The Case for Suspending Credentials: Lindale, Virginia Conference, and Definitions of Accountability

(Trigger warning: sexual abuse, mishandling of sexual abuse cases.)

“We talk a lot about accountability, but it’s the conference’s job to figure out what that means. We want to ask you, pastors, how do you expect us to hold you accountable?” Last Thursday, Michael Danner, Executive Conference Minister of Illinois Mennonite Conference, asked us this question. Sitting with a dozen Chicagoland credentialed leaders, we discussed the mechanisms we appreciated and the mechanisms we needed to handle concerns about financial management and sexual abuse, among other issues.

As the conversation closed, I raised a tentative hand and said: “Michael, whatever else comes of this accountability conversation, please don’t let a Lindale happen in Illinois Conference. Please, feel empowered to step into any congregation dealing with allegations of sexual abuse. Please, feel empowered to be proactive.”

I don’t mean to call out or condemn Lindale. They are in a difficult position of responding to Lauren Shifflett’s report of abuse. And if you aren’t familiar with Lindale and the fallout from Luke Hartman’s solictiation-of-prostitution arrest, there are plenty of articles in the public record so you can make up your own mind.

As a Mennonite pastor, I cannot help but look at Lindale with an eye toward, “What would I do?” We pastors know our professional risks. We know that the very nature of our profession–peacekeeping, relationship-building, hours of potluck and Dutch Blitz–will tempt us to handle concerns in-house with a minimum of fuss. We are mindful that when pastors exercise church discipline, we are sometimes put in the uncomfortable position of disciplining our friends–as Duane Yoder was at Lindale. As a pastor, I look at my own congregation and think, “Dear God, if that happened here, my professional and spiritual role mean that I am one bad decision away from defending and justifying a sexual predator.” Continue reading

Why Coffeeshop Ministries Should Fail

The logic goes like this: Christians like coffee (and tea). Non-Christians like coffee (and tea). Pastors really like coffee (and tea). Why don’t we unite around the things we like and use coffee to grow our community? And thus, a whole generation of missiologists and pastors came up with a really, really good theory–in theory.

Coffeeshop ministries are trendy. Especially in the Methodist church, where church plants seem to go hand-in-hand with brand management, but it’s true in many corners of American Christianity. In February, I was at the Progressive Youth Ministry Conference in Dallas where–surprise–an evening event was held at Union, a charming Methodist-funded dual-purpose storefront with the tagline “coffee. community.cause.” and a Tuesday evening worship service that means “kiss” in ancient Greek. Continue reading

An Anabaptist Survival Guide to the 2016 Elections

(This post is an excerpt from a sermon I preached on March 13. The traditional Anabaptist view is that Christians should not vote and thereby support a fallen system, but I–and many other contemporary Anabaptists–am of the school that voting is an extension of our creative nonviolence. This post is designed to speak to both those who vote and those who are conscientious objectors to voting. All of us must survive the election season.)

The 2016 election is brutal. Not just because it started in 2015. The whole narrative of the election hinges on an existential proposition–that we’re not voting for a person, we’re voting on the very nature of our lifestyles. It’s a terrifying proposition to put to a democracy, but it’s probably not too far off base.

So how do we deal with fourteen months of news reels asking us if the world as we know it is about to end? I tried to design a few practices for my own congregation.

DO Less. Be more. Ask yourself, “Am I seeking the things that love me back? What matters? Where matters?” Seek the places and people who matter.

DO Rest. You by yourself won’t change the election; you will not with a Five Hour Energy or a longer Facebook comment sway the outcome of the state. Be kind to yourself. Rest. Do the things that strengthen you. Live outside of the news cycle. Continue reading

Jesus Calls us to Heal–and Crowdfund

Every three or four months, one of my friends gets sick. Well. Many of my friends get sick, but one of my sick friends gets swamped with astronomical, life-defining medical bills. I usually hear about it through Facebook, which is a shitty way to hear that your friend is sick, but it’s even shittier when the news comes with a link to a crowdfunded webpage. Every few months, I have a friend whose medical bills are so unaffordably high that he or she has to ask for help, and the only place they can turn is to the Internet.

Medical bills are the biggest cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. There are a billion and a half reasons why medical expenses are so high–unnecessary testing, bloated administration, overpriced prescription drugs, overtaxed system, bad insurance balances, capitalism itself. Whatever. Continue reading

I Believe in Snow Shovels

Today I shoveled the neighbors’ driveway. Not because they’re disabled (they’re not), or because I’m especially good or kind (I’m average kind), but because I believe in snow shovels. Every time I hear the roar of a snowblower or smell the gasoline drifting across the still earth, the irony makes me cringe. Our fossil-fuel solutions to a snowy inconvenience is, after all, only going to contribute to a more extreme snow next time around. Solving climate with climate change makes no sense to me.

