‘Our end goal is unity’: An interview with general secretary David Steele

Church of the Brethren General Secretary David Steele. Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

“Our end goal is unity,” said Church of the Brethren general secretary David Steele in an interview about an effort by a group called Covenant Brethren Church to explore separation from the Church of the Brethren. Steele said that the denomination’s leadership “recognize there are differences and diversity within the Church of the Brethren, but our goal is to strive for unity.”

On Saturday, Feb. 1, Steele and Annual Conference moderator Paul Mundey met with leaders of the new group for some three hours of conversation. That meeting followed on previous meetings that members of the Church of the Brethren’s Leadership Team have had with members of the group. The Leadership Team includes the Annual Conference officers, general secretary, and a representative of the Council of District Executives.

Steele said these meetings have been held “to hear their concerns, what they are working at. We are making efforts to keep the communication lines open.” At the Feb. 1 meeting, Steele said the Covenant Brethren Church leadership made it clear that their intentions are no longer simply exploratory but that separation will happen.

The Covenant Brethren Church chose its name at a meeting in Woodstock, Va., last November. The decision to explore separation was made last July in Chambersburg, Pa., at a meeting of some 50 people from 13 districts. The group is exploring office locations in West Virginia, has named a temporary executive board and task groups, and is developing bylaws and a statement of faith. The temporary board includes both Brethren Revival Fellowship (BRF) leadership and prayer summit leadership, including Grover Duling (chair), Eric Brubaker, Larry Dentler, Scott Kinnick, James F. Myer, and Craig Alan Myers. The temporary board includes a district executive, district moderators, and BRF leaders.

The group has said its reasons to explore separation are to provide “a haven for congregations who are making the decision to leave, but want to retain their Brethren values, and do not want to be independent” as well as “failure of the denomination to stand strong on biblical authority” and a complaint that the compelling vision process does not address “the homosexual issue.”

Steele shared his concern to dispel rumors swirling around the denomination about the Covenant Brethren Church. One is that there are many congregations that have left or are planning to leave the denomination. Another is that congregations are leaving in order to join the new group. However, Steele said that to date he has confirmation of only a dozen or more congregations that have withdrawn, in just a handful of districts, for a variety of reasons. There is no indication that they intend to join the new group, he said, and sexuality may not be a factor for all of them, he noted. Some have been functionally separate from denomination and district for many years, evidenced by their lack of giving and lack of participation in Annual Conferences and district conferences. He gave the example of one congregation that has been disaffected for decades based on disagreements over ecumenical organizations. Others simply want to go independent. Steele also dispelled rumors that whole districts may separate. There is no process in Church of the Brethren polity for a district to take such a step, he said.

“I recognize that there is a secondary narrative that has emerged in our life together, one that is living out frustrations, that is moving away from the church rather than seeking unity, rather than continuing conversation and prayer and reading scripture together,” Steele said.

In response to criticism of the compelling vision process, Steele emphasized it was never intended to address sexuality but is intended “to move the conversation above that to matters of faith and vision and where the church ought to be.” The committees working on the compelling vision over the past few years have gleaned data from gatherings across the denomination and two Annual Conferences in order to seek a vision. He believes that the process did not fall short “but did exactly what we were intending for it to do. Compelling vision was not intended to fix us, but it does point us in a direction that we can all embrace and focus on.”

Steele highlighted other recent successes that he would like the members of the church to focus on right now, instead of focusing on division. Those successes include districts that are taking vigorous steps to renew their passion for ministry together, and the December meeting of leaders of international Brethren bodies who strongly affirmed a new global structure for the Church of the Brethren worldwide. These successes “are exciting and can bring new life,” he said. “We lose track of these when the secondary narrative becomes dominant. It is not all doom and gloom.”

Challenges for denominational leaders during this time include how to find a way to work together. One challenge he named is that districts are employing different approaches toward leaving congregations. “This is a time for collegial conversation,” Steele said. “I believe it really begins with the Leadership Team and the Council of District Executives finding a common pathway forward, a commitment to work together.”

Similarly, Steele wants to work toward an understanding with leaving congregations. He is deeply concerned about how congregational separation “is tearing congregations apart. There is a sense that some people in those congregations want to stay in the denomination. They are torn between relationships with their family and friends and their loyalty to the Church of the Brethren.”

 Additional information may be found in a statement from the Leadership Team published last November at www.brethren.org/news/2019/denominational-leadership-teamstatement .