Ted Grimsrud—May 12, 2015
The word “end” is kind of cool, because it has two common and very different meanings. It can mean something like “conclusion” (“the game ended in a tie”) and it can mean something like “purpose” (“to gain one’e ends”). So, “end” can lend itself to use in headlines with double meanings—such as my headline for this post.
I suspect that if Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) is in its final days, at least as the institution we have known these past 15 years (and I sincerely hope it’s not), it might be in large part because of lack of clarity about its purpose. And this lack of clarity about purpose has made it much more difficult for leadership in the denomination to find ways to negotiate recent controversies and pressures.
An ambiguous vantage point
Probably everyone who is following the drama and has some stake in its outcome has personal memories and emotions linked with the fate of this manifestation of the Mennonite tradition in North America. I certainly do. When the Executive Board (EB) of MC USA released the text (with introduction) of a resolution it will present to the delegate body at the MC USA delegate assembly in Kansas City this summer, some of my memories and emotions bubbled up to the point of demanding some written reflections.
I offer these thoughts from a somewhat ambiguous vantage point. I am an ordained Mennonite pastor who served for about ten years in congregational ministry and now about twenty years as a theology professor at a college owned by MC USA. I am a member of a congregation that belongs to the Central District Conference of MC USA. I have been a member of a number of MC USA congregations in Oregon, Arizona, South Dakota, and Virginia for well over thirty years. So, I am definitely a stake holder.
On the other hand, it has been twenty years since I last attended one of the delegate assemblies. I won’t be going this year. I have found myself moving ever gradually toward the status of “interested observer” (as opposed to active participant) in denominational politics. I would love it if my thoughts were noticed by people in power in the denomination, but I don’t anticipate they will be. So I’m not writing as a means to affect what happens in a couple of months. I’m not quite sure why I am writing. I guess mostly I write because the thoughts are in my head and seem to be wanting out.
The memories and emotions evoked by the EB’s resolution, “On the Status of the Membership Guidelines,” are painful. I think of two in particular that go back about a quarter of a century.
Memory one: Sacrificing vulnerable people for the sake of “peace”
At the very beginning of my first permanent pastoral assignment, the congregation faced a difficult decision. Two young men who were in a committed relationship with each other had begun to attend the congregation. One was a new Christian and the other was from Baptist background and deeply interested in the Mennonite approach to Christian faith. And they had felt at home in the congregation. It made sense to take the next step and formalize their commitment to the congregation.
The congregation broke into three groupings in response to the request. A fairly significant majority affirmed the membership request and were delighted with the involvement from these two men. A few people had left the congregation in the months leading up to the membership request and a few others who remained were likely to leave soon. These folks felt it was unacceptable that the congregation would welcome these two men. The third group was made up of a number of people who did not voice opposition to the idea of the two men becoming members based on theological grounds. Rather, they were concerned that the congregation would get into trouble with the conference to which it belonged if we took this step.
In the end, this third group won the day. The congregation decided not to accept the two men as members, but to affirm them as “active participants.” (In this particular congregation, small and informal, formal membership did not accord any direct benefits, though it obviously carried significant symbolic weight.) This allowed the congregation to avoid a conflict with the conference.
As a brand new pastor, I understood my own role to be mainly that of facilitating. In our congregational meeting, I made the call, suggesting that we weren’t ready to take the step of formalizing the membership given that probably about one-third of the members opposed doing so. Virtually everyone at the meeting (including the two prospective members) agreed that that seemed right at the time. One family who opposed even the “active participant” designation left the congregation, but otherwise life went on fairly well. The couple continued to feel a part of the congregation for a number of months before (for entirely unrelated reasons) they moved away.
I got mostly positive feedback from people in the congregation for my role in the process. However, I felt pretty bad as, over time, I thought about what happened. It felt to me that we had been willing to sacrifice the spiritual well-being of these two men for the sake of maintaining a kind of peace with the broader conference. I resolved to resist such a possible sacrifice in the future as much as I could. There have been a few occasions when I did do so at least somewhat effectively.
In the 1990s, two closely connected North American denominations, the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church underwent a long process of negotiation with the intent of joining together into one denomination. The process turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. The first outcome that was not intended by the originators of the movement to merge was the splitting off of the Canadians. The merger of the GCs and MCs still led to two distinct denominations, MC Canada and MC USA.
The second outcome was the acrimonious response by many MCs. By this time, the discussions about sexuality had provided a point of focus for many who were uneasy with more progressive sensibilities that had been characterizing increasing numbers of Mennonites for some time. At the 1999 delegate sessions of the two denominations, the Canadians agreed and began their new denomination. They accepted the original version of the Membership Guidelines. The American GCs also agreed, but the American MCs did not quite have enough support to take the step. This was a difficult time.
In what apparently was an attempt to placate conservative MCs, denominational leaders formulated a new section to add to the “Membership Guidelines.” (In 2013, a lightly revised version of the “Membership Guidelines” was created by the Executive Board). Part III essentially committed the prospective new denomination to a discriminatory stance in relation to sexual minorities. The presence of the this addition to the Guidelines proved decisive in garnering adequate support two years later to gain the votes needed to make the merger happen. (Here’s an account of this history.)
