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The hole in Lancaster Conference’s case against Chester Wenger

Lancaster County Farmscape by Tim Nafziger
11.9. 2014 Posted By: Tim Nafziger 20,330 Times read

Lancaster Conference’s rationale for decredentialing one of their longest serving pastors is on shaky ground. Longtime Mennonite leader Chester Wenger published an Open Letter to my Beloved Church Nov. 6, calling for inclusion of LGBTQ people in our church. Wenger writes that, after 65 years as a pastor, Lancaster Conference has de-credentialed him for officiating his son’s marriage to another man. In 48 hours, it received more than 68,000 views, over 14,000 Facebook shares and 87 comments. That’s a massive response in a denomination with less than 100,000 members.

On the same day, Lancaster Online published an article on Lancaster Conference’s decision to “terminate” his credentials. In the local news article the moderator of the conference, Keith Weaver, cited denominational documents as the basis for the termination of Wenger’s credentials:

Weaver said the action was based on Mennonite Church USA guidelines stating, “Pastors holding credentials in a conference of Mennonite Church USA may not perform a same-sex covenant.”

I discussed this Lancaster longing for top down denominational rule enforcement last month in Managing Mennonite Church USA: Do we need a head bishop?.

One of the traditional advantages of hierarchical structures (like bishops) is that accountability is clear: you know who has to answer for a decision.

Weaver seems to want the power of a hierarchy with dispersed responsibility. The problem with Weaver’s strategy is that, coming out of the Constituency Leadership Council (CLC) October meetings, there is clearly not churchwide agreement on the prohibition against performing same-sex covenants he cited.

In his Equipping Column for Nov. 4 Ervin Stutzman describes the CLC’s response to making this prohibition part of the new polity manuals “unsure” and “divided.” Stutzman elaborates:

The differences in the CLC largely reflect the variety of leadership practices within the 21 area conferences across our church who currently hold the credentials for their leaders. They do not all agree on what it means to be recognized as a minister across Mennonite Church USA, not just within the confines of a local church or area conference.

Many believe that while area conferences have authority to grant leadership credentials, they must do so in keeping with the written agreements made on the national level. In the current environment, that will affect the credentialing policies for persons who perform same-sex unions, or who are part of such a union. Others believe that area conferences should have freedom to interpret national polities as guidelines, not rules that govern practices regarding same-sex unions.

Lancaster Conference is clearly part of the former group with their focus on written agreement. This is a precarious position to take while very agreement you are citing is the subject of denomination-wide disagreement. Other conferences, part of the latter group, have reviewed minister’s credentials after they performed same sex marriages and found their credentials in order.

Lancaster Conference has the authority to purge Wenger from their ranks, but they should have the courage to take responsibility for their punitive actions, not pass the buck.

Photo: Lancaster County Farmscape by Tim Nafziger.

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29 Responses to “The hole in Lancaster Conference’s case against Chester Wenger”

  1. Steve K says:

    As far as I can tell, according to MC USA polity, Chester is technically still a credentialed minister. He wasn’t stripped of his pastoral cred, only a change in status of category from active to retired. Retired ministers still retain all the responsibilities and privileges of pastoral ministry but are requested to act on them with discretion. I know that’s not exactly what you are talking about here, but as I read Chester’s statements the decision was to “retire his credentials.” While that wasn’t his choice and it is a form of discipline, it’s a largely symbolic disciplinary response.

    • Tim Nafziger says:

      You are right that Chester’s statements make it sound like he is simply retired, but L. Keith Weaver specifically contacted the editors of The Mennonite to clarify that point. His statement (on behalf of Lancaster Conference) is unambiguous:

      Following a review process that was experienced as mutually gracious and respectful, the Lancaster Mennonite Conference (LMC) Credentialing Commission took action to terminate Chester’s retired credential. This action was based on LMC’s commitment to the guidelines for membership in Mennonite Church USA which state, Pastors holding credentials in a conference of Mennonite Church USA may not perform a same-sex covenant.

      In other words, Lancaster Conference has told Chester Wenger he is no longer a Mennonite pastor for performing this son’s marriage.

