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Revision as of 10:31, 9 July 2018
Mennonite Church USA was born 1 February 2002, merging the U.S. congregations of the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC) and Mennonite Church (MC) into one body. While it was heralded as an act of Christian unity, dissension over issues of sexuality and church membership plagued the merger process and dominated the new denomination’s agenda.
The creation of Mennonite Church USA has its roots in World War II alternative service. Prior to the war, the General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church had limited and even conflicted relations with each other. But Civilian Public Service introduced large numbers of members of both groups to each other, starting an era of growing cooperation. After the war, new congregations emerged in urban and university settings as GCMC and MC members (and members of other Mennonite denominations) relocated for work or graduate school. Many of these congregations eventually joined both the General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church. Their seminaries held joint programs and eventually became came together to form Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and both denominations’ publishing ministries cooperated on various projects.
At the same, the Mennonite Church increasingly moved toward congregationalism, relaxed standards on attire, accepted open communion, musical instruments, and more. Subsequently, the ecclesiological and cultural gaps between the Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church diminished.
In 1983, at the initiative of GCMC general secretary Vern Preheim, the General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church met for their first joint convention, held in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Both denominations' delegate assemblies approved a resolution on “Inter-Mennonite Cooperation in North America.” Six years later, both groups, meeting at separate conventions, approved “deliberate exploration” of a merger. The General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church again met jointly in 1995, in Wichita, Kansas, where 92.9 percent of GCMC and 73.4 of MC delegates called on their two denominations to go beyond exploration and “move toward” a merger. Delegates also adopted a new confession of faith and a vision statement to undergird the new denomination.
Delegates were expected to give their final approval to the merger at their next joint convention, held in St. Louis in 1999. But by then, plans had gone different directions. The original intention had been to create one denomination for the United States and Canada. But all attempts to form a binational structure failed, leading to the decision in 1998 to form separate U.S. and Canadian bodies. The creation of the Canadian denomination, called Mennonite Church Canada, received overwhelming delegate approval at the St. Louis convention.
But U.S. efforts to move ahead had become stymied by contentious disagreements over homosexuality and church membership. All St. Louis delegates could do was delay a final merger decision for two years, thus allowing more time for discernment. By then, six Mennonite Church (MC) area conferences had disciplined nine congregations, including three expulsions, for accepting non-celibate gays and lesbians as members. All nine congregations were also GCMC members in full standing. Given the discrepancy, the immediate problem for the merger was the status of these congregations in the new denomination. But it was also a referendum on homosexuality. Even though the General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church had declared same-sex sexual activity as sin, sharp disagreements pervaded both denominations.
To address the controversy, guidelines were drafted that reaffirmed the church’s traditional position and stated that the new denomination “has the authority to determine the criteria and the responsibility to implement the process whereby area conferences join or leave.” The membership guidelines also banned ministers from conducting same-sex marriage ceremonies. After much debate, the guidelines were adopted at the joint GCMC-MC convention in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2001, allowing the merger proposal to finally be implemented. Mennonite Church USA officially came into being six months later.
At the time of the merger, the denomination was composed of 22 former GCMC and MC area conferences, with membership totaling 114,753 in 1,062 congregations. But despite the approval of the membership guidelines, Franklin, Lancaster, New York, North Central, and South Central conferences were still wary and initially chose to become only provisional members of Mennonite Church USA. Puerto Rico was the only area conference that didn’t join, but its decision was not due to homosexuality but culture and mission. The conference chose to seek relations with other Latin American and Caribbean Mennonite groups. (It later affiliated with Mennonite Church USA.)
But other groups decided early that the disagreements over homosexuality would prevent them from joining Mennonite Church. Just prior to and immediately after the final decision to merge, Atlantic Coast, Eastern District and Virginia Conference saw significant contingents of their membership withdraw. A second wave of withdrawals came following Mountain States Mennonite Conference’s 2014 decision to credential a lesbian for the pastorate. When the conference was not disciplined, North Central (2016), Franklin, and Lancaster (2017), the largest area conference in the denomination, all withdrew. In addition, Indiana-Michigan and Ohio also lost sizable numbers of congregations. Other withdrawals were scattered across the denomination.