I found this process quite distressing. It seemed to me to be a prime example of what I had come to see as deeply problematic—for the sake of the “peace” of the larger institution, the spiritual well-being of a vulnerable minority would be sacrificed. I was especially unhappy with the knowledge that numerous delegates who themselves would support non-discrimination nonetheless voted in favor of the Guidelines in order to “hold the church together.”
As it turned out, of course, the stopgap measure that made the merger possible fifteen years ago certainly did not create peace in the denomination. Many congregations and clusters of congregations left MC USA anyhow, even with the Guidelines in place. And the presence of restrictive Guidelines did not eliminate the presence of many in the new denomination who did oppose discrimination based on sexual identity. So the same dynamics that led to the acrimonious dynamics at the time of the merger continued. Exacerbating the tensions, American culture at large has experienced a sea change in relation to the acceptance of same-sex marriage and other manifestations of a desire to end discrimination against sexual minorities.
A new resolution
Now, the MC USA Executive Board has decided to address the Membership Guidelines. However, rather than acknowledge that the Membership Guidelines were at best “a temporary agreement written solely for the purpose of launching the new church in 2001” (the language here actually comes from the introduction to the EB Resolution, though the resolution itself treats the Guidelines as “a binding covenant for ongoing relationships in the church”—this description as a “temporary agreement” seems clearly to be accurate given that there were no Part III to the Guidelines in 1999 when MC Canada was formed and the formation of MC USA was delayed until Part III could be added), the EB has decided to double down and actually strengthen the discriminatory elements of the 2001 Guidelines.
One of the main effects of the Resolution would be to repudiate the polity that was established fifteen years ago that gave sole authority for credentialing ministers to area conferences. Another effect is to expand the focus of the Guidelines from prescribing certain activities by pastors (no performing of same-sex marriages) to determining who may or may not be credentialed as ministers.
Ironically, the background statement to the EB’s Resolution asserts that they “hope to use the next few years in delegate assemblies to focus on the mission that draws us together rather than arguments that push apart.” However, by doubling down on the boundary maintenance underwritten by the Guidelines, the EB likely is assuring that the “pushing apart” will only be exacerbated.
Two ways communities work
One way various thinkers have characterized how communities function is to suggest two general approaches—a core-oriented approach and a boundary-oriented approach.
The core-oriented approach focuses on the things that people share in common, that they see as central to their identity as a community, that are the heart of who they want to be. This core tends toward being invitational—”join with us if you share these convictions, but we won’t impose them or require them or police them.” With the core-oriented approach, those who perhaps are a bit farther from sharing many of the convictions may slip away, voluntarily.
The boundary-oriented approaches focuses more on the things differentiate those on the inside from those on the outside. Effort is put into maintaining clarity about those differences and on making sure that those on the inside have the correct views. There is more of a tendency to define and police the boundaries in order to make sure that the differences are sustained. There is more likelihood of people being pushed out if they are not suitably committed to the correct views.
One of the big problems with the boundary-oriented approach is that all too often issues that are not inherently important to the purpose of the community and that are not necessarily at the core of the shared convictions become magnified in importance. These issues are important not so much because they are life-giving and purpose-enhancing but more because they can be policed and enforced.
The elevation of sexuality issues to the stature of essential “Membership Guidelines” that made the merger possible clearly reflects MC USA’s decision (made by leadership and confirmed by delegates) to take a boundary-oriented approach. Such an approach is inherently conflictual and coercive. It tends not to enhance the sense of purpose and identity that the core convictions emerge from. To take the deeply flawed Guidelines and enhance their stature in the denomination seems like exactly the opposite of the kind of approach that MC USA leadership should be encouraging in a very stressful and anxious time.
Memory two: The “violence” of simply being there
The second memory that bubbled up for me lately came from an experience a couple of years after my congregation’s membership discernment process. Our decision to refuse membership did create a sense of peace in the congregation—partly also because the most conflictual people left the congregation because the refusal was not strict enough. And it meant that the congregation itself would not face disciplinary actions from the conference.
However, some in the conference remained suspicious of me. As I moved into my second year of ministry, I and the congregation decided that it would be good for the congregation to request that I be considered for ordination. I certainly felt some uneasiness about this (as did many in the congregation) due to a sense of suspicion toward hierarchies within the church. However, we decided that if we were indeed to remain in the Mennonite Church and I was to function as a pastor in the Mennonite Church, we should proceed with denominational expectations concerning leadership credentials.
What followed was a very difficult three-year period where powerful forces within the conference worked to prevent my ordination. Even though I had led the congregation as it had decided against welcoming two partnered men as members, that I would have even considered accepting them raised suspicions. So I was pushed pretty hard in interviews with the Leadership Committee on my views concerning the negative view regarding “homosexuality” expressed in the denominationally approved “Purdue Statement on Sexuality.” I expressed that I was uncertain about that—not that I was sure I disagreed with it. But my uncertainty was enough.
