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Lancaster Mennonite Conference formally exits Mennonite Church USA

1.7. 2018 Written By: Hannah Heinzekehr, The Mennonite

Featured photo: Attendees at a March 2 gathering of current and former Lancaster Mennonite Conference congregations discerning affiliation. Photo by Todd Gusler. 

Over two years after it began the process of exiting Mennonite Church USA, Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Conference (LMC) formally left the denomination on Jan. 1. Following LMC’s decision to leave Mennonite Church USA in November 2015 over disagreements surrounding church polity and the inclusion of LGBTQ people, congregations were given two years to discern where they would like to affiliate.

When the former Mennonite Church merged with the General Conference Mennonite Church to form MC USA, LMC was the last conference to join, becoming a full member of the new denomination in 2004 (two years after the denomination’s formal launch in 2002).

The majority of the conference’s 179 congregations opted to stay with LMC. Of 17 congregations in formal discernment about affiliation, nine chose to stay with LMC and eight transferred their membership to nearby Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) in order to remain a part of MC USA.

Landisville (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Church was one congregation that opted to move its membership from LMC to ACC in spring 2017, after a long discernment process that included forming a task force of lay leaders to gather information and to engage in prayerful listening and research about options for the congregation moving forward. According to Gina Burkhart, Landisville associate pastor, the process was “immensely painful for our congregation, causing significant division and membership losses.”

In a Jan. 8 email, Burkhart said the congregation’s eventual decision to shift membership to ACC grew out of a sense “that we are enriched by the fellowship of Mennonites across the country whose faith journeys look different from our own,” although the congregation has valued its historical connection to LMC and the support and care it has received from LMC bishops and leaders.

Moving forward, Burkhart hopes relationships across organizational boundaries will continue to flourish. “Both of our faith heritages, MC USA and Lancaster Conference, continue to be not mere organizations but people that we love and care for and long to see grow as disciples of Jesus,” she wrote. “The quality of our ongoing relationships can be an authentic expression of what God is doing among us. I pray that we will be known by our love for each other more than the things that have divided us.”

Since it announced its exit from MC USA, LMC has welcomed or will welcome 30 new congregations into membership (17 congregations will be welcomed at LMC’s March assembly). Of those 30 congregations, 14 come from Franklin Mennonite Conference, a former MC USA area conference that voted to join Lancaster in September 2017.

Keith Weaver, LMC executive conference minister, noted that the conference is also exploring additional connections. Spanish Mennonite Council, a former district of LMC, recently reorganized to form Shalom Council of Churches, “an expanded Hispanic network that includes congregations in the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica and Nicaragua,” wrote Weaver in a Jan. 5 email. In addition, 14 congregations from the Dominican Republic, many of them started by LMC members sent as church planters through Eastern Mennonite Missions, are also appealing for membership in the conference.

Although Weaver says the majority of LMC congregations had processed leaving MC USA two years ago, when the decision was made, the conference’s formal exit this month made national news in other outlets, including Christianity Today and Religion News Service.

Almost all the 17 congregations in discernment about affiliation had announced their decisions by spring 2017. Habecker Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is one of two congregations that waited until the end of the two-year process to disaffiliate from either group. Eighty percent of the congregation’s members are Karen refugees from Burma/Myanmar and Thailand, and Pastor Chris Landes says the congregation sees its primary mission as “focused on offering hospitality and love in the way of Jesus as members learn English, find employment, take driving and citizenship tests and learn how to raise families in a new country.”

Landes says the congregation would have desired to remain affiliated with both entities, but dual affiliation was not an option. “We did not choose to leave either group and remained connected with both for as long as possible. In the end, we stayed with LMC, where our longest historic ties have been,” wrote Landes in a Jan. 4 email.

LMC has applied for membership with Mennonite World Conference, a global Anabaptist network, but in order for the request to be approved, MC USA’s Executive Board will need to write a letter of reference. Prior to this letter being written, MC USA Executive Board leaders and LMC’s executive committee will meet in later January for conversation.

Both LMC and MC USA leaders have expressed a desire to stay in right relationship and to find ways to collaborate on ministry initiatives.

In a Jan. 5 statement on the MC USA website, Executive Director Ervin Stutzman wrote: “The official separation does not mean that all our relationships with Lancaster Conference will end. Members of the conference will continue to participate in some MC USA program agencies, such as Everence and MHS Alliance. And there are many other ways members will cross paths in the coming years, particularly in inter-Mennonite programs such as Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service and Mennonite Economic Development Associates. Although we are now separate structural bodies, we all remain part of the body of Christ. Thus, we pray for Lancaster Conference in carrying out the ministry to which they feel called by God.”

Weaver also noted places of ministry overlap and wrote, “My hope for the future is that we can find ways to encourage allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord of the church and work together to see his kingdom come in its fullness as soon as possible.”

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