Mennonite Church USA’s moral crisis

Ted Grimsrud

It’s awfully hard to say what’s going to happen with Mennonite Church USA—especially as its largest Conference, Lancaster, nears the completion of its process to leave the denomination. It is a bit surprising to me that fully over 80% of that conferences bishops voted to leave MC USA—I wouldn’t have expected that much disaffection (but I know little about that Conference). The final step in the process will be a vote over the next few weeks by the Conference’s ordained ministers. As this vote only requires a two-thirds majority, it seems likely that Lancaster will make the move to split.

In the above paragraph we have a clue concerning the complexities of Lancaster’s relationship with wider denomination—that they would have a vote of “bishops,” a category of leadership that few if any of the other MC USA conferences have. The relationship of Lancaster with the larger denomination has always been tenuous and complicated, so this move now to leave should not be seen as unexpected.

The effort to keep Lancaster in MC USA

It does seem, though, that the effort on the part of MC USA’s leadership to keep Lancaster in the denomination has not been successful. While surely there are many elements to this struggle to retain Lancaster’s connection, one aspect of the dynamic strikes me as especially notable—and especially regrettable. 

Back in the 1990s, a major element of the effort to merge two Mennonite denominations (the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church) had to do with whether Lancaster—then as now the largest conference in either denomination—would join in the merger. The first time the decision came to a vote of General Assembly delegates, the General Conference delegates voted their approval, and the Mennonite Church delegates came up a bit short.

Presumably a major element in the failure of the MC vote to yield approval of the merger was the concern many delegates had about the new denomination being theologically sound enough. Surely the theological tensions had been present for generations and ran deeply. However, the issue that ended up being the sign post for soundness turned out to be the inclusion (or not) of LGBTQ people in the churches.

In order to increase the likelihood of strong enough support for the merger at the next General Assembly, denominational leaders agreed to create a new document, the “Membership Guidelines,” that had as its main concern explicit statements to reassure those most concerned about theological soundness that the new denomination would not be inclusive of LGBTQ Mennonites.

This strategy worked. The vote to merge, when it was retaken two years after the original attempt, was high enough so that the merger was approved. Mennonite Church USA was created. Enshrined at the heart of this new denomination was a singling out of one tiny element of its membership as distinctively problematic. Apparently the large majority of the delegates who approved the Membership Guidelines (including presumably a fair number who would personally want to be more inclusive than the Guidelines allowed for) felt it was worth singling out this tiny minority as distinctively problematic for the sake of establishment of this new denomination. It was stated, though, that the Guidelines would be reconsidered before long. That is, they were not being presented as necessarily being a permanent part of the denomination’s official regulations.

I don’t remember how explicit reporting ever was about the specific role Lancaster Conference played in the dynamics around the Membership Guidelines, but surely the inclusion of Lancaster in the new denomination was looming in the background of many people’s considerations. As it turned out, in the process over the next few years of individual conferences deciding whether to join the new denomination, Lancaster was slow to decide for sure. Ultimately, they did join MC USA as one of the last conferences to do so, and presumably many who has created and supported the Membership Guidelines breathed a sigh of relief.

Now, ten years later the relationships within MC USA had became increasingly strained. It was time to revisit the Membership Guidelines and see if the denomination wanted to retain its special focus on singling out LGTBQ Mennonites as distinctively problematic. Lancaster apparently remained uneasy about its on-going relationship with the larger denomination. So, once again denominational leaders argued for emphasizing that MC USA would not be inclusive.

They presented delegates with a resolution to reaffirm the Guidelines. This time, though, instead of being perceived as a temporary expedient in order to facilitate the formation of a new denomination, the Guidelines would be accepted as the long-term position of the denomination. Again, it seemed as if the tactic of focusing on singling out LGBTQ Mennonites as a uniquely problematic part of the denomination would help keep people in the denomination—at least it appears that that is what many of the delegates to voted to reaffirm the Guidelines may have thought.

However, now we are seeing that this tactic may not have been successful. Despite this attempt to reassure Lancaster Conference leaders of the “theological soundness” of the denomination, those leaders (at least the bishops; we’ll see whether the broader body of ordained leaders agrees in the weeks to come) have decided to separate themselves from MC USA.

The moral cost

There are others far better situated than I am to assess the likely consequences for MC USA (and for other institutions, such as my employer, Eastern Mennonite University) of the impending Lancaster departure. It seems possible that those consequences may be negative in many ways—though it also seems possible that some (perhaps unforeseen) quite positive effects might emerge.

My main interest here is to reflect on what I would characterize as the deeply, morally, problematic nature of the use of the Membership Guidelines in the effort to create and hold together MC USA. These problems are thrown into sharper relief in light of the failure of the sacrifice of the emotional and spiritual wellbeing of many LGTBQ Mennonites to sustain the “unity” of MC USA.

