Editor’s note: From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, bloggers for The Mennonite will write reflections on the Lectionary text. All eight reflections will be available […]
Ervin Stutzman will end his term as executive director of Mennonite Church USA on April 30.
Sometimes I ask myself if it was “worth it” for me to give such a large chunk of my life to the vision of church unity embodied in the group we call Mennonite Church USA? In 1995, I was dubious about the prospects for a merger that would hold all parts of the church together. I essentially agree with what George R. Brunk III wrote in 1988, that:
An Anabaptist–Mennonite perspective would point to living fellowship more than an institutional structure as the essential concern of unity. The quest for unity proceeds most authentically “from below” rather than “from above.”
On the one side, this would mean Christian unity is not so much a matter of organic (structural) union of entire “denominations.” On the other side, this would say that unification should proceed from the local to the general levels.
Ever since 1999, when I took up the role of moderator-elect, I’ve looked for ways to cooperate with the broader church to express the unity for which Christ prayed (John 17:20-21). In that quest, I worked shoulder to shoulder with other board leaders to cast a vision for a “big tent” that could house many disparate groups, welcoming each part to share its own identity and calling with the whole. From the beginning, we knew unity would never be achieved through an attempt at uniformity.
To clarify the vision for our life together, we adopted the 1995 statement called “Vision: Healing and Hope,” and the 1999 Membership Guidelines, built on four biblical principles: covenant, accountability, unity and diversity. We named these values as an effort to unite in faith and mission, building on the true foundation of Jesus Christ as reflected from an Anabaptist perspective. Along with these four values, I brought the expectation that when we faced difficult decisions, we would attempt to discern God’s will together, seeking group consent (if not consensus) where possible.
As a denominational leader, I soon discovered the limits of my understanding as I attempted to put these values into practice. My interaction with diverse constituent groups across the country taught me that the meaning and significance of these four values is highly dependent on context. I found that even within the same extended family or congregation, people view the meaning of covenant, accountability, unity and diversity in very different ways. I have always known this to be true, but my experience as a leader taught me that these differences are often rooted in genuine spiritual convictions, not just cultural bias or unwillingness to agree.
Further, I’ve come to see that unity and consensus are sometimes superseded by other values in our church, at times for legitimate reasons.
Consensus forged in large groups such as our delegate assembly can sometimes reflect the unfair biases of the leaders who set the agenda or the tyranny of a majority vote, devaluing or even muting legitimate dissent. In other words, the press for unity can at times ignore the wisdom of disparate voices, offending the spiritual convictions of persons or groups who remain in the minority.
Our pursuit of unity must pay attention to the heartfelt convictions of individuals, as well as niche groups, particularly since the rise of social media. Articulate people with access to a smartphone can now gain a following that the most sophisticated news organizations would have paid dearly to gain even a decade ago.
[To read the full version of this post on MC USA’s Menno Snapshots blog, click here]
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