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Forbearance is forever: Reflections on Allegheny Mennonite Conference

1.5. 2018 Posted By: The Mennonite 1,485 read

David E. Mishler is Conference Minister for Allegheny Mennonite Conference

When I returned to Allegheny Conference at the call of its Leadership Council in 2016, I knew that the road ahead would be fraught with questions, anger, misunderstanding, lament…and praise and joy, relief and new energy. This anticipated mixture was what drew me and also gave me pause. Enjoying my first pastoral assignment in 23 years in Newport News, Virginia, after a successful tenure developing an interdenominational continuing care retirement community in western Pennsylvania, the congregation I was serving, Huntington Mennonite Church, and I were getting our footing and ministry was happening within and beyond the congregation. I was in a good place and some regional conference work may have been on the horizon.

So why did I decide to accept a call to return to a conference leadership role in a conference that was in deep pain, experiencing some two-thirds of its congregations withdrawing from Mennonite Church USA and Allegheny Conference? Partly because the landscape was familiar.

But at a much deeper level, I hoped to live into my deep sense of call to work at Romans 14 and 15 in real time in the real life of the church.

Allegheny had just come through a significant “reconciliation” process, re-instating Hyattsville (Maryland) Mennonite Church to full membership. The measure to reinstate passed by one vote and the stage was set for announced and unannounced departures by congregations who saw this step as a bridge too far.

Theological and polity concerns were all over the continuum.  What once was a conference of 37 congregations would soon be 18 and would later be 12.

When I recently read a report in Mennonite World Review from South Central Conference making provision for congregations to be members of the conference but not members of MC USA, a practice affirmed in Ohio Conference, I wondered if such a practice could have provided a way for long-time relationships to have continued in Allegheny. Should Allegheny adopt such a policy?

But what caught my eye was the last paragraph. A statement that could be read as a prophetic word, or the stating of a position, or both. Outgoing South Central Conference moderator Gary Wolfer said, “As of today, what we have is a forbearance perspective, but there will come a day when that ends.” If this is a word to the rest of the church that patience will likely run out and there will be more division in the denomination, I sadly agree. If it is a position that forbearance is in place for now, but forbearance should be put away in the future, because tolerance or forbearance is not the highest of ideals, and should only be put in place for a season, then I beg to offer a different perspective, a perspective the Apostle Paul called for as a regular, forever practice in the church.

Romans 14 and 15 is an extended argument from Paul that places forbearance at the center of Christian ethics and at the center of what it means to love one another as Christ loves us. There is no expiration on forbearance.

Indeed there is paradox here, holding apparent opposites in tension at the same time: “Stop passing judgment on one another” (14:13).  Don’t “put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (14:13).  “Do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil” (14:16).  “Make every effort to do what leads to peace” (14:19).  “Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up” (15:2).  “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (15:7).

The “genius” (if we can call it that) of the two paradoxical resolutions coming out of the 2015 national convention in Kansas City is that the denomination was forced to live into Romans 14  and 15 as denominational policy. Even if there was a two-biennium time limitation, we have been called to live into the best of what it means to live together in peace. We have not been called to live together in agreement on all points.

So, as I came to Allegheny, now over a year ago, my goal was to lead a conference who was reeling from the inability of many to forebear into a place where forbearance is forever. My hope is to lead a conference with the greatest diversity we can imagine under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  Loving God and loving neighbor call for no expiration on forbearance.

Allegheny is on a path to discerning its future, and we are staking our future around three priorities as our guiding principles, and we ask all conferences and congregations to consider your approach to forbearance as a call that lasts forever:

  • We value relationships, so we commit ourselves to be present at three gatherings each year to share what God is doing in our various places, so that we can celebrate and counsel with one another.
  • We value diversity of thought and practice so that we can sharpen one another in extending the reign of God in our home communities.
  • We value staying at the table, not imposing our agenda on one another, yet discerning together how God is speaking into the life of our conference and the lives of our congregations.
Said more simply, we hope in our conference of congregations to follow Jesus, be compassionate, respond to real stuff, make allies and laugh often. We hope to find this recipe to be one around which we can grow a conference.

 

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4 Responses to “Forbearance is forever: Reflections on Allegheny Mennonite Conference”

  1. Conrad Martin says:

    While you are discussing Paul’s letter to the Romans, perhaps you could discuss chapter 2 verse 4, where he actually mentions forbearance and its intended results.

    • Mike Shank says:

      After reading Romans 2:4, I see how insightful and relevant your comment is. Thanks for sharing this important facet of forbearance. I, too, hope the author discusses the valid point you have made.

  2. John Gingrich says:

    I have two questions in response to this article.
    (1) How does a conference approve the reinstallation of Hyattsville to membership by a majority vote and then lose 67 percent of the congregations because of this decision? Was the process flawed in a way that gave a false sense of God’s direction?
    (2) How would the process of allowing congregations to be members of the conference without being members of MC USA be a solution to Allegheny Conference’s problems? The congregation’s displeasure was with the decisions by Allegheny and not with MC USA.
    Forbearance involves patience, tolerance and love, but the relationship between prodigal son and the Father does not happen until after repentance.

  3. Kurt Horst says:

    FORBEARANCE IS NOT FOREVER

    Thank you for the recognition of the meaning of forbearance in Romans 2:4.
    To argue that forbearance is forever (David Mishler, June 2018), is to presume to write your own dictionary. The granting of forbearance is not a forever act but presumes that additional time has been granted regarding some form of right or obligation. If it is “forever” then there is no remaining legal right or obligation and the action is something other than forbearance.
    I recall another person at my table group in Orlando stating, when the forbearance resolution was being considered, that what many people understood by forbearance was different than its definition. (Perhaps this was true for those who wrote the document as well.)
    According to Meriam-Webster, forbearance is: “Refraining from the enforcement of something (such as a debt, right, or obligation) that is due.”
    Forbearance is either patience or a legal agreement to allow non-compliance for a period of time. An example would be allowing repayment of student loans to be in forbearance while a student continues their education. With forbearance there is an assumed future when the forbearance ends.
    In the example of the Hyattsville congregation, the action to restrict Hyattsville’s participation, but allow a level of continued presence, was in effect an act of forbearance. The action to reinstate them ended the period of forbearance.
    My participation in the vote on the forbearance resolution did not presume it to be a forever action.
    If, in Mennonite Church USA, we are to understand the forbearance action by its dictionary definition, the delegates have recognized that there are Conferences in non-compliance with the Membership Guidelines and the Confession of Faith who, for the present, may continue full participation with no action taken related to the non-compliance. Since no timeline was included forbearance continues until:
    – The documents that define the non-compliance are changed or terminated.
    or
    – Any non-compliant conferences return to compliance.

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