I have a hard time being sympathetic with those who may have “agonized” about creating and supporting the Membership Guidelines, knowing they might by hurtful yet concluding that that sacrifice of “just a few people’s wellbeing” was the “necessary cost” for holding the Mennonite Church together.

I don’t believe this is that much an issue of what one considers to be the “true” or “biblical view” concerning inclusion of LGBTQ Mennonites. There were and continue to be numerous leaders and other delegates who would be on the “left” personally on the theological issues who nonetheless voted in favor of the Guidelines. And surely there were some on the “right” theologically who would recognize the corrupting element of singling out a powerless and vulnerable tiny minority as the locus of complaint about the “soundness” of the new denomination (though I have to admit that I don’t know personally of any).

Both at the time of the original Guidelines and then again last summer when they were up to be reaffirmed, it would not have been difficult for people in power to insist that whatever the problems might be concerning the stability of MC USA, these problems must not be “solved” by singling out these vulnerable people in this way.

In light of what happened with the Membership Guidelines, it is difficult for me to see how MC USA has much moral integrity left. At the same time, people are resilient and the Spirit of God is a healer and surprises are always possible. All of us should continue to pray that out of all the noise and hurt, some new awareness of the way of shalom might be discerned and embodied—whether it happens within the existing structure of MC USA or in some new manifestation.

20 thoughts on “Mennonite Church USA’s moral crisis

  1. Several thoughts:
    1. The bishops you refer to have to be men. A woman cannot be a bishop.
    2. LMC gets their way at the conference this past summer, and saddles all those who remain with positions/belief statements that might not now represent the views of those remaining. A completely classless act!
    3. I see not reason to “beg” LMC to stay in MCUSA. They chose to leave. Let them go and wish them well.

    1. I’m no fan of LMC, Chuck. But I agree with your point #3. My critique here is not of LMC, but those who worked to try to keep LMC part of MC USA at the expense of LBGTQ folks. LMC leaving could actually be a good thing for the denomination if people see it as an opportunity to be more creative.

  2. “Singling”: word count: 6. If one party in this dispute is “singling” out a single issue as a “hill to die on”, it’s not clear to me that Lancaster Conference is the party doing so. The author’s focus on this contentious phrase, like a stuck record, does not in my view display very much objectivity.

    1. The Lancaster elitists have always thought they run the denomination. It’s all over the last two hundred years, all over the history of EMU. Domination of the denomination.

    2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Barry.

      If you read my post carefully you will see that I am not suggesting that Lancaster Conference is the one doing the “singling out”—it’s the “denominational leaders” and “delegates” who created and twice approved the Membership Guidelines. I actually think to point out that the Guidelines do “single out” LGBTQ people is an “objective” and “descriptive” statement. To act like they don’t do this reflects a lack of “objectivity,” it seems to me.

  3. Ervin Stutzman and denominational leaders made two decisions early in the spring of 2014: (1) not to discipline Mountain States Mennonite Conference; and (2) hold the denomination together. Everything that followed was shaped by those two decisions.

    The effort was unsuccessful, as you have indicated, Ted, but that result was not predictable in the spring of 2014. At that time, there still was reasonable hope that the crisis in which the church found itself would elicit a rallying of support from all parts of the church. I for one do not fault the two decisions made.

    Ted, you are right to focus on the moral cost of re-affirming the Membership Guidelines and you make a strong argument in that regard. By my way of thinking, that price was paid the first time the Guidelines were passed. In 2015, the reaffirmation of the Guidelines was a way of saying that we hold to the interpretation of our Confession’s article on marriage, notwithstanding the shift in wider society and notwithstanding the crisis we find ourselves in. Reaffirming our existing interpretation of the Confession did not feel to most of us like an act of sacrificing our gay and lesbian members. This view was reinforced in the minds of us supporters by the fact that the mood of the church was moving toward greater inclusion.

    My hunch is that Lancaster Mennonite Conference leaders fully expect the Membership Guidelines to be rewritten soon. Part of the reason for their recommendation to withdraw is their lack of confidence in their ability to participate in that revision process with integrity. Indeed, there is ample indication that leading parts of the church no longer affirm male-female marriage as the wisdom of God. The Central District Conference study paper on sexuality is one example.

    1. Thanks for your reflections, Berry.

      We’ve debated the Mountain States situation before and not made much progress. I’d just say here that I don’t think that Ervin had the capability given the MC USA polity “discipline” Mountain States any more than he did.

      Certainly, the main moral cost concerning the Membership Guidelines came the first time. But I fail to see that that absolves those who approved them the second time. But this time it was more obvious that the cost was significant, partly because of the greater visibility of the people hurt by being “singled out.” As well, it was also more clear the second time around that the effect of approving the Guidelines had not led to actual unity in the denomination. So, the effectiveness the second time around would obviously have been lessened—as we now realize for sure.

