Sixty-five representatives from 28 Central District Conference (CDC) churches met for the district’s 111th convention Nov. 5-6, 2021, in Jamestown, North Dakota. CDC conventions are typically hosted by a local Mennonite Brethren congregation, but there are no CDC churches in eastern North Dakota. So why meet in Jamestown, the state’s ninth largest city?
In his welcome to the delegates, CDC minister Rick Eshbaugh explained that when a North Dakota MB church closed years ago, it designated the money from the sale of its property for church planting in that state. “We want to develop eyes that see” opportunities for new ministry in North Dakota, Eshbaugh said.
In addition to welcoming new churches and pastors, convention business sessions included times of celebration and candid discussions, while worship times focused on the convention theme of “Therefore,” taken from Matthew 28:18-20.
Two churches were welcomed into the conference; both congregations are Congolese. Holy Jerusalem Pentecost Church, Coralville, Iowa, was represented by Pastor Moise Byizigiro and Patrick Munyamahoro, and was welcomed Friday afternoon. CDC chair John Langer, assisted by Claude Tambatamba serving as translator, prayed for the congregation.
Due to travel delays, that evening Grace Tabernacle Ministries Church, Indianapolis,
Indiana, was welcomed as a new member during the church planting banquet and program. Don Morris, USMB national director, with Tambatamba serving as translator, prayed for the church and its leaders. The church was represented by senior pastor Emmanuel Musinga, associate pastor Tito Komenyero and Sinzira Munyaruhanga Onesmo.
Friday morning during the district financial report, delegates celebrated one church’s financial milestone. CDC treasurer Rick Walter asked Pastor Daniel Rodriguez and Roberto Gonzalez from Iglesia Agua Viva, Omaha, Nebraska, to join him on the stage to celebrate that the church has completed payment on its loan from the district. The three each took a turn cutting up the loan papers.
Friday afternoon the delegates welcomed two new lead pastors to the CDC: Jon Annin, pastor at Stony Brook Church, Omaha, Nebraska; and Stuart Curry, pastor at Salem MB Church, Bridgewater, South Dakota. Christian Kohs, pastor of Redemption Church, Owatonna, Minnesota, prayed for Annin and Curry.
Constitution revisions approved
Significant time was given during business sessions to the process of amending the CDC constitution and bylaws. Amendments were proposed to two of seven articles in the constitution and to all but two of the 19 bylaw articles. The proposed amendments had been sent to CDC churches prior to the convention, and delegates were given the opportunity to discuss the proposed amendments in a Friday afternoon break-out session. The amendments were approved, and CDC churches have until Feb. 1, 2022, to ratify the changes.
CDC chair Langer reported the District Ministry Council had spent three years processing the revisions. Proposed changes include bringing the articles up to date—for example expanding the district to include Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin and removing all references to the General Conference—and using neutral gender wording where appropriate.
Changes also include updating and clarifying the process of welcoming new churches into the district; clarifying responsibilities of the executive board; clarifying the budgeting process; updating the make-up of the district Board of Faith and Life; adjusting membership and terms of Youth Committee and Nominating Committee members; eliminating the position of statistician; and clarifying references to the pastoral credentialing policy and adherence to the 2014 USMB Confession of Faith.
In anticipation of the need to involve new district leaders, the CDC is also creating a manual to outline procedural matters that do not need to be included in the constitution of bylaws, says CDC district minister Rick Eshbaugh, in a post-convention interview.
Updated vision statement is important
A new CDC vision statement was also approved, an important decision according to Eshbaugh. Speaking after the convention, Eshbaugh says the new vision statement explains why the CDC exists. The last time the vision statement had been reviewed was 1995, and Eshbaugh says district leaders worked hard to update the statement and to identify “what we want to do.” The previous vision statement emphasized a sense of responsibility to communities, says Eshbaugh. For example, the statement addressed the importance of rural hospitals. Today the district is focused on planting churches and supporting pastors, especially given the COVID-19 pandemic.
The approved vision statement is: “The Central District Conference has sought to continue the vision of our founders by impacting the world through the Gospel. We exist to strengthen our church leaders/pastors; plant new churches; renew existing churches; and give biblical training and clarity on what it means to be a theologically conservative evangelical Anabaptist network of churches on mission.”
Providing theological clarity
Providing theological clarity and unity, especially considering the decision by New Life Fellowship, the Mennonite Brethren church in Grant, Nebraska, to withdraw from the CDC, was behind the idea of forming a task force to identify points of agreement between the CDC and other USMB districts. Chair Langer and Coalt Robinson, outgoing chair of the CDC Faith and Life Committee and pastor of Bethel Church, Yale, South Dakota, outlined tentative plans for the task force.
Eshbaugh reports that as of mid-January the district has not moved forward with forming the task force.
During the convention, both Langer and Eshbaugh spoke of their desire to participate in USMB discussions. Eshbaugh emphasized maintaining relationship with the national conference despite disagreements. “We are all members of USMB, and we want to be fully engaged,” Eshbaugh said.
USMB national director Don Morris was given time Saturday morning to address the delegates. Saying he wanted to be “an open book,” Morris reviewed a number of incidents that he said prompted concerns about “where USMB is going.”
Morris’ list included the Christian Leader issue on racism (Jan/Feb 2021). Morris described the 2021 review of the Christian Leader and recommended changes as one step taken to “build back your trust in us.”
