A pastoral letter to a congregation breaking a rule (kind of), OR breaking ground

Mark Rupp has been pastoring at Columbus Mennonite for nearly a month and this coming Sunday is his installation service.  Mark will preach, and Lois Kaufmann, our Central District Conference Minister, will be here and will lead this part of the service.  For first time pastors, installation is usually accompanied with the conference’s giving of a ministry license, a two year credential which can lead toward ordination.

If you have been following denominational publications you know that Mountain States Mennonite Conference, after a year and a half long period of conversations and discernment, gave a ministry license to a woman in a covenanted relationship with another woman.  This was a first for our denomination.  It has been controversial enough that our denominational Executive Board felt compelled to issue a statement which, in part, requested that conferences refrain from issuing ministry credentials to persons in same-sex relationships. 

But we, as a congregation, have found a gifted pastor whose gifts and theology are a strong fit for what we have been seeking.  He happens to be in a committed relationship with another man.  We have put thought, prayer, and time into collectively discerning this path, even voting on a congregational statement which helps clarify and expand our embrace of persons who identify as LGBTQ. 

And so we currently find ourselves in a different place on this matter than our denominational leadership and an unknown portion of our Mennonite sisters and brothers.  What has felt to us like a Spirit-led, grace-filled endeavor is something that will be seen by some others as an act of biblical unfaithfulness – although we rejoice that an increasing number of persons and congregations will receive our actions as wonderful news to be celebrated, faithful to the good news which Jesus taught and lived.  We’re in a moment of tension, perhaps even crisis, for how much philosophical diversity our wider church institutional structures can hold.  Because this is a situation that calls for extra attention to wider church relationships, Central District is not yet ready to confer the official ministry license to Mark this Sunday, even though he is being installed and affirmed for all the roles of a pastor. 

Just as a point of clarification, we as a congregation are not in any danger of losing our status as members in good standing with Central District Conference and, thus, in Mennonite Church USA.  CDC affirms our congregational discernment in this matter, even if they’re not yet ready to issue a ministry license. 

I do anticipate that the time ahead will come with some difficulties.  When Central District does decide to license Mark – and I believe it to be a matter of when and not if – the conference and our congregation will be in a spotlight.  We will receive communications for those both overjoyed and deeply troubled by our actions.  Whether we like it or not, we will be known in the Mennonite Church as the church with the gay pastor (or, perhaps, the other church with the gay pastor).  We will have soul work to do in order to respond in a way that is both loving, and grounded in our understandings of who God is calling us to be.  Some of us will have potentially painful conversations with family members attending other congregations who feel we have gone off the deep end. 

We are taking an important step beyond blessing and welcoming persons who identify as LGBTQ.  Now, more and more, we are being blessed by persons who identify as LGBTQ, and being welcomed into a deeper communion of mutual learning.  We believe this to be a natural expression of our commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Jesus brought the marginalized into the center and declared that theirs in the kin-dom of God.  The early church experienced a breaking down of dividing walls, joining together previously disparate groups into the one mystical body of Christ.    Being the church with the gay pastor means that we not only welcome those for whom the church has been a place of pain and emotional violence, but we have agreed to be led and blessed by one who brings this consciousness into all aspects of his ministry.  It is a gift that the Spirit has brought our way.  This Sunday we will celebrate that gift, and lament that a portion of the wider church is not yet ready to receive this gift.      

With good hope,