Congregational Disagreement with Annual Conference Decisions
2004 Annual Conference Statement
Whereas: the 2001 Manual of Organization and Polity recognizes Annual Conference as “the ultimate legislative authority of the Church of the Brethren;” and
Whereas: the model constitution and bylaws for congregations passed by Annual Conference in 1969 states that “the congregation shall covenant to support faithfully the program of the Church of the Brethren, recognizing Annual Conference enactments of the Church of the Brethren as having governing force in its life;” and
Whereas: the 1996 Annual Conference Statement of Ethics for Congregations in the Church of the Brethren states that “The congregation has an ethical responsibility to support the denomination;” and
Whereas: the 1996 Annual Conference Statement of Ethics for Congregations in the Church of the Brethren states that, “There may be rare instances in which the congregation may conclude that conscience will not permit participation in a particular aspect of denominational program;” and
Whereas: the Church of the Brethren holds the New Testament as its creed, but finds variation in interpretation of the scriptures;
Therefore, we, the District Board of the South/Central Indiana District and the Manchester Church of the Brethren petition the Annual Conference through South/Central Indiana District to appoint a committee to study and offer guidance on how congregations can disagree with Annual Conference decisions yet remain, as much as possible, in unbroken fellowship with their sister congregations, including how District Boards should respond in these situations.
Amended and passed by the S/C Indiana District Board on July 13, 2002 for considerations by District Conference meeting in Anderson, Indiana on September 13-14, 2002. Re-affirmed by the Manchester Congregation on September 8, 2002 for consideration by District Conference.
Passed by the S/C Indiana District Conference on September 14, 2002 for consideration by Annual Conference Standing Committee meeting in Boise, Idaho in July, 2003.
Paul Schrock, S/C Indiana District Conference Moderator, 2002
Dwight Beery, S/C Indiana District Conference Secretary, 2001-2003
Action of the 2003 Annual Conference: The delegate body adopted the recommendation of Standing Committee that the query be adopted and a study committee of five be elected by Annual Conference to respond to the request of the query. Elected to serve as the study committee were Phyllis Noland Carter, Larry M. Dentler, Cathy Simmons Huffman, Robert Kettering, and Tom Zuercher.
Report to the 2004 Annual Conference
In a utopian world, there would be no conflict, and perhaps, in a perfect church, no disagreement. But in reality, the church is not perfect; it is a human organization. We have distinct perspectives that sometimes lead to disagreement and, occasionally, to conflict. Conflict in itself is not necessarily destructive; conflict can be constructive when it is processed in a spiritually healthy manner. This paper is offered as a study and response to the query that asks “how congregations can disagree with Annual Conference decisions yet remain, as much as possible, in unbroken fellowship with their sister congregations, including how District Boards should respond in these situations.”1
The paper is divided into six sections:
- Biblical Insights
- Historical Perspective
- Present Situation
- Observations of the Committee
- Suggestions for Process
I. Biblical Insights
It is important to affirm the centrality of scripture throughout the history and life of the Brethren movement. Our faith ancestors had a two-fold passion. First was to be the church as described and ordained in the New Testament. Second was to reclaim, as much as possible, the faith and practice of primitive Christianity (pre-Constantinian church). These passions and the importance of scripture are evidenced by the fact that Acts 15 was, until recent years, read at Annual Conference. In considering the issue of how congregations disagree with Annual Conference decisions, there are several passages of scripture that reflect this early passion to be the church as called out in the New Testament.
In the last hours of Jesus’ earthly life, as described in John 17:20-26, his prayer focuses on unity. He prays that the church may be one. With the cross looming just before him, the unity of the church was on his mind. This places a high priority on our efforts as the church to live out this unity. In Philippians 2:1-4 the Apostle Paul also gives a very high priority to unity in the church.
