A proposed “Policy on Same-Sex Marriage” in Atlantic Northeast District did not receive the two-thirds majority necessary to pass as delegates met at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College Oct. 5-6. The policy would have established penalties, including termination of ministry credentials, for a pastor who officiated at a same-sex marriage ceremony.
Before the final vote on the item, delegates accepted an amendment from the Chiques Church of the Brethren (Manheim, Pa.) official board to strengthen the language of the proposed policy by recommending sanctions for any minister who “promotes and accepts the practice of homosexuality as a lifestyle that is approved by God.” The amendment required only a simple majority vote, but the overall policy—as a change in polity with significant implications for the district—required the higher threshold, and it fell short.
A local LNP (Lancaster, Pa.) newspaper online report initially reported incorrectly that the district already had a policy for removal of credentials in place, and that only the amendment had failed. The error was later corrected for online and print editions.
“There is no policy that we have now in the district since that (proposed policy) failed,” Atlantic Northeast District executive Pete Kontra said. “We sent an email to all district ministers to clarify that now that the district body has said ‘No,’ we’re not going to terminate credentials.” He added, however, that it’s not “a green light now for pastors” to officiate same-sex weddings, citing past district and denominational statements that “speak against promoting homosexuality.”
The Elizabethtown (Pa.) and Ambler (Pa.) congregations had requested in advance of the conference that the district withdraw the item from consideration, citing concerns over its implications for church life and its lack of a spirit of forbearance.
Elizabethtown pastor Greg Davidson-Laszakovits said the congregation was “relieved” after the policy failed.
“The amendment that got added would have really put us and many other congregations in difficult positions,” Davidson-Laszakovits said. “If that policy would have passed, we would have faced immediate consequences, I’m guessing, in terms of credentialing.”
Davidson-Laszakovits said he was impressed with the respect and good tone of the conversation at the conference, despite the divisive issue—something he said hasn’t always happened in denominational debate on the topic. He said many people offered encouraging words, both publicly and privately.
“There are a lot of people who I think are supportive of where Elizabethtown and a number of congregations are on this,” he said. “We’re glad to be able to be a voice for the voiceless.”
He and Kontra both credited moderator Misty Wintsch for doing a good job in her role and making sure everyone was heard. A series of regional district meetings held in advance of the conference also helped to proactively answer many questions and provide information.
Wintsch, for her part, said she felt both she and the conference were “bathed in prayer from all over our district and our denomination.” “I knew people needed to feel heard, and I wanted them to be able to express themselves,” she said. “With grace, love, and peace, that is exactly what happened.”
Now, all parties will endeavor to find their way forward. Davidson-Laszakovits said Elizabethtown “remains committed to the district and to finding a way forward together.”
“I think a number of congregations have threatened to or are already withholding funds,” he said. “Elizabethtown has not done that. We’re looking for a way that we can all focus on the ministries we do, even in a district that’s very diverse theologically.”
Kontra said he has already had good conversations with some congregations, including Elizabethtown, and the district ministry commission was working on a letter outlining the current situation and inviting ongoing dialogue to determine next steps. In the meantime, he said, the district’s ministry goes on.
”We continue to communicate to the district that there is much good that God is still doing,” Kontra said. “We tend to focus on these issues, but there’s so much good that God is doing in the church and in the district, and we really want to go back to focusing on that. … As difficult and challenging as this was, we’re still ready to move on and work together.”