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:
- 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 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.
The Mennonite thing doesn’t always lend itself to diversity.
It’s a myth that people with different understandings of theology can’t worship together.
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.
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.
Congregations do very little dialogue on issues like this. They often embrace the view from the pulpit.
Congregations that have a lot of diversity focus on coming together. Congregations that have little diversity tend to focus on differences.
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.
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
MCUSA needs to look at itself, at the institution. It doesn’t reflect the new urban reality and diversity
Leadership in all areas is too heavily ethnic (Anglo) Mennonite
Leadership should not be so afraid to tell the truth - they need to learn to take a stand
The current language from MCUSA is dividing-“ urban”,” church of color”,” minority”
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.
Everything should be geared towards empowering the local congregation
Make room at the table for those with significant variances to the confession of faith
The confession of faith has become a rigid document designed to exclude people
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.
Be clear in the distinction between Anabaptist theology and Mennonite culture. The clothing people want is Anabaptism, not Germanic heritage.
Understand and demonstrate that mission is not just overseas
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.”
Renewed focus on church planting
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.
Create a larger category of “partner in mission/ministry” for groups that aren’t quite traditional churches, like intentional communities
What is the role of the conference versus the national structure?
How can we nationalize urban projects that come from the urban people, not MMN?
Control doesn’t make the church better.
Tradition is killing the Mennonite Church. We must innovate and bring new things.
If you are going to help somebody, ask what they need. Don’t just give without asking.
VMC has a membership category for people in the military. Why can’t we do the same for LGTB persons?
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.
Quit parachuting leaders into urban areas
Take the needs of bi-vocational pastors into consideration when planning meetings and events
Have the church/ institution become the policing agency instead of the (Gospel) delivery system?
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
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.