      I think the main point of my critique is precisely that those who reaffirmed the Guidelines did not feel like it was “an act of sacrificing our gay and lesbian members.” That’s the insensitivity that seems to me to be so hurtful and morally compromising.

      The “movement toward greater inclusion” may actually have made the reaffirmation of the Guidelines even more hurtful than the first time around. Perhaps it then felt more gratuitous or blatantly a slap in the face—”we’re being more welcoming, so please be willing to take this one for the unity of the broader denomination” is not a very affirming statement given that the movement toward inclusion has remained tentative and fraught with ongoing hurtfulness.

      You may be right about the expectation of Lancaster leaders that the Guidelines would be rewritten “soon” (though I wouldn’t call at least four year from now very “soon”—remember the moratorium on discussing the Guidelines). So maybe it was the best decision for their own sense of integrity as a conference to vote to leave. That doesn’t change my point though—which is to critique the denomination’s leaders and delegates for being so hurtful to LGBTQ members for the sake of trying to mollify this group that seems now clearly to have been bent on separation from the start.

      1. Without a doubt, Ted, the second time around was “more hurtful” because of the many emotional dynamics that preceded the convention and surrounded the debate at the convention. But the second time around on the Membership Guidelines was not “gratuitous” or “blatant,” nor was the “singling out” of gay and lesbian persons at the convention “a sacrifice” of their dignity and honor for the purpose of denominational unity.

        The adoption of the Membership Guidelines at the start of the denomination coupled with MSMC’s flaunting of its commitment as a member conference made it inevitable that the 2015 convention would “single out” gay and lesbian persons for discussion and debate. It could not be avoided (nor do I think you, Ted, would argue that it should have been). Early on, Stutzman and other leaders decided not to pursue the discipline of MSMC, an action that would have required delegate action in Kansas City. At about the same time, MSMC leaders decided against voluntary withdrawal from the denomination.

        Of course, the decision not to discipline had to be interpreted and understood; “forbearance” became the term to explain. In light of the decision not to discipline, what then is the status of the Membership Guidelines? This was left for the delegates to decide. Of course, deciding again required the delegates to “single out” gay and lesbian persons for discussion.

        Ted, you think the Membership Guidelines should have been left in limbo to wither and die. But who in our denominational polity has the authority to set aside a foundational document? No one but the delegates.

        Wasn’t all of this drama to save the unity of the denomination? Yes. Doesn’t that mean the convention “sacrificed” gay and lesbian persons? No. They were not “singled out” in an instrumental way like pawns on a game board; they were not manipulated for purposes of other agendas. The convention put their lives and their claims front and center, at the top of the agenda. Thus, the convention honored their lives and their claims.

        The fact that many gay and lesbian individuals are unhappy with the vote on the Membership Guidelines does not negate any of this.

        Those of us who have been around the block a few times, who have participated in many conflicts and lost more than we have won, must acknowledged the difference between being “sacrificed” and losing a debate. If we don’t acknowledge that difference, we end up hurting more than helping.

  4. Thank you, Ted. Your account of how the Membership Guidelines were used at the foundation of MCUSA reminds me of how slaves–decades and decades of them–were sacrificed on the altar of unity at the foundation of our country. Sadly, as we saw during the Civil War, bloody beginnings often have bloody consequences.

  5. I want to bless the Lancaster Mennonite Conference in their discernment process to be faithful to Scripture and hold to the biblical teachings of marriage as taught by Jesus. As citizens of two kingdoms, we must have our first allegiance to Christ’s Kingdom and directives. For 2000 years, the Christian church has struggled with the problem of divided kingdom loyalties within her ranks. Issues have varied over time, but the consistent temptation in each case has been to deviate from Scripture. May the Holy Spirit continue to guide the LMC Bishops in their leadership roles as they seek to follow the Scriptures on a vital issue.

  6. Good observations Ted! We as MC USA are in a predictable crisis in no small way due to trying to appease some hoping to keep them in the fold by disciplining or marginalizing others to keep them “under control” or out of the fold. Then we seem baffled and hurt when neither works. This unworkable and dishonest strategy goes back to the formation of MC USA predicated on the Membership Guidelines. During the formation of MCUSA and the Membership Guidelines I wrote a letter of support for becoming MCUSA but opposition to the MGs as being dishonest and unworkable that will only prolong the conflict and postpone the inevitable impasse.

    A question I ask that has never been answered is when have we as Mennonite Church disciplined or held accountable those who violate the Confession of Faith and the consensus of MC USA/Canada over leadership (e.g., denying women in ministry) and dishonesty in leadership (e.g., delegate voting in KC and then leaving the fold anyway)? Asymmetry of power and threat is not fidelity as the Body of Christ. During my pastoral “discipline” process (2004-06) a Mennonite leader chastised me because Lancaster Conference had finally joined MCUSA and then “you do this” (officiated the marriage of two women members of Seattle Mennonite Church) which is precisely the reason they were reluctant to join. I heard similar comments from pastors and congregations.

