Mennonites and “separation”: More ruminations

Ted Grimsrud—April 29, 2015

My first encounter with Mennonites, now nearly 40 years ago, came in the context of my interest in the intentional Christian community movement, specifically Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois. I spent a week at Reba in the summer of 1976, and received a crash course in communal living. That was the beginning of a great adventure. About that same time, I also became very interested in the Mennonite peace tradition.

I am not sure how long it took before I began to learn a bit about the shadow side of the Mennonite story. I suppose it has been the flip side of the community ideal that Mennonites have also tended to break fellowship with each other. It is a sign that they take their relationships quite seriously—as well as their ideals of rigorous discipleship. But surely the countless splits that have characterized the tradition for hundreds of years have rarely been healthy or life-enhancing. Generally, they have been demoralizing and rancorous.

So, the current dynamics in the orbit of Mennonite Church USA are not new in the history of these communities. Our present day anxiety and distress are not unprecedented. At the same time, it is likely that each season of division has its own distinctive characteristics. One question is whether the tendency toward division is simply a bad thing, or maybe (at least at times) reflects laudable convictions. Maybe separation within the fellowship is not always undesirable.

One of my most direct encounters with the Mennonite way of division came about 25 years ago when I was a young pastor in a Mennonite conference out west. I actually unwillingly played a role in a schismatic moment. When I was being considered for ordination, several pastors in the conference raised strong objections to my candidacy due to theological concerns. It took several painful years, but the conference leaders finally decided to go ahead and ordain me. At that point, two pastors led their congregations out of the conference (there was also, simultaneously, the ordination of the first two women pastors—one of whom happened to part of my tiny congregation). A third pastor failed to get his congregation to leave, and resigned his pastorate instead.

I have not maintained many contacts in that conference, so I don’t know much about the long-term legacy of the splits. But I was told by numerous people in the decade following the “divorce,” that things had actually worked out pretty well. The conference was more peaceable, and the congregations that left seemed happier and continued to fellowship with conference churches through Mennonite Central Committee and other inter-Mennonite efforts. In both the towns of the departing congregations, new Mennonite congregations were formed by those who desired to remain in the conference (and both still exist). So, the division was not the end of the world and perhaps even had positive consequences. Though I’m sure a lot of pain still lingers as well.

So, the question of Mennonites and “separation” is not a new one—and not a simple one. Continue reading “Mennonites and “separation”: More ruminations”