“Forbearance is Forever” a profile highlighting the direction of Allegheny Mennonite Conference

– David E. Mishler, Conference Minister for Allegheny Mennonite Conference
Posted in The MennoniteTMail on January 8, 2018

When I returned to Allegheny Conference at the call of its Leadership Council in 2016, I knew that the road ahead would be fraught with questions, anger, misunderstanding, lament… and praise and joy, relief and new energy.  This anticipation of mixture was what drew me and also gave me pause.  Enjoying my first pastoral assignment in 23 years in Newport News, VA, after a successful tenure developing an interdenominational continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in western Pennsylvania, the congregation at Huntington Mennonite Church and I were getting our footing, ministry was happening within and beyond the congregation.  I was in a good place.  Some regional conference work may have been on the horizon.

So why did I decide to accept a call to return to a conference leadership role in a conference that was in deep pain, experiencing some two thirds of its congregations withdrawing from MC USA and Allegheny Conference?  Partly because the landscape was familiar, but at a much deeper level, I hoped to live into my deep sense of call to work at Romans 14 and 15 in real time in the real life of the church.  Allegheny had just come through a significant “reconciliation” process, re-instating Hyattsville Mennonite Church to full membership.  The measure to re-instate passed by one vote, and the stage was set for announced and unannounced departures by congregations who saw this step as a bridge too far.

Theological and polity concerns were all over the continuum.  What once was a conference of 37 congregations would soon be 18, which would soon be 12.

When I recently read a report in Mennonite World Review from South Central Conference (MWR, August 14, 2017, Tim Huber, pp. 1, 12), making provision for congregations to be members of the conference but not members of MC USA, a practice affirmed in Ohio Conference, with others also considering, I wondered if such a practice could have provided a way for long-time relationships to have continued in Allegheny.  Should Allegheny adopt such a policy?

But what caught my eye was the last paragraph.  A statement that could be read as a prophetic word, or the stating of a position, or both.  Outgoing South Central Conference moderator Gary Wolfer said, “As of today, what we have is a forbearance perspective, but there will come a day when that ends.”  If this is a word to the rest of the church that patience will likely run out and there will be more division in the denomination, I sadly agree.  If it is a position that forbearance is in place for now, but forbearance should be put away in the future, because tolerance or forbearance is not the highest of ideals, and should only be put in place for a season, then I beg to offer a different perspective – a perspective the Apostle Paul called for as a regular, forever practice in the church.

Romans 14 & 15 is an extended argument from Paul that places forbearance at the center of Christian ethics, at the center of what it means to love one another as Christ loves us.  There is no expiration on forbearance.  Indeed there is paradox here, holding apparent opposites in tension at the same time –“Stop passing judgment on one another” (14:13).  Don’t “put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (14:13).  “Do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil” (14:16).  “Make every effort to do what leads to peace” (14:19).  “Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up” (15:2).  “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (15:7).

The “genius” (if we can call it that) of the two paradoxical resolutions coming out of the Kansas City 2015 national convention, is that the denomination was forced to live into Romans 14 & 15 as denominational policy.  Even if there was a two-biennium time limitation, we have been called to live into the best of what it means to live together in peace.  We have not been called to live together in agreement on all points.

So, as I came to Allegheny, now over a year ago, my goal was to lead a conference who was reeling from the inability of many to forebear, into a place where forbearance is forever.  My hope is to lead a conference with the greatest diversity we can imagine under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  Loving God and loving neighbor call for no expiration on forbearance.

Allegheny is on a path to discerning its future, and we are staking our future around three priorities as our guiding principles.  And we ask all conferences and congregations to consider your approach to forbearance as a call for forever:

We value relationships, so we commit ourselves to be present at three gatherings each year to share what God is doing in our various places, so that we can celebrate and counsel with one another.

We value diversity of thought and practice so that we can sharpen one another in extending the reign of God in our home communities.

We value staying at the table, not imposing our agenda on one another, yet discerning together how God is speaking into the life of our conference and the lives of our congregations.

Said more simply, we hope in our conference of congregations to follow Jesus, be compassionate, respond to real stuff, make allies, and laugh often.  We hope to find this recipe one around which we can grow a conference.

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A Journey of Gratitude at the Table with my Allegheny Mennonite Conference Family

– Marv Friesen, former Pastor of University Mennonite Church
and former Moderator of Allegheny Mennonite Conference
posted in December 2017 The Mennonite

Seven years ago our household moved from the familial enclave of southern Ontario to the rugged Allegheny’s of central Pennsylvania. We landed in a university town named State College – home to the Pennsylvania State University – a “Commonwealth” state whose main campus is called University Park. Talk about confusing.