  2. Berry Friesenb says:

    Tim, what I see in this dramatic episode is exemplary conduct all around: Rev. Wenger in courageously following his conscience, Lancaster Mennonite Conference in keeping its commitments, Rev. Wenger and LMC leaders in taking responsibility for their own actions while also showing respect for the decisions the other must make.

    The 2000 commitment of the Mennonite district conferences to forbid credentialed leaders from conducting same-sex commitment ceremonies was very important. Without that commitment, there would never have been a MC USA as we know it today.

    Lancaster Mennonite Conference honored that historic commitment when it disciplined Rev. Wenger.

    This act of discipline reflects the high priority of Lancaster Mennonite Conference on keeping its promise to the other district conferences and on preserving the unity of MCUSA.

    From what I can tell, Rev. Wenger fully expected the discipline he received and did not resist it in any way. He has embodied the best and noblest spirit of civil disobedience.

    Of course, Mountain States Mennonite Conference has thrown MCUSA into crisis by unilaterally breaking the very commitment that Lancaster Mennonite Conference has kept. That has led to discussions among district conferences about whether or not to change their commitments to one another. This is relevant, but only marginally so. For now, the promises they made to one another-promises that enabled MCUSA to exist-remain

    • Dave Hockman-Wert says:

      Berry, I think you’re missing Tim’s point. As he says towards the end, other conferences have “honored the commitment” that you describe, by going through the credential review process, but they come out at a different place than Lancaster Conference. Nothing in the Membership Guidelines prescribes how a conference is to discipline a pastor who performs a covenant ceremony, as long as they perform a review of their credentials. (As yet another example, my own conference (PNMC) suspended the credentials of a pastor who performed a same-sex covenant ceremony. After two years, his credentials were fully reinstated.)

      Therefore, as Tim pointed out, Lancaster Conference leaders appear to be avoiding responsibility for their action by claiming they were simply following MC USA rules, because the rules don’t prescribe credential termination. That was LMC’s decision, and they should take sole responsibility for that particular decision.

      Separately, I would like to ask you to stop scapegoating Mountain States in every blog comment you make on this topic. It is ungracious, inaccurate, judgmental, and unfair. I encourage you to talk to folks in MSMC leadership before you continue claiming that they are the cause of MC USA’s crisis. As I’m sure you know, this crisis has been a long time coming, and has more to do with the vast differences in belief and practice within and among *many* conferences and *many* congregations than with one conference’s action.

      • Berry Friesenb says:

        Dave, you are right in saying that nothing in the covenant the district conferences have made with one another specifies how they shall enforce their oversight function. And because MCUSA is nothing more than the sum of its parts, it follows that there is nothing in MCUSA that specifies how oversight must be exercised.

        So yes, the way that Lancaster Mennonite Conference carried out its obligation reflected its own judgment, not the judgment of the broader body. But Keith Weaver’s statement remains accurate; the decision to terminate Rev. Wenger’s credentials was “based on LMC’s commitment to the guidelines for membership in Mennonite Church USA.”

        Moreover, it tactfully avoids what Tim appears to want: a highlighting of the differences between how LMC exercises its oversight responsibility and how other district conferences do it. And it communicates to the members of Weaver’s (and my) district conference that existing MCUSA agreements oppose what Rev. Wenger did. This is a helpful message at this moment when so many have been led to believe otherwise.

        As to your objection to my view of what MSMC has done, please be more specific. What do I have wrong? Obviously, the fact that district conference leaders are talking about the need for a new covenant does not excuse the breaking of the existing covenant, which is what MSMC has done. That is the cause of the crisis we are in. To pretend otherwise is folly. Just imagine a party to an agreement that you depend on breaking it because “there has been talk” about the need to change it. “Then let’s talk about changing it,” you would say. “But in the meantime, keep your word.”

        It would be very helpful if our Mennonite media would do a news article on the chronology by which the critical events occurred. It’s astonishing that they have not, don’t you think? You are repeatedly challenging what I report, thereby implying you are aware of another account of events. Yet you never tell me what your account of events is, and your challenges to mine have thus far failed, as demonstrated by Stutzman’s recent confirmation of what I reported last spring and ever since about one piece of that chronology. (See comments to Tim’s previous blog for details.)

