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At a regular meeting on Aug. 23, the Central District Conference (CDC) ministerial committee took a unanimous action to restore the credentials of Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill (North Carolina) Mennonite Fellowship (CHMF).
This action comes after CHMF’s transfer of membership from Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC) to CDC on June 22.
“We are excited to welcome [CHMF] and Pastor Isaac to CDC as we walk together, providing mutual counsel to one another and live into our common purpose of “Knowing Christ’s Love…Answering God’s Call,” says Arman Habegger, president of the CDC Board of Directors.
CDC leaders considered this action in consultation with VMC leaders, in light of a decision made in May 2016 by VMC’s faith and life commission to place Villegas’ credentials “under suspension” after his performance of a same-sex marriage ceremony.
Villegas conducted the wedding while serving as a member of MC USA’s Executive Board and subsequently resigned from that position. CHMF, whose congregants discerned the process and gave their blessing to Villegas to perform the ceremony, remained in good standing with VMC.
“After waiting for VMC to conduct a review of Isaac’s credentials, in February 2017, we officially requested to transfer membership from VMC to CDC,” says Rebecca Rich, congregational moderator of CHMF. “CHMF is grateful for CDC’s recognition both of Isaac’s gifts in pastoral ministry and our congregation’s call that he serve as our pastor. We look forward to participating in the life and ministry of Central District Conference.”
CHMF’s transfer to CDC followed the MC USA process on congregational transfer from one area conference to another, found in Article III.3.b of the MC USA bylaws, as well as CDC’s two-step membership process, in which any new congregation is (1) initially introduced at an Annual Meeting and (2) voted on for membership by delegates one year later.
“I am grateful to Clyde Kratz, VMC executive conference minister, and other conference leadership for the good conversations and processing that occurred over 18 months as we have prepared for this transfer of membership,” says Doug Luginbill, CDC conference minister.
VMC ‘relinquishes’ Villegas’ credentials
The VMC faith and life commission stated on April 20: “FLC relinquishes Isaac Villegas’ ministerial credentials to Central District Conference, with Central District’s knowledge that the designated status with MC USA Ministerial Leadership Office is ‘under suspension.’”
“In relinquishing Isaac Villegas’ ministerial credentials to CDC, the faith and life commission of Virginia Mennonite Conference sought to adhere to the shared commitments of MC USA as we understood them,” says Kratz. “Our understanding includes a commitment to the Membership Guidelines of MC USA, Article 19 of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, A Shared Understanding for Church leadership (2014) and the Forbearance Resolution of MC USA.”
According to Kratz, the VMC faith and life commission continued to use the 2014 working draft version of A Shared Understanding for Church Leadership, MC USA’s polity manual, in their decisions, although it has undergone substantial changes. The final draft, A Shared Understanding of Ministerial Leadership, was affirmed in April 2017 by the Executive Board of MC USA as the guide for ministerial policies in all MC USA conferences, but according to Kratz, VMC “has not embraced” the affirmed version of the polity manual.
“It is our desire to be faithful to our denominational commitments by upholding our beliefs,” says Kratz. “It is my perspective that the FLC relinquished Isaac’s credentials to CDC without terminating his credentials as a statement of our forbearance on this issue.”
The CDC ministerial committee acknowledged VMC’s action to “relinquish” Villegas’ ministerial credentials at a regularly scheduled meeting on June 7 and planned to move forward in conversation with Villegas in the CDC credentialing process.
While the MC USA Leadership Development office maintains MennoData—a national database of all leaders credentialed by MC USA area conferences—in the MC USA system, area conferences determine the credentialed status of leaders in their conference. When an area conference announces a change in the status of a credentialed leader, the MC USA Leadership Development office enters a note into MennoData reflecting the change and the conference’s stated reason for the change.
“What many people fail to understand about our polity is that conferences and congregations hold a great deal of authority. When there are differences among how conferences handle decisions in their context, we as denominational leaders are limited in our ability to adjudicate the matter as definitively as some would hope,” says Glen Guyton, executive director of MC USA. “According to our polity, we can create forums for discussion and encourage area conference leaders to work out their disagreements and come to a mutually agreed-upon path forward.”
“Our system has its strengths and weaknesses, guided by our bylaws and other documents,” Guyton says. “Our denomination has work to do to bring clarity to the system.”
CDC restores Villegas’ credentials to ‘active’
Following CDC’s Aug. 23 decision to restore Villegas’ credentials, Luginbill requested that the MC USA Leadership Development office list Villegas’ credential as “active.”
According to Ardean Friesen, chairperson of the CDC ministerial committee, the committee has had a practice of reviewing the credentials of pastors who perform same-sex ceremonies, attending to the motivations, theological understandings and processes used to make the decision by both the pastor and the congregation.
“When the pastor and congregation are mutually in agreement with the action and when a faithful discernment process has been followed, no disciplinary action has been taken against the pastor or congregation,” says Friesen.
“This process fits well with CDC congregational polity, which states that ‘being together (as congregations) helps us strengthen commitments, continue discovering God in significant ways and define what it means for our walk as Jesus’ disciples and Anabaptist Mennonites today,’” says Luginbill.
Plans for further discernment
The Leadership Development office of MC USA has plans underway for conference ministers to engage this topic at the upcoming Constituency Leaders Council meeting Oct. 11-13 in Chicago and at the annual National Area Church and Conference Ministers’ meeting of MC USA and MC Canada Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Los Angeles.
“The decision of VMC to ‘relinquish’ the suspended credential of Isaac Villegas to CDC, CDC’s receiving of that credential and CDC’s subsequent decision to restore Isaac’s credential to active status, does not fit neatly into our current polity,” says Michael Danner, director of MC USA’s office of Leadership Development. “Therefore, we will seek broader discernment from conference leaders about what precedent this sets.”
He adds: “We respect the discernment of both of CDC and VMC and commend the way they have worked together on this matter. We are also grateful for Pastor Isaac Villegas and his ministry with Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship and within MC USA.”
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