by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Michigan District Conference has approved a motion from seven congregations seeking to leave the district and form a new district of the Church of the Brethren in the state. The 50 delegates voted 37 to 10 in favor of the motion after many hours of discussion over two days. The separating group must now be in conversation with the Annual Conference officers in order for the proposal to move forward.
The request for a new district is based on theological differences within Michigan District. It would represent a sharp break from the denomination’s practice of using geographic boundaries to delineate districts, if it gains approval from the officers or Standing Committee of Annual Conference.
The district conference approved the motion despite many statements of shock and grief from representatives of remaining congregations, and a statement of concern that the action may set a precedent for the whole denomination.
“If we let you go,” said one delegate from a remaining congregation, addressing the separating group, “what does this mean for our denomination? Is this the beginning of something bigger?”
The district conference on Aug. 18-19 was hosted at one of the separating churches--New Haven Church of the Brethren near Middleton. The other six are Beaverton Church of the Brethren, Church in Drive in Saginaw, Drayton Plains Church of the Brethren in Waterford, Sugar Ridge Church of the Brethren in Custer, Woodgrove Brethren Christian Parish in Hastings, and Zion Church of the Brethren in Prescott. The seven churches represent about a third of the congregations in Michigan District.
Business sessions were led by district moderator Dan McRoberts, interspersed with worship led by former Annual Conference moderator Tim Harvey, who traveled from Virginia in order to preach for the conference. Harvey also served as parliamentarian.
Michigan District is without an executive after former district executive Nathan Polzin resigned earlier this summer. It was mentioned during the conference that Polzin, who is currently on sabbatical, will be pastoring two congregations on his return--one of which is in the separating group. Polzin has ministered at Church in Drive for many years. This fall he also begins as pastor at Midland Church of the Brethren.
Music and personal sharing, meals prepared by the host congregation, and the presence of young children and youth--who raised money for National Youth Conference during the weekend--gave the event the feel of an extended family reunion. It was clear that personal relationships have been an important element in the district, which made for a very emotional discussion about dividing into two districts.
Sadness and shock
The motion from the separating churches was met with expressions of shock. Some delegates went to the microphone to say they had not known it was coming. “I am absolutely dumbfounded,” said one. “I can hardly believe what I have heard.”
Although the motion was posted online in advance of the conference, it was part of a large business packet and may have been difficult to find on the last page of a 60-plus page document.
The separating group had held organizing meetings for several months, but some delegates from other churches said they had not been aware of those meetings, and complained about the group’s secretiveness. A couple of delegates asked how the group decided which congregations to invite to join them, and why their own congregations were not invited. It seemed that no direct communications about the meetings had been shared with all of the churches in the district.
As business sessions progressed, and representatives of separating churches were asked to share their reasons for the motion, shock eased into a mood of sadness. Several people were visibly distraught. One woman appealed to be allowed to speak as a nondelegate, saying she hadn’t planned to come to the conference but changed her mind after hearing what was happening. “I am heartbroken at this,” she said, in tears. “I have friends all over the district.”
Another woman who has volunteered at the district camp for many years, alongside friends from the separating churches, expressed disbelief. She pleaded with the separating group to continue to participate in the camp’s ministry, saying it serves as a neutral place for all the Brethren in Michigan.
The grief expressed by representatives of remaining congregations included a feeling of hurt at being excluded by the separating churches’ statement of faith, which, as one person put it, identified them as “unacceptable.”
Theological differences, concern about ‘dysfunction’
Representatives of the seven churches explained that their primary reason to form a new district was theological. “Inerrancy of scripture is the core issue,” said one.
Several times during the conference, people spoke of Michigan District as one of the most theologically diverse in the denomination, with very conservative and very progressive churches. A sticking point for some of those in the separating group has been the naming of pastoral leadership by open and affirming churches.
The recent loss of a long-established congregation--New Life Christian Fellowship--was a key event initiating the separating group. One representative of the group told the conference that creating a new district was “an attempt to keep us from losing other churches like we lost New Life,” and represented a “last resort.” If the district conference did not give permission to form a new district, she said some of the churches were prepared to leave the Church of the Brethren.
People speaking for the separating churches also cited “dysfunction” that prevents the district from being effective. The separating group cited an inability to make decisions as a district as one example of dysfunction.
