On a Saturday in March, the Allegheny Mennonite Conference met in Springs, Pennsylvania, to determine the fate of Hyattsville Mennonite Church. A decade earlier, the Maryland congregation had been formally “disciplined” for accepting gay and lesbian members. Now, there were three resolutions on the ballot: let Hyattsville back into the conference as a full member; remove Hyattsville from the conference altogether; or, if no agreement could be found, dissolve the conference.
When a Mennonite church gets called out for its conduct, that judgment comes from its peers. As of 2010, roughly 296,000 Mennonite adults lived in the United States, but the small Christian denomination is broken up into several dozen oversight organizations and church bodies. These tend to be decentralized and democratic: Church representatives vote on everything from budgets to service projects and summer camp.
They also vote when they want to punish other churches. In 2005, when Hyattsville was disciplined, the church had already been welcoming gay members for nearly two decades. But other congregations in the organizing body they belong to, the Allegheny Mennonite Conference, felt like things had reached a breaking point. A Pennsylvania pastor, Jeff Jones, decided to issue a formal complaint.
“Hyattsville had an active ministry to homosexuals, which I was for, I didn’t have a problem with it,” Jones said. But when the church “started putting active, practicing homosexuals in positions of leadership, as delegates in voting bodies here at conference—that became more difficult for me to take.”
For the last ten years, representatives from Hyattsville have not been allowed to vote at conference meetings. Its members have not been able to serve in leadership, and its pastor, Cindy Lapp, was put under review. Even so, they kept coming.
Since the first Mennonites arrived in America from Germany in 1683, the denomination has gone through many schisms, often over issues of tradition and modernity. At one time, it was buttons vs. eyehooks on blouses, and whether women should have to wear bonnets; more recently, it’s been women’s leadership in the church and acceptance of those who identify as LGBTQ. Each time a split happens, a new version of the faith is created, while an older version is preserved as if in amber—even now, many people associate Mennonites with anachronisms like horses and buggies, when in reality, this kind of traditional lifestyle is only followed by roughly 13,000 American adults, called Old-Order Mennonites. (People often confuse Mennonites with the Amish, too; although both groups are part of the Anabaptist tradition, meaning that they baptize believers as adults rather than infants, Mennonites were historically followers of Menno Simons, a 16th-century preacher.)
Now, Mennonites are wrestling with the same questions faced by other churches across the country, made all the more complicated by their heritage: How should the faithful balance tradition and modern life? How should scripture inform people's understandings of same-sex relationships? And when members of a denomination disagree, how should they find their way forward?
For the Allegheny Mennonite Conference, these questions culminated in a choice: Either change together despite differences, or cease to exist.
Springs Mennonite Church is a fairly plain house of worship: tall, pitched ceilings; wooden pews; a couple of stained-glass windows toward the back of the sanctuary. But for all its plainness, the church has phenomenal acoustics.
The Allegheny Conference started its meeting there with song—a central part of Mennonite worship. A smiling woman named Naomi led the congregation through rounds of “The Wonderful Grace of Jesus” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” conducting the verses with floating, patient arms. Without being asked, the group sang in perfectly balanced four-part harmonies, a common element of Mennonite worship. Roughly 150 pastors and lay leaders from Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia easily filled the church. Together, they concluded their opening hymns: “Calm me, Lord, as a you calmed the storm … Let all the tumult within me cease.”
Although the morning’s agenda was supposed to be separate from the afternoon’s vote about Hyattsville, many of the talks had a pointed theme: unity. The pastor from Springs, Eric Haglund, gave an opening sermon on Acts 15, which describes a council held by Paul, Barnabas, and some of the Jewish elders in Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas were trying to persuade the Jews that circumcision was not necessary for salvation.
“We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God,” Paul said. “For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
Listening to the sermon, it was clear that Haglund was trying to make an argument, veiled though it was in scripture. “In Acts, they found their way through disagreement,” he said. “We see that the very essence of the gospel could be derailed over a theological debate.”
A Mennonite pastor from Ohio, Myron Weaver, then spoke to the group about his experiences with homosexuality in church communities. He told the story of attending Maple Grove Mennonite Church in Hartville, Ohio, in his teens and watching a family who was part of the church deal with the revelation that their son was gay. This was in the 1970s, when many Americans didn’t necessarily know much about homosexuality, but he said members of the congregation didn’t react with fear; instead, they offered prayers.
“When people are vulnerable, regardless of what the situation may be, we as humans must often offer love and grace, even if in fact we may not understand,” Weaver said to the group. “Safe places, safe churches, allow people to be vulnerable. The problem I’m finding, though, is that there appears to be fewer and fewer safe churches.”
