Looking for Grace

Later this week Mountain States Mennonite Conference, the conference I am part of, will be hosting its annual assembly. This year’s assembly will be closely watched by Mennonites from across the USA and around the world. Depending on who you ask we are either prophetically leading the church to a new reality or we have come as close as a conference can get to committing the ultimate sin. In February 2014 we licensed an openly gay pastor. In the Mennonite world licensing is the first step on the path to ordination. This decision has pushed our conference to the very center of the Mennonite world. Whether you are a Mennonite of not, the discussion itself is familiar.

On the conservative side it goes something like this:

“Scripture is clear on this subject.”

“God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

“Marriage is between a man and a woman”

And on the more liberal side we hear:

“Scripture is clear on this subject.” (I know, both sides claim this one.)

“God created us with particular orientations and desires; let’s celebrate and support these differences.”

“Love is the only biblical orientation.”

So there is a sense in which everyone is claiming to have the moral high ground. Like everyone else I have a bias in this discussion. That is not what I want to talk about.

Is there a way for everyone to back off a bit? I was part of one discussion where someone was so worked up that they began to tap me on the chest with their fingers. Quite frankly once we achieve that level of anger, it is safe to say that the conversation is no longer about the Christian faith.

I have heard people say that more often than not conversations about orientation and Christian faith quickly descend into irrationality. An irrational conversation is frustrating for everyone.

One possible solution to this dilemma is to choose grace over the need to be right. Back when I was in college the popular book Evidence Demands a Verdict was making the rounds. The idea behind this book was to prove to everyone who didn’t hold a certain set of convictions and beliefs about the bible that they were wrong. It took years for me to learn that arguing people to my convictions and beliefs rarely works.

What I have discovered in the last 20 years is that choosing grace is a much better approach. One, it leaves space for me to be wrong and two, it allows the other to be wrong! When we choose grace then it becomes possible to live and worship with those who are different.

There are many people predicting that the Mennonite Church USA is going to split over the sexual orientation controversy. I hope our leaders and the rest of us find the courage to be graceful with each other. It will not always be comfortable or easy, but it might be the most Christian decision we can make.

How to win a Christian argument

Have you ever found yourself passionately believing something to be true, but unable to convince others of your truth?  Frustrating, isn’t it?  I have found that the frustration level dramatically increases when talking about faith issues. Faith convictions and beliefs tend to be sacred.  Changing or adjusting these beliefs is often seen as back-sliding or drifting from the truth.  Encountering people of faith who hold different positions while at the same time claiming to be “Christian” can be stressful.  Why can’t they read the bible correctly?

Right now the denomination I am part of is in a fierce debate about ordaining gay and lesbian persons.  There are entire churches and conferences talking about leaving the denomination.  From their perspective a clearly discernable line of sin has been crossed.  There is scripture to back this all up.

Equally as fascinating is the other side.  The church is finally figuring out that all people should be included in the full life of the church.  For them a clear line has also been crossed.  Interestingly it is in the exact opposite direction, the church is moving from sin to righteousness.  Like the other side they have scripture to back up their position.

What I have discovered in the various debates, discussions, and arguments I have been part of is the first person to say something like “Scripture clearly says…” wins the debate. To my embarrassment I need to own that I have used this tactic myself.

I think we use this tactic because as people of faith we desperately want Scripture to speak clearly to the big issues of the day.  I am just old enough to remember when people of faith were convinced that rock ‘n’ roll was Satan’s music, or when drums in church, drinking, and smoking.  I live in Colorado; currently there is a whole lot of conversation about marijuana.  Believe it or not Jesus never addressed the subject of legal pot.  What was he thinking?

Framing theological arguments in such a way that those who don’t agree with us are wrong is probably something people of faith need to avoid.  It embarrasses me that church leaders so quickly move to absolute positions.

Learning to live with difference, even when that difference is seen as sin by some, might just be a sign of Christian maturity.

The Table

Note:  This is an article I wrote for “Zing,” the monthly newsletter of Mountain States Mennonite Conference (MSMC).  This is the group that holds my ordination credentials.  Recently MSMC licensed an openly gay pastor.  As you might imagine this decision resulted in a tremendous amount of controversy.  Letters have been written in support, in opposition and calling for more conversation.  While at the same time some churches are contemplating what it means to leave the conference.  The goal of this article is to suggest that there is a way for us to stay to together without having to surrender biblical convictions.  Your thoughts and feedback will be much appreciated! On September 11, 2011 I did something I never thought I would do, I got ordained.  For almost 20 years I avoided this decision.  There were good reasons for not taking this step.  In general my reasons boiled down to not feeling that I would be fully accepted.  I grew up Mennonite Brethren, so I tended to hold a conservative understanding of Scripture.  In 1994 I started working for a program on the Westside of Denver called Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR).  This ministry experience has consistently challenged every one of my deeply held convictions, except one.  I believe that Scripture is God’s message to us and must be taken seriously.