        All of this could be avoided by a news article, but here eleven months after the crisis erupted, we have nothing but you arguing with me.

        • Steve says:

          Pardon me, but I fail to see how you affirm Chester Wenger’s behavior as embodying the best in the tradition of non-violent civil disobedience, but not the actions of MSMC. MSMC has done what they felt their conscience guided them to do, and they await the decision of MCUSA on the consequences.

          • Berry Friesenb says:

            Has MSMC followed Chester Wenger’s path? Its supporters would like us to think so.

            I have not been involved in either of these matters, and as noted, the lack of reporting by the Menno press about the chronology in the MSMC action leaves most of us (including me) guessing about what happened when.

            Has MSMC said publicly (like Rev. Wenger has) that it deliberately violated the agreement that it had made as a condition of its office? Or has it claimed that the condition were not clear, or that it was under discussion, or that its original consent was made under duress, or that it had attempted to engage in discussion about the condition but had been rebuffed? Defenders of MSMC have said all of those things, over and over again.

            Has MSMC (like Rev. Wenger) acknowledged its acceptance that discipline is appropriate, even if not desired? Or has it passively-aggressively characterized other district conferences as punitive, vindictive and without the love and grace of Messiah Jesus when those other conferences (or members thereof) called for discipline? Again, defenders of MSMC have said all of those things, over and over again.

            Classic civil disobedience follows a higher calling, but also recognizes and respects the callings that others have. It does not cause harm and then express shock and dismay when the harmed party reacts. Instead, it accepts the cost of following another way, and expresses regret at the harm done.

            Has MSMC ever expressed regret for the crisis into which it has thrown our church?

        • Dave Hockman-Wert says:

          Berry, I have written extensively elsewhere (http://mennoworld.org/2014/08/01/a-letter-to-the-mc-usa-executive-board/) why I think your assertion is inaccurate. And you haven’t actually addressed most of my points there.

          Thanks for letting me know you heard from Ervin about the meeting you refer to. I had not seen that yet. However, it does not prove the point you claim it does.

          To sum up again, you are claiming that MSMC “threw MCUSA into a crisis” by breaking a “commitment” they supposedly made at a conference ministers meeting in December 2012. (In this discussion you are conflating the known commitment of the Membership Guidelines on the prohibition on performing a same-sex covenant ceremony and the commitment you claim exists regarding the licensing of an LGBT individual. It is the latter “commitment” which I am addressing.)

          But Stutzman’s email to you makes no mention of any such commitment or covenant. He speaks only of a “general consensus” among conference ministers “that Mennonite Church USA staff should not provide a Ministerial Leadership Information form or gather references for pastoral candidates who were self-identified as LGBTQ.” This says nothing about conferences agreeing, much less making a commitment, not to license LGBTQ individuals. It simply shows that MCUSA EB/staff was attempting to prevent this possibility, by refusing to start the process (MLI).

          So this does not prove MSMC broke a commitment that they had previously made.

          The other reason I think your statement is inaccurate is for the reasons I already stated: they are not the only ones who support licensing an LGBTQ individual, they are simply the first conference to do so.

  3. Wayne Sutton says:

    From an outside (non-Mennonite) observer: 1 Samuel 2:22-35 seems instructive in this situation, particularly v. 29, where God asks Eli through a prophet, “Why do you … honor your sons more than Me?…” I’m not a fan of hierarchy but I don’t see how hierarchy is at issue rather the breaking of covenant. It seems that it was Mr. Wenger who broke covenant by violating a clearly defined standard established by his community “Pastors holding credentials in a conference of Mennonite Church USA may not perform a same-sex covenant.” If Mr. Wenger found that he could no longer keep his covenant with the community and found the community unwilling to change the terms of the covenant, then the ethical approach would be to separate himself from that covenantal relationship before violating the rules governing ministry on their behalf. Even nonbelievers understand that when a person wants out of a marriage, it is better to get the divorce first, before one commits adultery. I do feel sad for Mr. Wenger just as I did for Eli when I read his story in 1 Samuel Chapter 2. As a parent I completely get the impulse of both men to stand by their sons in spite of the behavioral disregard shown by them by their sons. But I would point out that when Eli put his son’s desires ahead of God, it did not end well either for his sons or for Eli. -W. Sutton

  4. Dave Hockman-Wert says:

    Good article, Tim. Thanks for linking to the Lancaster newspaper article and clarifying that LMC removed Brother Wenger’s credentials. I wasn’t clear about that when I read Wenger’s letter.

