– 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.