Conferences Gather for Worship and Discernment
by Barbie Fischer
On November 13th and 14th over 300 people from Franconia and Eastern District Conferences joined together for the fall joint assembly at Penn View Christian School in Souderton, PA. The two conference enjoy joint worship together on Friday evening and Saturday morning followed by separate business meetings. It is a time to see God’s work among both conferences. This year was a time of celebration, deep discernment, and a call to be the kingdom of God. Throughout the weekend there were reminders that God is building each person to be a part of the body of Christ and as the body of Christ to build God’s kingdom here on earth.
The diversity within Franconia Conference was evident in Friday night worship including a children’s choir of 38 kids from across conference congregations and a choir of Karen people from Whitehall Mennonite Church who have settled in Allentown after being displaced from their homes in Burma/Myanmar due to ongoing conflict.
Ministry moments were offered by Andrew Huth, a youth leader at Ambler Mennonite, Jessica Hedrick, Children’s Pastor at Souderton Mennonite, and Scott Roth, Associate Pastor at Perkiomenville Mennonite.
Andrew shared of his experiences as a documentary photographer in Palestine and asked the assembly, “What does it take for us to care about our neighbors?”
Jessica Hedrick, spoke from her experience as part of the millennial generation often noted for their absence in the church. Hedrick said millennials are looking for the good news, for the church to show they care about the world again. She said, “Sometimes I think it would be so much easier to walk away, but I stay. I stay because I believe God can redeem anything, even the church, and because I have this crazy dream that the Church can be a beacon of light in the dark world again… As the church it is our job to be concerned about our neighbor, our friend and our enemy. It is our job to be concerned about the world.” She reminded the assembly that “we are a family and we need each other. It is time for us to stop spending so much time arguing over who is in and who is out and just get out there and be the hands and feet of Jesus. It is time for us to stop whining and start shining.”
Scott Roth, Associate Pastor at Perkiomenville Mennonite shared about dreaming with God and shared of the work God is doing in Perkiomenville, through Project Haven. He reminded all that “God is moving when you follow.”
On Saturday morning in the joint worship time, Mim Book and Jim Lapp, current interim pastors at Zion Mennonite Church, offered a moment of silence to stand in solidarity and pray for the people of the world brought to a high level of fear in response to the acts of violence in Paris the night before. As delegates prepared to enter their business sessions, Mim and Jim reminded them that, “We are built to build across language and cultural divides that too often separate rather than unit us. We are built to build a new kind of temple and dwelling place of God and may we be reminded this is happening as we go to our jobs, go to the classrooms, the banks and businesses where we are employed. Yes it is happening, yet there is so much more to build. Structures of love and forgiveness that serve needs greater than any buildings we might erect with bricks and mortar.”
Celebration of God’s work among his people continued on Saturday morning as Franconia Conference recognized six newly licensed ministers and seven ordinations that have taken place in the last year. This included recognition of the youngest person credentialed by Franconia Conference, Jessica Hedirck, Children’s Pastor at Souderton Mennonite, the first woman of color credentialed by the conference, Leticia Cortes of Centro de Alabanza de Filadelfia, and the first ordination of a millennial, Josh Meyer, Associate Pastor at Franconia Mennonite Church.
In the Franconia Conference business session, Steve Kriss, Director of Leadership Cultivation and Congregational Resourcing announced that after a year of formal exploration with Centro de Alabanza de Filadelfia and Indonesian Light Church, both located in South Philadelphia, the congregations still wished to join Franconia Conference. Steve said to the delegates, “What I want to note is that ; new leaders, new congregation, thanks be to God. What I want to note today is that both of these congregations walk to us through Aldo’s work… the actions that we do today have consequences; sometimes those consequences are good, amazing, beautiful, and unexpected.”
Aldo Siahaan, Franconia Conference LEADership Minister and pastor at Philadelphia Praise Center, shared that “in Acts 2, ‘they follow a daily devotion of worship in the temple with meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful. As they praise God, people liked what they saw and everyday their numbers grew as God added to their numbers those who were saved.’ Celebration, meal, worship, and joyful, that’s every time you go to Centro de Alabanza and Indonesian Light Church, meal, worship, celebration, and joyful. Glory to God we have these two new members of Franconia Conference.” Both congregations moved to join the conference through relationships with Philadelphia Praise Center.
The conference also celebrated with Nations Worship Center as they received a check from Mennonite Men for the purchase of a new building. Don Yoder of Mennonite Men presented the congregation with a check and shared about how God is growing that congregation.
The assembly was able to hear how God is moving and building through a conference missional operations grant (MOG) received by Salem Mennonite Church in Quakertown. Pastor Bruce Eglinton-Woods shared how God had been working through the church in Quakertown to rebuild a skate park and provide a positive environment for the youth of the community, which has led to the bureau requesting help with maintaining a cemetery. The MOG allowed the church to assist with the groundskeeping of the cemetery which has now led to the bureau requesting assistance from the church in the building and development of a youth center. MOG’s are an ongoing resource fund available for congregational initiatives in Franconia Conference.
