Church of the Brethren grieves withdrawal of Puerto Rican congregations

From the Church of the Brethren Leadership Team

With deep sadness, the Church of the Brethren Leadership Team acknowledges news received of the withdrawal of all six congregations in the Puerto Rico District from the Church of the Brethren, as of Oct. 26, 2023.

The Puerto Rican congregations’ decisions, which were affirmed by the Puerto Rico District board, came following contacts and visits by leaders of the Covenant Brethren Church—and each of the six congregations have since joined the Covenant Brethren Church.

“Our decision was made after all six of our churches and their respective pastors were praying, engaging in dialogue with their leadership, and fasting for 40 days as a District,” the Puerto Rico district leadership stated in a letter to the Church of the Brethren Leadership Team. “We have understood that after observing the direction, position, and vision of [the Church of the Brethren] with respect to many of the biblical standards, our conservative principles and values have confirmed our final decision to disaffiliate from the denomination.” [translated from Spanish]

Prior to the decision to disaffiliate, district executive minister José Calleja Otero had submitted his resignation on Oct. 6, 2023.

Denominational leadership express sorrow and raise questions

In a letter to the Puerto Rico District board, the Church of the Brethren Leadership Team—consisting of David Steele, General Secretary; Madalyn Metzger, Annual Conference Moderator; Dava Hensley, Annual Conference Moderator-Elect; David Shumate, Annual Conference Secretary; Torin Eikler, Council of District Executives representative; and Rhonda Pittman Gingerich, Annual Conference director (ex-officio)—expressed profound sadness for the absence of shared dialogue with Puerto Rico District leadership during their deliberations and discernment.

“After many years of walking together in ministry partnership, we lament our exclusion from your time of dialog, praying, and fasting…. Even after [expressing a willingness to travel to Puerto Rico to] address questions and concerns,” the Leadership Team stated. “We are not all of one mind in the denomination, but as Brethren we are called to continual study and discernment of scripture together, to pray together, and trust together that the Holy Spirit will lead us to a shared understanding.

“Despite our differences, we are unified in Christ and called to continue working at this together,” the Leadership Team letter continued. “Separating and dividing may seem like the way forward, but the way of Jesus is one of love and reconciliation—which is not an easy thing in today’s culture.”

In addition to expressing sorrow, the Leadership Team communicated to the Puerto Rico District board that, according to denominational polity, congregations may choose to withdraw from the denomination—but entire districts do not. Additionally, individual congregational withdrawals must be approved by the district conference. Church of the Brethren leadership efforts are underway to work through questions and complications related to polity and property by means of an in-person visit of denominational representatives to Puerto Rico in the near future.

Church of the Brethren history in Puerto Rico

The Church of the Brethren’s history on the Caribbean island dates back to 1942, when the Brethren Service Commission partnered with the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration to establish a Civilian Public Service camp in the town of Castañer, located within Puerto Rico’s mountainous countryside. At the time, Castañer—and much of the island’s interior, rural areas—experienced severe shortages of doctors and medical services, and the Church of the Brethren collaborated with the Castañer community and government on medical and agricultural projects, including the construction of a 33-bed hospital.

The island’s first Church of the Brethren congregation—Castañer, Iglesia de Los Hermanos—was established in 1948. Several more congregations, fellowships, and church plants emerged in the following decades, and the Puerto Rico District was formally confirmed as the denomination’s 24th district in January 2014.

A time for grief and hope

The withdrawal of the six Puerto Rican congregations—as well as other churches across the denomination—brings heartache to many in the Church of the Brethren.

“We mourn the loss of any of our members and congregations,” said David Steele. “There is very real grief and pain when saying good-bye to those we’ve had relationships with and who have walked alongside us on our shared faith journeys.”

While this grief related to separations and schisms isn’t new to Brethren, neither is our history of seeking healing and wholeness through collective prayer, worship, and community.

“As we grieve and honor feelings of loss or lamentation, we also can hold onto our hope and the expectation of things yet unseen,” said Madalyn Metzger. “That hope includes our openness to the Holy Spirit’s movement, and our anticipation of God’s transforming future for ourselves, each other, and our denomination.”

— Written by the Church of the Brethren Leadership Team, with assistance from Nancy Sollenberger Heishman, director, Office of Ministry, and Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director, News Services.

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