The Pacific District Conference (PDC) Executive Board is calling for a Special Convention to be held March 24 for the purpose of amending the bylaws to allow for the termination of PDC membership.
In keeping with California nonprofit law, the Special Convention, to be hosted by Hope Kingsburg Church, will be held in-person Thursday evening.
The first step in holding a Special Convention is for member churches to approve the recommendation, which PDC congregations did via email. Ballots were due Feb. 14.
In a January 13 letter to PDC churches, district minister Jordan Ringhofer explains that the need to amend the bylaws became apparent as the PDC and Willow Avenue Mennonite Church, Fresno, California, came to a mutual agreement that a “parting of ways between Willow and the PDC/USMB would be appropriate.”
Ringhofer writers, “While the PDC bylaws outline how to receive a church into membership, handle assets should a church dissolve as well as grant authority to the Conference to suspend membership of a church, we do not have authority to terminate membership of a church, either by action of the church or the Conference.”
About a year ago, the PDC leaders realized that the district conference was unable to terminate a church’s membership. While Willow’s decision in early 2022 to be a LGBTQIA+ affirming congregation prompted the district’s decision to propose amending the constitution at this time, changing the bylaws will “provide a path forward for conversations between the PDC and several churches,” says Ringhofer.
“PDC bylaws have no provision for the separation of a member church,” says a Feb. 22 letter to PDC churches from PDC chair Dennis Fast and the Executive Committee. “In the past, there have been churches that closed and in that way removed themselves from the conference. But by some oversight, no provision has been made to separate from a church in any way other than closure. It is important that this be corrected and for that reason we are proposing a bylaw revision.”
Because the Special Convention is focused on the PDC bylaws and not on what has transpired between the PDC and Willow, the PDC Board of Faith and Life will host a listening session March 11, for district pastors and church leaders to ask questions and raise concerns, says Ringhofer in a March 3 email to churches. The listening session will be held on Zoom.
Willow votes to be affirming congregation
In a members-only vote, the Willow congregation voted Jan. 9-10 to affirm the proposal to “welcome, accept, and affirm LGBTQIA+ people without reservation to all aspects of the life of the congregation including but not limited to membership, baptism, marriage, volunteer leadership, employment, and pastoral ministry.” The proposal passed by 93 percent (72 in favor and 5 opposed out of 97 possible voters).
In a Jan. 10, 2022, letter announcing the decision, Willow congregational leaders note that the church mission statement adopted more than two decades ago guided their thinking. The mission statement says: “We believe Christians are to follow Jesus Christ daily and radically in every aspect of life. We are dedicated, therefore, to be an inclusive community, without discrimination, promoting an atmosphere of love, openness and acceptance of all who participate with us in our commitment.” The congregation recently adopted an abbreviated statement of affirmation and aspiration that says, “Jesus welcomes all. So do we.”
At the invitation of the Willow church council, the congregation began discussing the proposal in May 2021. The council hosted listening groups during the summer and in October presented a four-week series responding to questions raised and offering a biblical theology of inclusion of persons identifying as LGBTQIA+. In November, during annual congregational meetings, small groups affirmed the process and the proposal and called for a vote.
In May, when the Willow church council initiated discussions about becoming an affirming congregation, Willow moderator Lynn Jost informed Ringhofer of that decision. Jost provided Ringhofer with a copy of the letter and accompanying video that was sent to the congregation outlining the proposal.
Subsequently, the PDC Board of Faith and Life (BFL) and USMB Board of Faith and Life communicated to Willow in a joint letter that the recommendation was not in keeping with the USMB Confession of Faith, specifically Article 10: Discipleship and Article 11: Marriage, Singleness and Family.
Because of personal statements Jost made in the letter and accompanying video, Jost was asked to surrender his ministerial credentials while the congregation considered the recommendation, which he did in a letter dated Aug. 31, 2021.
On Oct. 11, 2021, the PDC Executive Board voted to suspend Willow’s membership as the congregation considered the resolution. This means they were unable to represent the PDC or USMB in official capacities unless the suspension was lifted. The suspension would have been lifted if the resolution had failed to pass and a process of restoration with the PDC and USMB had been completed.
In the letter regarding the Special Convention, Ringhofer quotes from Willow’s January 10 announcement saying, “The [Willow] congregation has sought open and amicable communication with the U.S. and Pacific District Mennonite Brethren Conferences, keeping leaders apprised of congregational conversation and action. The [PDC] suspended the congregation while the resolution was under review, communicating that acceptance of the resolution was incompatible with conference membership. In light of this conference-congregational meetings are pursuing an amicable separation.”
Willow’s announcement concludes with, “The church council expresses appreciation to the Willow Avenue Mennonite Church for open, clear, charitable conversation throughout the process. The vote indicates strong support for the resolution. The council and the congregation reaffirm welcome and acceptance expressed by Jesus, including those who do not support the resolution. The council has appointed a task force to guide implementation of the resolution.”
Connie Faber joined the magazine staff in 1994 and assumed the duties of editor in 2004. She has won awards from the Evangelical Press Association for her writing and editing. Faber is the co-author of Family Matters: Discovering the Mennonite Brethren. She and her husband, David, have two daughters, one son, one daughter-in-law, one son-in-law and one grandson. They are members of Ebenfeld MB Church in Hillsboro, Kansas.