As pastor of University Mennonite Church in State College, I discovered even more confusion at my first Allegheny Conference pastor meeting a few weeks after arriving in town. I knew no one and had no first-hand knowledge of the history that shaped our conference. While I felt welcomed by my pastoral colleagues, I also sensed a bit of wariness. Who was this outsider from the great white north? And what about him taking on a congregation that had a reputation for being too liberal – too progressive in its theological leanings? As I left that first meeting feeling a bit like a fish out of water, a pastoral colleague expressed a degree of disappointment that I appeared to fit the mold of too liberal, too theologically progressive, too academically inclined. I suppose I left that meeting feeling disappointed as well.

Several weeks later I attended my first Allegheny Conference fall gathering, hosted by a small, rural church in Western Pa. Once more I wondered if I’d ever fit in – if there was room for me at the table. With these early and formative experiences in mind,  I determined I would avoid the pastor and conference gatherings as much as possible since it seemed I did not fit in. That was, until a gathering later that year – to which I actually showed up – and Conrad Mast, then pastor at Scottdale Mennonite, took me aside and asked rather directly if I was in or out – committed to the larger church or not. It was exactly the wake-up call I needed.

From that point on I made the commitment to fully participate in all Allegheny conference pastor and delegate gatherings. And it has truly been a gift to build relationships with so many good folks who seek to be faithful to the way of Jesus, who seek to find common ground, and who can live with theological differences while recognizing our shared commitment to serve God and seek clarity in the complexities of daily life.

That is not to say that we have not had our share of challenges and heartaches. What helped bring clarity to the wariness I had sensed early on was recognition of the deep underlying tensions swirling within Allegheny due to the disciplining of Hyattsville Mennonite because of its acceptance of LGBTQ persons in committed relationships into church membership. While the Hyattsville congregation was not allowed to hold any conference office nor to vote in any conference decisions, they continued to participate in delegate sessions with a full complement of representatives. For all intents and purposes they made an intentional choice to stay at the table.

It would seem that the tipping point for Allegheny was a decision made at the end of a long process of discerning what reconciliation with Hyattsville might look like, culminating in a very narrow decision to reinstate Hyattsville to full participatory status. In doing so we affirmed that we are a theologically diverse conference and that our diversity will not hinder us from celebrating our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and living out our witness in the context of our distinctive communities.

For some this was a step too far. Since the decision was made we have lost 18 congregations and we have grieved the loss of sisters and brothers in Christ at the Allegheny table. On a more personal note, this loss has been incredibly painful as it relates to the deep relationships cultivated with many of the pastors whose congregations determined they could not remain.

We are now exploring what the future holds for us. These days when we gather together as Allegheny conference there is a renewed sense of joy in a shared kinship and a shared, vibrant faith – in the midst of our diversity. At the same time we are also exploring our viability as a conference that consisted of 30 congregations when I first arrived and now numbers 12, with the possibility of a few more reconsidering their place at the table. Do we reach out to other congregations in MC USA to join us, knowing there are a number who wonder about their place at their area conference tables? And how do we navigate all this in a transparent and respectful manner with our sister conferences?

These are the joys and challenges Allegheny conference is grappling with these days. With this lived reality I am deeply grateful to God and to my fellow siblings in Christ that the invitation to come to the welcome table was extended to me time and time again. This welcome invitation is extended out to all who value relationships, who value diversity as gift, and who value staying at the table – discerning together how God is speaking into the life of our conference and our congregations.

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The Plainy from Allegheny

By David Mishler, Conference Minister                                            Volume 1 – December 2017

Herbert W. Armstrong and The Worldwide Church of God wrote a magazine called “The Plain Truth”.  I would want to distance myself a great deal from the theology of Armstrong, but there is something important about speaking the truth, and I am having trouble coming up with a catchy title that rhymes with “Allegheny”.  “The Plainy from Allegheny” may not survive.  So, the first request with this new sort of potential blog, sort of newsletter, is to help me with a title.  I expect your best creativity.

