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Lancaster congregations weigh options

1.17. 2016 Written By: Hannah Heinzekehr

Representatives from 16 Lancaster (Pa.) Mennonite Conference congregations met at the conference offices on Jan. 7 to connect with one another and to discuss processes for discerning future affiliation with Mennonite Church USA or Lancaster Mennonite Conference. Last Nov. 19, LMC announced its decision to secede from MCUSA, a resolution passed by 82 percent of voting clergy members. For congregations who wish to stay connected to both LMC and the national denomination, this is a conundrum, since congregations must be part of a member area conference to participate in MC USA. The LMC Bishop Board proposal established a two-year period where congregations can continue official relationship with both LMC and MCUSA.

The congregations attending on Jan. 7, informally referred to as the “LMC-MCUSA group” met with LMC leaders and each other to share and support one another as they begin congregational discernment processes about where to affiliate in the future. Some congregations are ready to begin talking with other MCUSA area conferences about what affiliation would look like, while others don’t know the way forward yet.

“Basically what this means is that there are congregations who have people on both sides: people who want to stay connected to the denomination and people who can’t bear leaving LMC,” said Dawn Ranck Hower, pastor of  New Holland (Pa.) Mennonite Church and one of four individuals selected as conveners of the group. “It simply means these churches are keeping the status quo of being part of both groups right now.”

In addition to Ranck Hower, the group of conveners includes Jonathan Bowman, pastor of Landisville (Pa.) Mennonite Church, Todd Gusler, pastor of Rossmere Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., and Carol Oberholtzer, member of Lititz (Pa.) Mennonite Church. This group will take primary responsibility for pulling together future meetings, setting agenda and connecting with conference and denominational support people to resource the group.

“This is not a group that is anti-LMC,” said Gusler. “We’ve met with Keith [Weaver, executive conference minister for LMC] directly, and he’s given support to us. We’re trying to be as open about this process as we can and work with the conference and congregations where they are at.”

In addition, LMC has created a Congregational Support Team that will serve as resources to congregations exploring affiliation. The team includes three LMC staff members: Joanne Dietzel, conference coordinator; Conrad Kanagy, staff consultant; and Brinton Rutherford, point person for Missional Anabaptist Identity.

“When the resolution [to leave MC USA] was on the table, one of the pieces of it was that Lancaster Mennonite Conference would continue to care for all [its] congregations, so part of that is appointing a team that would be available to offer assistance,” said Dietzel in a Jan. 14 phone interview. “As the support team, we’re not here to make the decision for the group. We’re just available to make sure there’s a good process that would take place so that people are all heard.”

In addition to the Congregational Support Team, LMC will continue to tithe 10 percent of conference contributions from these “opt in” congregations to MC USA and will also cover the cost of sending two representatives from the group to Constituency Leaders Council meetings during the two-year transition period.

In a Jan. 13 phone interview, Bowman, Gusler and Ranck Hower acknowledged that while there is disagreement in these 16 congregations about inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) individuals, the conversation about whether to stay or leave LMC is based on a number of factors, including relationships.

“My congregation has valued the relationship with both LMC and MC USA,” said Gusler. “Do we have to choose between one and the other? Can we maintain ties? We’re not of one mind on LGBTQ inclusion, but we’re not of one mind on a lot of things. I think the tendency with the controversy going on within the conference is to reduce it to LGBTQ inclusion, but it also has a lot to do with relationships and how we view authority.”

Perhaps the group’s most valuable function is to provide a space for pastors and lay leaders to meet face to face to pray for one another and share their ideas and questions.

“This is a group of people trying to care for each other and expressing their commitments and fears and their hopes,” said Bowman. “The more we are in the same room with people we may not see eye-to-eye with on this separation, the more I come to realize these are genuine people in various states of fear and hope.”

Ranck Hower also acknowledges that the group is asking questions and engaging in discernment processes that congregations in other conferences are wrestling with, too. She shared a story of asking for prayer for this process and being moved to tears at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center’s recent retreat for music and worship leaders. Afterward, she was approached by numerous leaders from across the church resonating with what she shared.

“We know that even though we’re in the midst of actively having to make this decision with LMC,” she said, “other conferences are experiencing the same challenges right now, too.”

The group plans to meet every six to eight weeks throughout the next two years.


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