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Franklin, Virginia discuss implications of resolutions on sexuality

11.16. 2015 Written By: Hannah Heinzekehr 2,063 Times read

Photo: Clyde Kratz, executive conference minister for Virginia Mennonite Conference, makes some concluding remarks at the pastoral consultation held Nov. 9-11 at Lindale Mennonite Church in Linville, Va. (Photo by Jon Trotter)

Two area conferences—Franklin Mennonite Conference and Virginia Mennonite Conference—gathered leaders to discuss the implications of two resolutions on inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) individuals passed by the Delegate Assembly at the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Kansas City, Mo., in July.

At a Nov. 12 meeting of conference delegates at Marion Mennonite Church in Chambersburg, Pa., Franklin considered a proposal calling for the conference to withdraw from Mennonite Church USA.

And from Nov. 9-11, 102 credentialed leaders from Virginia Mennonite Conference gathered at Lindale Mennonite Church in Linville, Va., for a two-day consultation on “same-gender attraction, relationship, [and] lifestyle.”

The Forbearance in the Midst of Differences Resolution acknowledged the lack of consensus within Mennonite Church USA about how LGBTQ individuals are included in the life of the church, and states, “We call on all those in Mennonite Church USA to offer grace, love and forbearance toward conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions.” Delegates passed the resolution with 71-percent approval.

The Resolution on the Status of the Membership Guidelines, written and proposed by Mennonite Church USA’s Executive Board, included, among other recommendations, a recommitment to the denominational Membership Guidelines as written, including a statement prohibiting pastors from performing same-sex marriages, and a commitment not to reexamine the Membership Guidelines for another four years. The resolution passed with a 60-percent vote.

Franklin Mennonite Conference considers withdrawal

On a Thursday evening, as part of Franklin’s annual assembly, 80 delegates gathered to give feedback on a proposal from the conference board calling for withdrawal from Mennonite Church USA. The proposal, emailed to delegates on Oct. 15, suggested that the best way to strengthen the conference’s missional calling was to withdraw from the denomination and seek a new vision and new relationships together.

The rationale for the proposal included discomfort with affiliation with area conferences who are accepting of LGBTQ individuals, concerns about continuing to lose congregations and a desire to focus more fully on “kingdom work.”

“As I listened to pastors leading up to convention in Kansas City, it is the movement toward an understanding of condoning or affirming at some level non-celibate homosexuality that is the lightning rod that prompts them to say things to me like, ‘What is the conference doing? This is of such concern that we’ll align ourselves somewhere else,’ ” said Allen Lehman, conference minister for Franklin, in a Nov. 13 phone conversation.

Lehman and conference leaders had urged pastors and congregations to wait until after the convention in Kansas City to make any decisions, but the combination of the two resolutions on sexuality passed by delegates added to conference anxiety.

“The four-year [prohibition on changes] connected to the Membership Guidelines opens speculative thinking,” said Lehman. “Who knows what that means [in four years]? If you’re a conservative, you think it means the worst.”

Lehman noted that Franklin delegates had a good discussion about the proposal and raised questions about next steps.

“We are on a journey,” said Lehman. “We wanted to find out from congregations, What does the board need to provide you so that your congregation can make a very informed decision? Our next work as a board is to assist leaders as they go back to congregations to carry on that conversation, and the support or lack thereof [for this proposal] will evolve.”

Lehman expects the conference will vote on the proposal sometime in 2016, perhaps as early as February. The proposal would require a two-thirds majority to pass.

If the proposal passes, future affiliation for Franklin remains unknown. The recommendation calls for a year of being independent and reestablishing conference vision, goals and identity.

“What happens next is a big question mark,” said Lehman. “We’ll always keep our eye open to affiliation and what would be the best fit, if any. I’m not sure what that will be. It’s clear to me that the journey will not be unanimous. We are like everyone else, plunged into a time of heaviness.”

Virginia Mennonite Conference pastoral consultation

Over 100 pastors and credentialed leaders gathered for the fifth and final consultation on same-sex relationships and attraction in Virginia Mennonite Conference. According to Clyde Kratz, executive conference minister, the purpose of the gathering was educational and to provide a space for leaders “to think together theologically and reflectively about the issue of same-gender attraction and relationship.”

Kratz commended the overall spirit of the gathering and the sense of “worshipful work,” undergirded by music led by the Lindale Mennonite Church praise team.

Craig Maven, pastor at Harrisonburg (Va.) Mennonite Church, opened the gathering with a presentation on the ways that church and culture intersect and interact.

Later, Phil Kniss, pastor of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, gave an address open to the public

Phil Kniss, pastor of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va., presents on the unity of the church on Nov. 9 at the VMC pastoral consultation. (Photo by Jon Trotter)

Phil Kniss, pastor of Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va., presents on the unity of the church on Nov. 9 at the VMC pastoral consultation. (Photo by Jon Trotter)

entitled, “The Unity of God’s Kingdom.”

“My hope was to kind of put out a vision for how we might see ourselves staying together in our differences and that we wouldn’t have either too low or too high expectations of the kind of unity we can achieve,” said Kniss. “I thought it might be helpful for us to say there’s really good and important work we can do in striving toward unity in certain areas, and while we may not ever achieve full unity in some areas, there are other areas where we can, and we should maximize those possibilities.”

On Nov. 10, Nancy Heisey, professor of Bible and Religion at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, gave a presentation outlining six Christian viewpoints on LGBTQ sexuality. Heisey presented a spectrum of beliefs ranging from outright condemnation to liberation and full inclusion for LGBTQ individuals.

Melissa Florer-Bixler, member of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship and minister of nurture at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, experienced the storytelling and relationship-building as the highlight of the consultation.

“Some of the most powerful moments were in hearing people’s stories and the table sharing,” said Florer-Bixler. “It was really when we got around tables where the most interesting things happened. An emerging theme seemed to be, how does the Holy Spirit work among us in our congregations and in our identity as a conference?”

Pastors had chances to talk in table groups during the VMC pastoral consultation. (Photo by Jon Trotter)

Pastors had chances to talk in table groups during the VMC pastoral consultation. (Photo by Jon Trotter)

Florer-Bixler also acknowledged the diversity in the room when it came to discussing next steps. “For a lot of congregations this is very theoretical,” she said. “I heard a sort of weariness about this conversation or a wanting to get over this so we can move on to mission. But for some of us, this is mission. We have people in our congregations and communities who have been isolated or rejected by the church. The results of this really matter for our congregations and our towns and the way we do mission.”

Additional activities during the two-day event included the sharing of family stories, table group conversations and a panel of conference leaders reflecting on the implications of the Forbearance and Membership Guidelines resolutions for their congregations. On Nov. 11, David Brubaker, associate professor of organizational studies at EMU, led the group in a circle process inviting leaders to share “expressions of concern, hope and challenges.”

Kratz acknowledges that the conversation isn’t over. He noted a call from leaders to engage in biblical study around same-sex relationships and also a call to find ways to be in relationship and conversation with LGBTQ individuals themselves.

“Overall this was a very positive experience, and we were able to hold the conversation in a creative way,” said Kratz. “David Brubaker’s facilitation on [Nov. 11] was a meaningful way of engaging us in various ideas that could be considered in the future.”

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