In his role as a pastor, he said, he has often encountered church members who are trying to figure out what it means to be gay—or to have a gay family member. Once, he invited a group of 10 church members to his house to talk about this topic. As one woman spoke, “she started to shake, and soon she was sobbing, and soon she fell off of her chair, and she clutched ahold of the carpet, and she simply cried out, ‘I have attended my church for 35 years, and I cannot find a safe place to talk to anyone about my gay son.’
“For those who claim to be followers of Jesus today, we, too, must display the heart of God to the marginal in our culture,” Weaver said.
He said he recognized that there might be theological disagreements over the issue of homosexuality in the church. He spoke about a split that happened in his home church in 1954: Members disagreed about the appropriate kind of buttons for women’s dresses. “It seems pretty ridiculous today,” he said, but splits like this happen “because for generations, families have been modeling that when you disagree, you simply walk away.”
Since 2005, nine churches in the Allegheny Conference have made the choice to walk away—mostly over the issue of women’s leadership in the conference. Currently, the conference is led by a woman, Donna Mast, and many of the churches that left over this issue did so before she became the leading minister. “Do I take it personally? No I don’t,” she told me. “I grew up with the understanding that women should not be in pastoral leadership positions. I ran from the call that I was sensing from God. I ran as hard as I could, until the day when I decided that it was more difficult to be ostracized from God than to follow God into areas where I didn’t understand where God was leading.”
Mast is part of the leadership council that invited Weaver to speak. “I frequently remind people that people with whom they disagree with are also people who love God, and who are doing their very best to follow Jesus,” she told me. But as homosexuality and gay marriage have become a bigger part of American culture and politics, Mast said, “I think it’s been confusing to the church. There are those that would ask that we not let society drive our decisions, when perhaps society is actually driving us to the need to do our scriptural and theological reflections together more carefully.”
But even with such strong nudging from the conference leader, members I spoke with didn’t seem convinced after the morning’s sessions that the conference would stay together. Even budget discussions were tentative, full of phrases like “if we move forward” and “depending on what happens…” Nobody knew whether there would be a conference left to spend money by the day’s end.
During lunch, most people headed to the church basement to eat, but a few milled about in the sanctuary. The former pastor of the Cornerstone Fellowship at Mill Run, Jeff Jones, stayed upstairs to talk with me, as did the church’s current pastor, Steven Olivieri. Jones was the pastor who initiated the discipline against Hyattsville in 2003, after the church brought an openly gay delegate, Larry Miller, to a conference meeting. Eventually, the church was censured for not complying with the confession of faith used by Mennonite Church USA, the national organization that Allegheny Conference belongs to. In a section on “family, singleness, and marriage,” it states: “We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.”
Mennonite Church USA, has seen declining membership over the past half decade—a drop of roughly 16,000 adult members and 45 congregations, or 15 percent of its members. This doesn’t necessarily reveal what’s going on in the denomination as a whole. According to 2010 research by Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College, American Mennonites belong to roughly 60 different organizing bodies, and some of the more traditional groups are growing rapidly because of their high birth rates.
But throughout the denomination, there’s tension over what it means to be a Mennonite in 2015. Jones told me that “the Mennonite church has always viewed itself as counter-cultural. Our country goes to war, we hold up peace signs.” Although gay marriage is now legal in 34 states, and the Supreme Court will possibly issue a decision on same-sex marriage by mid-summer, “generally speaking, I view homosexual behavior as sin,” he said.
In general, “the Mennonites can be clanish,” he continued. “Historically, that was survival. The broader category is Anabaptist. They came out of fire and brimstone—all the other churches in the Reformation persecuted Anabaptists. Lutheran, Reformed or Calvinist, and Catholic—they all burned Mennonites at the stake. To survive, they were not part of organizations as much as they were groupings of families, and that became the center of their witness.”
Even so, there’s an inevitable feedback loop between how Mennonites see homosexuality and how it’s discussed in American culture more broadly. Jones acknowledged that fundamentalist Christians—including Southern Baptists and other evangelical groups that are vocal on the issue of same-sex marriage—have influenced Mennonites’ views.
“To me, the scriptures say that people who decide to actively practice [homosexuality] are not to be within the church the same way as someone who has tendencies toward it,” Jones said, expressing a view shared by other conservative Christian leaders. “I think we all have tendency toward various sins. We decide to either practice these things or not practice.”
Jones himself was raised a Presbyterian and ordained as a pastor in 1976 as part of a group called the Evangelical Church Alliance. In 1995, he was asked to be a pastor at Mill Run, a small Mennonite church near Altoona, Pennsylvania. He said he liked the community orientation of his adopted denomination. “I’m very connectionally oriented—committed to the conference,” he said. “We don’t have a priest, or bishops, as many churches do. The congregations decide.”
This sense of community: That’s why being in a conference matters, he said. “I’ve seen too many independent churches … go off and do strange things. We need to have a certain degree of interconnectedness to keep us all Mennonite—to keep an identity.”
