We have a phrase around here: Chicago over Everything.
It means we have mad love for the city when they do something right: when Chance the Rapper is on SNL, when people start blowing up about Vic Mensa, when the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 2016… and when the city messes up, we keep our pride and stay loyal.
I’m starting to believe Lancaster Mennonite Conference has a similar phrase, because these days the shout rising up seems to be Lancaster over Everything. How odd that when Iglesia Menonita Hispana, the body of Spanish-speaking Mennonite congregations in the U.S., met together in November, the question appeared to be “Can we, as a body, stay affiliated with Mennonite Church USA, given their (ambiguous) stance on homosexuality?” Instead, it became clear that those answering “no” were almost all in Lancaster Conference and already planning to leave the denomination. (Mennonite World Review has an excellent print article about this that I haven’t been able to find online.)
So IMH remains part of the denomination, albeit with 25% of congregations moving on. Most Spanish-speaking churches want to stay in MC USA. But those who are connected to Lancaster conference, when given the choice, have chosen Lancaster over everything. So once again, our church split is confoundingly geographic. Something about Lancaster Conference is the greatest thing since sliced bread, at least for those who are part of it.
I think it means Lancaster is doing something right. Even if you want to pinpoint Lancaster as a sectarian clique, those who are in the group are so far in they can’t imagine being without its resources and connections. Lancaster is creating a close-knit group with shared goals and collaboration. They have a clear sense of mission and purpose. They know the value of the regional group and feel strongly that it enhances their ministry and connections. Their identity is Lancaster.
When I talked to one of the IMH pastors this summer in Kansas City, asking him how things were going, he said, “Things are great! I’m getting credentialed through Lancaster. They’re great.” He’s most connected to Lancaster. He was unimpressed with MC USA, not only believes they’re going the wrong direction, but doesn’t see the assets of their ministry. Lancaster has clear beliefs and clear assets. To lose the conference is to lose a huge amount of resources, spiritual, academic, practical, relational, and even financial.
Lancaster has a sense of identity, mission, and purpose that many area conferences are struggling to find. Lancaster is cohesive in a way that other area conferences just can’t grasp. If Lancaster merges with the newly formed EVANA network, it will be EVANA riding on the strength of Lancaster’s sturdy foundation.
A cynic might argue that this cohesive identity comes from a destructive simplistic thinking pattern that solidifies identity by focusing on condemning what they are not. And yes, geography and church density gives Lancaster a leg up over the sprawling western conferences. You could also argue that this strong sense of identity is also destructive because it cultivates institutional loyalty–over everything.
But we’re part of a denomination—at some level, we do value institutional loyalty. And we’re strongly localized, with the area conferences tasked with many of the day-to-day supervision tasks, including holding and removing credentials among leadership. It doesn’t serve us within Mennonite Church USA to scoff at Lancaster when they are doing something that works.
Many regional conferences struggle to do identity-building. They struggle to articulate why area conferences matter. They struggle to find what function of theirs is most useful to their pastors, and pastors struggle to articulate what else they need. Can other area conferences strengthen their sense of unity and identity? What would it take to do so? Charismatic personalities, stronger relationships, more frequent meetings, more money, more relevant and useful resources? Is it possible that area conferences don’t matter so much unless they’re in a smaller geographic area?
I do not want my area conference to imitate Lancaster’s authoritarian, all-male leadership board. I don’t think that would bolster our sense of identity. But before Lancaster goes out the door, maybe we should interview the pastors who are leaving, ask them “What did Lancaster give you that makes you put this institution over everything?” Don’t tell me because they’re right; millions of people all over the world stay married, too, not because their partner has the right orthodoxy but because there’s something to the orthopraxy of this relationship. Something in it works.
Something in Lancaster is working, and it’s something that’s not always working in other area conferences. But in collapse, there is growth. How can MC USA learn from Lancaster and in so doing, strengthen the mission, purpose, and identity of each of the remaining area conferences?