Most of us live day-to-day in the microcosm of one local church community. For the last four days, I’ve tasted of the macro-North American church, trading good and bad news at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s annual Pastors Week. Here are top five moments for me, from longest to shortest (not counting the food, because the AMBS vegan chocolate chip cookie is its own theology and ecclesiology).
1. When it comes to GLBTQ debates, our denominational staff is close to hopeless. If you’ve worked with a conference minister or MC USA staff in the last year, you know this already. But it was striking how much of the week was burdened by fear of this summer’s impending sexuality “conversation” (or, if you prefer, “explosion”) at the Kansas City convention. Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, moderator of MC USA, spoke to us on Wednesday, which was also her birthday. Perhaps this statement is enough to explain why our denominational leaders are so hopeless.
This hour-long lecture was the most direct I’ve seen ESA–she talked race, sexuality, and ecclessiology. About 35 minutes in, she said, “I am married to a conservative man. We have struggled with the LGBT issue and we will never agree. But we will love each other anyway. But I don’t know if we have that love in the church.” During Q&A time, I asked, “You–and all of our denominational leaders–are tired. We, as pastors, aren’t getting any hope from you. If we can’t get hope from you, how do we sustain our optimism? What is your good news for us?”
ESA responded, “We are tired because we are absorbing the pain.” Our leaders sit and listen, and read letters with dozens of signatures, and talk to pastors who are leaving, and talk to pastors who are doing their damnedest to stay–and then they go home and have to remember how to live with their spouses. They absorb all the pain they can and never get to squeeze out that sponge. I hadn’t realized the stress we’ve put them through, until she said that. If our leaders can’t carry the hope, maybe we–local pastors and lay people–can. Maybe it’s our turn. We need to witness to them. Send them stories of how encouraged we are and how we have lowered the anxiety.
Near the end of her speech, ESA said, “What I bear on my shoulders and heart until July is the same thing all of you bear.” Then she said, “I see hope in local congregations that are vibrant and functioning and doing their missions.” I think what she meant was, “Will you let me be your servant? I will cry when you are crying, when you laugh…” you know the words.
2. When it comes to GLBTQ debates, our pastors–especially our young pastors–are excited. Our younger speakers tended to be more hopeful. They see past the conflict. They’ve got expansive vision and they use it selectively. Their naivety is a good thing, I think. They’re all in. The caveat, of course, is that only 10% of our clergy is under 40. But there were many young pastors in the crowd and they were honeymoon-faced and ready for a fight. Ready for the first big fight of their marriage to the church and confident that we’d get through it. This is not entirely generational. There were a few in the 55+ crowd who could dream through this conflict (Greg Boyd). We need a few more people who can get excited. Who can, as Philippians says, see the good, and whatever is good, whatever is life-giving and joyful, throw yourself whole-heartedly into that. As I often remind myself: Ain’t no one got time for negativity. We’re not people of pessimism, we’re people of hope.
3. Who’s afraid of Neo-Anabaptists? OR, The Finally Honed Skill of Naval-Gazing. Now we get to the stated theme of the week: What is an Anabaptist Christian? We did some healthy naval-gazing during the week, facing up to the facts that:
(1) the church is not a group of white, ethnic Europeans anymore
(2) people who are not white, ethnic Europeans think we’re pretty cool and don’t just want to be our friends, they want to be our brothers and sisters in faith
How do we deal with those non-denom folks who are down with pacifism and the Sermon on the Mount, but have never eaten zweiback or shoofly pie before? It was good to have Greg Boyd around to personalize that for us–this guy is very different. But very the same, too! What would we do if the next church to join MC USA was a megachurch with a rock band who were totally aligned with our core beliefs? Does that change who we are? Are we okay with that? So yes, there was naval-gazing but there was also healthy examination of our own biases and prejudices.
4. We can finally talk about the cross and the lynching tree. As we examined our ambivalence about Neo-Anabaptists, we also examined our racism. We had good conversations about how to check yourself–or how to respond when other people call you on your hegemony. People of color made up about 5% of the total attendance, but about 50% of our keynote speakers. We finally got to talk about James Cone, who’s been doing black theology for 40+ years. We finally got to talk about our complicity in racism, about the way we claim the heritage of Anabaptist martyrs but all the privileges of being white in America. Drew Hart and Malinda Berry explained African American experience; Elizabeth Soto Albrecht explained the fine art of learning to tell white people when to kindly shut up; and Hyun Hur talked pacifism, shame, and identity in the Korean Anabaptist experience. There were consistent questions from the white men(nonites) of the room, asking, “Does you claiming your identity mean we have to give up ours?” But hey, group therapy is good and healthy and it’s about time. Let’s do it again soon.
5. #Mennonitescan’ttechnology OR, I like my Evangelism like I like my Twitter: Far Away. 90% of the conference’s tweets came from me. And I did it out of a sense of obligation more than a genuine enthusiasm for Twitter. But it digs at another sore spot in our Neo-Anabaptist dialogue: white (ethnic) Mennonites are not out there doing evangelism. In many cases, they aren’t even having conversations–not with non-denoms, evangelicals, or anybody else. One person described his hiring interview when he applied to be a conference minister. The conference said, “we’d like to see one new church plant a year.” The interviewee replied, “That’s all? That’s you setting the bar high? How about 20?”
I’m not pro-evangelism if it means colonization, brainwashing, or fear-mongering. But if the North American churches were a high school, we’re the funny chubby kid with the guitar and we’ve just realized the school is laughing with us, not at us. They want to learn how to play guitar. They want to talk peace and prison reform and organic farming. And hey, I’ve never met a person who could turn down a More with Less cinnamon roll. So let’s start sharing our lunch, huh?
6. JHY. I said I was doing top five, but only because my opinions on John Howard Yoder and his sexual abuse are strong enough to necessitate another blog post. It was a big topic of conversation during the week.
PS. AMBS is posting the sermons we heard for your listening pleasure. They’re all quality, but I recommend Meghan Good, Drew Hart, Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, and David B. Miller.