Is the Mennonite (Church USA) project doomed? Some ruminations

Ted Grimsrud—April 21, 2015

It’s a fairly relaxed finals week around Eastern Mennonite University, which allows for a few longer and more wide-ranging random conversations. I had two visits today that each ended up focused on the present and future of Mennonites. My thinking was stimulated, and I decided to try to write a few things down.

I guess I remain deeply interested in the slings and arrows of Mennonite Church USA, even though it has been a long time since I participated actively in any denominational or conference activities. I shared my reflections some months ago, “Will Mennonite Church USA Survive?”, “How Mennonite Church USA Might Survive,” and “Is the Survival of Mennonite Church USA Now Less Likely?”

In the eight months since that last post, events have not inspired any more confidence in the possibility of a happy outcome to the crises that seem to be besetting our denomination—though I would also grant that many good things are happening among Mennonite churches and that it’s possible that not as many Mennonites as I think are concerned about denominational politics and struggles.

However, my conversations today reminded me that I do feel concern, and made me think that, as if often the case, writing a bit might be therapeutic.

Whither MC USA?

In one of today’s conversations, my friend talked about discussions he’s had about the future of MC USA, especially in relation to the upcoming general assembly in Kansas City this summer. He has heard from some that the only way through the current struggles in the denomination is to move in a more congregational direction, with less conference-wide and denominational central authority and expectations of uniformity. The delegate said we need to move in a more “GC-like” direction—referring to the polity of the old General Conference Mennonite Church before the 2001 merger that created MC USA. Continue reading “Is the Mennonite (Church USA) project doomed? Some ruminations”

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. Continue reading “Is the survival of Mennonite Church USA now less likely?”

Why Eastern Mennonite University should quit discriminating (part two)

Ted Grimsrud

[This post picks up the story in the middle—here is the link to Part 1]

The goodness of marriage

Before we consider what the main bases for discrimination may be, we need to spend a bit of time on marriage—in part of strengthen our sense that a rationale to deny marriage to a gay couple or to force a gay person to choose between marriage and employment at a place such as EMU needs to be strong and clear.

Christians consider marriage to be a good thing. While the Bible does not give a detailed blueprint for what constitutes a Christian marriage (in fact, it may be a bit surprising when one looks for such a blueprint to realize how little direct help the Bible gives—and a bit surprising also to realize what happens should we scrutinize the Bible looking for a model husband given that virtually all the major male characters in the Bible are either married to more than one woman or to none at all!), contemporary Christians see in the Bible general themes that contribute to our sense of Christian marriage.

Contemporary Christians would tend to see many of the following as part of their understanding of marriage: (1) it is based on the couple’s shared Christian values and commitments; (2) it is centered on promises of fidelity, commitment, monogamy; (3) it is accountable to a faith community for support and encouragement; (4) it is considered to be permanent, “until death do us part;” (5) it is characterized by companionship and intimacy (a key part of my recent thinking about marriage is the significance of the original image in Genesis 2 where Adam is joined by Eve, in part, because he was “lonely”); and (6) it is the context for the birthing and nurturing of children.

Let’s imagine a couple, two Christian women named “Ilse” and “Jennifer” (my description here is based on actual people that I know). They are legally married, life-long Christians who followed the typical path of joining their lives together: courtship, pre-marital counseling, discernment before committing themselves to one another, marriage, a shared life of fidelity and mutual respect, children, ministry.

We see in their lives the fruits of a healthy, life-giving marriage. What would be bases for EMU denying one of them employment, assuming she has the training and abilities to be seen as a strong candidate, one who would likely succeed and offer much to the EMU community and mission? Continue reading “Why Eastern Mennonite University should quit discriminating (part two)”

Why Eastern Mennonite University should quit discriminating (part one)

Ted Grimsrud

The place where I have been working since 1996, Eastern Mennonite University, is currently engaged in a “listening process.” This process is meant to provide input for the school’s leadership as it considers making an overt policy of non-discrimination in relation to hiring faculty and staff who are in “covenanted same-sex relationships.” In the public statements concerning this process, the main rationale that has been given for changing hiring practices has been, it seems, that people in the EMU community disagree about these issues, that increasing numbers of new hires at EMU express disagreement with the assumed position of Mennonite Church USA (owner of EMU) that covenanted same-sex relationships are sinful, and a sense that younger people (i.e., including prospective EMU students) are less likely to share the restrictive views of the older generation.

This process is explicitly not about considering these issues from a theological framework. This is from one of the FAQs on the EMU website: “It is not our desire in this listening process to enter into theological debate when some of the most respected theologians and church leaders do not agree on interpretation. Rather, it is our desire to focus on relationships and prayer in a way that reflects the life and love of Christ in the midst of deeply held beliefs and values.”