This tension has put me in a strange place.  My conservative friends think I have gone over to the “other side” and my liberal friends don’t always know what to do with my conservative leanings.  These tensions left me in a space of never feeling like I could belong or be accepted.  That is until I met Herm Weaver, our conference minister.  Over the years he has been slowly introducing me to the people of Mountain States Mennonite Conference.  It is in this conference that I saw things I didn’t think were possible- conservative and liberal churches participating as co-laborers and equals.  MSMC is living in tensions that would split most conferences.

What I have come to understand is that being at the table together trumps any of the reasons that would cause us to leave the table.  This isn’t always easy because sometimes our differences are significant.  2014 is going to test us.  Talking about leadership and sexual orientation is not easy or comfortable. There are many voices that will tell us that the prudent thing to do is separate.  For some it even feels like a litmus test; that unless you agree with my position we are going to have to leave the conference.  When I speak with people both for and against the ordination of gay and lesbian persons this issue quickly becomes an all or nothing faith matter.  In situations like this it is tempting to assume a “my way or the highway” stance.

In Matthew 22:34-39 Jesus is questioned about his understanding of the law. In short he says love God, love people.  I have a friend to takes this statement one step farther by adding “nothing else matters.”  The call to love God and love people seems to be the lens Jesus calls us to use when dealing with difficult issues.  When we choose to leave a conversation or sever a relationship are we not ignoring this imperative?

I would like to suggest that leaving, or expelling, is the sin that should concern us the most.  The primary call of the people of God and the church is to relationships that include reconciliation, redemption, and restoration.  If any of us leaves the table we are in essence saying that this is no longer possible.  My friends, that is a decision only God can make.

Staying at the table demonstrates to those outside the church that we are not afraid to engage the difficult issues of the day.  As members of Mennonite Church USA the decision of one worshipping body does not dictate the convictions or beliefs of another worshipping body.  Staying together even in the midst of great difference does demonstrate to the world one of our core convictions – all people are made in the very image and likeness of God and for that reason we chose together instead of separate.

Thoughts on immigration

“Mr. Obama, tear down this wall.” Can you imagine Enrique Peña Nieto, the 57th President of Mexico, giving this speech?  How would Americans react?  Don’t we have the right and responsibility to protect our land?  To keep our people safe from invaders who would take our jobs and abuse our social systems?

I am old enough to remember when in 1987 then President Regan issued a similar challenge to Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall.  Interestingly not many folks took notice when the speech was first delivered; in time this became the prophetic moment of the Regan Presidency.  Within a few years the wall came down and western style freedom spread like wildfire through much of Eastern Europe.

Last week Mennonites from all over the USA gathered in Phoenix, AZ to discuss where they are as a denomination and where they are headed.  The theme was “Citizens of God’s Kingdom.”  I believe that this theme also has the possibility of being a prophetic moment, not only in the life of the Mennonite Church but also in the life of the American Church.  It was a theme which affirmed citizenship in the kingdom of God and the notion that Christianity and the Christian community crosses all borders.

Without a doubt immigration is a controversial political issue.  I sort-of get why, but as a Christian matter I am not sure that there is much controversy.  After all, Jesus calls us to a new understanding of family.  Blood lines no longer define relations.  It possible to say, “Our unity in Jesus trumps blood, borders and anything that would separate us from one another.”  As we all know families need to connect, get together, and fellowship over meals.  Anything, including politics, which prevents this from happening, needs to be called out.

So maybe it is time for a new speech, this time from people of faith – “Mr. Obama tear down that wall.”

Next week

I did it again.  I have agreed to lead a seminar about privilege.  Two years ago at the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Pittsburg I led this same seminar – “Crossing the Bridge of Culture and Race.”  Once again I have been tasked, this time in Phoenix, with leading a discussion on White Privilege, the ultimate “elephant in the room” topic. Talking about white privilege means owning the fact that King’s world, one in which people are judged only by the content of their character has not yet arrived.  I have the privilege of leading a ministry that is diverse in almost every way diversity can be used.  We are young and old –actually I prefer people with life experience and those without; men and women; American and Immigrant; conservative and liberal; married and single; white and colorful; athletic and couch potatoey; high church and earthy church; straight and gay.

Quite honestly I find this this level of diversity to be prophetic, chaotic, affirming and draining all at the same time.  As the person charged with giving leadership to this organization, I am oddly qualified to talk about privilege, especially at it pertains to being male, white and tall.

Admitting that I am afforded privileges simply because of my skin color is uncomfortable.  The level of discomfort increases when I think about the people I work with.  I want us to be equal co-laborers in the kingdom of God.  In this context privilege is not easy to talk about. On one hand I enjoy the privileges of being a white male.  I have never been stopped by the police because of my race.  I can travel to Arizona, where I will be presenting this seminar, without worrying about having to produce documents proving my legal status and I am not even an American citizen.  On the other hand it is embarrassing to just have this privilege.  I did not do anything to earn it.  I was born white and will die white, this privilege just is – a type of unearned power.