The first urban mission of Franconia Conference, Nueva Vida Norristown New Life Mennonite Church, will celebrate its centennial, and a new book is out regarding the history of this mission and its continued growth. John Ruth shared the history with the delegates and photographs of how the diversity and congregation have grown over the years. The book A Mennonite Church in Norristown by Beverly Benner Miller can be purchased at the Mennonite Heritage Center; check their website (www.mhep.org) for more information or visit their shop at 565 Yoder Road, Harleysville, PA.
In the midst of the celebration, the Franconia delegates spent time conferring around three Church Together Statements. The conference leadership had requested the congregations put forward statements that:
- Support the conference’s mission of equipping leaders to empower others to embrace God’s mission.
- Propose ways in which to apply the Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA) Kansas City resolutions to the Franconia Conference context.
- Propose ways for Franconia Conference pastors and congregations to continue to deepen relationships in 2016.
Nine Statements were received by the Church Together Statements Committee. Some were combined together to form new statements. In the end, five statements remained. Two statements dealing with resolutions passed at the MCUSA convention in Kansas City were approved by the board for implementation. The statement, Israel/Palestine, calls for the formation of a task force to continue education within the conference on the conflict in the middle east. The second, Addressing Abuse Within our Midst, calls for the formation of a task force to implement training, education, and support groups around addressing abuse.
The remaining three statements were presented to the delegates for discernment. The co-chairs of the Church Together Statements Committees, Angela Moyer, Pastor at Ripple, and Joe Hackman, Lead Pastor at Salford, presented each of the statements and clearly identified the meaning of a yes and no vote. Joe stated, “This delegate body, according to our by-laws is the decision making body of the conference. The staff, board, and congregation need direction from this delegate body in order to move forward. This is most commonly done through voting… Voting yes or no might sound divisive, but the larger purpose of voting on these statements is to give the board, staff, and congregation immediate understanding of the priorities and desires of the congregations in our conference.”
All three statements were affirmed by the delegate body. One was a vision statement, the other dealing with human sexuality, and the third dealt with a call to reestablish the Faith and Life Commission for pastors to come together to discern biblical and theological questions.
The Going to the Margins Statement was affirmed by 87% of the delegates present (10% not affirming, and 3% abstaining). Noted by the delegates who affirmed and those who did not was the lack of the mention of LGBTQ people and women in the list of those marginalized. With the affirmation of the Going to the Margins statement, the conference board and staff will take this statement into consideration as they begin strategic planning in the coming year.
The Grace and Truth Statement, while affirmed by 73% (18% not affirming, and 9% abstaining), many delegates noted that they agreed with the statement except for the items within the statement holding that credentialed leaders may not perform same-sex covenanted ceremonies, the conference may not credential those in same-sex covenant relationships, and calling on congregations to not hire persons living in same-sex relationships to serve in pastoral leadership were points of contention. With the affirmation of the Grace and Truth statement, the delegates have affirmed the conference’s existing position on human sexuality at this time.
The Faith and Life Statement calling for the reestablishment of the Faith and Life Commission was affirmed by 71% of the delegates present (22% not affirming, and 7% abstaining). The comments from the delegates included needing clarity on what it means to “offer pastoral care to LGBTQ individuals and their families…”
At the end of the day, delegates were given an opportunity to speak about the process. One delegate stated, “I was prepared for a little more lively discussion and maybe some contentiousness today but it felt very calm and we had really good discussion around our tables. I give credit to the worship time and the songs that you had us sing throughout the day.”
Pastor Michael Meneses, of Wellspring Church of Skippack, stated that he and his table group felt the process was, “delightful, hopeful, and significant. It felt meaningful to be here in real conversation. This is getting deeper.” He spoke of how being able to dialogue without expectation allowed for truly meaningful conversation.
Mark Michalovic, a delegate from West Philadelphia congregation, said, “the one word I used to describe our conversation, the word that came to me was ‘welcome’. Because when I first spoke I was nervous and apprehensive because I was about to say things and I didn’t know how well they would be received and I had a good feeling that a lot of people might strongly disagree with me. At our table we did have a lot of disagreements, but everybody made each other feel welcome and we all listened to each other respectfully and all feel like we can keep discussing things even when we disagree.”
The day closed with remarks from conference Executive Minister, Ertell M. Whigham, who acknowledged the conference staff and their behind-the-scenes work. He added, “This meeting for me has been one in which Jesus through his spirit has promised to be present where two or more are gathered and he has been faithful to that.”
John Goshow, conference Moderator, acknowledged that he felt guilt for worrying about today’s meeting. He said of the delegates’ interaction with one another that it was “demonstrating the finest way of church that I have experienced in a long time.”
The day concluded with Nancy Kauffman, MCUSA Denominational Minister, offering her observations and a blessing for the delegates. In her observations she noted that “you have celebrated what God is doing among you. Thinking about where God is at work and not allowing that to be buried under your disagreements.”
It is clear that the building of God’s people is not finished. Yet, the delegates of Franconia Conference have indicated that within their diversity and differences they will continue to work to be built by God to build God’s Kingdom.