However, since I am a Mennonite theologian (teaching in the Bible and Religion Department at EMU and an ordained Mennonite pastor), I can’t help but think about these issues theologically. So I want to articulate a theological rationale for EMU to quit discriminating. One reason that I think such a rationale is important for EMU’s consideration is my sense that the only possible reason for discrimination is theological (that is, that God declares such relationships to be sinful). So, this is inherently theological terrain that cannot be navigated without, we could say, a theological compass.
Continue reading “Why Eastern Mennonite University should quit discriminating (part one)”

How Mennonite Church USA might survive: A fantasy

Ted Grimsrud

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. Continue reading “How Mennonite Church USA might survive: A fantasy”

“Othering” and Mennonite sexuality struggles

Ted Grimsrud

I came across a quote in the book Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri that helped me think a bit more about our current discussions about sexuality in the Mennonite world. I’ll share the quote in a bit, but first I want to set the context.

Othering and the Cold War

Several years ago, as I was working on my book on World War II’s moral legacy, I struggled to understand how the phenomenon of “global communism” could justify the American commitment to its national security state and military interventions around the world. I realized that a key moment was President Harry Truman’s “Truman Doctrine” speech in 1947 that stated, in effect, that there is only one communism, that this communism is behind a vast system of anti-American actions around the world, and the presence of such anti-American actions requires swift and decisive American military intervention. To label people communists was effectively to signify them as the “other” who are different and are inherently a threat to our security. So, military actions (public and secret) in such disparate locations as Greece, Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Guatemala, and Iran followed over the next few decades.

I was struck by how this dynamic insured that little effort would be exercised actually to understand the specific, on-the-ground context for the “anti-American” dynamics. It was a simple process: if there was a lack of support for American interests it was because of global communism. If the lack of support could be labeled as communist-inspired, then everything needed to be known was obvious. There is only one “communist practice”—all communists are essentially the same (and, even more pernicious, all “anti-Americans” are communists). It is quite remarkable to take even a cursory look at the series of conflicts that U.S. engaged in and see an almost identical pattern over and over again where the “enemies” of the U.S. were labeled as “communist” (i.e., definitely labeled as immoral and worthy of violent opposition) and responded to with often devastating force.

The end of the Soviet Union deprived the U.S. of the “global communism” label as a justification of militarism. However, surely not coincidentally, at about the same time as the end of the Soviet empire, the spectre of global terrorism arose and in many ways, down to our present day, successfully played the same role. Again, there seems to be only one terrorism. When we apply that label to resistance to American interests, we know all we need to know and proceed accordingly. Continue reading ““Othering” and Mennonite sexuality struggles”

Will Mennonite Church USA survive? Reflecting on three decades of struggle (part 2)

[This post picks up the story in the middle—here is the link to Part 1]

Merger and the “Membership Guidelines”

In February of 2000, an open letter was published in the Mennonite Weekly Review signed by close to 1,000 Mennonite church members, including numerous pastors and other church leaders, calling for a more inclusive approach. The letter asked for more conversation among those in Mennonite churches and sought to demonstrate that those who favored inclusion made up a sizable minority of church members.

I signed the MWR letter and afterwards learned that I was the only ordained person in Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC) to sign it. About a year after the MWR letter, VMC issued a statement requiring ordained people in the conference to agree not to advocate against the statement’s points about “homosexual practice”—including this one: “We believe that the practice of homosexuality is rebuked by Scripture as sin.” This requirement was never actually strictly enforced, but I did face an extended process of having my credentials reviewed. In the end, the conference pressured me to resign my ordination but was not quite willing to remove it when I resisted the pressure.

The MWR letter was released in the midst of negotiations between the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church to merge. Numerous people took the impending merger as an opportunity to exert pressure to keep Mennonite churches from allowing for the presence of the inclusive perspective affirmed in the MWR letter.

At the joint general assembly of MCs and GCs in 1999, the GCs voted to affirm the merger. And, Canadian members of both denominations decided to join together apart from the US churches and form Mennonite Church Canada as a separate entity from the US churches. However, the MC delegates did not achieve the pro-merger vote that was required, so the process continued. One of the main stated issues was that numerous MC delegates threatened to reject the merger unless the anti-inclusive stance of the denomination were strengthened.

So, what became the 2001 Membership Guidelines were formulated. Enough of those who opposed inclusion found the strict anti-inclusion provisions acceptable (and enough of those who supported inclusion were willing to give up on a more inclusive denominational stance for the sake of achieving the merger) that the delegate approved the merger and Mennonite Church USA was created.