How do I talk about something I didn’t ask for, but certainly benefit from?

Maybe the first step is to own the privilege.

And the second step is to create sacred spaces - to talk about the issue and hear the stories of people who have been negatively impacted by white privilege.  These spaces are rarely comfortable places for white people to be.  But occupying the space, hearing the stories and owning the privilege creates a possibility for a new world – a world where people are judged by the content of their character.

Seminar

Sometimes I agree to do something before I fully think through all the implications.  Months ago a coworker and I agreed to lead a seminar titled “Crossing the Bridge of Culture and Race” at the upcoming Mennonite Convention in Pittsburg.  Apparently we are going to talk about White Privilege.  This is one of those “elephant in the room” topics.  I want to live in the world of Martin Luther King’s dream - a world where people are only judged content of their character. Talking about white privilege means owning the fact that King’s world has not yet arrived.  It means admitting that I am afforded privileges simply because of my skin color.  This is not easy to talk about. On one hand I enjoy the privileges of being a white male.  I have never been stopped by the police because of my race.  I can travel to Arizona without worrying about having to produce documents proving my legal status and I am not even an American citizen.  On the other hand it is embarrassing to just have this privilege.  I did not do anything to earn it.  I was born White and will die White, this privilege just is – a type of unearned power.

How do I talk about something I didn’t ask for, but certainly benefit from?  One 55 minute seminar will not solve the issue.

Maybe the first step is to own the privilege.

And the second step is to create sacred spaces - to talk about the issue and hear the stories of people who have been negatively impacted by White Privilege.  These spaces are rarely comfortable places for White people to be.  But occupying the space, hearing the stories and owning the privilege creates a possibility for a new world – a world where people are judged by the content of their character.

Mennonite Church USA Project

For the past year I have been part of a three member urban church listening team for Mennonite Church USA.  The following is the final report from that tour.  It is a long document, but your thoughts and comments would be appreciated:

Building Community and Starting Conversations

The Urban Tour Report

Hugo Saucedo, Glenn Balzer, Marie Voth

November 19, 2010

In September 2009, the One Voice Team, a collaborative group of Mennonite Church USA leaders, commissioned a team of denominational leaders to begin the work of building relationships between conferences, congregations and the denomination.  The denominational ministry team was asked to focus on the following: Church Planting, Peace and Justice, Racial/Ethnic relationships, Missional Church and Urban Ministry.

 The two of us, Hugo Saucedo, Director, Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS), and Glenn Balzer, National Director of Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR), were asked to give leadership for the Urban Ministry portion of the Denominational Ministry team.  Marie Voth was later added as the third member of this team.

The tour began in January 2010 and wrapped up in September 2010. It included visits with pastors and urban leaders from the following 18 locations/regions:

  • Philadelphia, PA
  • Denver, CO
  • Chicago, IL
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Minneapolis/ St. Paul, MN
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • Raleigh/ Durham, NC
  • San Francisco, CA
  • Atlanta, GA
  • Seattle, WA
  • San Antonio, TX
  • Dallas, TX
  • Tampa/ Sarasota, FL
  • New York City, NY
  • Hampton/ Newport News, VA
  • Washington DC/ Baltimore, MD
  • Cleveland, OH
  • Portland, OR

 During each visit, we asked the following four questions:

  • Who are you?
  • How are you?
  • What are the things that you do well?
  • How can Mennonite Church USA be helpful?

 We want to remind readers that this report grows out of the stories we heard; we make no claims that this was an objective or scientific study.  We believe that there is value in the subjective nature of our tour. By listening to stories, we began to build relationships.  Stories have a unique power; they are a gateway of sorts into the soul of the urban community. It was clear that stories and relationships held more value in the urban community than any scientific study.

Many people voiced frustration about being visited for yet another urban study, especially since they had not seen any changes or improvements because of previous studies and reports.

The intent of this report is (1) to summarize the major themes that emerged during the tour, (2) to be a starting point for discussion about urban ministry within Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA), and (3) to present recommendations to the leadership of MCUSA about the future of Urban Ministry within the context of our denomination. This report is a first step in this continuing discussion and relationship.

Over the course of the tour many ideas, issues and concerns have been brought to the table.  The conversations have been lively and filled with agreement, disagreement, frustration, joy and raw emotion.  After much reflection and discussion by and between the members of this team, we divided what we heard into four major categories: Diversity, Institution, Being an Urban Mennonite, and Different Manifestations of Church.

 Diversity

 Diversity includes controversial subjects, but addressing all the questions that diversity raises is critical to who we as MCUSA will become.  How different can church members be from each other and still worship together or claim the same faith?  Is the church big enough to hold the diversity?  Does difference demand that churches or members separate from each other?  What does it mean to embrace all this diversity and still be one church?  Is it even possible to do this?  If not, where or how does MCUSA begin to talk about what is and is not acceptable?