In 2018, Mennonite Church USA membership was 68,753 people in 641 congregations in 18 area conferences: Allegheny, Atlantic Coast, Central District, Central Plains, Eastern District, Franconia, Gulf States, Illinois, Indiana-Michigan, Mountain States, New York, Ohio, Pacific Northwest, Pacific Southwest, South Central, Southeast, Virginia, and Western District.
Polity and structure
Similar to the former Mennonite Church, only area conferences, not congregations, are members of Mennonite Church USA. Congregations are part of the denomination only as they are part of a member area conference. In the General Conference Mennonite Church, congregations and not area conferences were members. The new denomination’s delegate assembly, however, blended the two polities as both congregations and area conferences are represented. The first Mennonite Church USA executive director was James Schrag, who was succeeded in 2010 by Ervin Stutzman. He was followed in 2018 by Glen Guyton, an African-American who became the first person of color to become chief executive of a North American Mennonite denomination.
An Executive Board oversees the denomination. Its portfolio includes convention planning, ministerial leadership development, peace and justice issues, and an historical archive. The Constituency Leaders Council, with representatives from each area conference and other constituent groups, serves as an advisory body to the Executive Board. The bulk of Mennonite Church USA’s ministry is conducted by five program agencies, which operate largely independently from the executive board.
- Mennonite Mission Network has both domestic and international mission and service programs.
- Mennonite Education Agency supports the work of two seminaries, five colleges and universities, and 27 preschools, elementary schools and high schools affiliated with Mennonite Church USA, plus two Mennonite Church Canada high schools and two overseas schools.
- MennoMedia is the denomination’s publishing agency, producing books, hymnals and songbooks, curricula, and other resources.
- Everence (formerly Mennonite Mutual Aid) provides mutual aid and financial services for Mennonite Church USA and other Anabaptist groups.
- Mennonite Health Services is an organization of more than 75 health and human services providers, such as retirement communities, mental health facilities and organizations for people with disabilities.
See also Sexuality
"2,500 Withdraw from New Denomination," The Mennonite (12 June 2001): 9.
"Www.MennoniteUSA.org: A Profile of the New Mennonite Church USA," The Mennonite (5 February 2002): 12-17.
Preheim, Rich. "Border to Define Church Organization." The Mennonite (7 April 1998): 5-6.
Preheim, Rich. "Membership and Country Committees Named to Tackle Pressing Integration Concerns." The Mennonite (7 July 1998): 4.
Preheim, Rich. "Consultation on Membership and Homosexuality Finds Little Common Ground on Disciplined Churches." The Mennonite (23 March 1999): 12.
Preheim, Rich. "New Church: USA and Canada, Eh." The Mennonite (10 August 1999): 4, 6.
Preheim, Rich. "U.S. Delegates Delay Membership Decision." The Mennonite (10 August 1999): 5-6.
Preheim, Rich. "Some Congregations Contemplating Withdrawal as Time for Membership Decision Draws Closer." The Mennonite (14 March 2000): 8-9.
Thomas, Everett J. "Puerto Rico Leader: Conference Charting Separate Course 'to Find Ourselves as a People of God'." The Mennonite (24 April 2001): 10.
Zuercher, Melanie, and Lin Garber. Historical Perspectives. Welcome to Dialogue Series, Vol. 2. Welcome Committee, 2001.
Address: 3145 Benham Ave., Suite 1, Elkhart, Indiana 46517
Program Agency Websites: Mennonite Mission Network
|Date Published||July 2018|
Cite This Article
Preheim, Rich. "Mennonite Church USA." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. July 2018. Web. 17 Jul 2018. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mennonite_Church_USA&oldid=161108.
Preheim, Rich. (July 2018). Mennonite Church USA. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 17 July 2018, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mennonite_Church_USA&oldid=161108.
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