On Scattering, Gathering and California Dreamin’

by Steve Kriss

Within the first few weeks of assuming the role of Executive Minister of Franconia Conference, I began to hear more about how the shifting structures across the Mennonite landscape might begin to affect us.  In Conferences across the country as well as in Canada, we have begun a season of realignment.  Conferences are both receiving and releasing congregations as communities seek new alignments that seem to defy previous understandings of geography and organizational configurations.  Daniel Hertzler, retired Mennonite editor, from Scottdale, PA, has called it a season of Mennonite scattering.

But it is also a season of Anabaptist gathering.  Over the last decade our Conference has received new member congregations in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Allentown and East Greenville.  Several of those new congregations no longer exist which is common with church-planting initiatives; however some have grown to communities approaching 200 people.   These new communities have been essential to our health and the possibilities for our future.  Our new immigrant congregations talk about the significance of joining a “family” that provided a new home, a sense of shelter, roots, accountability, and relationships that give space for flourishing.

This spring, we have begun to experience a significant influx of inquiries, including congregations who would wish to join our Conference from as far as California.  Many of these congregations have had long term relationships with persons in Franconia Conference that have helped to cultivate fruitful global and local partnerships.  As the structure and composition of Mennonite Church USA and conferences continues to shift, these congregations see ready affinity with us and are now asking if they might join us as members.

We are taking these inquiries seriously and we take the challenges of these inquiries to heart.  How might we be a Conference with a cluster of churches in California?  In what ways does this challenge us and in what ways might it invigorate us?

I believe it is possible.  And I trust the inquiries to join with us to come in good faith and honest hope.  Most congregations have had long-term Anabaptist commitments and affiliations, sometimes relationships with Mennonite communities that span the world.   As Franconia Conference, we have long been use to tending long-distance relationships with ongoing work and connections in Mexico that has spanned decades, initiatives in Honduras, and credentialed leaders in Southeast Asia.  We once even assisted in planting a church in Hawaii.

While we take these questions seriously, I know that member congregations in California might stretch us more than we are prepared.  While the relationships aren’t necessarily new, the idea of having a West Coast cluster is beyond what we might have imagined for ourselves as a community. Though it seems possible with the ease of transportation these days and many forms of communication, this will take intentional efforts to build and strengthen our bonds and we’ll have to learn to speak differently when we speak of “us.”

I am challenged by these possibilities.  Yet, the one thing that I know about Franconia Conference is that the Spirit is relentless in inviting us to be transformed anew.  The invitation is again upon us.   I invite your prayers as we together consider and discern God’s best direction while honoring our past, accepting our limitations, and trusting also the Spirit’s movement in both scattering and gathering that might give us a future with great hope.