There are several families in our congregation who refuse to buy snowblowers. The reasoning is that this is the simple life—like our theological cousins, the Amish, the question these families have asked themselves is, “Will this new technology help or hurt our relationships with each other and with God?” Snowblowers don’t build relationships, as thoughtful as it is when the neighbors blow my sidewalk. In fact, the noise and the speed of the clunky thing rarely gives me even less opportunity to thank them. On some winter mornings, I’ve seen a half dozen neighbors out, each with their own snowblower, never speaking to each other. What an embodiment of excess and private ownership, for each of us to own our own machine to clear our own 10 feet of sidewalk! Continue reading

Simply Seasoned: Venison and Friends

The carrot came out of the ground deformed. It was three-pronged, like a stubby hand digging in the dirt. And I was proud of it. I was proud of all my ugly carrots–some of them curled in on themselves, two twisted together like Siamese twins. They were mine. They were an art of their own, a created thing.

Carrot Harvest 12.7

Ugly carrot and friends.

Carrots are hard to grow in Northern Illinois, and here I was in December, overflowing with orange roots that weighed nearly half a pound each! I’d dug them out, even though the first snow was two weeks ago, even though it was 35 degrees and raining. I pulled up the fruit of my lazy labor, to see if there was anything to be redeemed from benign neglect. And so I spent the evening chopping carrots, eyeballing how many was two pounds and how many I would have left and how many more recipes I needed to come up with.

Would I have bought my three-fingered carrot in the store? Doubtful. Would I have selected it from a pile of more traditional-looking carrots? Unlikely. But gardening is the practice of falling in love with what you have. And I loved my ugly carrot. I arranged it in the front of my photo so everyone would know how homegrown and awkward it was. It was so intoxicating I ran out in search of rye flour, so I could make a new experimental batch of Seeded Sour Rye Bread. Continue reading

Guns, Guns, Guns, Guns, Guns. Or, don’t give Santa a gun.

And what about gun violence? Can we fix it? Can we fix America’s gun problem? Over and over, after shooting and shooting and shooting, people in the news have said “we need to stop this thing before it becomes normal.” It isn’t normal, still, not yet, there is still outrage and indignation everywhere–there are even still politicians offering “thoughts and prayers.” Mass shootings haven’t become normal. But they’ve become stories. I’m not a future-teller, but I know some things about stories.

People are creatures of habit, but we’re also creatures of story. And there’s a story about a man, he is probably white, and maybe he is young, maybe he is old, he is sad and he is lonely but mostly he is angry, and he wishes for recognition, to do something in the world that will mean something, even if it means something bad, and he sees a place, he knows a place, he goes to the store and he buys a gun and then he buys some bullets or maybe another gun, and this is a story. It’s the story of Colorado Springs and Charleston, South Carolina and of Umpqua Community College and of Sandy Hook. Continue reading

You Can’t Kill Hitler

Last week, while wandering through Exodus 15 debating whether or not the death of Pharaoh’s soldiers was justified, the teenagers (I would call them my teenagers, but they are uncomfortable with possessive pronouns, so these particular teenagers shall remain ambivalently “the” teenagers) stumbled into the age-old pacifist dilemma:

If given the opportunity to kill Hitler, would you, and would you still call yourself a pacifist?

Much to their frustration, at the time, I didn’t answer the question. The answer is, of course, no. The answer is always “no,” because this question is first of all a word-trap designed to catch pacifist inconsistencies. Its phrasing, almost always spoken by pro-war voices looking to poke holes in the pacifist stance, is based on flawed logic.

Die, fascist scum?

Die, fascist scum?

You can’t kill Hitler because you can’t kill Hitler. The whole premise of the question assumes (1) that there is such a thing as moral murder and (2) that it is possible for a human to, factoring all information, come to the utilitarian conclusion and carry out the ethical action that results in death. The question is, “Knowing what we know now, assuming you could apparate to a point in time in which all confluence of factors aligned to allow for the murder of a despot that is guaranteed to result in a net loss of fewer lives, would you align yourself to be the arbiter of death and justice?” Continue reading

Simply Seasoned: Cooking through A Cookbook in Three Years

Don’t worry. Gathering the Stones is not becoming a food blog. Probably. But the longer I pastor, the more convinced I am that one of the stones that needs an awful lot of gathering is the way we eat. It is one time I thank God for foodies and hipsters. Food is ethical. It should be treated with care. Always. It’s an act of faith.

When I talk about my faith, I talk about the Trinity. Of cookbooks. I talk about the Trinitarian God, too, who interdwells in a relational paradigm and all of that seminary fluff. But when I talk about being Mennonite, I talk about cookbooks. The three ways of eating revealed to us over time, practices that shape faith into our daily lives and   daily bread.

World Community cookbooks

Besides the trinity, of course there are other cookbooks–Mennonite Girls Can Cook or Fix-it-and-Forget-It or all the church and community cookbooks we’ve grown. To my mind, those are saints alongside the trinity. But only the trinity is canonical. Continue reading

The New Old Anti-Capitalist Christianity

Recently, I heard a reporter say, with surprise, that “some consider the Pope anti-capitalist.” As if it were news. There is nothing new about Christianity being anti-capitalist. Somewhere Jesus said, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.” The church in its beginning with those sad disciples “held all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” In the book of Exodus, the Jews left Egypt because it was an authoritarian, ancient capitalist regime that thought the function of government was to maximize profit for the already wealthy Pharaoh-family minority in the empire.

Christianity was always a religion of wealth redistribution! Continue reading