A treasure in our Virginia Mennonite polity

There were tears and grieving last Saturday as the delegates of Virginia Mennonite Conference voted to release the Chapel Hill and Raleigh congregations from membership in VMC. The two churches requested release because they wanted their pastors to be free to perform same-sex covenant ceremonies; but VMC policy is that “if a credentialed person conducts a covenanting ceremony for a same sex couple, their credentials will be immediately suspended.”

That policy was stated by the Faith and Life Commission, our credentialing body in March 2013. A few months earlier, a VMC congregation (Community, in Harrisonburg) had approved a statement that made space for its pastors to perform same-sex covenant ceremonies. Aware that the congregational statement had occasioned a high level of anxiety within the conference, the FLC chose to respond. And they reaffirmed the policy in April 2016 “for the continued unity” of VMC.

Some prominent voices in our conference say that the FLC is a “cultural artifact” retained from the days of the bishop board, because it is comprised of all the district ministers, plus several other persons.

But I celebrate the Faith and Life Commission! They are not some harmful holdover from the past but are a treasure! The district ministers (formerly called overseers or bishops; Mike Shenk is our current district minister at Trissels) are the group in our conference who have the most contact with pastors and congregations, plus the most pastoral experience themselves, plus the trust of the districts. It’s the way of wisdom to utilize such a group to the fullest extent. Having them hold congregations accountable is a great strategy, a best practice. Not only are they the group with the most knowledge of each congregation, but also they together are the group with the most knowledge of the whole conference system. I like the idea of accountability being in the hands of such a group. Yes, the district ministers are mostly men; but the several at-large members are all women.

We in this day and age tend to be skeptical of those who hold authority. But the district ministers are accountable to the people in the pew in the best way: not through some political process of voting but through relationships of love and care. They have face to face interactions with congregations, are known and trusted by them. They are approachable. And they care for these people they know by face and for the whole conference system, and so they are intensely looking after the well-being of all. The FLC’s 2013 statement was controversial—as any leadership act is these days! But it was made out of the most complete knowledge and discernment available in our conference. VMC would have lost many, many more congregations by now if the FLC had not acted as they did.

Why am I bringing all this up? An official VMC task force came up with some polity recommendations last Fall. (Polity is how lines of authority are structured, and decisions are made.) Their recommendations included 1) taking away the Faith and Life Commission’s authority to grant or withdraw credentials and 2) limiting the FLC to only make recommendations (rather than make binding statements like they did in 2013). Thankfully, our conference leaders have set up a new Restructuring for Mission Committee which will “implement recommendations from the Polity Task Force based on delegate feedback.” There is still reason to hope that our conference will continue to benefit fully in the future from the knowledge and wisdom of the FLC, the group in our conference who have the most contact with congregations and pastors, the most leadership experience themselves, and most awareness of the whole conference system.