  5. Myron Stoltzfus says:

    I am thankful for the stand that Lancaster Conference took on this issue.
    I have been dismayed that the mennonite church has not taken a stronger stand against the sin of homosexuality and same-sex marriage so I see this as a refreshing change in staying with what the word of God teaches.
    Thanks also to Wayne Suttons comment.

  6. Berry Friesenb says:

    Wayne, you have not understood Rev. Wenger if you think the story of Eli and his sons applies.

    Eli’s sons used the position of their father to run a scam that enriched themselves at the expense of the people. A contemporary analogy would be sons of a preacher skimming a portion of the weekly collections and pocketing it. Eli knew of the thefts, did nothing to end the scam for fear of offending his sons, and hoped no one would cause a fuss. He was cowardly and without faith. This is not even remotely similar to what Rev. Wenger has done.

    Rev. Wenger has acted out of concern for his son, but he did so because he also is convinced that his church has failed gay and lesbian persons by not supporting them in their commitments of love and fidelity. We can disagree with Rev. Wenger, but in contrast to what we read about Eli, we can find no fault with his ethics or integrity.

  7. Raymond Martin says:

    I am in a small group with Chester and Sarah Jane. As I read all of this commentary I do get some clarity about how to read guidelines, BUT, I often feel for Chester. I think that if I were Chester I would want to answer certain things that take him wrongly. The same feeling comes when I see other leaders and conferences being the football that gets kicked round. No official is standing by to blow the whistle. Can you look at what you have written in this light before you put it out there? So… just this, I’m not wanting the conversation to stop.

  8. Chuck Myer says:

    Chester Wenger’s article was well written, however it completely ignores Romans 1: 26-31 where God does not agree with Chester’s wisdom. The scripture says that man’s wisdom is foolishness unto God. I do not believe we are at liberty to pick and choose what we like or agrees with in our thinking. Either we believe God or we don’t! The Word of God is living and powerful and sharper than any two edged sword; it does the discerning. The light of God’s word sets man free! Ro. 16 25 – 27.

  9. Ray Hurst says:

    To Keith Weaver, and all the leaders of Lancaster Mennonite Conference. If you do not wake up and stand against this invasion of darkness and the evil that is flowing into your midst from being a part of MC USA, LMC will wither to nothing.

    You are guilty by not taking a stand and walking away. The blessing of the Lord cannot be with you if you will not take a stand against what is evil. Or what has the appearance of evil.

    Have you ever thought about the amount of time and recourses that you have wasted debating about MC USA? Do you not think that there be a time of reckoning for this foolish waste of time and resources?

    Keith and all of you leaders I beg you do not allow this twisted corrupt thinking to pull you in to its reckless folly that will bring the wrath of God on you.

    Are you world changing leaders, or you simply blown by the winds of change?

    Are you an Aaron or are you a Moses? Do you give the people what they calmer for or do you really hear the voice of God?

    If you do not change the course of your direction the whole conference will become like the church in Ephrata.

    You are not hot or cold and I can see God spitting you out of His mouth.

    Are you Moses or Aaron?

    Ray Hurst

  10. John Gingrich says:

    My comment is not about the substance of the conflict between the traditional biblical position vs the pro-inclusion factions of the church but about the reporting of the latest Lancaster Conference action regarding the credentials of a retired minister. The original letter by brother Wenger explaining his actions and defending his decisions is followed three days later by an article by the moderator the Pink Menno Facebook page. This article proceeds to criticize the moderator of Lancaster conference, the structure, and the motives or the reasoning behind the conference decision. It ends with the statement that Bro. Wenger was “purged from their ranks”. There was no purging, just a retiring of pastoral credentials. Two questions, 1) Where is “The Mennonite” article that is seeking the reasoning and process behind our conference’s decision? 2) Where is the article speaking for the majority of the people in the pew of the national church who are still convinced that the rules in place that Bro. Wenger ignored are still valid?

