HARRISONBURG, Va. (Mennonite Church USA)—In the midst of a winter storm, members of the Executive Board (EB) of Mennonite Church USA met Feb. 13–15 to prayerfully discern a way forward on a number of issues facing the broader church.
Together they affirmed the passage of a revised churchwide statement on immigration justice and a resolution that puts in place a task force to review the decision of Mountain States Mennonite Conference to license a pastor in a committed same-sex relationship. They also met with staff from MennoMedia to affirm a new strategic direction for the agency.
Thirteen members of the EB met with Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, and other EB staff members at Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va. Weather prevented five board members from coming to the meetings in Harrisonburg, but they joined the board’s executive sessions via conference call.
The majority of the board’s time together was spent discerning a response to calls from across the church to respond to conversations around inclusion of LGBTQ members of Mennonite Church USA in leadership roles across the church. The board’s conversation focused primarily on two recent events: the decision by Mountain States Mennonite Conference to license Theda Good, a pastor who is in a committed same-sex relationship, for ministry at First Mennonite Church in Denver; and the announcement of Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg to begin a listening process to review its policy of hiring faculty and staff in committed same-sex relationships.
Moderator Elizabeth Soto Albrecht of Lancaster, Pa., opened the meeting by exhorting the Executive Board to be communities of grace to one another.
“Mennonite Church USA is not a perfect church; it is a messy church,” she said. “We are a bunch of people trying to make sense of God’s grace. This weekend we must listen, listen and listen to one another and to members across Mennonite Church USA.”
EB members modeled their work together on principles of discernment suggested by Ruth Haley Barton: preparing and gathering information; putting themselves in a position to listen for God’s guidance; and discerning God’s will together. They were also joined by a facilitator, David Brubaker from EMU, who helped guide the conversations.
The board began by sharing their personal perspectives on the actions taken by Mountain States Mennonite Conference and EMU. The opinions stated spanned a broad spectrum. Some board members expressed disappointment that the board and staff did not process these decisions with the area conference and university before they were announced. The EB also read and listened to the words of individuals across the church who sent letters and e-mails urging the board to take action in response to the recent decisions by Mountain States Mennonite Conference and EMU. The letters also represented a wide range of opinions on the issue.
“What does it mean to come as a board member representing the whole—a whole that includes a broad diversity of opinions?” said Dick Thomas, past moderator and current board member from Lancaster, Pa. “We need to trust the Lord to help us make changes we need to make in time to be relevant and in a way that allows us to get there together.”
The Executive Committee of the board then presented a proposed statement for the board members to consider, encouraging them to take the statement with them overnight and to spend time in prayer discerning God’s leading. Over the course of the next two days, board members offered feedback and counsel to the Executive Committee. The statement underwent three revisions before the board approved a final version. While the statement had broad support across the EB, it did not pass unanimously.
As a whole, the board wrestled with the difficult task of responding to concerns expressed by LGBTQ brothers and sisters, while also tending to relationships with all parts of the church as expressed in written covenants of mutual accountability.
“We need to own all the tears and the anger that have gone into these conversations and honor them,” said Soto Albrecht. “We are called to represent the whole of Mennonite Church USA, and that’s not easy.”
The final statement calls for the creation of a listening task force to review the process by which Mountain States Mennonite Conference decided to license Theda Good, and to examine the ways these actions interface with the existing membership guidelines and polity documents of Mennonite Church USA. The task force will consist of Moderator-elect Patricia Shelly of Newton, Kan. (chair); David Boshart, Executive Committee member; and two to three members of the Constituency Leaders Council (CLC) (to be named). After receiving counsel from the CLC at its next meeting in March 2014, the task force will conduct a review and bring a recommendation for next steps to the EB at its June 2014 meeting. The full text of the statement, which includes instructions for contacting the task force, is available online.
The board also met with Loren Swartzendruber, president of EMU, and Carlos Romero, executive director of Mennonite Education Agency (MEA), to learn more about EMU’s listening process regarding the hiring of faculty and staff members who are in committed same-sex relationships. Swartzendruber said that after listening to voices from across the church, he and the EMU cabinet will bring a recommendation to EMU’s board. The EB urged Swartzendruber to stay in close consultation with Romero and MEA as the process moves forward.
During the meeting, the board also affirmed the release of a revised statement on immigration justice, which delegates called for at the Phoenix convention in July 2013. The statement reads in part, “We renounce the indifference to and mistreatment of undocumented and documented immigrants that has occurred and continues to occur in our congregations, our communities and this country. We are committed to joining God’s reconciling mission and to live and act as sisters and brothers in Christ regardless of our legal status.”
The statement also includes a list of resources for congregations and individuals to use in learning more about and engaging immigration issues. Iris de León-Hartshorn, director of transformative peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA, is also working on the development of a six-week curriculum, Radical Hospitality: Responding to Issues of Immigration, for use in Sunday school and small group settings.
The EB met with MennoMedia staff members to learn about their strategic planning process for the next five years. They plan to explore new print-on-demand technologies; to continue expanding the marketing and availability of Herald Press books; and to gear up for the launch of a new Sunday school curriculum, Shine, in the summer of 2014. Together the board prayed for Menno Media’s staff and board, and blessed their work.
The EB also said farewell to and blessed Marty Lehman, associate executive director for churchwide operations for Mennonite Church USA, who will be leaving her position in April 2014; and Nancy Heisey, who resigned her EB term early..
The CLC will meet March 20–22 in Newton, Kan. The EB’s next meeting will be June 26–28 in Chicago.