Hillary Watson is a full-time Mennonite pastor at Lombard Mennonite Church in suburban Chicago. She blogs at Gathering the Stones, where this post first appeared. It is reprinted with […]
Darrin W. Snyder Belousek is a member of Salem Mennonite Church in Elida, Ohio.
The Mennonite reported that eight delegates at the Orlando assembly abstained from voting on the resolution pertaining to the Future Church Summit (FCS). I was one of the abstainers. My abstention from the vote was not an objection to the FCS, however. Let me explain.
I served as a delegate for Ohio Mennonite Conference. This was my first time as a delegate to the denominational assembly. Representing a conference, I recognized, meant that my vote would commit not only myself or my congregation, but our whole conference. I took this responsibility seriously. That responsibility, spelled out in the official “Delegate Job Description,” includes: “Ask for prayer and advice and opinions of other persons in your constituency (congregation or area conference) about matters which will be the subject of discernment and discussion at the assembly.”
Soon after agreeing to serve as a delegate, I began reading about the FCS on the Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) website. The FCS, it stated, “will be the first step in an ongoing process that will continue through the next biennium.” Once the FCS had concluded, the Delegate Assembly would be reconvened for “an opportunity to officially affirm or reject the outcomes of the process.” The delegates’ affirmation, presumably, would bless that “ongoing process.”
The word “resolution” matters: resolutions are decisions of the delegates that bind the denomination. Resolutions regarding other than routine matters (e.g., approving minutes) call for a process of discernment that works through congregations and conferences, which, according to our denominational polity, are the primary bodies of our church. This need for prior discernment is acknowledged in “A Process for Discernment” set forth in the document “Developing Resolutions for Mennonite Church USA,” which states: “Best discernment will occur if study documents are developed, distributed, and studied before resolutions are brought to the Delegate Assembly” (original emphasis).
Awhile later, I emailed MC USA Executive Director Ervin Stutzman and Moderator Patricia Shelly with some questions and concerns about the FCS, questions about how the process would be structured and what questions would be discussed. I stated that asking the delegates to “affirm” the FCS outcomes sounded like taking a vote; but their responses indicated nothing about a resolution.
About a month before the convention, Ervin came to our congregation for a meeting with area delegates to present an overview of the Israel-Palestine Resolution and a preview of the FCS. Most of our time was spent on what the delegates deemed most important: the resolution on which we expected to vote. The preview of the FCS was relatively brief. I inquired again about the questions we would engage during the FCS: Would we see them beforehand?
Another table of delegates asked the same; they wanted to process the questions in their congregation. Ervin happened to have the latest draft with him, and he allowed me to make copies and distribute them.
But still, there was no mention of voting on a resolution. The published agenda for the Saturday delegate session read simply, “Action on Future Church Summit.”
The day before I traveled to Orlando I learned, from reporting in The Mennonite, that the Executive Board, consulting with the FCS design team, had decided to introduce a resolution regarding the FCS report on which delegates would vote after the FCS. While the wording of that resolution was not published, the article indicated that the resolution would declare the FCS report as “the direction for MCUSA.”
Confused and concerned, I emailed the other six members of our conference delegation, asking whether we might caucus to discuss the matter before the Delegate Assembly convened. We did so on Wednesday evening. One of our regional pastors invited Terry Shue from MC USA to join us.
Terry explained the Executive Board’s rationale for the resolution: the Delegate Assembly must formally hand off the FCS report to the Executive Board in order to carry forward the work of the FCS. That made sense. Yet the resolution would go beyond this, he told us. Although the resolutions committee had removed language authorizing the executive board and denominational agencies to “implement” the FCS report, they had retained language declaring that the FCS report would become the “direction” for the denomination. That confirmed my concern: voting on a resolution meant that the FCS was the end, not the beginning, of discernment.
I expressed my dilemma. To vote on a resolution that would commit our conference to a “direction” for the denomination and fulfill my responsibility as a delegate, I would need at least to consult first with the pastors of our conference. As it was, I would not even know what that “direction” is until the FCS concluded—and then I would not have opportunity to confer with other delegates, much less consult with conference, before voting.
Moreover, I said, this process does not fit our polity. Discernment of denominational “direction” needs to be worked through congregations and conferences before the Delegate Assembly takes action. And a resolution should be published in advance, to allow for careful study and prayerful consideration.
At the opening session, the Executive Board presented the proposed resolution to the delegates. But the text read out by the moderator differed from the text projected on the screen. And the text of the resolution was not distributed to delegates either on paper or by email. I was thus confused over what the resolution actually said.
And then came the Saturday delegate session. It was rushed. We were not given “significant time for deep hearing of each other’s understandings,” we had no opportunity to “listen together to the Holy Spirit,” as called for in “Developing Resolutions.”
Amidst the muddle, the resolution was revised in such a way that I could have voted on it without prior consultation. The final wording more closely reflected the FCS aims as stated on the MC USA website. But the hectic manner in which the resolution was reworked left me disoriented and wondering, “What just happened here?” To vote on the resolution at that point, it seemed to me, would implicitly ratify the irregular process by which it was revised.
We reached out to denominational leaders for comment, but at this time they have declined to respond to this piece. Further reflections from denominational leaders may be forthcoming in the future.
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