Clinton Frame Mennonite Church, pictured here, will no longer be a part of the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference due to conflicting stances on gay marriage. Staff photo by Roger Schneider
Clinton Frame Mennonite Church, pictured here, will no longer be a part of the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference due to conflicting stances on gay marriage. Staff photo by Roger Schneider
GOSHEN — There appears to be a schism forming within the heart of the Mennonite faith, and at epicenter of that schism is what some in the denomination perceive to be an increasing support for or affirmation of the controversial issue of same-sex marriage among certain Mennonite congregations.

A particularly poignant example of this growing divide can be found in Clinton Frame Mennonite Church, whose congregation this past June made the decision to leave the Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference after nearly 100 years of membership due to the controversy surrounding the conference’s perceived views on same-sex marriage and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) inclusion within the church.

According to Terry Diener, lead pastor at Clinton Frame, a special congregational meeting was held June 4 during which approximately 95 percent of the church’s 400-member congregation voted to end its membership with conference and explore options for affiliation that are more tightly aligned with their vision and purpose.

The IN-MI Conference is a community of 73 congregations in Indiana, Michigan and Kentucky that falls under the umbrella of Mennonite Church USA. Under the church’s precepts, marriage is defined as a covenant between one man and one woman for life.

In a statement released to the public Wednesday, officials with Clinton Frame explained the reasoning behind their recent decision to break ties with the IN-MI Conference.

“During the past number of years, there have been significant conversations within IN-MI Conference surrounding the controversy related to same-sex relationships,” the statement reads. “The ongoing controversy and dialogue within the conference, media and congregation detracted from Clinton Frame’s focus on God’s transforming power for all people. The congregation has felt the impact of being located in a community where other Mennonite congregations, pastors and community members affirm same-sex marriage, a perspective that is clearly in variance to the written teachings of Mennonite Church USA and at Clinton Frame. These public stances, and the ongoing dialogue, have made it challenging for Clinton Frame to communicate clearly to the surrounding community.”

In a phone conversation with The News Thursday afternoon, Diener expanded on his church’s recent statement, noting that the decision to split from the IN-MI Conference was by no means an easy one, but one the congregation felt was necessary in order to maintain its moral and spiritual integrity.

“The main issue we have is the controversy surrounding same sex marriage, and affirmation of the LGBTQ lifestyle,” Diener said of the church’s decision. “There’s definitely a growing diversity within the Mennonite church surrounding these issues. Certainly not all churches are at the same place, and there’s a very diverse opinion on that right now. So our decision came with a lot of sadness. We’ve been a part of this conference for 100 years, and many of us grew up in the Mennonite Church and the IN-MI Conference. So to say it was an easy decision would not be fair. It was a hard decision in those ways. But at Clinton Frame it was fairly clear that this is what we felt we needed to do.”

While now officially split with the IN-MI Conference, Diener was quick to note that the church remains a Mennonite denomination, and is currently exploring options for a potential membership with an alternate Mennonite conference in the future.

“Typically, within the Mennonite Church, conferences are aligned geographically more than theologically,” Diener said. “We are seeking a conference that is more aligned with our mission and values. At Clinton Frame, we do not affirm same-sex marriage or homosexual practice, and we will be looking for a conference that publicly expresses support for those values. Right now we are actually in conversation with the South Central Conference, whose offices are in Hesston, Kan. So obviously we’re saying theology to us is more important than geography. We would like to align with someone who is more like-minded.”

While declining to comment on whether the church has gained or lost membership as a result of the recent split, Diener did note that operations and services at the church will continue as normal in the days and weeks leading up to a possible partnership with a new conference.

“Clinton Frame goes on in essence,” Diener said of the church’s future outlook. “It certainly doesn’t change our mission or our vision or our values, and in fact this really helps to clarify who we are. And that’s what we really wanted to do. As a congregation, it’s really important to know who we are and what we stand for and what we believe, but it’s also important for our community to know that as well. So in terms of who we are as a congregation, this doesn’t change a thing.”

IN-MI Conference reaction

Over at the IN-MI Conference offices in Goshen Thursday, Conference Pastor Dan Miller spoke glowingly of Clinton Frame and its leadership, lamenting the church’s recent departure as an unfortunate casualty of an all-too-familiar debate within the Mennonite faith these days.

