What is Lancaster Doing Right?

We have a phrase around here: Chicago over Everything.

Chicago over everything

No, you can’t make your own hoodie.

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?

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3 thoughts on “What is Lancaster Doing Right?

  1. Thanks, Hillary. I served a Lancaster Conference congregation for 13 years, which doesn’t make me an expert on LMC but does give me a bit of an insider perspective. I agree that LMC exerts a powerful influence over its member congregations. There’s a brand loyalty that goes beyond the question of benefits on offer. I think some of that can be attributed to the age of LMC. Its roots run deep, and in Lancaster County that matters. But I also think the hierarchical and male-dominated power structure creates a broader unanimity than would be the case in a conference with a single leader. Once they’ve made a decision, the bishops speak as a unit, and their influence is broad. Individual bishops have relationships with pastors, and through them with the congregations in their districts. The bishop board’s authority rests, in large part, on those relationships. And when a congregation hears from its bishop, they can be assured that he (and I do mean he) speaks for the board. That’s a lot of ex cathedra power. In addition, bishops always sit on and often head up congregational search committees, meaning they have significant influence over what kind of pastors are hired. That’s not to say there’s something sinister going on. Just that the structure has a built in default toward replicating the status quo in each bishop district. I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m not sure you can separate the apparent cohesion from the structure. In my opinion, the one depends upon the other and without it wouldn’t be anywhere near as powerful. Finally, I think it’s important to remember that if one (or two depending on who you talk to) credentialed person(s) had voted the other way, LMC would never have joined MC USA. And the issue driving the resistance to joining was LGBTQ inclusion. In my opinion some of LMC’s apparent cohesion comes from the same place as does Evana’s. None of this takes away from your point. LMC’s structure has served many LMC congregations well. Until now, those congregations less well-served were able to look past LMC to MC USA. It will be interesting to see how many of them decide to seek membership elsewhere.

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    • Thanks, Ron. That’s fascinating background–I’ve had so little experience with LMC it’s useful to hear these insights. Perhaps the question for us in MC USA is “What kind of loyalty do we want to cultivate?” If we are, after all, truly theologically distinct from Lancaster, our theology of loyalty could be quite different.

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