He also addressed concerns about a two-part webinar on abuse in the church, saying he had not sufficiently vetted the speakers.
Morris announced that Nov. 18-19, 2021, would be a time of prayer and fasting. “Society keeps pushing us to be different from who we are,” Morris said, referencing the Confession of Faith. “We will not be swayed. We want to be passionate in standing for the truth.”
Morris also spoke of recent events in the Pacific District Conference regarding LGBTQ+ issues, including discussions at Willow Avenue Church about becoming an affirming congregation and a request by students at Fresno Pacific University that they be allowed to form a Pride Club. Morris reported that Willow Avenue’s membership in the PDC had been suspended and that President Joe Jones denied the students’ request.
Morris emphasized throughout his remarks that the CDC is not alone in holding to a conservative theological approach. “That is who we are,” Morris said.
Leadership Board chair Luke Haidle, pastor of Living Hope Church, Henderson, Nebraska, was the morning convention speaker. After briefly sharing his personal story, Haidle talked about his experience serving on the Leadership Board. He spoke about working with leaders from the Canadian Conference of MB Churches as co-owners of Multiply, the North American MB mission agency. He offered his observations of ministry during COVID-19 and the value of interacting face-to-face and spoke of the challenges in publishing the Christian Leader. Haidle said he is excited about the new Leadership Pipeline, a USMB initiative to train and develop young leaders.
Haidle also addressed theological concerns. “Is the U.S. Conference going liberal? No, I don’t see theological drift in the people I interact with,” he said.
The session closed with Haidle and Morris answering questions from delegates. Questions included asking for clarification on whether faculty members at Tabor College and Fresno Pacific University are required to agree to the USMB Confession of Faith—they are—and what it means to “love well” while not being inclusive of LGBTQ+ individuals.
Friday program focuses on church planting
In other business, delegates heard from outgoing chair John Langer and Faith and Life Committee chair Coalt Robinson as well as Youth Committee chair Anthony Lind. Trustee Committee chair Daryl Toews and treasurer Richard Walter gave the financial report.
Delegates approved the proposed budget of $521,500 and elected new committee members. Delegates affirmed Lynn Schneider, Huron, South Dakota, as the new CDC chair and Jessie Swiers of Callaway, Minnesota, as vice chair.
The Friday evening banquet and program featured the report from the Church Planting and Renewal Committee and was hosted by committee chair Daniel Rodriguez. Delegates heard from church planters Christian Kohs, Redemption Church in Owatonna, Minnesota, and Jon Fiester, Renewal MB Church of Rapid City, South Dakota.
Jeff Turner, Christ Community Church, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Stephen Stout, Faith Bible Church, Omaha, Nebraska, shared how CDC church renewal grants have impacted their churches.
Rodriguez reported that CDC churches reported 34 salvations and 27 baptisms in the past year. “Are you comfortable with these numbers,” he asked. “I want you to be uncomfortable. We can do even more.”
The Friday evening program concluded with church plant and renewal pastors scattering around the meeting room and delegates gathering around them in small groups to pray for the pastors and their churches.
The offering that evening of more than $3,000 was divided between two pastoral training events, one in Kenya and the other in Uganda. The two events were facilitated by Emmanuel Musinga of Grace Ministries and Claude Tambatamba of New Jerusalem Temple.
Convention includes breakouts, worship
Four break-out sessions were offered Friday afternoon. One led by Eshbaugh gave delegates the opportunity to work through the proposed amendments. Ryan Francheck of Dell Rapids, South Dakota, provided an overview of the Timothy Apprenticeship Program. Christian Kohs led a session on discipleship and Stephen Humber of Multiply led an interactive breakout on the 15-second testimony.
Saturday morning representatives from Multiply (Stephen Humber), Christian Leader (Connie Faber), Tabor College (David Janzen), Center for MB Studies (Peggy Goertzen), and MB Foundation (Garvie Schmidt) participated in a panel discussion moderated by Eshbaugh. Panelists shared their greatest challenge over the past year and gave away a book.
The convention theme “Therefore” was intended to encourage delegates to think about discipleship both personally and as a district. When he introduced the theme, Eshbaugh said, “What is our ‘therefore’ as a district? This question played a huge role as CDC leadership worked its way through our constitution revision process and our statement of faith.”
Guest speaker Andy Owen, who most recently served in Thailand with Multiply and will be joining the pastoral staff at Ridgepoint Church in Wichita, Kansas, was the convention speaker. Owen’s first message was centered on Luke 4 and Matthew 28 and outlined the four principles of Jesus’ “therefore:” pray, don’t stay, obey and follow the way.
The second message looked at the “therefore” of Paul from Philippians 3:12-4:1, specifically the phrase “keep your eyes on the prize.”
Owen was also the resource speaker when 35 to 40 pastors and spouses gathered Thursday, Nov. 4, for a day of renewal and fellowship prior to the start of the convention.
Times of worship throughout the weekend were led by vocalist Kaylee Fiester and percussionist Michele Fiester from Renewal MB Church. Renewal’s Jon Fiester provided audio and visual support for the convention.
The convention closed with an installation of the new officers and committee members and with communion led by Rodriguez, assisted by Jon Annin and Stuart Curry.