    • Anna Groff says:

      There is confusion surrounding this. Wenger’s letter said that his credentials were “retired.” However, on Nov. 7, Keith Weaver clarified that: “Following a review process that was experienced as mutually gracious and respectful, the Lancaster Mennonite Conference (LMC) Credentialing Commission took action to terminate Chester’s retired credential. This action was based on LMC’s commitment to the guidelines for membership in Mennonite Church USA which state, Pastors holding credentials in a conference of Mennonite Church USA may not perform a same-sex covenant.”

      • John Gingrich says:

        My point was not to quibble about terminology of “retire” or “terminate”. My point was the decision to publish the immediate criticism of the Lancaster conference’s actions by a person (Tim) who is an active advocate for the pro-inclusion side of our denomination.

        • Anna Groff says:

          Thanks. We would welcome a piece about the letter from another perspective. Please email: annag@themennonite.org.

          • Matthew Keiser says:

            Anna,

            The implication of your statement (and I may be reading something that you didn’t intend) is that we as lay-members shouldn’t expect to read articles defending church statements, doctrines and agreements or actions taken by regional conferences in concordance with them, in the official organ of MCUSA, unless we ourselves write them. The subtext of that line of thinking would then be; The Mennonite has an agenda, and defending established church teaching and action on same-sex issues isn’t it.

  11. Victor Fast says:

    Listening in from up here in Canada on what is happening in the world of MCUSA following the Theda Good and now the Chester Wenger incidents, and the strong words, feelings and conflicting perspectives which are being generated, it seems to me a fundamental shift in how we conduct our business in the North American Mennonite Church is urgently in order. The flaw in our church polity is painfully being exposed for its inadequacies by the above two incidents. I think it is becoming abundently clear that there will never be peace among us as long as we give some central hierarchical structure the power to determine what is best for all of us across the land. Our cultures and our circumstances are too diverse for such a church polity to work. Why not change whom we invest with the authority to govern us at the local, congregational, level? As long as we accept the premise that unity does not depend on uniformity we should be fine. Our church polity must accomodate the vibrant diversity among us. If one congregation wants to be fully inclusive in its policies towards gays and the other doesn’t, that calls for respect not the hurling of epithets, threats and disciplinary actions. Why not allow each local congregation to decide whom they will choose to serve and ordain as their pastor? Why not honour Chester for the stalwart churchman that he is rather than hurl utterly disgraceful actions his way because of some unwise decisions made in the past by some distant church body? A congregational church polity worked very well for the General Conference Mennonite church before it united with the ‘Old’ Mennonite church and a more centralized form of governance was adopted. Perhaps it is time to go back to the very beginning. Was it not Jesus who promised that where two or three are gathered in his name, there his Spirit will dwell in their midst and guide them?

    • Berry Friesenb says:

      Victor, there is no central hierarchy that knows best. That is a complete misreading of what’s happening here in the USA.

      We wanted a Mennonite denomination, but we weren’t all the same in how we do church. So our local district conferences reached an agreement: we will be a denomination around our common Confession and certain shared processes and understandings.

      But now at least one district conference is tired of that and wants something different. So apparently the various districts will go their separate ways. We will still have the same number of Mennonites but not a denomination.

      We will survive and we will continue to cooperate. But first we will thrash about for a while and guilt one another over splintering.

      • McWolfe says:

        Sadly, the issue involves a lessening of the importance and reliability of the Scriptural portrayal of moral truth. This is not about what a denomination believes, a pastor believes, a culture accepts, the legislators of a nation or the voice of the majority. God has made it clear that it is a fundamental violation of His design for men to engage in sexual activity with other men and for women to engage in sexual activity with other women. Moral truth are not determined by how human beings feel or what they prefer.

