Delegates Make Difficult Decisions: KC MCUSA Convention Update

by Barbie Fischer

Riding in an airplane or a bus, the transportation to Kansas City was likely the easiest part of the journey for the 57 Franconia Conference delegates at this year’s Mennonite Church USA gathering in Kansas City that began on Tuesday, June 30th. While there are still two days remaining, delegates have already worked on discerning difficult topics from denominational membership guidelines to drone warfare.

Opening worship … an invitation to no longer be the quiet in the land

MCUSA worshipTo open convention Tuesday evening, Michelle Armster, director of Mennonite Central Committee Central States, preached in a joint worship service with youth and adults. She spoke of the stories of Mary and Martha and of brave women whose lives ended in horrifying death in ‘Martyrs Mirror’, and how they should remind us that we must help give a voice to those that society — or even the church — are trying to silence.  Armster said, “We must speak up! We can no longer be the quiet in the land where a young man can walk into a church and murder at a Bible study,” referencing the events earlier this month in Charleston, South Carolina. She went on to say, “The Jesus movement is not for the comfortable, or the satisfied, or the insiders. May we, like Mary and Martha, be bold for Christ once again.”

On being a peace church in a time of violence

As the delegates gathered on Wednesday morning for the opening session, Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, moderator of Mennonite Church USA, reminded delegates that as racial tensions rise following violent events in Ferguson, Missouri; Charleston, South Carolina, and others, we need to come together to create peace.

In her opening remarks and throughout the week, she reminded delegates that “with the fruits of the spirit in mind, especially self-control, we can discuss items appropriately. Let’s witness to others that we are a peace church.”

Resolutions on drone warfare and Israel/Palestine: one passes, one is tabled

The first day of delegate sessions, Wednesday, the delegates considered resolutions on faithfulness amid endless war, and on Israel/Palestine. In addition, a third was brought forward asking for the delegates to acknowledge and extend forgiveness in response to the Executive Board’s statement of confession in an April pastoral letter to delegates. While the resolution on forgiveness was passed with extensive support, the others were not smooth processes.

Faithfulness amid endless war was approved with an amendment, yet delegates expressed feeling rushed through the process. In the afternoon, the resolution on Israel/Palestine came before the delegates and several concerns were expressed. One delegate raised the point that many in his congregation are employed by Caterpillar, one of the companies listed as being deeply entrenched in the conflict and one that could be boycotted upon passing this resolution. He expressed concern for his congregation members’ jobs and the church’s ability to support them if they quit. Others expressed that as a peace church there is a call to build bridges — not “take sides.” Still others brought up the need for relationship building with the Jewish and/or Israelis, as well as Palestinians.

Two initial polls were taken to determine levels of support for the resolution; after much division, a motion was brought forward to table the resolution until the next assembly in 2017. Delegates voted by ballot on whether to table the resolution, and the motion to table passed by 55 percent — 418 in favor, 336 opposed, 28 abstaining.

Resolutions on forbearance and membership guidelines both affirmed

Photo by Ben Wideman
Photo by Ben Wideman

Thursday proved no less difficult as the delegates worked to discern regarding the forbearance and membership guidelines resolutions. Joe Hackman, Salford congregation, had been up front helping with worship and spoke of watching the over 800 delegates enter the room saying, “I had an overwhelming feeling of the beautiful body of people entering the space. The air felt thick with the Spirit, with joy, thick with pain, thick with tension, anxiety, humility, and thick with a desire to be faithful.”

The delegate session began with opening remarks, prayer, some singing, and a disruption by a few persons, intended to make a statement for the LGBTQ community. This disruption was quickly over taken by singing, although there were a few boos amidst the otherwise shocked delegate body. Elizabeth Soto Albrecht then read part of a statement from Pink Menno stating they were “de-pink[ing] the delegate session as a sign of their opposition to the resolutions at hand. Pink Menno supporters wore trash bags over their pink t-shirts. Soto Albrecht stated it is important that their voices be acknowledged.

A time of singing and prayer re-centered delegates. The authors of the forbearance resolution — Charlotte Lehman, pastor of Reba Place Church in Evanston, Illinois, and Megan Ramer, pastor of Chicago Community Mennonite Church — then framed the forbearance resolution prior to the delegates’ time of discernment.

Lehman said, “We know we have differences of conviction, but we don’t want a political debate. We long to have the kind of healthy conflict that you can only have with people you love.” The authors acknowledged they have differences between their two congregations. Lehman went on to say, “conflict is not the enemy. The enemy is the enemy. We want to glorify God in both the outcome of our dialogue and the way we conduct our dialogue.” The resolution went on to be approved by a 71% vote in favor: 581 yes and 228 no.

The day continued with discussion and discernment on Mennonite Church USA Membership Guidelines. This proved to be a resolution in need of clarification. Ervin Stutzman, executive director of MCUSA, referred to the Frequently Asked Question document, prepared for and released to delegates on June 18th. After prompted by question, he noted, “If both of these resolutions pass, the Executive Board will see it as a mandate to hold together the traditional stance of our church with an approach that grants freedom to congregations and area conferences to work things out in their own context, with mutual accountability with the CLC … If the resolution on Membership Guidelines does not pass, the Executive Board will take it as a mandate to free congregations and area conferences to work out their own practices without specific accountability to the commitments stated in Part III of the Guidelines. In any case, the Executive Board will take into account the degree of support or non-support for each resolution in the voting process, as well as the specific feedback from table groups.” Following much discussion, the delegates voted to approve the resolution with 58% affirmation: 473 yes, 310 no and 28 abstentions.