I didn’t fight back, but I refused to go away. I wanted to be a Mennonite. I was serving in a Mennonite Church congregation. I couldn’t lie and say that I did agree with the Purdue Statement (as one conference leader encouraged me to do). And I wasn’t going to give up (in fact, through this process I came to value ordination a bit more).
For many months, the process was at an impasse. A majority of the Leadership Committee supported my ordination, but one holdout kept the process from proceeding. It became a bit of a spectacle. The two top leaders of the Mennonite Church, the Executive Director and the Moderator, both consulted with the Conference. They both expressed worry that the Conference was at an extremely fragile place and should proceed very carefully.
In the midst of this, I was part of an especially difficult meeting with several pastors in the conference. One of them said with great feeling that he just wasn’t sure what to think. He hated the idea of losing me, and he hated the idea of losing “Al” (the Leadership Committee member who opposed my ordination). I was too uncomfortable to say much (in part because I felt so young and marginal at that time). But I thought, wait a minute. There’s a big difference here. I’m not trying to do anything to “Al.” But he’s trying hard to hurt me. This felt like a false equivalence—like there were two more-or-less equally legitimate sides to this dispute instead of one person unjustly attacking another person for no legitimate reason.
A similar dynamic
This kind of dynamic has seemed present throughout the past thirty-plus years that Mennonites have been dealing with the issue of opposition to the presence of sexual minorities in the denomination. Back in the 1983 Mennonite Church General Assembly in Bethlehem, PA, the newly formed Brethren and Mennonite Council for Gay and Lesbian Concerns, made up of church members who wanted to be involved in the church gained approval to have a display. In the middle of the convention, denominational leaders came to the display and physically dismantled it and forced the BMC people to leave.
Ever since, the dynamic has largely been the same. On the one hand, you have people who simply want to be part of the church themselves, and have been almost completely peaceable in relation to others in the church. And on the other hand, you have those who want to keep those people out, to make them feel like second-class Christians (or worse), and who single the sexual minorities out as the problem.
And then you have people framing this dynamic as two more-or-less equally legitimate sides in conflict with each other. BMC and, more recently, Pink Menno have been seen as equal belligerents in this conflict even though they are simply trying to be present while those who oppose them have been harsh and coercive.
So, when I read recently of what seems like an admirable effort by some leaders in a Mennonite conference to find space in the middle for a “radical center,” I fear their efforts have little chance of helping much because of their false way of framing the situation. The document released by this group calls for strengthening unity in a way that “does not require a solution in which congregations must decide which ‘side’ of the split they will follow.” This implies an equal effort from each “side” to, as it were, break the wishbone.
However, the actual situation seems more akin to one-sided aggression where those who cannot even abide with the presence of LGBTQ Mennonites and their supporters in their conference or denomination are pushing for exclusion with the threat of leaving if they do not get their way. As long as this aggression is treated as just one side of a two-sided conflict, those in MC USA have little chance of moving forward in redemptive ways.
Where to, then?
I have written before about my “dream” about how MC USA could survive. It is quite possible that there is no way to avoid massive defections from the denomination by those who cannot live with diverse views and practices concerning the treatment of sexual minorities. However, I believe the health of what remains would be greatly strengthened by a self-conscious effort to focus on our purpose (the “ends” we seek) in ways that enhance our sense of our core—and that we give up on boundary policing.
A prerequisite for life-enhancing discernment in MC USA must be a decision to no longer scapegoat or be willing to sacrifice the spiritual well-being of a vulnerable minority for the sake of the “peace” of the larger institution. I believe that that kind of sacrifice is what the EB’s Resolution is asking for as it doubles down on the scapegoating dynamic of the Membership Guidelines.
Clearly the issue is not “homosexuality” or LGBTQ Mennonites and their friends who are simply trying to remain part of a church and a tradition that they identify with. The problem, I’d suggest, is more that some Mennonites have not learned how to respect and live with difference and other Mennonites have not learned to let those who can’t live with differences self-select themselves out of the fellowship.
Mennonites within MC USA are being given a great opportunity within the stresses and anxieties of the current difficulties. We can draw on our peaceable tradition, on the experiences of those LGBTQ Mennonites who have gained clarity and wisdom about their Christian identities in a hostile world, and on the insights of those who raise cautions about the rapidity of changes in relation to sexual mores and the sense that some of these changes at least have not been driven by gospel imperatives.
We could have a conversation with a diversity of views that is characterized by mutual respect, sensitivity to the tradition, and the dynamism of new experiences and imaginings. The more diverse the better, certainly, but the conversation must not be held hostage by the kind of boundary policing the EB’s Resolution calls for. It is much more important that the conversation happen with those who want to be part of it than that every possible point of view be represented. If some threaten to remain in the conversation only if others are excluded, they should be allowed to self-select themselves out. That’s the only way I can see MC USA facing the future with hope and vitality.