Thoughts from the road…

We are “multi-“ racial, cultural, lingual, class, theological. That is good, but our multi- nature is primarily between congregations and not within congregations. We appreciate our differences when we get together but when it comes to Sunday worship we are still segregated.

        ~Chicago

The Mennonite thing doesn’t always lend itself to diversity.

        ~Minneapolis

It’s a myth that people with different understandings of theology can’t worship together.

        ~Philadelphia

In other places there could be different (Mennonite) churches with a clearer/ unanimous vision. We’re all kind of stuck with each other, which is probably how the church ought to be.

        ~Portland

 It is not how you deal with diversity as much as how the other person deals with diversity. Some people view diversity as healthy or tolerant. Others feel that to be faithful, you have to be in an active defensive position against the thing that is different from you. The act of faithfulness is equated with being defensive. That is difficult. It can be easy to demonize a fundamentalist, conservative mind. But I need to understand that they want to be faithful.

        ~A pastor from Portland recognizing that different theological approaches to diversity are important

 Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference is a conference that experiences diversity at every conceivable level; from immigrant churches to traditional European Mennonite congregations; congregations working through gender/sexuality inclusion issues and those working with drug, prostitution and homeless issue; from highly educated people to people who have not had educational opportunities; from Pentecostal to quiet. In the midst of all of this, they are conducting services and holding meetings with at least 10 different languages represented.

It can be a battle for what diversity takes priority.

        ~Hampton

Congregations do very little dialogue on issues like this. They often embrace the view from the pulpit.

        ~Cleveland

Congregations that have a lot of diversity focus on coming together. Congregations that have little diversity tend to focus on differences.

        ~Cleveland

Engagement with the urban Mennonite church means encountering diversity. The urban churches of MCUSA represent a good portion of the diversity present in America today.  When it came to discussing diversity, the questions back to the team were often pointed and personal.  Is MCUSA able (willing) to contain the breadth and width of the diversity that is present within the urban church?  Can MCUSA celebrate diversity when people feel rejected and devalued?  Are leaders and members of MCUSA truly in relationship with every brother and sister or are some held up as tokens?  If MCUSA is going to be authentically urban, then questions like these cannot be avoided.

Our urban brothers and sisters are creating spaces where differences can be talked about, argued about, embraced, struggled with, and respected.  More often than not, these conversations are filled with pain, misunderstanding, frustration and love. Diverse gatherings consume a tremendous amount of emotional energy.  It is imperative that MCUSA find ways to communicate across multiple cultures.  Everywhere we went people expressed a commitment to intercultural respect, but the “how to do this” part is not so easy.  How do leaders train for this?  How should it look when MCUSA and conferences conduct meetings where multiple cultures are represented?  Does one assume that everyone understands English and its cultural nuances?  Where does MCUSA find the inter-cultural experts skilled in helping churches and conferences navigate these issues?

Diversity is much more than culture and language. Diversity also includes differences in theology, education, socio-economic status, political views, age, and family configuration and different understandings of gender roles, military participation, and sexual orientation.  Picking and choosing which diversity to embrace only causes more pain. 

 Everywhere we went people claimed some level of diversity.  It seemed to us that healthy conferences and churches understood that diversity adds something important to the life of the body.  Congregational life is enhanced when members with different cultures, backgrounds, and ideas add their gifts to the community.

 Diversity has an ugly side as well.  While it provides space for opportunity and celebration, it also carries the potential for pain and rejection. No one has ever suggested that the church become less diverse.  But tension quickly emerges when we start talking about our differences, especially when the differences appear to cross a theological line. Sometimes inclusion of one diversity seems to result in the rejection of another.

 Many churches have or are struggling with issues involving diversity.  Several churches are currently having congregational discussions about diversity related issues. Other pastors expressed pain because of conference discipline based on a congregational position (i.e. on sexual orientation) or because of institutional racism and ethnocentrism.

 In the words of one pastor, “We are enriched by diversity but we can’t sit back and let it happen.” There are amazing examples of churches, groups, and conferences who choose to worship together despite their differences. Welcoming, embracing, and integrating a diverse group of people takes work, patience, and grace. 

Institution

Pastors and ministry leaders asked hard questions and challenged the Mennonite institution(s) in a variety of ways – what follows are, for the most part, unedited comments:

Treat city and urban areas with the same standards as other areas

        ~Philadelphia

MCUSA needs to look at itself, at the institution. It doesn’t reflect the new urban reality and diversity

        ~Philadelphia

Leadership in all areas is too heavily ethnic (Anglo) Mennonite

        ~Denver

Leadership should not be so afraid to tell the truth - they need to learn to take a stand

        ~San Francisco

The current language from MCUSA is dividing-“ urban”,” church of color”,” minority”

        ~Philadelphia

Find ways to walk alongside and support the work and vision of local conferences and churches. Sometimes MCUSA/MMN only seems interested in inserting its own programs and these are not necessarily programs that the conference needs or the only way conferences would like to engage with MCUSA/MMN.

