Monday will bring changes to the structure of the Mennonite Church in this country. That’s when Lancaster Mennonite Conference — the largest of the 25 Mennonite conferences in the United States with 179 congregations — officially separates from Mennonite Church USA.
The decision to withdraw from MC USA was announced in November 2015 when congregations within Lancaster Conference formally voted to withdraw from the umbrella organization.
Although Lancaster Mennonite Conference’s opposition to same-sex marriage has been cited as the principal cause for the separation, conference moderator L. Keith Weaver said vision, church polity and governance within MC USA also played a role.
The 2015 decision to withdraw from MC USA gave congregations in the Lancaster conference the option of making an individual determination of what path their church would take, and they had two years to make that decision. Of the 17 congregations within Lancaster Mennonite Conference that sought to discern their own future, nine remained with the conference and eight shifted to the Atlantic Coast Conference of MC USA, based in Leola.
Merv Stoltzfus, executive conference minister for the Atlantic Coast Conference, said the eight congregations that changed membership “were immensely loyal to Lancaster Conference and for many of them it was difficult processing (the change), but they wanted to stay with Mennonite Church USA.”
Those congregations include the James Street Mennonite, Rossmere Mennonite, Laurel Street Mennonite and East Chestnut Street Mennonite churches from Lancaster city and Landisville Mennonite, New Holland Mennonite and Pilgrim Mennonite, which meets at the Welcoming Center at Mennonite Central Committee in Akron. The eighth congregation is based in New York City.
Citing the divide over same-sex relationships, Stoltzfus said most people within MC USA still hold a traditional view of marriage as between a man and a woman “but there’s more room and space within MC USA in our polity for this diversity or disagreement.”
He added there is a strong belief among the 36 congregations in the Atlantic Coast Conference that “we need to engage and invite this marginalized group of people into an opportunity to worship with us and others are not comfortable with that.”
Lancaster Mennonite Conference has a long history of independence. Formed in 1711, Lancaster Mennonite Conference joined the Old Mennonite Church in 1971. In 2002, MC USA was formed from a merger of the Old Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church. Lancaster Mennonite Conference initially joined as a provisional member and became a full member in 2006.
Since 2015, when the conference announced its intention to leave MC USA, 13 new congregations have joined Lancaster Mennonite Conference, including those from Franklin Mennonite Conference, which is based in southcentral Pennsylvania and western Maryland. An additional 17 congregations will become part of Lancaster Conference in March.
The new congregations, Weaver stated in an email, will create four new districts within Lancaster Mennonite Conference: Eastern Ohio, Franklin, Western Maryland and Western Pennsylvania.
He added that 14 congregations in the Dominican Republic will soon become members, and the conference also has expanded its Hispanic network of churches through its affiliation with the Shalom Council of Churches.
Weaver acknowledged that withdrawing from the national organization raises questions about Lancaster Mennonite Conference’s identity.
“The answers,” he wrote, “will need to be discovered going forward.
“Rather than an inward focus of self-preservation,” he stated, “congregations are cultivating an outward focus in which attending to the material and spiritual needs of the neighborhood becomes the mission.”
He said the conference will focus on three things:
— The theological center “that keeps the lordship of Jesus Christ in focus,” which is summarized in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, published in 1995.
— Adherence to the church’s core values to aspire to “radical allegiance to God’s Kingdom and authentic obedience to Jesus Christ.”
— The missional vision “in which Jesus … will reign over the Earth through a new order in which swords will be beat into plowshares, lions and lambs will lie together in peace and the Shalom of God will finally be realized.”
Lancaster Mennonite Conference’s withdrawal comes at a time when Christian denominations are in decline.
Weaver suggested that churches are “in a hinge of history” akin to the changes that occurred during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and that “maps and coordinates have not yet been created for this terrain.”
A possible path forward, he explained, could involve the creation of a network of congregations that share similar values as opposed to conferences that are grouped geographically.
Although Lancaster Mennonite Conference’s withdrawal is significant — according to published reports, it will reduce the size of MC USA by 14 percent — both Weaver and Stoltzfus said the split has been amicable.
Stoltzfus said he anticipates congregations from both local conferences will continue to work on projects in which they have a shared interest.
Calls to MC USA offices were not returned.