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Franconia Conference explores cross-country relationships

9.5. 2017 Written By: Hannah Heinzekehr, The Mennonite 597 Times read

Photo: Franconia Conference leaders met with three congregations in southern California this August. From l to r: Aldo Siahaan, Buddy Hannanto, John Goshow, Steven Kriss and Virgo Handojo. Franconia Conference Photo. 

Three congregations, former members of Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference (PSMC), are in talks with leaders of Franconia Conference of Mennonite Church USA about joining the East Coast conference. The congregations, all in California, are Jemaat Kristen Indonesia Anugerah in Sierra Madre, Indonesian Worship Church in San Gabriel, and International Christian Community Fellowship in San Bernardino. Franconia Conference delegates will have a chance to affirm membership for the three new congregations, as well as Bethany New York, a former Church of God congregation in Queens, New York, at their fall assembly Nov. 3-4. Franconia leaders are also having exploratory conversations with another former PSMC congregation, San Francisco Chinese Mennonite Church, but this congregation will not be considered for membership this fall.

The three congregations will be affirmed as a cluster so that the conference can provide support to them as a group. In August, leaders from Franconia traveled to California to visit in person with church leaders.

Virgo Handojo, pastor of JKI Anugerah, says he came from the JKI Mennonite Church in Indonesia and so, when he felt led to plant a church in the Los Angeles area, he immediately tried to connect with Mennonites. Handojo wants that connection to continue, which led him to reach out to Franconia Conference to explore membership. He was familiar with the conference because of his role in helping plant several Indonesian congregations in the Philadelphia area.

“It’s a long history of relationship with Franconia,” says Handojo. “There was an era when we planted many Indonesian churches. We can work with anybody as long as you give us freedom to express our cultures the way we do.”

Steve Kriss, executive conference minister for Franconia, agrees that good synergy already exists with the three California congregations.

“We’ve relied on the council of Southern California Indonesian churches when a wave of East Coast Indonesian churches started to take root in our conference,” said Kriss in an Aug. 22 interview. “We have a sense of familiarity and work over 10 years together. We also have a staff person that speaks Indonesian, and we have people across the conference who have been traveling and working in Indonesia. The global sense of connectedness helps.”

The three congregations ended their affiliation with PSMC in February, when they did not “recommit” as part of the conference’s year-long restructuring process.

In September 2015, the PSMC conference board, in efforts to address concerns about financial sustainability and credentialing processes, began requesting updated information from all member congregations who wished to be included. Congregations were invited to submit updated contact information, statements showing their church’s organizational structure, and a letter recommitting to PSMC and affirming Anabaptist theological tenets. In addition, the board initially asked that congregations commit to paying $100 per month as an annual conference membership fee, although they later agreed to work with congregations if that amount was prohibitive.

“We’ve been operating as a conference with 35 congregations, but we have only 15 to 17 showing up at our assemblies, so it feels like we are disconnected,” said Clare Ann Ruth-Heffelbower, PSMC Conference Minister, in a Feb. 22 phone interview. “We need to work at strengthening our connections, and as we talk about restructuring we need to find some ways to work together at the size we are. But before we can move ahead with more restructuring we need to know what size we actually are.”

At PSMC’s Feb. 11 assembly, 26 congregations recommitted to the conference, and eight congregations, including the three considering membership with Franconia, did not.

“We entered into this not as carefully as we should have, and it caught some people by surprise,” said Ruth-Heffelbower. “Given all that, with the 26 congregations that have recommitted to membership, I am hopeful we are moving in a direction where we will have stronger connection. Having made contact with people we had been out of touch with was good for rebuilding relationships and strengthening relationships for the future.”

Since the February assembly, PSMC leaders have not had formal contact with the three congregations about their intention to explore membership with Franconia.

Handojo says his concerns about the process were primarily about “power and control.”

“My dream and goal is to plant a church that can express the cultures God gives us freely,” says Handojo. “We were intentional to join with brothers and sisters from other cultures that work together with certain values in our faith. But if there are people or persons that have power or status and try to impose their cultures or their way of doing mission that I can see will diminish the mission that God gives us, what can we say? We value the uniqueness of all our cultures.” He says that he has also shared these concerns and expectations with Franconia Conference leadership as they explore a new relationship, too.

Kriss said he knows there is more work and listening to be done in order to determine how the conference and congregations will best support each other from coast to coast, but he believes the conference is up to the challenge. He noted that the conference has already had experience with supporting church plants in far-flung locations, including Hawaii and Mexico.

“Franconia has a framework of right fellowship, of extending the good fellowship and the community that we experience around the primary values of Anabaptism and beyond our geographic and sociocultural boundaries,” he said. “We want to celebrate that as if it’s Pentecost.”

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