        ~Denver

Everything should be geared towards empowering the local congregation

        ~Raleigh/Durham

Make room at the table for those with significant variances to the confession of faith

        ~Chicago

The confession of faith has become a rigid document designed to exclude people

        ~San Francisco

Need to go back to the core, to the foundation of what makes us Mennonite and Anabaptist; to what sets apart our doctrine. Cultures have become the focus. We need to put the core vision in front.

We need to articulate “what it means to be a Mennonite” using language that people understand.

        ~Los Angeles

Be clear in the distinction between Anabaptist theology and Mennonite culture. The clothing people want is Anabaptism, not Germanic heritage.

        ~Seattle

Understand and demonstrate that mission is not just overseas

        ~Los Angeles

They like the MMN tagline- “across the street and around the world” and would like to see a good balance between the two. If we continue flubbing “across the street,” there may not be an “around the world.”

        ~Phoenix

Renewed focus on church planting

        ~Phoenix

Some of the staff and leadership of MCUSA should live in urban areas to get a better feel for them. They should be more visible away from the center.

        ~Minneapolis

Create a larger category of “partner in mission/ministry” for groups that aren’t quite traditional churches, like intentional communities

        ~Minneapolis

What is the role of the conference versus the national structure?

        ~Raleigh/Durham

How can we nationalize urban projects that come from the urban people, not MMN?

        ~Tampa

Control doesn’t make the church better.

        ~Tampa

Tradition is killing the Mennonite Church. We must innovate and bring new things.

        ~Tampa

If you are going to help somebody, ask what they need. Don’t just give without asking.

        ~Washington DC

VMC has a membership category for people in the military. Why can’t we do the same for LGTB persons?

        ~Washington DC

What would it be like for MCUSA to claim the early Anabaptist vision? The movement started in the city. The city was not seen as a bad place but as a place to engage and converse with people.

        ~Portland

Quit parachuting leaders into urban areas

        ~Los Angeles

Take the needs of bi-vocational pastors into consideration when planning meetings and events

        ~Dallas

Have the church/ institution become the policing agency instead of the (Gospel) delivery system?

        ~Hampton

I sometimes wonder if MCUSA is trying too hard to portray an image of diversity (that may not be accurate) in our advertising and publications

        ~Cleveland

When talking about the Mennonite institution(s) it became clear that in general urban Mennonites do not draw all the same lines of distinction that those who are closer to these structures do.

Acronyms (institutions) like MMN, MCUSA, MEDA, MCC, MDS, MVS, MEA and MMA (now Everence) are not always understood to be distinct.  The confusion only increases when we talk about different programs within a particular institution.

Attitudes towards institution (denomination and local conference) varied greatly.  Some churches are grateful for their local conference.  Other churches are angry at their local conference and/or MCUSA.   In some cases, we fielded questions about the unwillingness of MCUSA to step in and fix the layering of conferences, particularly in the east.   Others were indifferent and ambivalent towards both.  Some openly questioned the relevance of the institutions. 

One thing is clear, urban congregations are becoming less dependent on institution.   This manifests itself in both positive and negative ways.  On the positive side, frustration with the institution has given way to local empowerment.  If the institution is not going to help the local church, then they will figure it out for themselves.  On the negative side, frustration with the institution has lead to feelings of abandonment and not really belonging.  Among some churches of color, there is a sense of being used; that MCUSA only turns to them when a good diverse photo shoot is needed.

There was also recognition that MCUSA institutions can be helpful and supportive. MBM and MMN helped nurture the church start in Albuquerque, which is now a thriving congregation. Churches with MVS units see them as vital to their congregational mission. Many churches said they would like a MVS or Service Adventure unit in their city. Some pastors said that information and programs from MCC and MMN help their church feel more connected with the larger Mennonite church, both in the US and around the world. One conference noted that they also need to be open to allowing institutional people come in.

In Hampton, VA, we had a vigorous discussion regarding MMA’s decision to rebrand and become Everence.  Is it time for MCUSA to consider rebranding?  If MCUSA wants to be a diverse denomination, it is important to recognize that here in America “Mennonite” known more as a culture than as a denomination.  It would be wonderful to say “Mennonite” and not jump to a mental image that looks more Amish than African American.  Mennonite theology is solid, but MCUSA branding leaves much to be desired.  The road to diversity will ask MCUSA to consider branding and presentation.

One pastor from Raleigh suggested that the institution’s purpose is not to be nimble, but to pay attention to the witness of those who came before, to tell the stories of the dead and to know the faith of our ancestors.

When asked how MCUSA could be helpful, relationships and resources were the top responses. In many cases, churches meant financial resources. We believe this to be a reflection of the economic realities many congregations face.