    As a close observer of the Catholic Church, I learn much about faithful and unfaithful machinations of the Church. The just concluded Synod on the Family in Rome is the most current revelation. Last Saturday evening Pope Francis closed the Synod with these words explicitly naming his purpose: “It was about laying bare the closed hearts, which frequently hide hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases of wounded families.” Nevertheless, he thanked the bishops for engaging in “a rich and lively dialogue” through the “many different opinions which were freely expressed.” Pope Francis also lamented that some synod participants spoke out “at times, unfortunately, not entirely in well-meaning ways.” He summed with a pastoral word to the Bishops and the Catholic Church that is a word Mennonites and all Churches need to hear: “The Synod experience also made us better realize that the true defenders of doctrine are not those that uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas, but people; not formulae, but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness.”

    Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear let them hear.”

    1. The Lancaster Conference expressly forbids women from serving as bishops. I am not advocating they be “disciplined,” (but wonder why they have not been disciplined since we find ourselves in this judging atmosphere) just as I would not advocate that pastors who perform same-sex marriages be disciplined. There has to be lots of give and take in order to make a denomination work. When some require everyone to see the world exactly as they do, then it is highly likely there will be problems. Are we surprised??

      The Lancaster (and others) point of view seems to be:
      “If you don’t agree with us, then you have not studied the scriptures enough.” The contrapositive (and logically equivalent) of that statement is:
      “If you have studied the scriptures enough, then you will agree with us.”
      There are many who have studied and written thoughtful responses that clearly communicate a stance and position that will never agree with the position of the Lancaster Conference.

    2. Thanks, Weldon. The one that kind of sticks in my craw is that the denomination’s manual for pastoral leaders (I can’t remember the exact name—and it has been revised fairly recently and I don’t know if the new edition contains this provision) explicitly forbade pastoral leaders from advocating or leading congregations out of the denomination—with the threat of discipline. I am not aware of this ever being enforced, or even threatened to be enforced.

      In fact, in Virginia Conference about 12 or so years ago, a pastor threatened to pull his congregation out if the conference would not discipline Broad Street MC for renting its building for a union ceremony that involved two women who were not part of the congregation. Not only was this pastor’s threat not challenged as a violation of the denomination’s rules, the conference went ahead and with remarkable speed kicked Broad Street out altogether, even though Broad Street had violated no rules. In a foreshadowing of our current situation, even though the conference acted extraordinarily quickly to remove Broad Street, the pastor still pulled his congregation out. There have probably been more violent acts by Mennonite conferences, but I don’t know of any.

      1. There are many such stories and still we don’t “see” what is happening. Along with reminding us we have ears to hear Jesus frequently healed eyes and called us to truly see as well.

  7. It is the double standard of the church “authorities” that I find troubling and problematic – be those authorities MCUSA or Virginia Conference (of which my congregation, Community Mennonite Church, is a part of) – where they appeal to the Mennonite Confession of Faith and related guidelines on same-sex relationships but find it convenient not to do the same on other issues such as women in leadership, participation in war and military service (including payment of war taxes), divorce and remarriage, etc. Pew Foundation research certainly fits here where the millennials are troubled by the hypocrisy, homophobia and judgmentalism of the church and thus become part of the increasingly large group of nones.

    1. I agree Rick. I find the generation gap very disturbing. We can no longer scare our children straight, so to speak. For a community that’s supposed to be built on love and scriptural reasoning, there seems to be way too much personal judgment and hierarchical power plays going on. Too much posturing is a sign of lack of faith. Can’t fool the young people.

  8. I think all sides have some explaining to do. For those of us neither in leadership nor delegates, and who had no knowledge of the machinations behind the merger and the creation of the Membership Guidelines, there seems to be plenty of disingenuity to go around. Why would Membership Guidelines be created if they were intended to be only temporary and rescinded? Do statements of belief have an expiration date when they are no longer valid? What made them valid in the first place then? On the other side, why would anyone vote to support something that they don’t agree with? What was so important about the merger that both sides would compromise their earnestly held understandings of Scripture and what it means to be the Body of Christ? Were both sides counting on the other to eventually come around to their way of thinking?

    After reading through Dr. Kanagy’s findings on the huge differences of culture and Scriptural interpretations between the progressive and conservative sides of MCUSA, it was clear to me that the merger was doomed from the get-go. The homosexuality issue is a symptom, not the disease in MCUSA. It just happened to be the one issue that was the line in the sand that made the chasm between the progressives and conservatives so apparent.

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