      Part of the question I was trying to raise with my blog post was precisely about whether the switching conferences dynamic will enhance or undermine the call to “remain in dialogue.” As I said, it seems like it could work either way—but I fear the Executive Board’s report indicates that it may tend more to undermine. We’ll see.

    2. Herbert, I don’t know whether it’s easier for a “conservative” congregation to switch or not, but I know of at least four “liberal” congregations that have moved to a new conference (Atlanta, Shalom, St. Paul, Covenant) in the past few years (Covenant just joined CDC in June). And I am unaware of any congregations that have wanted to switch but have not been allowed to (unless Hyattsville counts — I know they have been “disciplined” by Allegheny Conference and heard that they considered switching conferences, so that may be an example). Are you aware of congregations that want to change conferences but have not been allowed to?

      The process for switching conferences is fairly open-ended, which may explain some of the differences congregations have experienced. “11. We recognize the possibility that from time to time a congregation may seek a new area conference relationship. Out of mutual respect for one another, no congregation shall separate or be separated from one area conference and subsequently be accepted by another area conference without consultation among the area conferences and congregations involved, according to criteria established by the Executive Board.” (from the Membership Guidelines –

      1. I am a member of Hyattsville, so perhaps my perspective is different form many. That is partly why I am trying to test my impressions against what others see. I think it is probably correct that the question of whether a congregation is under discipline makes quite a difference on the ability to switch conferences. But should it? At least from my perspective, the practice of area conferences disciplining congregations over the LGBTQ issue has been somewhat capricious, to say the least. There appears to be a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in place for for many area conferences and possibly within many congregations. This does not seem to conform to the dialogue teaching of MCUSA – it seems to me that the congregations who attempt to engage in dialogue on this issue are the ones most likely to be disciplined. Isn’t the act of disciplining a congregation for welcoming LGBTQ members itself a violation of the dialogue teaching on the part of an area conference?

  7. Thanks for getting the ball rolling in ruminating over the EB’s report, Ted! There’s a lot of good stuff in your response.

    I think focusing on the past precedents of ordination of women and divorced/remarried pastors is a potentially valuable approach, but I am wondering how well the parallels work. Were there explicit “unanimous denominational policies” against credentialing women pastors?

    As for switching conferences, that’s not really a cogent issue for us out west. We have large geographic area conferences that already merged a few years before the creation of MCUSA. I can see pluses and minuses in switching conferences. If it provides a “relief valve” for congregations, allowing them to reshuffle allegiance but stay in MCUSA, that seems good. But if it creates more polarized ideological blocs, that might not be so good.

    In reading the EB report a number of times now in some depth, I have quite a few problems with it, but also see it as a somewhat decent attempt at finding a middle ground. If interested, you can look at The Mennonite’s online article about the EB report, where I have outlined my questions and critiques in a number of responses. But rather than repeat those here, I want to point out some potential positives and “space for change” that I see embedded in the document.

    First, the EB does not condemn what MSMC did as unequivocally wrong and requiring punishment, as the letter from Ohio Conference pastors did. In fact, they start out by affirming MSMC as brothers and sisters in Christ and are generally rather positive about them.

    The main point of contention, as I see it, is that MSMC moved out ahead of the denomination, and that could potentially set a de facto precedent for what the denomination’s beliefs/actions are. The EB is re-affirming that MSMC’s action does not mean that MCUSA’s positions have changed. Yet.

    The “yet” is key. For in three of the five points, the EB ends with the opportunity for change: “unless the Mennonite Church USA Delegate Assembly changes the stated polity on same-sex marriage”.

    I’m not entirely sure, but even raising this possibility (changing the polity) in an official EB document feels like a first. While the road to making that change is likely long and painful and full of potholes, it’s still a road that the EB itself has laid out in front of us. I see this as a call (intentional or not) to the Open Letter signers, Pink Mennos, MennoNeighbors, and all who want change in MCUSA to do the hard work, the slow, slogging work, of convincing the *whole church* to move with them. Not just a few activists and allies and advocates, but the *whole church*. For that is the only way we’ll get there, right? If we all (or at least a majority) can agree that we want change.

    In the meantime, the EB was rather quiet on the matter of “discipline” for being “at variance”. I see that as potentially purposeful, and hope it means that they did not want to punish or discipline MSMC, but will let them do their own thing as long as it doesn’t force MCUSA to change until it’s ready. After all, they did not say (and could not, really, since credentialing is held at the area conference level) that MSMC should *revoke* Theda’s license. Licensing, as they note, is “offered for testing within the region and local congregation” and isn’t really a denominational issue.

