In a historic moment, the Central District Conference (CDC) welcomed five churches from the former North Central Conference (NCC) of Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) into membership by unanimous vote during its 107th convention hosted by Henderson (Nebraska) MB Church, Nov. 3-4, 2017.
“We are honored that God brought the former NCC into our district,” says Rick Eshbaugh, CDC minister, in an email interview. “Their love for God’s Word and enthusiasm for ministry have encouraged us, and we look forward to partnering together. We are blessed to have them with us.”
The addition of these five churches brings the total number of CDC congregations to 33, located in Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Indiana and Wisconsin.
100 years of faithfulness
The NCC was established in 1920 as the Dakota-Montana Conference, later expanding to become the North Central Conference with more than 25 churches in Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, although that number has declined.
“The biggest thing for me as I think about the past 100 years is the faithfulness of the ones who have gone before us,” says Jesse Swiers, former NCC moderator and pastor of Lake Region Mennonite Church, in an email interview. “All have been volunteers in the Lord’s Army and never received a salary.”
Each year, an annual assembly included business sessions and fellowship and sharing of stories testifying to God’s faithfulness. Men’s, women’s and couples’ retreats offered rest and refreshment, while a pastor enrichment weekend allowed pastoral couples to gather and pray.
Bible schools reached a record high of 13 in 1972 with 840 children attending. Churches hosted youth rallies three times a year, and an August summer camp for children ages 10 to 18 was held at Sand Hill Lake Bible Camp in Fosston, Minn. Staffed by volunteers, this camp continues today.
The NCC partnered with Mennonite Mission Network, the Mennonite Church USA mission ministry, to plant churches in Argentina. Other ministries included Women’s Mission and Service Commission and a gift and thrift shop in Minot, N.D. The conference partnered with other Anabaptist groups for the Upper Midwest Relief Sales. The NCC Bulletin was published quarterly from 1965 to 2013.
“Although the NCC organization has ended, the conference mission lives on,” says John Kauffman, NCC historian. “Our congregations and their families have birthed and mentored many people over the years who are now serving in other places near and abroad.
“We now look forward in joining a larger family of like faith, to continue building on the past with renewed hope for the future,” he says.
Embracing a new direction
During its annual assembly July 17-19, 2015, the NCC passed a motion to begin the process of withdrawing membership from MC USA.
Earlier that month, during a convention in Kansas City, Mo., MC USA delegates passed a resolution calling for forbearance regarding same-sex covenanted unions. While delegates also affirmed the 2001 Membership Guidelines that uphold traditional marriage and say pastors may not perform same-sex marriages, the NCC congregations were concerned that approval of the Membership Guidelines was by a smaller margin than a call for forbearance.
“The NCC has come to recognize and identify ways in which MC USA has moved away from what we understand to be traditional, orthodox interpretations of Scripture from an Anabaptist perspective,” said then-NCC conference minister Fred Kanagy in a 2015 interview with Mennonite World Review. “The movement of many in MC USA in thinking, discernment and practice has created a separation, and the trajectory seems to indicate a widening divide, which we feel requires of us that we either change our convictions or change our affiliation.”
The Evana Network, the Conservative Mennonite Conference and the CDC extended invitations to the congregations, and in June 2017, the conference voted to dissolve, leaving the churches to vote independently regarding their next steps. The conference board did express a desire for the churches to stay together and recommended the CDC.
Eshbaugh visited several of the churches and presented at the NCC annual convention. Church leaders attended the CDC’s Renewal Conference in July 2017.
While three churches remain in discussion, five voted to join the CDC. The process of affiliation culminated at the CDC convention when the five churches were unanimously approved as members of the CDC family.
Representatives from four of the churches spoke, all affirming the decision to join the CDC, expressing thanks for the warm welcome and anticipating a shared partnership moving forward.
“God is renewing us, geographically, to work together,” Swiers said. “I look forward to being a pastor in the Central District.”
Meet our new members
The five NCC congregations have a diverse history but share a commitment to ministry in their communities.
Coalridge Mennonite Church, Dagmar, Montana, was started by settlers in 1912. Sunday morning attendance is around 30, mostly current or retired farmers and ranchers. The church has been without a minister for more than 10 years, so one of three elders brings a message. Because more than half of attendees live 30 miles from the church, the congregation eats lunch at church each Sunday. Ministries and outreach include a twice-monthly Bible study, singing at the local nursing home and caroling and passing out fruit baskets. The church is in need of a handicap-accessible facility.
Exeland Mennonite Church is a rural congregation near Exeland, Wisconsin, with roots in an early 1900’s Amish settlement. The present structure was completed in 1953. The congregation consists mostly of elderly people, including singles and individuals and families with special needs. Farming, forestry and service industries are main sources of employment. The church, which added a handicap-accessible fellowship hall in 2010, holds yearly banquets, funerals for the community and fellowship dinners. A year ago, the church’s pastor resigned because of illness, and lay leaders alternate giving sermons. The congregation prayerfully seeks a pastor, as well as families with children.
Lake Region Mennonite Church is located in the rural woods of Minnesota lake country 15 minutes east of Detroit Lakes. The congregation, led by pastor Jesse Swiers, was established in 1929. Sunday attendance is between 25 and 50. Ministries include singing at a nursing home, a weekly public school Bible lesson, annual vacation Bible school and serving at the community thrift store. The church has an active youth group and annually helps operate a week of youth camp.
Sand Lake Chapel in Stone Lake, Wisconsin, is in an area boasting lakes and winter sports activities. People from northern Indiana moved to the area to farm and planted the church in the early 1970’s. Today, approximately one-third of church attendance is comprised of preschool and elementary-aged children. The rest is young and maturing adults. Sunday mornings are for encouraging, discipling and sending. Pastor David Hochstetler has visions to update the building to include a wheelchair-friendly entrance and to facilitate a community game night once a month.
Strawberry Lake Mennonite Church is located on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Ogema, Minnesota. The church began in the 1940’s when Pennsylvania missionaries came to initiate an outreach to the Native American people. The church, which officially began in 1946, offers Sunday school, vacation Bible school, youth groups and summer camps to children and youth in the community. Many church members are self-employed. Average attendance is about 60, a number that increases to 80 in the summer when people come to their lake homes in the area. As a result, an additional outreach is to summer attendees. Current needs include youth leaders and help with music. Delmar Yoder is currently the pastor.