Eastern District and Franconia conference delegates gather to acknowledge “not winning” together

However, the day was not over for Franconia Conference delegates or those attending convention on behalf of Eastern District. Conference and congregation delegates from both conferences joined for a time of reflection on the week and dialogue regarding what this means for us moving forward.

With over 60 in attendance for the conversation, Charlie Ness of Perkiomenville congregation, Lorie Hershey, pastor West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship, and Warren Tyson, conference minister for Eastern District Conference, shared their reflections on the week and hopes for moving forward.

Ness shared that these resolutions and the one on the Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse yet to be considered touch a nerve for him, as he has a deep personal story connecting him to the resolutions. He mentioned that many have spoken in the delegate session about living in tension and that “living together in tension, feels to some of us like living in contradiction. This will be a challenge for us in how we function with the diversity among us.”

Hershey said, “today was a hard day. It was hard work” and like nothing she has experienced in previous years as a delegate. Hershey elaborated that she would have appreciated an acknowledgement of the pain and the silencing even within the group. “As leaders we need to continue to name these things, because there is a big gulf between how we understand things and differing realities.”

Warren Tyson said the imagery he once heard of the Spirit being like a “wild goose” came to mind. He said “the goose comes in and flaps around, makes lots of waves and noise and commotion, and disrupts life.” He wondered if there was a sense that God was wanting to stir us up and maybe even have us feel pain.

Joe Hackman mentioned language used by Michael King (also of Salford congregation) of pastors being “pain holders.” He said, “I felt that was taking place in some real and tangible ways today.”

In the delegate gathering, there was a sense that there were no winners in the difficult day. “So we are all in it, not winning together.”

Yet, there was profound hope in the room amongst Eastern District and Franconia conferences’ delegates. All three of those who shared spoke of the deep and authentic conversations that happened at the delegate tables. They spoke of the differing views and how, through that, they were able to see one another as people. By doing so, some were even shifting in their understanding and perspective.

The delegates acknowledge that deep authentic conversation is not always easy when you have to work and live with one another. It was acknowledged that with the passing of the forbearance and membership guidelines resolution, we are being called to this uncomfortable place of engaging with one another in authentic conversation. One delegate shared, “It’s going to be hard and it will take a lot of time. We cannot go home on Sunday and say it is done. It will never be done. We need to do what we can do in our congregations and conferences.”

While difficult decisions were made by our delegates, the difficult work is not yet done. Through the passing of these resolutions, we have committed to engage in this uncomfortable place, sit with our brothers and sisters and discuss our differences, being vulnerable with one another as we explore the depth of our conviction. While this task may seem daunting, the commitment to our denomination, conference and congregations was clear, as these over-60 individuals from Franconia and Eastern District conferences came together after two intense and draining days, to stand together and say “we made the decisions — now how do we move forward together?”

May God grant us wisdom as we continue on this journey together. May we strive to allow the fruits of the Spirit to guide us. May we see one another as God sees us.

Update Posted July 6, 2015:

Final delegate session sees two more resolutions affirmed and installation of new moderator

On Saturday, July 4th the delegates met for a final session where they passed two more resolutions. The resolutions included a statement proposed by the Mennonite Palestine-Israel Network (MennoPIN). The statement declared support for both Palestinian and Israeli partners in peacemaking and was written after the tabling of the Israel/ Palestine resolution. The other resolution discerned on Saturday, a resolution of expression and lament, called on MC USA and “all its parts [to] continue to build awareness and direct resources and energy to continued anti-racism education among our constituencies and to stand in solidarity with the African-American community as destroyed properties are rebuilt and ministry occurs to broken bodies and souls.” Both passed with overwhelming support.

Following the final resolution discernment, the delegates received a report from Mennonite Central Committee, the Listening Committee, and the Anti-Racism Team. Many affirmations and concerns were heard by the Listening Committee and they noted that many of the concerns were around procedure. The Anti-Racism Team noted that this convention was the most diverse convention to date. However, the delegate sessions did not reflect this diversity with only 10% of the delegates being people of color.

Ewuare Osayande  of the Anti-Racism Team noted, “until the delegate session — where voting power lies — looks a bit more like the seminar and learning sessions, no real change will occur in the broader church.”

Elizabeth Soto Albrecht prays with Patricia Shelly, newly installed moderator. (Photo courtesy of: MCUSA)
Elizabeth Soto Albrecht prays with Patricia Shelly, newly installed moderator. (Photo courtesy of: MCUSA)

To end the day, Ervin Stutzman, executive director of MCUSA thanked Elizabeth Soto Albrecht for her service as moderator over the past two years. Patricia Shelly and David Boshart were then installed as moderator and moderator-elect for the next two years.