More than money, pastors and leaders have a strong desire for real relationships- with MCUSA, local conferences, other urban areas, and within their own cities. It was clear that all these relationships need to be non-conditional. MCUSA and conferences need to provide movement space without telling local groups and congregations what to do, without controlling relationships and conversations.  MCUSA needs to learn how to engage without needing to control.  It is of critical importance that relationship and networking take place in a context of mutuality and partnership.

Many leaders asked for resources including curriculum, peace building and conflict resolution training, church planting assistance, MVS units, materials (translated into Spanish and French), consulting and local mission expertise. Some churches would also like help in developing best practices or help in facilitating open discussion on divisive issues.

A number of leaders lamented that our Mennonite Schools of higher education have become inaccessible, from a financial and location perspective.  They are viewed as being too expensive and too rural.

When we spoke with leaders who have come to the Mennonite Church by choice as opposed to birth, they often talked about feeling like outsiders.  How does MCUSA work with and include people who have adopted the Mennonite church?

Being an Urban Mennonite

The urban Mennonite Church is thriving and creative, made up of a plethora of cultures including both immigrant and US born.  As the tour progressed, it became increasingly clear that people join and participate in the church because of the theology – active faith, peace-building, and community make sense in the urban world. 

While Anabaptist theology works well in the city, Mennonite culture does not always translate.  The tension between theological and cultural understandings of being “Mennonite” is significant.   Urban leaders of color tend to believe that the North American Mennonite Church is primarily controlled by cultural Mennonites.  No one is arguing that being a cultural Mennonite is wrong, but frustrations arise when cultural heritage becomes an advantage when seeking denominational leadership. The ethnic/ non-ethnic Mennonite divide can also hinder effective communication.

Another urban reality is the emergence of commuter churches.  These are churches where the meeting space is in a neighborhood that is separate and different from the neighborhood(s) where members of the congregation lives.  These worshipping groups are grappling with being a presence in the community in which the church facility is located. This issue only intensifies when a neighborhood changes from one culture to another; often this change is from white to brown.

We also encountered urban churches best described as a gathering of Mennonites who have “fled” to the city.  These churches are made up of MVS alumni, graduates from Mennonite Colleges who have moved to the city for work and friends, and people escaping the narrow theological confines of home.  In the city, they have created communities where it is possible to hold on to what they would define as the central core of Anabaptist theology with the space to be progressive theologically.  Not surprisingly, these churches often find themselves in conflict theologically with immigrant churches.

The networking ability of urban pastors is impressive.  They instinctively understand the need to partner.  It is second nature for urban leaders to connect across of traditional and non-traditional lines.  It was not unusual to hear stories of how local churches have forged working relationships with other Christian and non-Christian leaders on various community issues and initiatives.

Urban Mennonites are on the front lines of issues and concerns that the larger church will eventually have to deal with.  These are the leaders who are/were the first to deal with inter-cultural communication, women in leadership, sexual orientation, immigrant concerns, cost of living and race.   Is MCUSA prepared to include undocumented pastors at all levels of church leadership?  Are seminaries preparing future pastors for bi-vocational leadership? 

The city can be an overwhelming place for pastors.  How does one balance the needs of everyone in the congregation, especially as it tends to function as an extended family?  What does it mean to serve the poor and the rich?  What does it mean to be a place of healing and reconciliation for those who have been hurt by the church?  Raising a family is expensive.  What does it mean to be a good parent and a good pastor?  Cities tend to be transient.  What does it mean to be a place of stability in a shifting world?

Churches in urban locations stand in a place of unique convergence.  Young ethnic Mennonites are moving to the city at an increasing pace and non-ethnics are joining the ranks of the Mennonite church at an astonishing level.  The challenge for Mennonites at all levels (local, conference, and national) is to intentionally engage, listen to, and provide leadership opportunities for young adults and new Mennonites.

The Different Manifestations of Church

Mountain States Mennonite Conference recently commissioned a task force whose express purpose is to explore and encourage emerging manifestations of the kingdom of God.  Right from its inception, this group recognized that traditional church models would not be a primary focus.

In Minneapolis, there are growing intentional communities who have adopted Anabaptist theology and the Mennonite church.  They look a whole lot like the Acts 2:44-46 church. Central Plains Mennonite Conference created a conference membership category for these groups.

In Seattle and Philadelphia, there are churches with creative facility usage that allow them to connect with the local community and stay financially solvent through rental agreements.

 In Denver, a group of young adults meets regularly for community, spiritual discussion, and an opportunity to sing out of the blue hymnal.  They do not want to be called a church.  That level of organization is something they are intentionally avoiding.

In Philadelphia, Kingdom Builders is a relationship-based network of local pastors, conference leaders, and ministry leaders who meet regularly.  Area Mennonite conferences claim this group, but the gathering is much more than just Mennonite.   Kingdom Builders does not seem to make any distinction between those who are part of the institution and those who are not.  Do we have space to include leaders, churches and ministries who share Anabaptist convictions but have no interest in being a part of MCUSA?

