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Eastern District and Franconia take next step on reconciliation journey

11.13. 2017 Written By: Hannah Heinzekehr, The Mennonite 1,018 read

Photo: Members of the Exploring Reconciliation Reference Team, Left to Right: Lisa Stenger, Bronwyn Histand, John Ruth, Jessica Miller, and Ron White. Photo provided. 

If the relationship between Eastern District Conference and Franconia Mennonite Conference were a romantic one, conference leaders say it’s now entering a formal engagement phase. One year after delegates from both conferences voted to begin exploring a reunion after 170 years apart, delegates voted to take another step forward.

During a Nov. 3-4 joint assembly session at Dock Mennonite Academy, Souderton, Pennsylvania, delegates from both conferences affirmed a recommendation from a six-person Exploring Reconciliation Reference Team, that, “EDC and FMC enter a formal engagement process for the purposes of healing and reconciliation and with the intention of becoming a single, unified conference by November 2019.” The recommendation was affirmed by 99 percent of EDC delegates and 90 percent of FMC delegates.

“We’ve been dating for the past six years, we got serious over the past year, last year was pre-engagement counseling and now we’re engaged,” says Scott Roth, who has served as interim conference minister for EDC for the past two years and will now serve as the EDC staff representative participating in ongoing reconciliation processes. “Now I think it’s like it’s sinking in for people that we’re actually going to do this. This [coming back together] isn’t what people usually do in our denomination and I think it’s going to be good.”

The Exploring Reconciliation team, with support from two consultants, Roxy Allen Koko and David Brubaker of Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, developed a nine month process of listening and studying both conferences. The report sent to delegates states, “Eastern District Conference and Franconia Mennonite Conference may have come apart 170 years ago, but they’ve been coming back together in recent decades. The reasons for the original division are clear to some older members in the two conferences, but are lost on younger generations.”

The report also identified a number of themes that will require further conversation. Over the next year, two teams will be formed: one team to work at healing and emotional reconciliation (“heart issues”) and the other to work at identity development and structural implementation. The two teams will include representatives from both conferences and will be appointed by a dual conference leadership team including conference moderators, John Goshow (FMC) and Jim Musselman (EDC).

Kriss described a good amount of energy and excitement around the reconciliation process, despite the fact that there are still many questions to be explored. “The main questions continue to be around what polity differences exist between the conferences and issues around size difference,” said Kriss, in a Nov. 9 phone interview. “I think one of the key questions is, is there a sense of shared mission and identity that will help propel us forward. What ways can we discover and name that over the next two years.”

Rodger Schmell, outgoing EDC moderator, and Goshow led delegates in a process of naming and displaying their affirmations and concerns prior to taking a vote. These statements will be complied and shared with the two teams who will help to carry the process forward.

“One of my hopes is that we can let all the water under the bridge go downstream,” said Schmell in a Nov. 10 interview. “We carry grudges and fears from past generations on how things used to be. I think both of our districts are trying to be reflective of the times and to say, Let’s bury these things once and for all and move on.”

Goshow hopes that both conferences can continue to build on long histories of ministry (300 years for FMC and 170 for EDC) and that both conferences will be able to bring the best of their organization to a new conference body.

“I’m hoping that this two years will help us to take a look at each of our conferences’ distinctive and acknowledge the value that each of our two conferences bring to this effort,” says Goshow. “And not only understand these things, but respect and bless what has really worked well. I’m also hoping that the process that we’re on will lead to something different and I don’t want to speculate now what that might be.”

Although the recommendation calls for movement toward becoming a unified conference, that’s not a foregone conclusion. Both Goshow and Schmell are glad to see the conferences moving toward reconciliation and say that a lot of work lies ahead in the next two years.

During the assembly, both conferences spent time in joint worship and fellowship sessions, while also spending time in separate business sessions.

Franconia goes bi-coastal

During a Nov. 4 FMC delegate session, delegates voted with 98 percent approval to accept four congregations as new conference members: three former Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference

Left to Right: Pastor Buddy Hunarto, Pastor Aldo Siahaan Pastor Virgo Handojo, Pastor Beny Krisbianto, and Pastor Hendy Stevans sing a song of blessing at the Franconia Mennonite Conference delegate session. Photo provided.

congregations from the Los Angeles area—International Worship Church, JKI Anugerah and Indonesian Community Christian Fellowship—and Bethany Elshaddai Creative Community from Flushing, New York. All four congregations are Indonesian Mennonite churches, bumping up FMC’s demographics to nearly 15 percent Indonesia members.

“This was a historic decision! There was a lot of energy around welcoming these congregations and a recognition of this as an ongoing part of our Franconia Conference commitments to be an intercultural community,” said Kriss. “We feel that’s how God is inviting us to be. That’s been a long piece of work for about 100 years and we continue to move in that direction.”

Prior to the vote, Aldo Siahaan, pastor of Philadelphia Praise Center and LEADership Minister for FMC, introduced the new congregations and reminded FMC of the support that his congregation received 10 years ago when they sought to join FMC.

“From that time 10 years ago, the relationship started with the Indonesian churches in California. Since then the relationship between Indonesian church in Philadelphia and in California grew until today,” said Siahaan. “My brothers and sisters from Franconia conference, especially the ones [churches] from California really still want to be part of the Mennonite family and they think that Franconia conference is their uncles and aunts.”

Following Siahaan’s introduction, representatives from the congregations offered a song of blessing drawing on themes from the assembly’s theme verse, Psalm 133.

“This song is about how it’s really good to be part of the Christian family and to be brothers and sisters in Christ,” said Siahaan.

The conference will work with the congregations in California to appoint a LEADership Minister to provide support. This year, Salford Mennonite Church, Harleysville, Pennsylvania, which just celebrated its 300 year anniversary, donated funds to the conference that supported representatives from the California churches attending the assembly.

“It was a perfect way to celebrate mutual flourishing,” said Kriss.

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