Statement Concerning 2020 IMC Annual Meeting
First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana
June 13, 2020
Seven delegates represented First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana at the Illinois Mennonite Conference (IMC) annual business meeting Feb. 15 at Menno Haven Camp and Retreat Center. The IMC delegate body voted to join together in conversation and study of scripture regarding the credentialing of people in same-sex marriages.
This conversation was made a priority for the annual business meeting after the marriage of Laura Brenneman to Jo Fullwood by Pastor Michael Crosby of First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana (FMCCU). Laura Brenneman-Fullwood is a member of FMCCU and a chaplain educator. She holds a license for specialized ministry with IMC and was recently recommended for ordination by FMCCU. IMC and FMCCU have been in conversation for well over a year regarding IMC’s concerns about Laura’s ministry credentials.
IMC leadership brought two proposals to the delegates, one put forward by the Church Life Team (CLT) and the other by the Missional Leadership Team (MLT). The two proposals highlighted disagreements within the conference over whether pastors should be allowed to conduct same-sex weddings and how IMC will engage with queer people whom the Holy Spirit and the congregations have called to ministry. Differing approaches between the CLT and MLT also emphasized the need for clarity about IMC’s authority structures, such as who has final authority in decisions about credentialing and the roles of the CLT, MLT, Moderator, and Conference Minister.
The proposal put forward by the CLT passed by a significant majority. It affirms “the freedom and responsibility” of local congregations to determine their own criteria for membership and their pastors’ responsibilities concerning same sex marriage. It calls for a one-year conference-wide conversation “to hear Scripture and the Spirit…, to explore areas of common ground, and to understand positions with which we disagree.” Lastly, “…during this interim period of listening and study, IMC will neither revoke nor confer credentials on [clergy] in same sex marriages.”
For Laura, this means that her credential stands, but the conference will not consider FMCCU’s call for ordination for at least one year. FMCCU is a dual-conference congregation and Central District Conference has affirmed Laura’s call to ordination. An ordination service is being planned for June 2020.
While the CLT policy still places the burden of waiting without inclusion on those in same-sex marriages in IMC, it is significantly better than the proposal put forward by the MLT, which would have stripped Laura’s credential and blocked a path to credentialed ministry in IMC for anyone “in a same-sex relationship.”
For delegates of FMCCU, the meeting brought both hope and discouragement. FMCCU’s position on the callings and contributions of LGBTQIA+ people in the church represents at least a decade of intense congregational work. Many came prepared to share their stories of this work, but were given little opportunity to do so.
From the beginning, the meeting was stuck in procedural questions. The voting process changed dramatically in the days just before the meeting, the structure for discussion was not communicated to delegates in advance, and most of the time set aside for discussion was used by IMC Moderator Darrel Miller’s defensive clarifications of the MLT’s proposal. By mid-afternoon, Conference Minister David Miller was chairing the meeting, at which point a successful motion suspended the rules to allow a large-group discussion about whether we wanted to vote on either of the two proposals, nothing at all, or something entirely new.
During this discussion, Laura Brenneman-Fullwood gave a powerful statement. She shared the roots of her own Christian discipleship and love for the Bible, which have been formed, called, and affirmed throughout her life in the Mennonite church. She challenged IMC to join others in the Mennonite church in acknowledging these spiritual gifts and asked why IMC leadership defined ordination as something other than the church’s blessing of a person’s gifts and calling for ministry and a manifestation of the fruits of the spirit in their life.
Many from across IMC expressed a desire for a revitalized conference through the commitment to listen and learn from each other during the discussion time as well. A persistent spirit of hope seemed to emerge out of the conversation, inspired by the idea that IMC can choose to be strengthened, not weakened, by building relationships across our differences.
Also during this time, some representing churches from “Rainbow IMC” (a new network of representatives from the six inclusive congregations in IMC: FMCCU, North Suburban, Christ Community, St. Louis, Mennonite Church of Normal, and Reba Place Church) shared how open conversation within their own congregations has led to a new sense of community that they found inspiring and uplifting. The churches that make up Rainbow IMC support each other toward growth into congregations where queer people are at home in the body of Christ.
Most recently, on May 2, IMC pastors received the first communication from IMC leadership since the February 15 meeting. An email from Conference Minister David Miller shared the meeting minutes and outlined leadership’s comments, priorities, and next steps for the year-long process affirmed by the delegates. These include: leadership’s commitment to establishing direct communication with every congregation in IMC; identifying a resource person skilled at processes of nonviolent communication; designing a process that honors each congregation’s skills and capacities; and committing to hearing from “those who most directly experience the impact of our discernment.” Though not stated explicitly, we presume that this latter commitment refers to queer people who are or might someday be a part of IMC.
We at First Mennonite Church are pleased to join this unfolding process and remain committed to a vibrant IMC. Our hope and prayer is that as we find ways to live with and learn from our differences, our conference will emerge with new vitality.