    Yes, they want MSMC to renew their commitments to MCUSA foundational documents, but since MSMC’s leaders and members already are committed to said documents, albeit with a twist, that isn’t really a very harsh discipline.

    The last three points deal with producing resources (more resources!), exploring new structural models, and surveying all pastors to get the lay of the land. I appreciate their confession that they could have done better and gotten out in front of this “issue” rather than let it be forced upon them. And their frank admission both that we have a wide diversity of belief and practice and that we don’t know how to deal with that diversity is the first step in starting to deal with them. And that’s great to see.

    I actually feel more hopeful now than I did back in February. We’ll see what the eastern area conferences’ responses are, though. Will this report/response be enough to assuage them?

    1. Just a quick note to acknowledge that I have read this comment and your comments on the Mennonite’s page with a lot of appreciation, Dave. I’ll try to find some time in the next day or two to share some reflections in response. I’ll just say now that like with my thinking about the EMU non-decision decision, as I let this one sit longer I gradually feel less negative.

  8. Ted,
    Two other examples of churches realigning. Blossom Hill Mennonite Church realigned with Atlantic Coast Conference, mostly due to the non willingness of Lancaster Conference to recognize the ordination of women. The position of Lancaster Conference was at variance with the denomination, but was been clearly tolerated. Also, Frazer Mennonite has at least been granted conditional membership with Atlantic Coast Conference. This over an open attitude to homosexuality. The details of this matter are vague to me, because like you, I have distanced myself from the political wranglings of the denomination and conferences.

  9. Ted, As you know, I’m in agreement with your position and proposals and I find it disappointing, but not surprising, the Executives didn’t ponder your thoughtful suggestions for a way forward. However, sometimes I think you and your readers expect too much of the church in general and and far too much of the Mennonite Church in particular in this post-ecclesial age.

    Sunday I preached a sermon to a growing, urban Mennonite congregation in response to many younger adult members’ piercing question, “What do we do when we discover there is more of God’s justice, love and presence in “the world” than in the church?”


    I suggested there is no expectation that the church would be the exclusive or even the primary repository of God’s justice, love or presence. Jesus came preaching the reign of God in the world and we look to the Executives of the Church and in the Church for an authoritative divine word. Even as there is sin in the world there is sin in the church. Even as there is grace in the church there is grace in the world. On many spiritual questions and social concerns today, God’s grace is manifested more in locations of worldly holiness than in places of churchly piety and polity. The young adults who requested the sermon on this topic said the message made them “hopeful and quite interested in coming to a church where a theology like this is explored and practiced.” Church becomes a community where members together discern what God might be doing in the world and then join that work and witness even by the waters of Babylon.

  10. Scott, I dig your angle on this! As a first step, Mennos could spend more time looking at where the Holy Spirit is moving in the larger ecumenical church. Denominational limitations can provide such a narrow focus. Mennos, like Roman Catholics too often talk about Church as if they are the true and only depository of the truth of Jesus and God’s reign. As Moe of the Three Stooges used to say, “Spread out!” (Scott, I couldn’t resist the comic reference when thinking of our youth and watching Captain Penny.)

  11. Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus! No more!

    Yes, Gary, Catholics and Anabaptist alike — Mennonites and Brethren types — seem to think the Church controls God’s agenda in the world. I like your suggestion that we look to the larger ecumenical church. I’m writing this from the Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren in Columbus, Ohio. The Brethren have the same problem with LGBTQ questions as their Mennonite cousins and like the Mennos say they are “missional.” Blessed are those who refuse to boast they are missional.

    Both groups fail to see the Spirit has moved far from their solemn assemblies and sober executives to many interesting places in the world for the world. My young friends, who are more heretical anabaptists than we, confess that this insight is a better starting point for theological reflection than the more churchly Anabaptism taught by their elders.

    {The CoB is still demanding fidelity to a 1983 denominational paper on human sexuality which rejects the possibility of holy same-sex partnerships. My young friends declare, “Think of all the interesting spirituality and sex that have been discovered since 1983!”}

    I love your reference to Brother Moe — “Spread out! — and to that Cleveland legend Captain Penny. My young friends insist the current starting place for both Mennonite and Brethren sex-talk is too marked by the identity politics and intramural language-games of aging men.

    In this context, we must also remember that Cleveland saint of our youth, Ghoulardi. Remember the theology he taught us long ago? “Cool it!” And to those who refuse to be cool, “Turn blue!” AMEN.

    [To readers who are perplexed by this, Gary and I lived in a seminary community house together — right next door to the John Howard & Annie Yoder family when we were students at AMBS. We both felt even then that the worldly theology of our Northeastern Ohio had much to teach the church].

