“A community of communities engaged in God’s mission”–that’s the byline for Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va. Not long after this byline was introduced, Pastor Phil Kniss used a series of sermons to explain its meaning for the congregation. In his view, the congregation is best seen as a community comprising many subgroups that are organized in varied ways for diverse purposes. Yet, in a fuller sense, all members embrace the mission of the whole congregation, uniting around God’s mission in the world.
Park View Mennonite Church is a microcosm of the community of communities that make up Mennonite Church USA. Our denomination is made up of area conferences, which are made up of congregations. And congregations themselves are made up of even smaller communities.
Although Mennonite Church USA consists of many parts, we embrace a common mission – God’s mission in the world. We live out that mission in various ways, guided in part by the differing contexts in which we live and work. It’s not difficult to understand that a congregation in rural Arizona will go about their ministry differently than a congregation in downtown Manhattan. A 100 year-old congregation in a small community with many Swiss-German roots will look very different than a new church planting in a metropolitan suburb. A congregation whose members are primarily first-generation immigrants will function differently than a congregation with mostly third-generation immigrants.
It may be more difficult to grasp, however, that area conferences also have different approaches to ministry, since they too reflect their geographical location and the cultural legacies that formed them. The recent survey of Mennonite Church USA’s credentialed leaders revealed significant differences based on area conference affiliation, with a high correlation to geographical location. For example, there are substantial differences between congregations in the eastern part of the United States and those located in the west. Further, the survey showed that credentialed leaders found greater affinity and support in their area conferences than they did through their connection with the denomination.
So, just as Pastor Kniss calls the members of Park View Mennonite Church to unite around a common mission, I am calling the members of Mennonite Church USA to unite around the common vision we affirmed when we were formed in 2001:
God calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to grow as communities of grace, joy and peace, so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.
This common vision is being tested by disagreements across our church. Such disagreements call for two important responses. First, we must speak honestly and forthrightly about the differences that divide us, particularly across area conferences. Ignoring or minimizing these differences will not help us find a productive way forward. Secondly, we must earnestly seek agreement on ways that mutual cooperation will enable us to accomplish together that which we could never achieve apart from each other.
To this end, an ad hoc structure committee is studying ways for our denominational “community of communities” to embrace a shared mission while also honoring the differing legacies represented in our area conferences and congregations. I covet your prayers and support for this committee and for leaders throughout our church as we discern God’s call for the future. If we set our eyes on what is possible by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can anticipate growth as communities of grace, joy and peace, equipped to more effectively share God’s healing and hope with one another and the world.
~ Ervin Stutsman