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Bold Agenda for MCUSA Convention

by Berry Friesen (July 3, 2017)

However one views the Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA) delegate assembly that convenes Thursday, July 6 in Orlando, all likely would agree:  the agenda is bold.

This boldness is reflected in the title of the event to which most of the delegates’ time is committed:  Future Church Summit.  Have Mennonites ever before had a “summit?”

It is reflected in the candid confession of Pasadena Mennonite Hyun Hur, which headlines all of the Future Church Summit promotional materials: “I feel we have lost our vision, and it needs to be reignited.”

And it is reflected in the way MCUSA leaders describe the goal of the convention:  “a vision (that) reshapes denominational priorities.”

If we take all this at face value, we must conclude MCUSA stands at the threshold of a historic turn in our shared journey of faith.

Are we ready to make this turn?

In my congregation, talk about the convention has generally focused on the one proposed resolution listed in the schedule; it opposes the 50-year occupation of Palestine by the Israeli military.  The Future Church Summit has not even been mentioned in our public settings.  My friends from other MCUSA congregations give similar reports.

Yet it is the Future Church Summit to which MCUSA leaders attach historic significance. It will give us a new vision of our church, a new pathway forward.

How is it that we in the pews have missed the gravity of this moment?

In part, it can be explained by the fact that the Future Church Summit is not defined by publicized resolutions that everyone can read in advance of Orlando.  Instead, it is described in promotional materials as “a generative, open space for denomination-wide conversation,” which makes it sound like a brainstorming session. No one—not the delegates, not we in the pews—have been given specific potential outcomes to reflect on, discuss and commit to prayer.

Consistent with the brainstorming image, the discussion topics that frame the 15 hours of Summit discussion were only made available to delegates and the wider church in late June.  By and large, the wider church has understood this to mean the Orlando convention will enable delegates to take a step back, take a deep breath, listen to one another and build unity.  A new vision that reshapes denominational priorities?  Well yes, there are those bold references in the Summit promotional materials.  But nothing in the process over recent months has suggested to the broader church that the Orlando convention will be historic.

The few who carefully read releases from denominational media have noticed a coordinated campaign to bring a specific agenda to the fore.  This began in February with intense coverage of the Hope for the Future gathering of Mennonite leaders of color. The coverage highlighted a new vision for being a peace church. Throughout the subsequent months, media releases have returned repeatedly to this theme, including the June issue of The Mennonite.

The unprecedented coordination and intensity of this media blitz has sent the message—albeit very indirectly—that MCUSA leaders want the Future Church Summit to embrace this new vision of “a peace church.”  So let’s look at what it says.

“A peace church recognizes the imagio dei in all humanity.
It not only prays; it takes action. 
A peace church responds to violence in its streets, inside and outside its doors.
A peace church stands with Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, LGBTQ people, immigrants—against all forms of violence.  
A peace church empowers disenfranchised and marginalized people.
It understand multifaceted forms of violence—
systemic, educational and environmental—
and is more than the absence of war or protesting war.”

In the final delegate session of the convention on Saturday morning, the delegates will be asked to act on the vision that has emerged from the Summit.  Or to put it in language with which we are familiar, the delegates will be asked to pass a resolution, the wording of which is not yet public.

Writing the text of that final proposed resolution will be the most important decision of the entire week in Orlando, and it will be carried out by the MCUSA Executive Board and its moderator, Patricia Shelly.  Will it ask the delegates to recommend the Summit’s vision to the broader church for study, discussion and prayer?  Or will it ask the delegates to endorse the Summit’s vision, thereby binding the church in the years ahead?

MCUSA leaders intend for the future church to be bound by that final resolution. This intention is clear in Summit promotional materials, which state that “denominational leaders and institutions—including all the churchwide agencies, Executive Board and staff—will use the vision generated at the summit to reshape denominational priorities and restructure their work.”

Moderator Shelly also supports this intention.  In recent correspondence with the author, Shelly stated that during the coming two years, the Executive Board will use the vision endorsed by the delegates to guide the development of program and policy.  Also, she expects the Board will use the new vision to guide the revision of the Purposeful Plan, our church’s existing template for being a missional church.