    1. A positive step toward more ecumenical contact is the Executive Board of MC (US) sending a letter to the ELCA as part of a continuing effort toward reconciliation. As an aside, I went to high school in Cleveland with the current Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton. Perhaps letters and actions of reconciliation with Lutherans will help toward furthering more reconciliation between Mennonites and Mennonites.

  12. Yes, I think all conversations with Lutherans, Baptists and Buddhists are important in gaining a more expansive vocabulary and view of divinity. Here at the CoB Annual Conference in Columbus some of my former students, who are pastoring in urban areas and enter ecumenical, intercultural and interfaith vocabularies daily, remark on how shocking and even chilling the vocabularies of the Old Anabaptist God now strike their ears.

    To paraphrase Desmond Tutu, “We must ask, what was God before she became a Mennonite?”

  13. Ted, I find your attempts to analyze the mysterious ecclesiastical structure of MCUSA very fascinating. One suggestion would be to start a betting pool on the question you’ve been addressing — “Will MCUSA Survive?” — or at least a nonbinding poll updated weekly.

    Back in seminary school (I actually did a year and a half at AMBS and received a Certificate in Theological Studies) I was shocked to find that “evangelism” was practically a dirty word. Leland Harder taught the (one and only) course in evangelism, and Bob Ramseyer had an excellent course on missions, but that was it. My wife and I had come from New York with a passion for urban mission, and after our stint were recruited by Eastern Mennonite Missions, that highly conservative outfit, to aid in churchplanting in Philadelphia.

    One seminary course in group dynamics revealed an interesting truth to me and one that has stayed with me over the years. Main point is that groups that are divided over one issue are less likely to survive as a group than those divided over a multitude of issues. The image was a pie chart divided in half as opposed to one with many slices.

    Needless to say, the current MCUSA looks like the former thanks to the gay issue. However, if one looks more closely there are all sorts of fascinating rifts — urban vs rural and exurban, white ethnic vs other ethnic, wealthy vs poor, passion for evangelism vs passion for peacemaking, pro JHY vs anti JHY, etc etc.In the old days (namely Bethlehem 83) there was Sword and Trumpet vs Old Mennonite and its developing relationship with General Conference. That was probably the most likely split of “conservatives” vs “liberals” of its day, but it was averted.

    I’m not sure I’d be willing to bet on survival of MCUSA if you ever start your betting pool, but I’m also not sure how I’d bet. Lamar Freed’s suggestion of how the cookie will crumble is interesting. I doubt if things would even be that clearcut if it came to that.

    Personally, I would like to put more energy into guilting the wealthy exurban church, taxing them with their racism and everything Jesus had to say about wealth, than fighting this interminable gay fight. Or criticizing the supposed “peace studies” folks (you know that AMBS still awards a John Howard Yoder prize for Peace Studies, which is uproariously funny given his career) with their lack of passion for evangelism.

    Notice I say “guilting” — an old Mennonite passive-aggressive tendency which to my surprise still seems to work — notice all the gay people who have the “sads” because of what the church has done to them. Actually, I think we need more overt fighting in this church. Standing up and throwing chairs and yelling and swearing, letting it all hang out rather than pretending to be nice suffering whatevers.

    Or we could try “quilting” — another time-honored Mennonite practice where the old ladies sit around in a circle presumably sharing the vicious church gossip and working together on a quilt. Maybe the women could in the end teach this patriarchal church a few things. Maybe…..

    Ross Lynn Bender
    Philadelphia, PA
    West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship

  14. I appreciate Dr. Bender’s comments and particularly his priorities regarding what is dividing the Mennonite Church. Wealth, women in leadership, members active in the military: all these things separate large portions of the current denomination. Worship styles range between what would pass as Methodist to Pentecostal to Old Mennonite and many in between. Just today I saw a video of a conservative Mennonite Church choir (the women wearing what passes for contemporary coverings) singing a contemporary song that only occasionally switched to 4 parts and, shockingly, members of the congregation were lifting their hands in praise as if they were Pentecostals! Fortunately they did not sway their hips and no one, to my knowledge, was slain in the Spirit. My point is that there is more variety in the Mennonite Church than there is in most other denominations, probably due, in large part, because of the evangelical fervor of people like Dr. Bender and his saintly wife, Sylvia. Religion is becoming Red and Blue, just like the rest of the country and I don’t know why anyone would be so arrogant as to think that Mennonites would be any different than any other denomination.

    J. Lamar Freed, JSPS

  15. I’ll apologize in advance if my comments have been repeated above:

    It strikes me that an insistence to use organizational documents as guides through potential situations which may present in the future is not a misguided practice but neither is it the definitive methodology of relationship between living, breathing entities. How else does change occur within rigid structures (composed from lifeless documents), except by an entity being “at variance” with that very organization?

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