Presentations, small group discussions and open mic times included in conference schedule
By Connie Faber, CL Editor
How was it? is a question I've been asked more than once since returning home from the Board of Faith and Life (BFL) study conference held Jan. 24-26 in Phoenix, Ariz. This was the first study conference hosted by BFL since the binational General Conference was divested to the U.S. and Canadian national conferences in 2003.
The study conference concerned Article 12 (Society and State) and Article 13 (Love and Nonresistance) of the USMB Confession of Faith, two articles about which U.S. Mennonite Brethren do not have consensus. Given the diversity of convictions we have about this stuff, I think a lot of us were curious how the discussion would play-out.
So, how was it? The April/May issue of the Christian Leader will include a special report of the study conference. Meanwhile, here are several personal observations about the historic three-day event.
Thanks to great hosts, conference participants could focus on the agenda. There were few if any complaints about the service offered by Coast Phoenix Sky Harbor Hotel, and USMB event coordinator Donna Sullivan once again did a stellar job. Folks from area USMB congregations provided sound and projection equipment and technicians as well as musicians that led in daily times of worship. Participants affirmed the work that Larry Nikkel, BFL chair and study conference M.C., and Ed Boschman, UMSB executive director, invested in planning the event.
Attendance exceeded expectations. Organizers were hoping that at least 100 people would register. That a total of 174 people attended the conference demonstrates that U.S. Mennonite Brethren “care deeply about these topics,” said BLF chair Larry Nikkel in his opening remarks Thursday afternoon.
The five district USMB conferences were each represented. According to a pre-conference registration list, 57 registrants came from the Pacific District Conference; 54 from the Southern District Conference; 12 from the Central District Conference; two from the North Carolina District Conference and one from the Latin America MB Conference. Additionally, 21 people from the Canadian Conference of MB Churches leadership team attended the conference, as did 15 representatives from various USMB and inter-Mennonite agencies.
“Your presence here spoke volumes,” said Gary Wall, Pacific District Conference minister and BFL member, noting that some people attended at their own expense and that lead pastors of larger churches attended as did representatives of denominational schools and agencies. “This matters to us,” said Wall.
Wall and other BFL members served as the study conference Listening Committee, and they reported as part of the final session.
The wide participation also indicates people’s commitment to the U.S. Conference of MB Churches, said BFL member Tim Geddert. “We believe in our church family—not just the topic,” he said. “You were here not only because of Articles 12 and 13 but because of the U.S. family, and that encourages me.”
While there was good diversity, some viewpoints were missing. Table discussions throughout the study conference were enhanced by the assortment of people who attended. Study conference attendees were of a variety of ages, including two high school students. They represented a diversity of professions: educators, pastors, farmers and ranchers, small business owners and social workers.
While USMB congregations are largely Anglo, we are more ethnically diverse than study conference attendance indicates. Only about six of the 174 participants were Hispanic or African American. More than once, folks noted with regret the lack of representation from particularly Hispanic and Slavic congregations.
And although men and women are involved in local church ministries, men certainly outnumbered women at the study conference. Attendees included 32 women.
One thing I am still mulling over is whether the opinions, particularly concerning Article 13, of U.S. Mennonite Brethren were well represented. It was difficult to get a good read on the ratio of “pacifists” to “patriots” at the study conference. If each table group had been asked to report on their discussion, participants might have developed a sense of whether the whole group tilted one way or the other or was evenly mixed.
As it was, the open mic time gave participants the freedom to speak personally or on behalf of their table, and people did both. No one could leave the study conference saying they never had the opportunity to speak their mind, and that was a good thing.
The study conference demonstrated peacemaking. Observers confirmed what participants sensed: that people disagreed well. The tone of the conference affirmed that U.S. Mennonite Brethren really do want to exemplify living as a harmonious church.
At each content session, a BFL member introduced both the presenter and the responder, often asking both to come to the stage for a prayer on their behalf. Responders highlighted central points of the presenter’s paper and affirmed the speaker for points made. When responders did note instances of disagreement, it was done graciously.
Presentations and responses were followed by a session devoted to table discussions and an open mic time. When differences of opinion emerged during small group discussions, participants seemed to deal graciously with one another. While open mic times during Friday’s discussions of Article 13 were livelier than those Thursday pertaining to Article 12, people spoke briefly, calmly and did not confront one another.
The final paper by Tim Geddert on living with diversity as well as Brent Warkentin’s response attempted to provide a framework for agreeing even while disagreeing. The Friday evening session highlighted ways in which USMB churches are engaged in peacemaking and reconciliation ministries. The conversation that evening endorsed the emphasis on active peacemaking in Article 13.
But we do disagree. While there was strong affirmation that U.S. Mennonite Brethren carry on the commitment to being a peace church, to living as peacemakers and to giving primary allegiance to God and his kingdom, we do not agree on exactly what that looks like.
For example, we do not agree on when, if ever, it is appropriate for an individual to legitimately use violence to defend oneself or someone else. We don’t agree on how to interpret God’s actions in the Old Testament and Jesus’s teachings in the New Testament. And also we don’t have consensus about the role of the Confession of Faith. Is it prescriptive or descriptive?
While the study conference identified points of disagreement, there was only limited discussion on these differing convictions. There was also minimal conversation about the Confession of Faith articles themselves, and disagreements about the confession are what prompted the study conference in the first place.
The Board of Faith and Life has a challenging job ahead of itself when members meet in March to determine the next steps.
The title of this study conference—Kingdom Citizens in a World of Conflict—reflects what we know to be true: U.S. Mennonite Brethren are Christians who disagree on important matters. And so BFL has to figure out how best to lead us forward in spite of disagreements.
When they meet next month, BFL will be aided in this process by the information they collected at the study conference. The board will review pages of notes compiled during table discussions. They will review the results of an evaluation asking participants to rank how well the stated study conference objectives were met. BFL will wade through responses to seven essay questions requesting participants’ feedback and counsel.
While BFL members did not seem sure of what is next, they do agree that the task before them is challenging.
“The next step might be equal in magnitude (to convening a study conference),” said BLF member Michael Eldridge.
“This is no small task,” said BFL member Gary Wall, “and we appreciate your prayers.”
In his closing remarks, BFL chair Larry Nikkel spoke about the importance of trust as the board continues its work. “We need your trust and we know that trust needs to be earned,” said Nikkel. “As we work forward, we will continue pursuing trust.”
As BFL labors to balance a commitment to Jesus as Lord and peacemaking with the current diversity of opinion, practice and conviction, I recommend that we trust them to work hard at the demanding task before them, and that we pray for them.