In Washington DC, there is a church that is connected to MCUSA, but they self-describe as being inter-denominational.  What does it mean to be one part of a greater whole?  Can MCUSA engage churches like this?  They want the accountability of a larger institutional body, but they need the freedom to be more than just another Mennonite church.  Is it possible that this is what “missional” is?

Bi-vocational pastors lead many of our immigrant churches.  At an institutional level, MCUSA likes to claim these churches.  At a practical level, MCUSA is still trying to figure out how to include these leaders and congregations.

There are groups that self describe as “urban Anabaptists.” They like the theology but are not universally interested in the institutional church. How does the institution (conferences and MCUSA) include these leaders in the church? Do leaders need to rethink what membership in MCUSA looks like?  When does a worshipping group become a church?  Many people are not ready to be a church because of past hurts. What does it mean to include without being overly formal about the inclusion?

Conclusion

All of us on the team have considered it a privilege to participate in this project.  The urban Mennonite church is alive, well and thriving.  We have become convinced that the future of MCUSA is inextricably tied to the health and vitality of our urban brothers and sisters.

It is possible to view the issues of Diversity, Institution, Being an Urban Mennonite and Different Manifestations of the Church negatively.  Doing so would be a misunderstanding of this report.  The tough statements and frustration are out of a stance of engagement not rejection, resignation, or apathy. Choosing to engage each of these concerns positively and with intentionality will only serve to make MCUSA a healthier, stronger and more prophetic church.

Does it make sense for MCUSA to have a national urban strategy?  After nine months and countless conversations, we believe that the answer is yes.  It is critical that any urban strategy be developed and owned by urban people.  With this in mind, we offer the following possibilities and suggestions; understanding that this is just the first step towards what we hope will be a healthy national urban agenda.

We, participants at the Urban Leaders Summit, make the following recommendations to the Executive Board of MCUSA and its staff:

Recommendation #1A

Develop a national urban strategy. This strategy should include the identifying and training of inter-cultural urban specialists and leaders.  There is an urgent need for leaders who know how to communicate across multiple cultures and theological perspectives.

Recommendation #1B

Develop a national networking/ listening team.  Ideally this would be a 2-4 person team inclusive of active leaders who remain engaged in their local urban community.   It is critical that this team be given 5-7 years of “open job-description” time.   Members of the team would need to commit to this time frame as well.  This first 5-7 years would be dedicated primarily to building relationships and trust.

Recommendation #2

Create a variety of spaces and opportunities for urban people working on similar issues to get together and have focused conversations.  We imagine gatherings of intentional community leaders, bi-vocational pastors, immigrant church leaders, pastors leading multi-cultural churches, and so on.

Recommendation #3

Develop and implement a clear path for entry, engagement, or membership for urban Mennonite leaders, affinity groups, and potential congregations with both conference and denomination.

Recommendation #4

Provide marketing and communication resources for local urban congregations and conferences in a contextually appropriate way, recognizing that urban congregations may or may not use the Mennonite name but hold the values of the Anabaptist theology.

Recommendation #5

Have the current listening team and Nicole Francisco, Abraham Thomas, and Matthew Krabill meet with the Executive Board of MCUSA at their earliest convenience to present this report and recommendations.

Uncomfortable

Back in my seminary days I participated in a church planting workshop.  The one lesson that I can still recall from that class is the “homogenous unit principle.”  In short this principle states that starting a new church works best if you gather people together who look the same, believe the same, and live at the same economic level.  When you put different types of people together it creates the possibility of being uncomfortable.  Apparently churches don’t grow if folks are uncomfortable. In the last couple of days I have been involved in two different conversations about this issue.

The first conversation was with the pastoral staff of my home church.  We were talking about what it means to become multi-cultural.  Our church has made significant strides in achieving this goal, but in the end we concluded that it is much easier to talk about being multi-cultural than to actually be multi-cultural.

The second conversation took place at my semi-regular Thursday breakfast meeting.  We were having an animated discussion about the state of the Mennonite church when one person made the following comment: “I do not think that Mennonites will ever get used to having Non-Mennonites in the church.”

This year I have participated in an urban listening tour for Mennonite Church USA.  One of the consistent topics of discussion has centered on diversity.  No one has ever suggested that the church become less diverse.  But tension quickly emerges when we start talking about our differences, especially when the differences appear to cross a theological line.

How different can we be from each other and still worship together or claim the same faith?  Is the church, regardless of denomination, big enough to hold the diversity?  Does difference demand that we separate from each other?  Is the homogeneous unit principle the only way forward?

It is my hope and prayer that we can find ways to come together.  I do not want the homogeneous unit principle to win.

Control

One of my projects this year is to co-lead an Urban Ministry Tour for Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA). Our purpose and goal is to listen to urban church leaders and make recommendations that will help to shape the future of urban Mennonite Church. As we go around to various locations we are asking a common set of questions:

· Who are you? · How are you? · What are the things that you do well? · How can Mennonite Church USA be helpful? · What is of spiritual importance to you in your community? · What is important to know about ministry in the urban context?