In Acts 15:1-35, the early church deals with the serious question of how much of Jewish law, especially circumcision, the new Gentile believers must follow. Some said they must keep all the Jewish law (15:1, 5). Others said the Gentile believers should be free from any obligation to the Jewish law (15:7-11). The church met in a special council in Jerusalem that serves as the model for our local church congregational business meetings, district conference, and Annual Conference. Differing opinions were shared, sometimes heatedly (15:2, 7). There was a “moderator” giving oversight to the deliberations (15:13). The body listened to each other (15:12). A prayerful, careful compromise answer to the questions was compiled (15:19-21). This answer was delivered to the churches with an expectation that the Lord through the Holy Spirit had guided this process and so the answer should be accepted (15:22-25).
Matthew 18:15-20 has been the primary model for settling differences among the Brethren for nearly three centuries. It is a simple three-step procedure. First, the two opposing persons talk over their disagreement face to face (18:15). Second, if there is no resolution, then a third impartial person is brought in to hear the two sides as a mediator (18:16). Third, if the issue is still not resolved, then the situation is taken to the church for their action (28:17). There is an expectation that the church’s answer be accepted and serious implications for dissension (18:17).
The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:1-7:27, was accepted by the early Brethren as “ethics” for today and was not restricted to some future time. This includes strong teaching to be merciful to one another (5:5-7), to work at peacemaking (5:9), to pursue reconciliation as a top priority (5:21-26), to show love to those who are mistreating us (5:38-48), and to judge others with grace (6:14-15, 7:1-5).
I Corinthians 2:6-16 asserts that we are more likely to come to the truth through the Holy Spirit as a group rather than as individuals. It is together, as people of faith, that we can seek and know the mind of Christ.
II. Historical Background
The first people to identify with Alexander Mack and the Brethren movement were characterized as religious dissenters because they did not conform to the beliefs and practices of the three established churches in Europe. The Brethren movement was born out of dissent.
The influence of the Pietists upon Mack caused him and his followers to value openness to dialogue with Christians holding differing beliefs, and the conviction that the Holy Spirit would continue to shed light upon the understandings of the faithful. The Radical Pietists emphasized the importance of the individual in discipleship and devotion. Different understandings and dialogue were seen as gifts from the Spirit.
A second influence upon the early Brethren was that of the Anabaptists who espoused a visible, disciplined community of faith in which the believers held one another accountable in matters of faith and practice. The Anabaptists emphasized the importance of a community of believers committed to discipline and unity. Conformity and consensus were seen as gifts from the Spirit.
The early Brethren clearly sought to be of one mind and one spirit in belief and practice and exercised church discipline by refusing to extend the holy kiss and right hand of fellowship to those who were not in harmony with church beliefs and practices. In regard to the actions of the Annual Meeting, the 1805 Yearly Meeting decided that members who would not heed the conclusions of the Yearly Meeting should be denied the privilege of participating in the Love Feast “until they learn to do better and become obedient.” The action of the Annual Meeting of 1850 decided, “It is wrong for brethren to go against the counsel of our great Annual Meeting.” In 1860 the minutes declare; “The decisions of the Annual Meeting are obligatory.”2
The Brethren have historically stated that the Annual Conference is the final authority on all matters of procedure, program, polity, and discipline. The Annual Meetings strove to achieve consensus whenever possible in decision-making. The tension between those in the church who wanted stricter standards of conformity to Annual Conference decisions and those desiring greater diversity and dissent from Conference decisions led to the division in the church in the period 1881-1883.
The impact of growing acculturation in the latter part of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century caused the Church of the Brethren to make greater accommodation for differences among individual members, congregations and districts. This accommodation is best illustrated by the decision of the 1911 Annual Conference regarding the issue of the garb. The decision upheld the traditional garb of the Brethren but called for tolerance in not making conformity to wearing the garb a test of membership.
Growing diversity among the Brethren in the 20th century resulted in a trend toward congregationalism and away from adherence to decisions of the Annual Conference. The 1979 Annual Conference paper on Biblical Inspiration and Authority is an example of an Annual Conference action that acknowledges differences among the Brethren regarding the authority, interpretation and inspiration of the scriptures.
