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« Holding the Body Together: Case Study of Zion Mennonite Church, Ohio Conference of MC USA »

BACKGROUND OF WHO ZION MENNONITE CHURCH IS

Zion Mennonite Church in Archbold, Ohio is a unique congregation, not only within its location in the rural farming community of Northwest Ohio, but for its role within Ohio Conference of Mennonite Church USA.

            In order to be in Mennonite Church USA, you must be a member of a Conference, you cannot simply be a congregation on your own within MC USA. There are roughly twenty conferences in MC USA. Conferences are responsible for holding the credentials of clergy. Ohio Conference of Mennonite Church USA, is arguably one of the most conservative conferences in Mennonite Church USA. 

            Our congregation, Zion, is just one of several Mennonite Church’s within a twenty mile radius, each church taking on a very different flavor and attitude over what it means to be Mennonite or Anabaptist. We have approximately 300 “regular attenders,” which these days means we have regular attendance of approximately 190 people.

            Zion is unique when compared to many of the other churches (not just Mennonite churches) in the area, in that many of our congregants have moved into Northwest Ohio from “outside.” While the majority of people who live in Northwest Ohio are lifelong residents, with families who go back generations, Zion has many people, mostly professionals, myself included who have moved to the area due to work in the local businesses. However, while we have many people who have moved into the community, our congregation has not really changed much in 20 years. We have people come and go, but for the most part we are a consistent body of believers.

            This has created an interesting dynamic within our congregation. While we are perceived as mostly affluent and well educated, we do have congregants who are lifelong residents, with deep ties to the community, a community that is very traditional and very conservative. However, the majority of those who find themselves in leadership within our congregation tend to be the well-educated and relatively well-traveled segment of our congregation.

            Zion would describe herself as a fiercely Anabaptist Mennonite congregation, with deep roots in the Mennonite Church and strong connections to the Mennonite Church’s institutions of higher education and because of this Zion has become known within the community and the Conference as the “Progressive/Liberal” congregation, although not everyone within the congregation would agree.

LEADERSHIP APPROACH TO DISCERNING DIRECTION

            Historically an Anabaptist form of leadership is highly communal and places great value in “the priesthood of all believers.” Zion’s leadership culture in particular has a very strong desire to make decisions as a body, and not simply have pastors speak for the entire group.

            Early on, Pastor Jeff Kauffman and myself began to recognize the extent to which the congregation wanted to make a firm decision, “taking a stand” on the wide range of issues pertaining to LGBTQ. These issue would include the whole range from whether we open our doors to simply accepting LGBTQ people in our midst, to affirming, to empowering for leadership, marrying, and ordaining.

            However, as quickly as the anxious desires to “take a stand” one way or another were coming into the office, so was our realization that people within the congregation had no idea that the congregation was not in agreement with each other. There was an interesting dynamic that was in play, where people could not fathom that others within the congregation were not in the same place as they were.

            We pastors even found that as we discussed the variety of directions and nuances of Christian Faithfulness and Human Sexuality that we were not totally in agreement. Which meant the more people insisted that we as pastoral leadership needed to take a stand and tell people where the church stood, the more we realized that we were heading towards an impossibly messy outcome.

            In truth we pastors did not want to have this conversation, because of the apparently paralyzing nature of it. However, as our conference, Ohio Conference of Mennonite Church USA became consumed by the conflict regarding the decisions of another MC USA Conference, Mountain States Mennonite Conference, and their decision to license a woman in a covenanted same-sex relationship toward ordination and the decision of Eastern Mennonite University to consider changing its hiring policy, to include those in LGBTQ relationships, it became immediately clear that conversation had to take place.

CONGREGATIONAL PROCESS: A TWO PART CONVERSATION

            First of all, our decision was to manage a congregational “conversation” in a way that modeled humility and love, in much the same way that we Anabaptist Mennonites believe that Jesus embodied selflessness as described by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:5-11.

            Secondly, we decided that we needed to somehow remove the “heat” of the topic and place it within the larger context of who Mennonite Church USA is, and who we as Zion Mennonite Church say we are. We also believed it was important to place the concept of the absoluteness of scriptural authority within its own context and within the context of who we as a community of believers are called to be.

