– David E. Mishler, Conference Minister for Allegheny Mennonite Conference
Posted in The Mennonite – TMail 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.