The change in attitude regarding adherence to Annual Conference actions is illustrated in the action of Annual Conference in 1968 on Church Polity. It states, “The actions of Conference are directives for the whole life of the church and implementation is assumed to take place within a reasonable span of time. This implementation does not depend on acts of enforcement by decree. Rather, education, consultation, and patience are characteristics of Brethren polity. Groups and individuals have channels of review when decisions of Annual Conference are questioned. It is important that there be mutual trust and shared responsibility between local, district, and Brotherhood structures of church order.”3
In earlier times, the elders were charged with the task of maintaining discipline and enforcing enactments of Annual Conference. During the 20th century, the Church of the Brethren made greater accommodation for differences of beliefs and practices within the Body. When the office of elder was abolished by Annual Conference in 1967, a vacuum was created in which there was no longer a viable mechanism in place in the church to achieve harmony among dissenting churches and districts and seek their adherence to Annual Conference actions. As we look to the future, can the Church of the Brethren speak with one voice and yet respect dissenting views? Can the Brethren hold one another accountable and yet hold on to the ideals of freedom of conscience?
The underlying tensions in the church today regarding adherence to the authority of Annual Conference are not unlike the turbulence that led to division in the church in the 1880s between those who favored a strong centralized authority and conformity and those who favored decentralized congregationalism and diversity. How we address this tension today will influence our vision for the Church of the Brethren tomorrow.
III. Present Situation
This query originated in the South/Central Indiana district. In October 2001, a congregation within the district voted to provide the opportunity for covenant services for all couples without regard to their sexual orientation. Some saw the vote as contradicting the 1983 Annual Conference position paper Human Sexuality. During the same period, the congregation remained supportive of all other district and denominational practices and procedures. This query seeking “guidance on how congregations can disagree with Annual Conference decisions yet remain, as much as possible, in unbroken fellowship with their sister congregations including how District Boards should respond in these situations” arises from this situation.
While formal disagreements by congregations with Annual Conference decisions are rare, it is not unique to this South/Central Indiana congregation. Five other districts, when asked by this committee, reported at least one congregation that had taken official action in opposition to an Annual Conference decision. Identified issues of disagreement include the adoption of requirements for continuing education credits for pastors, homosexuality, women in ministry, denominational participation in the World and National Councils of Churches, and flags in the sanctuary. Districts varied in how they responded procedurally to the dissenting congregations.
This committee actively sought understanding on the authority of Annual Conference decision-making and congregational accountability. Surveys were distributed to former Annual Conference moderators, to each congregation by mail and made available on the denominational website. We received 735 surveys representing at least 224 congregations located in all twenty-three districts. District ministers received a survey inquiring if there were district procedures to respond to congregations that formally disagreed already in place.
There was a wide spectrum of opinions over whether or not a dissenting congregation should be held accountable. Further, there was diversity in responses to the question, “Is there any distinction between disagreements over ‘minor’ issues and ‘major’ issues?” Others commented that the church is inconsistent in the way in which Annual Conference decisions are fully accepted or rejected by congregations, citing the peace position, women in ministry, and divorce and remarriage. Other respondents referred to the Annual Conference statement on Biblical Inspiration and Authority (1979) as an example on how to respond on issues where the church was not of one mind.
The responses from the denomination that our committee received are summarized as follows:
- although not widespread, there are instances of individual congregations that have been nonsupportive of specific Annual Conference decisions;
- issues of disagreement have varied;
- districts respond in different ways to the congregations involved;
- there is diversity of opinion as to whether or not a congregation should be held accountable and to whom;<
- there is diversity of opinion as to whether or not issues of disagreement are seen as major or minor in nature;
- congregational disagreements with Annual Conference decisions are painful for the congregation, district, and wider church.
IV. Observations of the Committee
We reaffirm that education, consultation, and patience are characteristics of Brethren polity and that implementation of Annual Conference directives does not depend on acts of enforcement.
We sense that one cause of congregational disagreement with Annual Conference decisions is the lack of understanding that the Church of the Brethren is both congregational and presbyterial in structure. We sense this issue needs further attention, and we appreciate the efforts of the Council of District Executives in addressing this matter within their planned consultation on ecclesiology.