            So we pastors designed our two part conversation, emphasizing the word “conversation.” The purpose of these conversations were to allow the congregation to be able to hear each other, and in particular hear where there was disagreement. We emphasized that this was not going to be a debate, there was not going to be decision making, no voting. Listening to each other was the point.

            This emphasis on not making a decision or not debating or discerning was frustrating to most people. They didn’t understand the point of meeting if we weren’t going to make a decision. Anxiety continued to grow, but we pastors strongly emphasized the need for all people to be in attendance if they wanted to be heard, which again, is a key piece of what we understand to be Anabaptist Mennonite community centered leadership.

STRUCTURE OF FIRST CONVERSATION

            The first conversation, essentially set the context of the greater conversation. We were very intentional about setting up a context within the greater vision of the MC USA as well Zion’s own priorities. We also believed that our conversation had to be set within the context of our biblical understanding of faithfulness for all.

            As people arrived we knew they were going to sit with like-minded individuals, so we let them. At the center of each table was a pile of card stock cut-outs of fruit. We then began a devotional time reading from Galatians 5:22-26. We then encouraged each person to choose a picture of a fruit from the center of the table and write which fruit of the Spirit they most wanted/needed to be evident in themselves during these conversations. They were instructed to write their choice on the fruit. We then asked them to move to tables with others who chose the same fruits on their pictures. Apples sat with apples, bananas with bananas, etc. The purpose of this was to get the congregation to sit with those they normally would not sit with.

            We then had an intentional time of community building around the tables, with simple non-threatening questions.

            After establishing the context within community and scripture we were able begin the primary purpose of the first conversation which was to slow the congregation down and help them peel back the layers of their assumptions concerning “morality,” the Bible, and how they use scripture.

            We wanted people to stop and ask the question “how do we know what we know to be true or believe to be true?” And more importantly, if it is true, why do other people claim different “truths.”  

            Each person was invited into an exercise, basically using the concept of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. They were invited to see how we determine ethical decisions as really just a process of prioritizing sources of authority in our lives. They were given an exercise to help break down why/how we know what we know. They were asked what is the highest authority in your life (Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience) and how do you rank the different sources of authority? The list of every controversial issue (women in ministry, money, the poor, sabbath, war, slavery, alcohol, sex, etc.) was given to them to rank based upon their first gut reaction. For example, MONEY. Jesus would not make a very good financial advisor. In fact he says to sell everything and give it to the poor, but still people who say they have a very high view of scriptural authority somehow manage a way around Jesus’ words concerning greed. How do they get there? What sources of authority do they use to subvert Jesus’ own words in scripture? (see attachment)

            Finally, after sorting out the variety of truth sources for decision making we approached how we read, interpret, and apply the Bible. As Anabaptist Mennonites we would say that Jesus is the radical center of our faith and therefore the central lens through which we read the Bible. “If the scripture doesn’t agree, Jesus is the referee.”

            Reading scripture through Jesus is the assumed standard for MC USA and its sister institutions, but often we have found that there are people within the Mennonite Church who still practice a “flat-Bible” reading of scripture. Discussing the differences of how scripture can be read was key (and eye opening to some) in our being able to say how it is possible that two people can hold a high view of scriptural authority and come out at very different interpretations.  

STRUCTURE OF SECOND CONVERSATION

            The purpose of the first conversation was to set a tone of humility and mutual respect for the second conversation. Only after setting the stage through the first conversation we were able to approach the conversation on issues related to the LGBTQ community with a different Spirit and posture.

            That is why it was essential that people could not attend the second conversation if they were not a part of the first. We did not want people to jump into such a sensitive conversation without context of the previous conversation or without the relationships already built around the table. Which is why people were asked to sit at the same table to engage the next conversation.

            The second conversation began with visual reports of how people responded to the truth sources exercise. It quickly became obvious that we were all over the map in terms of how we weighed scripture in each circumstance. There was only one of 103 surveys returned that claimed to have a consistent use of scripture as their ultimate authority. Likewise, people were all over the map in regards to their hermeneutics.