As other items of business came up--such as staffing, budget, and nominations for elected positions--it was acknowledged that Michigan District has been struggling financially and in other ways in recent years. A report from Camp Brethren Heights mentioned the problem of falling attendance and sagging numbers at district events--some of which was attributed to the theological divisions.
While discussing budget and staffing options, the district leadership team reported preliminary conversation with adjoining districts about the possibility of merger. Other ideas for staffing included hiring executive staff on a very part-time basis, contracting with a consultant, or sharing a district executive with a neighboring district.
Statement of faith
Sharp questions were posed about the statement of faith the separating churches had created. Delegates from other churches accused them of preparing the document in secret.
At first, a representative of the separating group declined to share the statement of faith, claiming it was not relevant to the motion. Audible gasps greeted his comment, and an angry outburst came from a delegate who demanded that the statement be shown to the conference before any vote was taken. The statement was described to the conference during the first business session as a five-page document. The next day, a two-page statement of faith was distributed as a printed handout.
Eventually, representatives of the separating group made an apology about the apparent secretiveness of their process, saying it had not been intentional.
The separating group reported two criteria to be met in order for a church to join their motion to seek a new district: a 90 percent vote for the statement of faith, and a two-thirds vote to join the separating group, taken at congregational business meetings announced in advance.
The two-page statement of faith included several points and scripture references listed under each of three headings: “Essential beliefs of Christianity,” “Church of the Brethren beliefs and practices,” and “Position statements.”
The section on Brethren beliefs and practices reaffirmed the peace witness, anointing, and Love Feast, among others.
Under the heading “Position statements,” four statements appeared. The first reaffirmed the Brethren tradition of the priesthood of all believers. The second was a statement about marriage being ordained by God to be between “a biological man and a biological woman.” The third was a statement about human life beginning at conception. The fourth was a statement about how “Christians are commanded by Scripture to hold one another accountable,” citing Matthew 18.
The statement of faith interpreted Matthew 18 as a three-part process to follow “if a Christian will not repent from a sinful attitude or activity” including a third and final step of “firmer rebuke by the church if necessary, other believers are to dismiss that person from fellowship.” The statement concluded, “That is the most loving action to take when a Christian is living in sin.”
Creating a district based on theological differences would represent a break from the Church of the Brethren practice of using geographic boundaries to delineate districts, if the proposal gains approval from the officers or Standing Committee of Annual Conference.
In the absence of a district executive, district leaders have been consulting with denominational staff including Joe Detrick, interim director of the Office of Ministry. Detrick was at the conference to present information about denominational polity, and during breaks between business sessions he took part in several meetings with the district leadership team and representatives of the separating churches. Torin Eikler, district executive of the adjacent Northern Indiana District, also was present to help provide counsel.
Detrick repeatedly urged the delegates to “make good, thoughtful decisions on the life of the Michigan District.” He told the conference that according to denominational polity, any new district must have approval from the district(s) from whose territory it is formed. To be approved by the Church of the Brethren it must gain recognition from the Standing Committee of Annual Conference. He also cited polity stating that if a district wishes to relinquish or remove territory it should consult with the Annual Conference officers.
Steps the separating group will have to carry out, in order to request recognition of a new district, include creating bylaws and a plan of organization, electing officers, creating a budget, and more. Representatives of the group verbally agreed to carry out such steps, and affirmed that they understand denominational ethics rules prohibit them from proselytizing other congregations and other individuals from Michigan District.
After the vote on the motion, Eikler and others noted that the existing district also will undergo changes as a result. “Everything is going to have to be restructured and changed,” he said.
“We will not just have one new district in Michigan, we will have two new districts,” said one delegate from the remaining churches. “Both districts will be called to creativity, to think anew about how we might organize, how we might staff and use resources.”
As moderator, McRoberts gave a gracious blessing to the separating churches. “You go with the blessing of this district conference,” he said. “You go on God’s path. You go to a new territory. May you be blessed. May you find new ways to serve God.”
To the remaining congregations, McRoberts said, “We have sent these people by the vote of this district conference. We need to continue to pray for this situation and these people.... We need to remember that everyone in this room is a child of God, is blessed by God, is loved by God.”
-- Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director News Services for the Church of the Brethren, and associate editor of “Messenger” magazine.