An Open Letter to Those who would Leave the Mennonite Church because I’m still a Mennonite Pastor

To summarize many stressful months as succinctly as possible: I officiated a same-sex wedding; the Leadership Commission of Western District Conference (Mennonite Church USA) found my ordination credentials in order; some people are not happy about this.

So, to those who are deeply troubled by my action and by the Commission’s decision:

I understand that you are upset.

I am, by nature, a rule-follower. (Really!) In elementary school, we had a rule against chewing gum. If someone in my class was chewing gum and got away with it, I got mad. If the teacher knew that person was chewing gum and let them get away with it, I was livid!

A trite example, I know. But I understand that I broke a rule. And got away with it. And this is upsetting to a lot of people. Both people who deeply disagree with my theology of sexuality, and people who have a deep respect for the rules of our chosen religious institution.

Please know that I did not—I do not—take rule-breaking lightly. I broke a particular rule against pastors performing same-sex union ceremonies because I believe this rule goes against the teachings of Christ. I would not go against the broader church’s teachings for anything less.

I understand that you are scared for the future of your church.

We liberals like to tell you: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty.” As if the authority of Scripture is a non-essential. As if the very core of our human identity is an issue tangential to our faith. It must be frightening to believe that so many of your fellow Mennonites are willing to compromise essentials of the faith in the face of secular pressure.

Please know that I, too, understand the teachings of Scripture to be authoritative for my life and for the Church of Jesus Christ. Please know that I, too, believe that our sexual identities and choices are important aspects of our faith and witness. I am an advocate for the church’s full inclusion of sexual minorities because of my commitment to scripture, because of the significance of human sexuality for the life of faith.

I understand that there is a point at which we can no longer function together as a church. There is one point for a local congregation, a different point for Conference affiliations, and still a different point for the national denomination. Unity is a wonderful thing, but not at any price.

I earnestly pray that you do not feel we are beyond the point of being able to be church together. We worship the same God. We follow the same Christ. We are empowered by the same Spirit to preach Good News to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the oppressed. Together, we are part of a faith tradition that takes the teachings of Christ very seriously: to value people over wealth, peace over power, faithfulness over comfort, love over self-interest.

This path of Christ is hard to walk in the world today. I need as much help as I can get from as many brothers and sisters as are willing to walk with me.

The world desperately needs people to proclaim the kingdom of God in word and deed. That is what the church is called to do. That is what I would like to continue doing in fellowship with each one of you.

May the Peace of Christ be with You;  may it be with us all,

Joanna

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39 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Those who would Leave the Mennonite Church because I’m still a Mennonite Pastor

  1. Thanks Joanna. My God is huge! Love is the answer to all the questions. Simple message from a crucified and risen Christ. Love….

  2. Great letter. I hope we will one day be able to extend such hospitality to women and men of all sexual identities without having to look over our shoulders for fear of pressure from our denominations and church councils.

  3. Thank you for your courage and determination! The Light is shining. (Support to you, from a sister-clergy from the Church of the Brethren)

  4. Thank you for your honesty, same-sex relationship is a Sin. I uphold my confession of faith, and my Bible that clearly ask us believers to refrain fron Sin to get closer to God.

    • Moises, thank you for reading my letter. It is clear that we disagree on what is sin. I assume that we agree on Whose life, death, and resurrection has the power to free us all from bondage to sin and death.

  5. Thank you for being a pioneer, as both a female lay person and an early Mennonite adopter of loving and recognizing those who are different.

    Stand firm

  6. “Unity is a wonderful thing, but not at any price.” So simply put, and so well-said. Thank you. I am rather exhausted from being the price. I miss my community.

    -One grateful Pink Menno

    • Jen, your community misses you. Our church will be so much richer when the gifts of everyone are welcome and celebrated. May you find rest for your soul and renewed energy through the power of the Holy Spirit.