“Clinton Frame is a good congregation. I personally know quite a few of them and have appreciated them a lot,” Miller said of the church. “In their press release, they talked about some of the ongoing conversations surrounding these issues, and our society right now as a whole is having a big conversation about this as well. So I would say most church congregations are involved in this conversation on one level or another, and that’s true for the Mennonite Church as well.”

While hesitant to get into specifics, Miller was quick to acknowledge that the issues of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ inclusion have had and continue to have an impact on the interrelationships between congregations within the IN-MI Conference, and on the church as a whole for that matter.

“There has been ongoing conversations on these issues for a significant amount of time, and there would definitely be other congregations within the Indiana-Michigan Conference that would share the same convictions that Clinton Frame has,” Miller said. “So it’s difficult at this point to say exactly how this thing is trending. I can say that there is an ongoing conversation that we’re having about same sex relationships, and just how diverse can we be and still remain united. We are hoping to bring this particular conversation to some kind of resolution within the next two years, and that’s not specifically about same-sex relations. It’s about variation in general — looking at the breadth of positions and understanding and diversity we have within this conference.”

As for what the conference may end up looking like once the proverbial dust settles around that conversation, Miller said only time will tell.

“I guess, in every religious group, when this conversation comes up, it’s a pretty big conversation, and I don’t think Mennonites can do that conversation any better than anybody else,” Miller said. “I think it is a conversation where people feel very intensely about the positions that they have, and we hope to be able to find some way to work with that so people can be gracious with one another.”

Mennonite Church USA

Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, was quick to agree, noting in a phone conversation Thursday that the dialogue and controversy surrounding the handling of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ inclusion within the church currently extends throughout the entire denomination, regardless of geographical location.

“There are a number of congregations who have expressed concerns similar to those of Clinton Frame’s,” Stutzman said of the greater Mennonite Church USA umbrella. “There are a number of congregations that have LGBT members, and within those congregations we’re seeing a number of differences when it comes to things like how those memberships are being handled, and whether or not they should bless same sex marriages, etc.”

As a case in point, Stutzman pointed to the December 2013 decision by the Mountain States Mennonite Conference to violate the relational covenants it made to the broader church when it became a Mennonite Church USA area conference in 2005 by approving the request from its ministerial leadership board to grant a ministerial license to Theda Good, a pastor at First Mennonite Church in Denver who is in a committed same-sex relationship.

The move resulted in an immediate flood of correspondence to Mennonite Church USA leadership representing a wide range of opinions on the issue, leading members of the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board to meet with leaders of Mountain States Conference in January 2014 to hear about the background and process for the credentialing decision.

Following those discussions, the Executive Board in February met to draft a summary statement on the matter entitled “Moving Forward”. An excerpt of that statement is as follows:

“We value the leaders of Mountain States Mennonite Conference, their active participation in the life of Mennonite Church USA and their sincere desire to follow Christ. Further, we acknowledge their work to discern the voice of the Spirit in their deliberations, as evident in the announcement of their decision.

“At the same time, the board has been entrusted to assure the integrity of the church’s organizational structure and official agreements. The conference made a decision which they knew to be directly at variance with several denominational statements regarding theological and organizational agreements.

“Mountain States’ actions expressed the hope of many across the church who desire full inclusion for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Yet the area conference’s decision has exacerbated the polarities within our church and frayed the fragile strands of accountability that hold our church together in an emotionally-charged political atmosphere. This begs the larger question of the best ways to tend the relationships between congregations, area conferences and the denomination.

“Given the strong emotions in our church fellowship, many are wondering whether or not we can all stay together within Mennonite Church USA. The complexity and diversity of our church yields a spectrum of opinions, often expressed as matters of conscience, so that discernment for a mutually satisfactory way forward seems elusive. Yet the Executive Board prays that the missional commitments expressed in the Purposeful Plan will be able to unify us all under the Lordship of Christ, the authority of Scripture, and covenants of mutual accountability. We pray that we may remain in loving dialogue with each other in the body of Christ and that the Holy Spirit may lead us to further truth and repentance. In this vein, the board is willing to explore more satisfactory arrangements for our common life together.”

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