These questions have sparked some vigorous discussions.

Last week in Minneapolis, in response to the question,”How can MCUSA be helpful?” Mark Van Steenwyk, a local church leader responded with his own question. “Is it possible for Mennonite Church USA to engage the space without trying to control the space?”

This question has been gnawing at me ever since. The need to control seems to be a universal desire.

I know that this craving impacts every area of my life. As a parent, I want to control my boys; who their friends are, what movies the watch, where they go to school and what they eat. As the National Director of DOOR, I want control over our image, the finances and the program.

Some control seems appropriate. Too often my (our) need to control becomes destructive and manipulative. I am reminded of Paul’s words in Philippians 2:7, “But (Jesus) emptied himself…”

If there ever was a person who had the right to control, it was Jesus. But Jesus, the son of God, emptied himself. Or to think of it another way, Jesus chose to engage humanity without trying to control humanity.

Why is it that we so willingly accept the freedom given to us while still hankering to control?

The temptation to control is something which must be resisted at every level, from the individual to the institution.

Jumping

This year, a colleague and I have been asked to lead an urban ministry study project for Mennonite Church USA. So far we have visited folks in Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles. It has been a privilege to listen to these leaders share about the joys and frustrations of urban ministry.

Last week I was at another one of these gatherings. As we were going around the circle sharing, one of the African pastors made the following statement, “We jump into mission! You North Americans need to process everything before you decide to jump”

It took a minute for me to comprehend what he was saying.

We do like to process. I have always thought of processing as a way to include everyone in the conversation. I still believe this to be true.

As I have reflected on this statement, it is also true that we sometimes use process as a stall tactic. If we talk about it, then we don’t actually have to do anything. When we don’t do anything, then we cannot be blamed for making a bad decision.

Our politicians are famous for doing this. Should this be something that the church is known for as well?

Sometimes it is more important to jump in and start working than to hold a committee meeting to decide if we should vote on whether or not to take action.

The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for everything. In that same spirit I would like to suggest that there is a time to process and a time to jump in.

Listening

(Author’s Note: This entry will appear in an upcoming issue of Mennonite Weekly Review. It does contain a paragraph from an earlier blog…)

Chicago is one of my favorite cities. I especially like its public transit system. It’s easy to use and gets me everywhere I need to go and I don’t have to deal with the traffic.

A few years ago while riding the Red Line, a man came up to me and asked if I had a personal relationship with Jesus. It was late at night, I was tired and not really interested in talking to anyone, but this guy wanted to know something about my eternal status. I was the only person in the train car. I turn and acknowledged his presence.

Before I had a chance to tell this man about my status with Jesus, he launched into a creative rendition of the four spiritual laws.

By the time he came to the end of his speech, I wasn’t sure how to respond or, to put it more accurately, I had not been given the opportunity to respond. It was clear that his goal was to have me pray the sinner’s prayer. From what I could tell, he wasn’t interested in anything else I had to say.

On that evening, this Mennonite pastor prayed the sinner’s prayer just to get rid of the messenger.

On that evening, I learned a valuable lesson.

If you are going to ask a question, wait for a response. Assumptions are demeaning and belittling.

Most of us have been guilty of asking questions and thinking we already know the answers.

For the next 14 months, Hugo Saucedo and I have been asked to lead a nation-wide urban listening tour for Mennonite Church USA. It is the expressed desire of Mennonite Church USA leadership to have urban pastors and church workers shape the urban Mennonite agenda.

Listening is not always comfortable or easy. People say unexpected things. Conversations go in unanticipated directions.

Listening is not easy, but it is fruitful.

The first words Patricia Running-Bear said to me during my first week at DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection), were, “Don’t tell us how to do anything until you have been here 10 years.” Patricia was the administrative assistant to the director of the Denver Inner City Parish. To her, I was the latest in a series of white men who had come to Denver’s west side to try to do some good.Being told to hang around for 10 years seemed like a waste of time. After all, I had been to seminary, was well-read on urban issues and had a natural inclination to fix things. I wanted to work for justice and be a voice for the voiceless.

But vital, significant ministry is not instant or quick. Mutual trust takes time and a willingness to listen. Open, honest conversations become the bedrock for mutual trusting relationships. Mutuality, in turn, leads to shared vision. Shared vision creates ownership.

Urban centers are the growing edge of the church. They are both the present and future of Mennonite Church USA.

Allowing the urban church to shape its own agenda means the center of power and decision-making will begin to shift from rural to urban. This will not always be comfortable or easy, but it is necessary and inevitable.

I am looking forward to the next 14 months. I am curious about commonalities that will be shared across the urban centers. I am looking forward to understanding the unique challenges faced in the various cities, so that we as Mennonite Church USA might support one another in all types of ministry.