  12. Phil Garber says:

    Greater inclusiveness comes at a price, and the question is whether it is a price worth paying.

    Integrity in interpretation and the authority of the Bible in the area of sexual ethics is part of it. Another cost of inclusion is that so far in other denominations it has had the paradoxical effect of excluding many for the sake of welcoming a few. It also has a long term impact on the membership make up and the prevailing philosophy of the church as people self-select on either side of the fence.

    However as a pastoral issue I am concerned that Chester Wenger’s attempt to remove a stumbling block for his son is in fact putting a stumbling block in the way of those who for the sake of Christ endure their own temptation every day in that particular area. What is the message that is being sent as to the value of their sacrifice?

    • James leibensperger says:

      It is very true that we need to lovingly obey God’s holy word , and as churches have compromised away Bible truth over the years , sin has become less sinful to us , and here we are today! We are seeing a great falling away from the faith that made America strong, and without the foundation of bedrock Bible doctrines , as they are in Christ , we will not be preparing a Christ-like character for now , and eternity! Sadly it seems that only persecution will wake us up, and stir us to revival of holiness in God! Please let us humbly pray that the Holy Spirit will reach each of our hearts, so we can put away every weight of sin sin that beset us! Maranatha! , James L.

  13. Harry says:

    If members of MCUSA would read the bible and listen to God and His rules for living the Christian life, this LGBT Sin would not even need to be discussed. The Devil has used false teachers to deceive many Counterfeit Christians. Remember Hell is real and many will choose the wide road which leads there. Repent while there is still time. If you choose to continue to attempt to divide the church, then better that you leave the MC church and join a country club that caters to the world culture of Sin against God.

  14. Berry Friesen says:

    Dave, it appears you and I will not agree on how to characterize what has happened. I can only hope that supporters of MSMC will better understand the legitimate sense of grievance many have against MSMC.

    The “commitment” MSMC made was the membership covenant with the other district conferences.

    The “crisis” it precipitated was credentialing an individual in a same gender sexual relationship within a context where such a step had never been imagined by those of us on the outside of church structures.

    IF the “commitment” MSMC made included not only the promise to require credential leaders to avoid same-sex marriage/commitment ceremonies, but also a promise not to credential persons in same-sex relationships, then it would be correct to say that the crisis we are experiencing was caused by MSMC breaking its promise.

    So there is the nub of it: did the “commitment” MSMC made include a prohibition on credentialing? For many months now, you have taken one position and I have taken another.

    Well, as has now been confirmed, the very matter we disagree about was a major agenda item at the annual meeting of district conference ministers in December 2012. It was not a meeting that formally committed the district conferences to anything, but it produced a consensus among conference ministers that a promise not to conduct same-sex commitment ceremonies implied a promise not to credential persons in same sex commitments.

    Now this is highly relevant, don’t you think? The Executive Board of MC USA certainly thought so; that’s why it said what it did last June. The facts show that when MSMC proceeded with credentialing, it did so with knowledge that it was violating a consensus of the conference ministers against such a step.

    To compound it all, I understand this same matter was discussed briefly in the 2011 annual meeting of the conference ministers in Toronto and in the 2013 annual meeting of conference ministers in Denver.

    Dave, I recognize your point: technically, the consensus view of the conference ministers never became part of the formal “commitment” MSMC made. If this were a commercial dispute, you would have a 50/50 chance of winning with your argument in a court of law. But ignoring the unanimous views of one’s coalition partners is never a wise way to conduct business, not if one wants to continue conducting business with those partners. And this is true even within the church. Why is that such a difficult point to agree on?

    When after all of this, those who cry “foul” at MSMC are criticized for casting blame and being punitive, I see passive-aggressive behavior in classic form. It’s destructive, believe me.

  15. Jerry Weaver says:

    I am truly embarrassed that the church I grew up in, the General Conference Mennonite Church, has chosen to affiliate itself with an organization that includes a group like the Lancaster Conference, which practices the ungodly and unChristlike actions of excluding someone like Chester Wenger,

  16. F. Winston says:

    Wenger preaches a false gospel.

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