So where do district conferences and local congregations fit into this historic moment? If we follow Shelly’s version, we are watching from the sidelines, waiting for our future to be defined.

Alternatively, the Executive Board could decide to ask the delegates in Orlando to recommend the Summit’s vision to the broader church for study, discussion and prayer. This would honor what we have come to expect when major decisions are about to be made:  adequate time for broad input in response to specific proposals.  And it would build ownership across the church for a vision that guides our work in coming years.

But won’t the Summit itself build ownership? It will among the 500+ individuals participating in the Summit.  But their manner of interaction will follow a model borrowed from the world of consumer research and marketing.  It will ask each individual to share his/her opinion on the scripted questions prepared by Summit planners.

This method works well for product design and the preparation of effective advertising and political campaigns, but it’s hardly appropriate for historic decisions by a church that understands itself to be part of a cloud of witness that stretches back 70 generations and forward into the future, commissioned to bear faithful witness to a message handed down to us by those who went before us in the faith.  For such a body as the church, decisions of this magnitude can only be made after informed and prayerful deliberation by the conferences and congregations.

Yes, it is bold to think the delegates in Orlando can dream up a new vision and cement it in place, all within the space of two-and-one-half days.  But is it wise?  That is the key question on which this history-making event turns.

July 5 e-message to delegates at the Orlando convention:

Delegates and friends:

The MCUSA Executive Board met for three hours on July 4 to prepare a resolution for adoption by the Delegate Assembly on Saturday, July 8.  

According to a release from The Mennonite, "The resolution will affirm the work of FCS participants and commend the FCS Theme Team’s report to the Executive Board, congregations, area conferences and denomination-wide agencies as the direction for MC USA."

The text of the proposed resolution is not included in the media release.  

The proposed resolution was developed by the Resolutions Committee in consultation with the Future Church Summit Design Team (FCS).  The media release does not indicate whether the Committee consulted area conferences in the process of preparing the resolution's text.

What would be the effect of Delegate Assembly passage of such a resolution?

In conventional discourse, “commend” means to praise.  If I commend someone to you, it means I think highly of that person. 

The Delegate Assembly is the highest authority within the denomination.  When it “commends” a vision statement to the conferences, congregations, agencies and Executive Board of MCUSA, it means “follow this.”   Yes, it also means praise, but because of the role and authority of the Delegate Assembly, it also means “follow this.” 

If on July 8 the Delegate Assembly passes the Executive Board’s version of the resolution, then Mennonite Church USA will be taking a new direction.  Immediately.   This new direction will have been conceived, defined and adopted in the course of 40 hours (Thursday evening to Saturday morning).

Obviously, if the Executive Board meant to merely praise the FCS vision and refer it on to the denomination’s stakeholders for study, discussion and prayer, it would have said so. It often has used such language in the past.  Instead, it said something very close—“commend”—that may cause inattentive stakeholders to conclude the resolution means what they hope it means.

That would be a mistake.  The rushed, contrived and intense atmosphere of the Future Church Summit focus groups will produce a useful result, but that result will not be ready for implementation.

Delegates should insist on changing the resolution text so that the effect of passage is to commend the FCS Theme Team’s report to the Executive Board, congregations, area conferences and denomination-wide agencies for study, discussion and prayer, with final action on this matter placed on the agenda of the Delegate Assembly in 2019.

Finally, notice how the Executive Board proposal elevates the function of the “FCS Theme Team” so that its report will be our new direction.  Who is on the Theme Team? Who appointed them to this pivotal role?  From whom did this group receive authority to listen, draft and pronounce direction for our church after a little more than a day's deliberation?  What experiences have prepared Theme Team members to speak for the entire church?

What the Executive Board has proposed is not good process; it will only lead to conflict and strife.  The Delegate Assembly must do better than this; before leaving Orlando, it must put our denomination in a position to participate in the birthing of a new vision for our church. 

Berry Friesen
East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church
Lancaster PA

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