In the same year that two congregations joined Mennonite Church Manitoba, adding new member churches for the first time in a decade, two congregations have also withdrawn from the regional church.
Carman Mennonite Church will officially leave MC Manitoba on Sept. 1 and Springfield Heights Mennonite Church in Winnipeg will leave on July 1. Both congregations stated the main reason for terminating their memberships was their desire to remove affiliation with congregations that are affirming of LGBTQ+ people.
“I see this as part of an ‘unsettling and re-settling’ that is happening among all denominations but, of course, we’re noticing it particularly among Mennonite denominations,” says Michael Pahl, MC Manitoba’s executive minister. “Congregations are leaving conferences, pastors are leaving congregations, and congregations and pastors are being expelled from their denominations.” And he says that congregations and pastors are switching conference affiliation and moving between denominations more freely than ever before.
“The reasons for this ‘unsettling and re-settling’ revolve around social, political and theological differences,” he says. “No one yet knows where things will settle out, or what all the impacts will be of this re-settling that’s happening.”
The recommended discernment process for withdrawing from MC Manitoba, laid out in its bylaws, calls for a year of prayer and conversation with MC Manitoba leadership and within the congregation.
Carman Mennonite followed the process carefully, engaging in discussions with Pahl and each other for nearly a year.
Abe Elias, Carman’s congregational chair, says it was a very difficult decision, given the congregation’s good relationship with MC Manitoba and its alignment with certain values. But the regional church’s position on LGBTQ+ affirmation had long been problematic for many of Carman’s members.
“We could no longer support the conference with their decision on the level of support they were offering the affirming churches,” Elias says. “We respected [Pahl’s] input, but it just became clear that we were not on the same page.”
The pastor notes the congregation’s membership has suffered significantly due to this issue. When members voted to remain part of MC Manitoba five years ago, a considerable number of members left the congregation. The same decision a while later produced the same results.
With the guidance of an interim pastor and several meetings, the church council decided to bring it to one more vote at the congregation’s annual meeting.
“We felt, if we didn’t grant that [vote], we would probably lose more people.” He says Carman Mennonite has explored the idea of affiliating with a different denomination, but first will be taking its time to process and plan.
Springfield Heights Mennonite did not follow the regional church’s recommended process, Pahl says. Soon after MC Manitoba’s annual gathering in early March, Springfield Heights’ church council called a special congregational meeting to discuss and, within the same meeting, vote on leaving the conference.
Pahl says the decision came unexpectedly. The regional church was not informed of the vote before it took place, or invited to speak to the congregation and answer questions.
Springfield Heights had been in the midst of working with MC Manitoba on a pastoral search, and told regional church leadership it would be stepping back from that search only shortly before it voted to withdraw its membership.
Dietrich Klassen, Springfield Heights’ congregational chair, says it was a decision the church had been ignoring for a long time and finally needed to deal with, as some members asked why the church is still part of the denomination. He adds that 100 percent agreement could never be achieved, even with a whole year of discussion.
“We can’t see ourselves going that direction,” Klassen says, of LGBTQ+ affirmation, “and by being part of the conference, we feel strongly we are supporting that.” He says Springfield Heights has not yet discussed the possibility of affiliating with a different denomination.
Pahl says both congregations were instrumental in forming and growing a regional church in Manitoba. “Their decision to break fellowship with the other congregations that make up MC Manitoba feels like a death in the family,” Pahl says. “And we know, too, that it’s hard for many people in those congregations. . . . We are always very aware of the personal, relational impact of these corporate decisions. We grieve every loss, and we mourn with every person impacted by that loss.”
The worship service at MC Manitoba’s annual gathering this year named these changes and made space for people to bring them before God in lament. This included River East Mennonite Church, which withdrew from the regional church last year, citing LGBTQ+ affirmation as its reason for departure, too.
Pahl worked hard to assure Carman and Springfield Heights that MC Manitoba doesn’t pressure its congregations to be affirming or enter discernment processes.
“We want to support congregations wherever they’re at on LGBTQ+ inclusion,” he says.
In February, the MC Manitoba Board approved a guiding statement on “creating space” for discernment on LGBTQ+ inclusion, outlining the regional church’s diversity on the matter and commitment to be together amidst differences. Pahl invited all pastors and other church leaders to give feedback on that statement before it was published.
MC Manitoba LGBTQ+ Guiding Statement
Mennonite Church Manitoba is a community of congregations covenanted together for fellowship, mutual support and shared ministry. We encourage congregations to discern the Spirit’s leading for themselves regarding their welcome and affirmation of LGBTQ+ people, and this has meant that our congregations are in different places theologically and practically regarding this. We continue “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), recognizing that our unity in Christ is not complete uniformity of belief and practice, and that diversity can be a beautiful, if sometimes surprising, gift from God.
In our shared spaces as Mennonite Church Manitoba, we strive to provide a welcoming and safe place for everyone. These shared spaces include our annual gatherings, our Mennonite Church Manitoba office, our Camps with Meaning camps and programs, our committees and working groups, and our resourcing workshops and events. To make these shared spaces safe for all, we will avoid disparaging remarks about one another’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, and we will respect chosen names and pronouns. We will also avoid disparaging remarks about one another’s perspective on LGBTQ+ welcome or affirmation, and we will not promote our congregation’s position as normative for all congregations.
Further information on this statement can be found at mennochurch.mb.ca/creatingspace.
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