  7. What a great letter! It is so amazing that your conference is allowing you to keep your credentials. I’m sure it’s because of the person you are – such integrity and also the thought you’ve put into your letter. Thank you for taking the risk. Lourene Bender, Harrisonburg VA

  8. Chris, Wayne, and Lourene, thank you for your words of encouragement. Much encouragement and prayers should be directed to the members of the Western District Conference Leadership Commission. I am grateful for their thoughtfulness, their faithfulness, their courage.

  9. Pingback: When to Break the Rules « Gay Mennonite League

  10. Thank you!

    In one of his recent meditations (Aug 2), Richard Rohr writes that a good 95% of Jesus’ teachings are about power, prestige, and possessions and “issues of pride, injustice, hypocrisy, blindness.” He adds: “We conveniently ignore this 95% to concentrate on a morality that usually has to do with human embodiment.”

    I’m wondering if we all need to become a little ungrounded…

  11. I do not disagree with her letter… However, I think that the theological balance of the Conference is changing. If we want real dialogue we must help the churches who want to go stay!!! We need them as much as we need Pastor Joanna. As good Anabaptist we must be willing to hear each other… The Spirit of God is in all of us who choose to make Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior… as the kids say today, “just saying.”

    • Thanks for your comment, Jose. I agree that those churches who are threatening to leave are valuable to the Conference, and I pray that they do choose to stay and remain in dialog. I also believe that there are many gay Mennonites who have a lot to offer to the Conference if we would be more open to them. It is very difficult to know how to truly, faithfully include everyone. I am certainly open to suggestions about how to pursue the dialog.

  12. I am grateful for the action you have taken and for your forthright expressions regarding that action. I am also grateful for the response of the Western District Conference.

  13. Ya know all that sounds really good but in reality when you started your well rounded speech you said “Ordination Credentials Are in Order”. Well the should be, there from WDC. BUT that is not the issue. The issue is that you went against what you were told not to do. The Bible is clear on homosexuality. I’m not against anybody, come to church and Christ will do his thing. I can see your stance is very strong and WDC kinda skirting the issue. A marriage license and ceramony are a civil matter but that’s a whole new story. Love Others As Christ Loves Us. Steve

    • Steve, I did indeed go against what I was told. I acted in accordance with my understanding of the will of God as revealed in Scripture–which obviously differs from your understanding. I definitely agree with your bottom line, though: above all, Christ calls us to love. Amen.

  14. Joanna,
    Thanks for this letter and for your ministry. Refreshingly open and gracious, and, it seems, exactly the conviction-based communication which will help us grow as a church.
    Peace!
    Joel

  15. Joanna,

    I was already on your side, so the fact that I like/love your blog entry does not prove you “hit a home run,” but the fact that you are trying to continue the dialog is remarkable. After winning your case, it would be easier to fade into the background, but then we who support you would wonder if getting “your hand slapped” put you in your place and shut you up.

    Please, stay with this for the long haul. As Weldon Nisly has said, in numerous forums, such as this:
    “Nisly likened the current situation in the church to the 1834 “debates” at Lane Theological Seminary regarding slavery. Those conversations resulted in the dismissal of an anti-slavery faculty member and the leaving of dozens of abolitionist students. It also set the stage for a profound theological shift that eventually made it morally repugnant to use the bible to justify slavery.” — http://www.bmclgbt.org/April2008NewsNet.shtml

    I look at it this way: those who may leave MCUSA or other Protestant denominations will still be “christians” and may come to our (correct) interpretation at their own speed. Whereas, if advocates of full LGBT inclusion are shunned, and they leave their churches, along with the already sizeable LGBT members and friends who already have left, Christianity will be all the poorer, and its days are numbered.

    To use another analogy, as Bill McKibben says, if the XL pipeline is built, and all the tar sands of Alberta are mined and refined and burned, it’s “game over” for climate change. But if the XL pipeline is rejected, climate change is still threatening. . .

  16. Thank you for this. As a former member of WDC and having had identified myself with the LGBTQ community. Your response to Scripture, and to affirm love as the most important element of fellowship warms me. My partner and I remain hopeful that one day your vison of love will be shared further. This is tough — I must say I am rather disgusted with the type of bigotry blatantly displayed by this whole “resolution” with the WDC. I have some very serious decisions to make in regards to my continued membership within the mennonite community as a whole. Thank you for your love.