            With that in mind we centered ourselves on Romans 12 and then we began to discuss: 1) Greatest challenge as a youth? 2) What is your first memory of dealing with the issues related to LGBTQ community? 3) What scriptures come to mind when you consider the issues related to LGBTQ community?

            We then asked each person around the table to independently fill out the boxes of the continuum from Clyde Kratz, Conference Minister of Virginia Mennonite Conference’s “Ethical Views of Homosexuality” continuum, adapted from L.R. Holben’s What Christians Think about Homosexuality: 6 Representative Views Represented by Dennis Hollinger in The Meaning of Sex. (See attachment)

            The continuum represented a range of responses from condemnation, promise of healing, costly discipleship, pastoral accommodation, affirmation, and liberation. The purpose of this exercise and the purpose of this continuum, once again was to slow the congregation down from a knee jerk response, and recognize the variety of responses one may have toward issues related to the LGBTQ community. We strongly encouraged people to not just circle a column but to individually consider the nuances.

            We then asked the congregation to consider: 1) What did you learn about yourself in filling out this form? 2) Does this reflect the degree to which you hold yourself accountable on other ethical issues? 3) Does this reflect the degree to which you seek to be held accountable to the church?

            As we compiled the results from people’s forms we pastors were somewhat surprised. We had imagined the congregation would mostly be somewhere in the center of the continuum, but the congregation was actually evenly spread along five categories, with only a couple being represented in “condemnation.”

REFLECTIONS

            If we were to take a black and white look at the continuum in terms of “conservative v. liberal” our congregation was split 50/50. This affirmed our approach to what we perceived to be an impossible way forward if we were to take a stand.

            We did not make a decision, but we strongly feel that our process was a success, simply because the anxiety within the congregation disappeared. We did lose people from not declaring a stand, but I believe the fact they left had more to do with their lack of significant relationships within the body more than their disagreement with our approach. This conversation took place two years ago and since then we have only had one flare up of anxiety surrounding our denominational convention. Without fail, those people who since this conversation have expressed anxiety over the denominational conflict, when asked, 100% of them did not participate in the two conversations. People on both ends of the spectrum have told us that it was very valuable, important and well done.

            While it may seem to some that not making a decision was not “direct enough” we feel as though directly walking into the potential for conflict and exposing the tensions around the subject dissolved the growing anxiety within the congregation. People were given a voice and they heard each other. This happened two years ago, and we feel it has freed our congregation from the conflict that we see paralyzing so many churches around us.

            Keeping it a conversation between people was a key aspect of the way we managed the conversation. We wanted dialogue not debate. For this reason we purposefully did not allow for open mic time. We did not want people to be able to make blanket statements to the entire group, without a commitment to a relationship with those who may be hurt. 

            We pastors also made the decision to not state our “positions” from the microphone. We wanted to maintain dialogue and not debate. Knowing that our congregation was divided, we did not want to give people the opportunity to interpret anything we would say through their own filters. We have been very open with anyone who wants to have conversations with us, which means they must make the initiative. We feel as though this is a model for the congregation.

            My only regret was our inability to communicate to our LGBTQ people within our congregation and community a unified message. We have always been a welcoming congregation and we continue to be, which is probably why we are “progressive” for our community and conference. But I cannot tell my dear neighbor when she asks where Zion “stands” on the issue, because we don’t. I can tell her that everyone across the spectrum in our congregation (I have talked to) says the church is for everyone. I can tell her that she and her wife are welcome at the Lord’s table, but I cannot tell her the nuances of what that means for us as a congregation or for her as a part of our body, but she is a welcomed part of our body.

            We pastors have emphasized that we are the same congregation that we have been, we just know where each other “stand.” I am proud of our congregation’s ability to delicately hold their convictions, while holding even tighter to our relationships. In the words of Palmer Becker as Anabaptist Mennonites we believe that “Jesus is the center of our faith. Community is the center of our lives. Reconciliation is the center of our work.” I believe that it is only within authentic, loving, Christ centered community that we can hold strong disagreements within the tension of an even stronger love and greater respect for each other. Praise be to God!

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