We acknowledge that we too often lack tolerance and respect for each other in our deliberations.
We confess that we create situations that lead some to feel like there are winners and losers.
We acknowledge that our failure to process our disappointments in light of God’s grace has often left us bitter and disillusioned.
We acknowledge our need to learn to talk to one another in appropriate, respectful engagement. Reconciliation always begins with careful listening.
We acknowledge we are not of one mind on the authority and interpretation of scripture nor understanding the mind of Christ on many contemporary issues that we face in the church.
We acknowledge there are changing social and environmental factors that impact pre-existing differences within our districts.
We lift up the importance of the gathered church, Annual Conference, under the direction of the Holy Spirit when seeking the mind of Christ rather than any one congregation acting alone.
We lift up the importance of the congregation supporting the decision of the gathered body at Annual Conference, trusting the integrity of the church, and claiming the promise of the Holy Spirit’s guidance in our deliberations.
V. Suggestions for Process
Because congregations may disagree with Annual Conference decisions, it is appropriate to consider a process when disagreement is evident. Since disagreement is heavily impacted by individual and unique circumstances and often must be considered on a case-by-case basis, the following is not intended as polity to be applied unilaterally throughout the denomination for each individual case. Rather, it is intended to outline broad parameters in which it is hoped that congregations and districts can find suggestions that will help us work towards reconciliation and satisfactory resolution within our understanding of community. The goal of the following process is to find God’s truth together in a respectful Christian community. It is hoped that any congregation that feels led to disagree with Annual Conference decisions should assume a special responsibility to initiate extended dialog with others in the denomination about its choice. In so doing, the congregation should not automatically assume the role of prophet, but rather, try to model and encourage a spirit of finding the mind of Christ amid diversity in discernment.
Guidance to the congregation:
It is expected that congregations would recognize a foundational covenant within the denomination “to support faithfully the program of the Church of the Brethren, recognizing Annual Conference enactments of the Church of the Brethren as having governing force in its life”4 and that “the congregation has an ethical responsibility to support the denomination”.5 Accordingly, disagreement with an Annual Conference decision should be a rare exception rather than a common event. When disagreement exists, the congregation is encouraged to:
- complete a thorough study of the Annual Conference action including biblical understandings, historical understandings, and any suggested bibliographical resources;
- seek counsel from the district executive and engage in conversations regarding the disagreement before any congregational action is considered. If the integrity of the community, the body of Christ, is to be preserved, the congregation must engage in conversations before taking action that might be misinterpreted and viewed as defiance and disloyalty;
- seek additional counsel from persons familiar with the Annual Conference action and who can provide helpful explanation. These persons might include the district Standing Committee members, district General Board member, and Annual Conference officers;
- give opportunity for voices within the congregation to be heard, giving careful consideration to basic Christian conduct, and protect those who may have a minority opinion.
If efforts to resolve the disagreement are unsuccessful, and it is evident that the disagreement will be a continuing hindrance to the relationship of the congregation with the larger church, congregational leadership should write a letter to district leadership outlining:
- the specifics of the disagreement citing specific Annual Conference action;
- a thorough description of the congregation’s position;
- what the congregation has done in an attempt to understand the Annual Conference action;
- what the congregation has done in an attempt to resolve the disagreement with the Annual Conference action;
- how this disagreement will impact the ministry of the congregation;
- what action, if any, the congregation is considering as a result of the disagreement;
- what type of response the congregation would like to receive from district leadership.