Because we are moving with deliberate speed (at least speed that feels like lightning in most church circles) to make a decision about the future of Allegheny Conference, I want to thank the Philippi Mennonite Church delegates for their suggestion to produce a more regular communication piece from the conference office.  I agree, especially in our current situation, a call for more and regular communication is well founded.  Thus, I will attempt, in addition to minutes and other normal functionary documents created by normal organizations, to begin circulating The Plainy from Allegheny (creative title yet to be determined) to further such communication.  I start with five news briefs:

#1 – Affiliation Task Force

First, out of our November 4, 2017 Faith and Life Gathering in Hyattsville, an important motion was passed – “that Allegheny Mennonite Conference (AMC) move forward into

more formal conversations and negotiations with Central District Conference (CDC) and to develop a proposal which would go to each conference, to be processed according to the requirements of each conference, which describes a path that leads to a mutually beneficial affiliation agreement.  This proposal shall be developed so that a decision can be made by each conference, ideally going into the CDC Annual Assembly in June 2018, but no later than November 2018.

The Allegheny Leadership Council has taken action to appoint three persons to a new Affiliation Task Force – LeAnne Zook (Hyattsville) moderator-elect, Lorne Peachey (Scottdale) former moderator, and Dave Swanson (Pittsburgh) pastor.  Central District Conference will have their persons in place in January.  This task force will bring to the table what a CDC/AMC affiliation might look like.  Questions of structure, timing, staffing, among others, will be on the table.  Pray for this group as they come back with recommendations for both conferences to consider.  Submit your questions or comments so our task force members can bring the widest perspective possible from our congregations.

#2 – Raising the Profile of AMC

Second, Allegheny is attempting to raise its profile in the denomination by giving voice to our vision of what a conference might look like if it is committed to –   1) Jesus-centered discipleship, 2) place-based (contextual) ministry, and 3) collaboration as a way of relating (instead of regulation).  We are hoping that articles and ads in The Mennonite and TMail will produce positive chatter and give all Allegheny delegates and members an entrée into conversations with our peers in MC USA.  And I am calling upon everyone in Allegheny to engage in such conversations with MC USA friends and neighbors.  We will never know our viability and “attraction quotient” unless we test it.

#3 – Leadership Council Retreat

Third, the Leadership Council will be meeting in retreat from January 19-21 to review financial commitments from our 12 congregations and create a spending plan for 2018-19, along with much other agenda.  The financial feedback, along with contributions from individual donors, will give rise to a budget and staffing pattern that we can afford.  Our March 3, 2018 Faith and Life Gathering, to be held at Stahl Mennonite Church (Johnstown), will pass a budget that will set in motion a path of financial viability – either until we make a decision to affiliate with CDC (decision sometime in 2018) or for the indefinite future (if Allegheny continues as a MC USA conference).

#4 – Healthy Boundaries Training

Pastor Peer met on December 12 at Hoss’ Restaurant in Bedford for renewal, support, and training.  11 of our credentialed ministers received the first of two mandatory “Healthy Boundaries” training modules that all MC USA credentialed ministers will receive at least every three years.  This training is part of a denomination-wide effort to address sexual ethics and sexual misconduct with our pastors and leaders who have active licenses or ordination credentials.  MC USA recognizes that, like our society, we have a checkered history of misconduct which has been largely unacknowledged.  Thus, steps are being taken to attend honestly to our past and give hope to a better future.

#5 – Pastor Peer

The Pastors also gave feedback, from the perspectives of their congregations, to address the questions and agenda which our Leadership Council will consider as the basis for our upcoming Faith and Life Gathering in March.  We have much coming at us.  In the next issues of this newsletter/blog in early January, I will address the “Covenant Model for Membership” that we have briefly discussed at recent delegate meetings.

I am confident that we can meet the challenges we face with resolve and reliance on God’s Spirit.  Together we will seek and move into discernment of God’s leading among us for such a time as this.

Please respond with your questions, comments, hopes and dreams to this post.  Use your email “reply” or “reply all” at present.  Perhaps we can move into an interactive blog on our website in the near future.

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Springs Installs Interim Pastors

by Lois Hepler

Dave Mishler installs Luann and Robert Yutzy as interim pastors at Springs.

On Sunday, October 15, the Springs congregation was happy to welcome interim pastors Robert and Luann Yutzy to our congregation. On that day we had an installation service during our worship time. Dave Mishler, Conference Minister, was with us to officiate at this service. Robert and Luann will serve as a pastoral team, filling a 1.5-time position for one year, with the option to extend that term if deemed necessary. They come to us from Newton, Kansas, and have served as interim/transitional pastors at numerous churches throughout the Midwest. We look forward to the gifts they bring to Springs, and to the next year as we work and worship together.

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