It was notable, that in face of the threats by some not to agree to the merger, these Guidelines, a relatively short document (4 pages) that spoke to the key issues that would shape the proposed new denomination devoted about 25% of its length and one of its three main sections to “Clarification on some issues related to homosexuality and membership,” in effect giving the “homosexuality” issue status as the most important issue facing this new denomination (I have written a critique of the Guidelines here). Continue reading “Will Mennonite Church USA survive? Reflecting on three decades of struggle (part 2)”

Will Mennonite Church USA survive? Reflecting on three decades of struggle (part 1)

Ted Grimsrud

The denomination I have been part of since 1981, the Mennonite Church, is going through a bit of a rough patch right now. The longer-term trend for some time has been shrinking membership totals and an aging demographic.

Downward trends

The college where I teach, Eastern Mennonite University, was founded and has existed with the purpose (not always directly stated) of keeping Mennonite young people in the Mennonite community. When I began teaching here in 1996, the student body was a bit more than 60% Mennonite. Now, with the enrollment being roughly the same, the percentage of Mennonite students in our first-year class is about half of what it was 17 years ago. Not a good sign.

Another factor that has led to MC USA shrinking, besides smaller families and the younger generation losing its loyalty to the denomination, has been a steady stream of conservative congregations leaving the denomination—and numerous others continuing to threaten to leave. (It is an interesting phenomenon that it is only conservative congregations that are voluntarily leaving—the couple of progressive congregations that left MC USA since its current structure was established in 2001 with the merger of the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Church were kicked out.)

In recent weeks I have heard dispirited speculation from several denominational leaders better informed and much closer to the centers of power than I am that MC USA may not be long for the world. I have no idea how realistic such speculation actually is. I do find it difficult to imagine that the denomination itself would die, but I suppose it is reasonable to imagine a significantly diminished institution.

I perceive that it would be pretty difficult to describe accurately all the factors that are contributing to these troubles. Most of those who talk about these things (including me) may have ideological axes to grind in our analyses. Our understanding of the why of the problem is often shaped by our ideals about what we want the denomination to do.

What I want to reflect on in this post is not so much a wide-ranging diagnosis of the factors that are troubling MC USA as taking one particular factor and thinking about how it might have contributing something to our current situation. This is my thesis: The soul of MC USA has been damaged by a tendency for church leaders and others to allow those who are opposed to efforts to make the denomination more gay-friendly to exercise influence by use of threats to leave the denomination. Our current crises follow—at least in part—from this tendency. Continue reading “Will Mennonite Church USA survive? Reflecting on three decades of struggle (part 1)”

The Mennonite Confession of Faith and homosexuality

Ted Grimsrud—May 9, 2012

What kind of directives do Mennonites get from their main denominational doctrinal statement concerning homosexuality? A recent news article reports that several churches in the Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA will bring a resolution to their annual conference assembly that assumes clear directives. The resolution will require the conference to name the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (CofF) as stating the official position of the conference. If the resolution passes, the Conference will then expect that “those who cannot do so according to their conscience resign their positions of leadership and influence in the Western District Conference.”

Chances are that the resolution will not pass. However, I doubt that few if any people considering this resolution will question assumptions being made about the content of the CofF that underlie the resolution.

The context of the resolution makes it clear that its central concern is with the issue of homosexuality. The resolution, reflecting a common assumption throughout MC USA, clearly understands the CofF to provide a clear basis for a negative view of intimate same-sex relationships (the specific issue that triggered this resolution was a conference pastor officiating at a same-sex wedding). This assumption that the CofF provides clear opposition to same-sex marriage is problematic, to say the least (as is, of course, the notion that the CofF should be used as a basis for drawing clear in-or-out lines based on beliefs).

It’s not surprising that people would assume that the CofF provides a clear basis for rejecting an inclusive stance concerning homosexuality given that official denominational statements cite it as doing so. However, a careful reading of the CofF itself actually repudiates such an assumption. Continue reading “The Mennonite Confession of Faith and homosexuality”

Mennonites and alcohol: Fascinating sociological dynamics

I suppose it was about 25 years ago that a close friend of mine, at the time a Mennonite pastor in the Midwest, stirred up a hornet’s nest by writing a letter to the editor of the Gospel Herald, the weekly denominational magazine. Signed “name withheld,” this letter raised the possibility that maybe Mennonites should rethink their knee-jerk rejection of alcohol (I have to confess that I am going totally by memory here; I don’t recall anything specific about my friend’s argument).

For weeks, it seems, the Herald was filled with letters to the editor ripping into my friend for suggesting the worst of possible heresies. And I am pretty certain that no one wrote a letter defending his points (I certainly didn’t). To suggest that Mennonites should accept the validity of drinking alcoholic beverages simply was outrageous.

Now I knew back then that quite a few Mennonites did indeed drink, but they couldn’t do so publicly it seems (like the old joke—what’s the difference between a Mennonite and a Lutheran? the Lutheran will say hi to you in the liquor store). Continue reading “Mennonites and alcohol: Fascinating sociological dynamics”