Guidance to the district:
There is an expectation that within the context of ongoing district ministries and congregational relationships, awareness of disagreement with a specific Annual Conference action might emerge early on. District leadership should anticipate potential congregational disagreement with any particular Annual Conference action before receiving official notice in the form of a letter from the congregation, and review district procedures for processing congregational disagreements. Once official notice is received, the district is encouraged to review the matter and determine a response as soon as possible. Response measures might be to:
- send a letter of response from the district executive, the district board chair, board commission chair, district Standing Committee member, or some other appropriate individual;
- schedule a visit to the congregation for respectful dialog, discussion, and interpretation;
- appoint a group or committee to meet with the congregation to discuss the disagreement;
- utilize the skills of the district Shalom Team and other reconciliation workers to give guidance and facilitate dialog;
- call for a day of prayer and fasting to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and for appropriate spiritual conduct;
- facilitate a forum at which the congregation in disagreement might present its position or understanding;
- consult with resource persons outside the district, including mediation leaders, On Earth Peace staff members, General Board members, Annual Conference officers, Annual Conference Council members, and others;
- bring the matter to the district conference only if all attempts at reconciliation have proven unsuccessful or unsatisfactory, and if the issue is such that it represents a threat to the overall unity and effective ministry of the district. Specific recommendations to the district conference might include:
- a statement acknowledging that the congregation in question is “out of harmony” with the denomination on the particular issue, but remains in support and in fellowship with the district and Annual Conference;
- a call to prayer for all congregations within the district seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit regarding the issue, and seeking a spiritual anointing that would express love, tolerance and patience (Col. 3:12) rather than judgment and avoidance.
Each district is encouraged to put in place framework for processing a congregational disagreement with an Annual Conference action, in keeping with these suggestions. The process should be flexible enough to allow for the wide variations of each case, yet specific enough that it has accountability and direction. Each district should establish such a process prior to the recognition of the need for said process. The goal of the district response process should be to help the congregation move to an understanding of the Annual Conference action and willingness to support the action, or at least a willingness to refrain from taking any action that would be interpreted as being defiant or insubordinate. If this goal is unattainable and there is a lack of reconciliation, an acknowledgement should be made that the congregation continues supporting the larger church in other aspects of the its life while disagreeing with Annual Conference in the particular matter. It is expected that reconciliation attempts will continue.
Finally, within our current polity6 , the Standing Committee continues to serve as the appeals body. Any decision that is made by a district board or a district conference can be appealed to the Standing Committee, and the congregation in disagreement retains that right. The decision of Standing Committee is final.
IV. Resources for Reconciliation and Rebuilding Trust among Congregations and Districts
Group Spiritual Directors
On Earth Peace, New Windsor, MD
Mennonite Conciliation Services, Akron, PA
Bowman, Carl F., Brethren Society , John Hopkins University Press, 1995.
Bowman, S. Loren, Power and Polity Among the Brethren, Brethren Press, 1987 (Out of Print.)
Reconciliation and Rebuilding Trust:
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Life Together, Harper, reissued 1993.
Jeschke, Marlin, Discipling the Church, Herald Press, 3rd edition, 1988.
Fletcher, Ruth, Take, Break, and Receive: The Practice of Discernment in the Christian Church, pamphlet from Disciples of Christ, Division of Homeland Ministries. Indianapolis, Ind.
Funk, Mary Margaret, Tools Matter for Practicing the Spiritual Life, Continuum Publishing Group, 2001.
Sheeran, Michael J., Beyond Majority Rule, Philadelphia Annual Meeting, 1983.
Johnson, Luke Timothy, Scripture and Discernment, Abingdon Press, 1996.
Ulrich, Dan and Fairchild, Jan, Caring like Jesus, Brethren Press, 2002.
Snyder, Graydon, The People are Holy: Free Church Theology of Worship, publication scheduled for fall 2004.
Annual Conference Study Committee for Query: Congregational Disagreements with Annual Conference Decisions
Larry M. Dentler
Phyllis Noland Carter
1 Minutes of Annual Conference, 2003, p. 997
2 Annual Meeting Minutes, 1805, Art. 2; 5, 28; 1860 Art. 1, in Minutes 1909, pp. 28, 77, 114, 119, 195
3 Minutes of Annual Conference, 1968, p. 337
4 Minutes of Annual Conference, 2000, p. 206
5 Minutes of Annual Conference, 1996, p. 331
6 Minutes of Annual Conference, 1955-1964, pp. 162-183; Minutes, 1965-1969, p. 320
Action of the 2004 Annual Conference: The paper was adopted with one major amendment that is incorporated in the above text.