    • MeLissa, thank you for sharing part of your story. At a recent preachers’ conference I met a pastor of a United Church of Canada congregation. When I told her I was Mennonite she said, “Oh. I have a lot of lesbian friends who used to be Mennonite.” So sad. Continued blessings on your journey and your discernment.

  17. Pastor Joanna, I am struggling to understand the scriptural basis for your belief that LGBTQ sexual behavior isn’t sin. Are there some references you can point me to for me to study? I have family and friends who are gay, both men and women, and they haven’t been able to articulate how their sexual orientation is affirmed by God (as revealed thru scripture). We spoke on the phone several months ago when our church leadership was wrestling with your actions and how they were viewed by the Western District Conferenced Leadership Commission. When your credentials were being reviewed, were there written statements you used to support your decision (to perform the same sex ceremony)? It seems that the Old Testament contains rather harsh ways of dealing with men and women who had sex outside of traditional marriage (for example, stoning in Deteronomy 22), and while I know we don’t follow all the laws written there, where does Jesus’ teachings or the New Testament overturn the idea of “extramarital sexual activity is sin”? Isn’t it true that all are born into the sinful nature, and this is just another example of that? I’m certainly not without sin, but to continue in a known sin, or even worse, to encourage others to sin, I see that as an unrepentant sin condition. You are in a position of leadership and influence as a pastor, so that is why this is especially unsettling for me. But I truly want to understand your beliefs on this topic. And I know I have much to learn.

    • Jerry, good to hear from you again. I deal more directly with the biblical material on an older blog post: https://spaciousfaith.com/2011/03/12/ask-the-pastor-about-homosexuality/

      To summarize: The Old Testament prohibitions are part of a purity code no longer followed by Christians; the Pauline prohibitions refer to sexually exploitative relationships and idolatry. Jesus speaks out repeatedly against religious regulations that deny people their humanity.

      Please feel free to be in touch again with further questions. If you want to talk, contact me via the blog and I’ll send you my phone number at home since I’m on sabbatical right now. Peace, Joanna

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  19. I hesitate to speak, indeed, it is a weighty thing, sending you these words when you can’t see my grief-struck eyes, when you can’t see my brokenness but only my little words, typed-out. I feel my days within my Mennonite faith community are numbered, you see, because I do believe that the full witness of scripture shows that the practice of homosexuality is a sin, (not the orientation, but the acting out of it). I love my church, but I love God’s Word more, and it seems as though I must choose between them. How deeply sad. Especially so for homosexual Christians who are offered band-aids and lollipops and smiles when what is needed is hope, brothers and sisters beside them, helping them fight the good fight (as we all need when faced with harrowing temptations), people believing alongside them that God has a plan in all of it, and a vocation within their particular sufferings. I know that I need to believe that; that my brothers and sisters won’t celebrate my ruin so that I’ll feel better. My heart is so very heavy and my voice not loud enough to carry over the din. I do not leave in a huff, but trailing tears.

    • Sarah, you and I are both women who love Jesus and the Bible and the church. My love leads me to affirm same-sex committed relationships while your love leads you to want to minister in a different way to those who profess same-sex attraction. Can we stay together in Mennonite Church USA and be a witness together for Jesus and work on issues of peace and justice and love? I’m sure there are many places where we would agree that Christ’s call is clear. I feel like I can be church with people who disagree with my biblical interpretation, but I cannot be in a church where I am not allowed to minister in the way in which God calls me and my congregation to minister. The last I heard, MCUSA is not considering any policy changes that would require individuals or congregations to take a welcoming and affirming stance toward LGBT people–quite the opposite, actually.

      • I am not led by my love, my love is a weak and flawed thing. If it were up to me and my feelings, I should be quite glad for homosexuals to not have to suffer loneliness, that they might marry and have families and all those blessings. When I gave my heart to Christ, He took the throne in my life and His words are my creed. Would you attend a church that affirmed pedophilia? No? Neither can I be part of a community that does not heed scripture, that hastens the destruction of the people it most wishes to help.

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