#MennoCon17 has concluded and it was perhaps both a success and something less than a success. There was to my eyes and ears a degree of anxiety at the beginning of the week. I noted this in overheard conversations and in the strategy sessions about getting the Israel-Palestine Resolution passed. But then on the first morning, the Resolution did pass with overwhelming support. Many of those lined up at the microphone to say No actually said “Yes, but. . .” It was an energizing and positive beginning.
As to the Future Church Summit, the results are not as clear. I really enjoyed the table group process designed and led by Catherine Barnes of Eastern Mennonite University. We used a process very similar to this at Reba Place Church in 2005 created by the Center for Parish Development. The advanced development of these group processes for facilitating dialogue are years ahead of how a typical congregation functions. There is much to learn here about hearing from everyone and not letting only a few voices dominate.
The creative use of table discussions, sending immediate responses via iPad to the Theme Team, receiving almost immediate feedback from the Theme Team about those responses contributed towards and built a positive momentum. I was intrigued by Catherine’s use of both “Spiral Process” and “Samoan Circles” to facilitate plenary dialogues (but I don’t know how to describe them in this space!). I enjoyed those at my table and it was delightful to gather from all points of the MCUSA compass and to recognize our commonality.
We were all up late on Thursday and then back at it early again Friday morning meeting with our table groups. Our first task was to identify both affirmations and lamentations based upon Thursday night’s discussion of our history. There was a lot there. It seemed to me the affirmations were remarkably similar across congregations and regions: being Jesus-centered, peace witness, diversity, simple living, “general quirkiness.” However, when it came to lamentations the differences were a bit more evident. We had one person at our table lamenting the loss of absolute truth and the disintegration of the family, which are overt conservative political talking points. It’s good to be reminded that such voices are part of MCUSA and it seemed they were a minority among delegates. I heard some even wondering if the delegates present accurately represented MCUSA’s diversity well and if many conservatives had chosen to stay home. We simply don’t know. A Convention such as this has to operate on the principle that those who are present are the ones who are supposed to be there empowered to decide for the whole.
The FCS process design has clear strengths and weaknesses. It’s great for helping a group define its core constituency. It’s pretty good at locating points of difference across the spectrum. At the same time, the process is so focused on layering consensus that marginal voices remain marginalized by lack of repetition across the inputs.
In other words, LGBTQ voices, for example, were heard at the table groups and those inputs were given to the Theme Teams and included in the final report. But without a strong LGBTQ (or other) voice at each and every table, the overall effect is simply muted. It’s like adding an unplugged guitar to a rock band. Yes, you are in the band. Yes, you have an instrument to play. But still.
Also, the FCS process is not good at taking a group on to the next steps.
It’s like map making. The process does an amazing job of mapping MCUSA across consensus issues and concerns. I think the Future Church Summit has succeeded in providing a strong sense of where MCUSA stands now two years after Kansas City 2015. I think that is a positive and encouraging assessment.
However, a map doesn’t tell you where to go next or how to get there. By that criteria, the FCS was not a failure but perhaps a misnomer. It was more of a Present Church Summit needing a follow-up sooner rather than later. Or more accurately Future Church Summit Part One.
It has often seemed to me that humble Mennonites gather to make resolutions—about becoming more humble. It’s such a contrast to African-American and Latinx conferences I have attended that almost always conclude with calls for more urgency and boldness. I don’t know what to make of that except to note it. Boldness and courage are of course not the opposite of humility. Pride would be the opposite of humility (and despite repeated disclaimers that is an identifiable form of Mennonite pride). The Israel-Palestine Resolution is one indication of an increasingly bolder and courageous (but still humble) MCUSA. And we’re proud of that!
But if we are to take seriously the enormous challenges before us as a planet and as a people then becoming more and more humble while becoming less bold and less courageous is surely a death sentence.
A truly Future Church Summit (FCS II) will somehow have to empower voices of prophecy among us—voices not of reorientation (FCS I perhaps) but disorientation—throwing our vision forward into a future that seems beyond our grasp and that will require everything we have in order to get there. We have a map now for sure. But the places we need to go are off the map. Where dragons dwell. Where Jesus goes ahead of us. Where God awaits.