Church amidst differences

We had a nice vacation with Abbie’s family in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee.  A highlight: having childcare back at the cabin while Abbie and I hiked to a waterfall and old growth part of the national forest.

I’m writing this from the basement of the church where I was dedicated as a baby – Bethel Mennonite Church in West Liberty, Ohio.  They hosted a lunch gathering today with about 20 area pastors to be in conversation with Ervin Stutzman, Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA.  Ervin will also be in Bluffton this evening for an open town hall meeting.  Conversation focused on where we are now as a denomination and how and whether we can continue to be church together amidst our differences.  We are a denomination of about 100,000 people spread out over the country and although we all trace our lineage back through the early Anabaptists, we are as theologically diverse as any other denomination.   The presenting issue at this time is Mountain States Conference’s ordination of a woman in a committed relationship with another woman.  The issues underlying this issue include basic theological understandings, how we read scripture, and what kind of church polity we have – what parts of the church have authority to do what things.   

The conversation today was respectful and encouraging in some ways.  Those who spoke voiced their wish to be a part of a wider church that allowed for such differences while focusing on a core of common purposes such as Christian formation, stewardship, building communities of peace, and leadership development.  Some pastors did voice that many people in their congregations are not comfortable with a denomination that allows decisions like Mountain States’ to stand.  Ervin acknowledged that “People want to be a part of a (wider) church that stands for what they stand for so they can go there together” (pretty sure I wrote down that quote correctly).  He also acknowledged that in order to do this we have to have some agreements on what is our “shared space” and where we allow for freedom of local conferences and congregations to discern themselves.  These are currently very live and contentious questions.   

This of course relates directly with our current conversation at Columbus Mennonite regarding expanding our welcome in which we’re considering affirming pastoral leadership extending pastoral care and rites to all members, including same-sex covenant ceremonies, as well as not using sexual orientation as a factor in hiring office or pastoral staff.  As I have listened to conversation and concerns so far, there is a strong majority who feels this is the ethically just path of our congregation and a natural extension of our identity and mission – even as we acknowledge that this puts us in the minority in our denomination.  There are also some of us who do not feel they are personally ready to affirm this direction.  There will be more opportunity to discuss this and listen to one another at the congregational meeting this Sunday evening.  For now I want to express two things:

1) Today Ervin correctly characterized Mennonites as conflict-avoidant.  Peace is a core value, but our view of peace too often involves avoiding conflict rather than confronting it openly in a healthy way and even seeing conflict as a natural and creative part of being community together.  In order for us to be a thriving community it is key that we hold this latter view of conflict and share openly our convictions or uncertainties even as we listen openly to one another, trusting that out of this holy conversation emerges the voice of the Spirit.  This takes trust and vulnerability.

2) I have learned that I have a natural inclination toward harmonizing conflict and playing a middle role in disputes.  But a few years into my pastoral ministry in Cincinnati I came to see that I could no longer play a neutral role regarding the place of LGBTQ persons in the church.   Since that time I have committed to be an ally for LGBTQ persons AND committed to being a compassionate listener to all persons no matter what their personal convictions are on the matter.  I am committed to being a pastor to the entire congregation no matter where each person is on their spiritual journey.  I continue with these commitments in our current conversations and value your prayers and spirited honesty as we continue to be church together.