This is a little ironic; after all, Jones was the one who started the discipline process against Hyattsville, which is why the conference was considering dissolution. “To me, conference is very important, but not more important than the difference, at this point,” he said. “All of us have been waiting for Hyattsville to repent, and they haven’t. We’re all reluctant—we’d rather be together.”
When the initial complaint was brought against Hyattsville in 2003, Larry Miller offered to step down from his position as a representative in the conference, but his fellow churchgoers firmly and politely told him that they wanted him as their delegate, no matter the consequences. And when same-sex marriage became legal in Maryland in 2013, the congregation had a discussion about whether they wanted ceremonies to take place at their church.
“I thought there would be more people saying, ‘No, we shouldn’t do it, it will get us in trouble,’” said Cindy Lapp, the head pastor at Hyattsville. “But what we heard was, ‘Well, we’ve already been in trouble. These are people in our congregation. Of course we’re going to marry them.’”
By that time, Hyattsville had already gone through its own time of transition—and division—on its stance toward homosexuality. In the mid-70s, four families from Hyattsville broke off and founded an Anabaptist “house church,” which met in a rotation of living rooms in the the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. John Swarr, one of the founding members of the church, said the group had wanted a community that was more compatible with urban life. In part, he said, a “house church is made up of people who have come from … somewhere else that was not so good, that they wanted to get the hell away from. But they were still dealing with a spiritual something in their life,” he said. Starting in the early 1980s, this included gay men.
When some of the members of the house church—including a gay man, Jim Derstine—expressed an interest in attending Hyattsville, the suburban church started a yearlong, committee-based investigation into the question of gay membership. In 1986, by a vote of 94 percent, the congregation accepted Derstine. The pastor at the time, Robert Schreiner, went to Allegheny Conference to discuss the vote, but the conference overseer agreed that it was a matter for the congregation to decide, not the conference.
But two and a half decades later, the conference did start voicing disapproval over Larry Miller’s role. “The big thing in the Mennonites is ‘give and receive counsel,’” Lapp explained. “We say, ‘Well, we did receive your counsel, but we didn’t agree with it.’ Most of the time that is not acceptable, but we’ve just been obnoxious and stuck around anyway. And I think in the end it’s a really good thing that we did.”
There are a few formal benefits to being part of a conference: Its leaders can offer support during times of transition, for example, and it licenses pastors. But most of all, it provides a community.
“As much as we have struggled with the conference, I really value having outside relationships and outside accountability,” Lapp said. “Part of the reason that we stay in the conference is because we want to have connections with people who aren’t like us.”
For Hyattsville’s members, who live only a few Metro stops away from D.C., being part of the Allegheny Conference is also a way to stay in touch with Mennonites from rural communities—farming is a big part of Mennonites’ historical identity. “I think there really is a rural-urban divide,” Lapp said. “It’s a way to connect back with our roots,” she said. “There’s so much wisdom there, from people who are on the land and near the land.”
But there are also important cultural differences. When Larry Miller, the gay delegate from Hyattsville, stood during a conference meeting in 2002 and offered to speak with other Mennonites about his experience as a gay Christian, only one or two people took him up on it—including the pastor at the conservative Barrville Mennonite Church.
“We sat across from each other at a picnic table at one of our summer sessions, and we talked for a good long while,” Miller said. “I just felt like we were talking apples and oranges when we were talking about the gays and lesbians in our lives.”
During conversations like these, pastors and church members who object to same-sex relationships tend to return to certain passages in the Bible. At Springs, they quoted Leviticus 18:22, which states that “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination,” and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which says that “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men … will inherit the kingdom of God.”
For Christians who are gay, words like these could be taken as a direct assault on both their faith and their gender identity. But Miller said he tries to ignore them. “I don’t react very much any more—maybe an eye roll. Anything that biblical writers were addressing had nothing to do with modern same-sex couples,” he said. “Some people’s whole focus about gay and lesbian relationships is all about sex—thinking below the belt, and that’s not the totality of what our life together means.”
In 2013, after same-sex marriage became legal in Maryland, Miller and his husband were married at Hyattsville. Cindy Lapp conducted the wedding; because she has overseen same-sex ceremonies, her credentials as a pastor were put under review by the Allegheny Conference. Ultimately, the conference didn’t revoke her license—"which is a miracle in itself," Lapp said—and leaders said they wouldn’t review her credentials again.
But it will be a bigger challenge to get Michelle Burkholder, the associate pastor at Hyattsville, officially licensed with the Allegheny Conference. “I grew up Mennonite, in a pastor’s family with pastors as grandparents on both sides,” Burkholder said. “But I am also a person who has a wife and is a woman. In the Mennonite church, that is complicated, if you haven’t noticed.”
Burkholder grew up in Harrisonburg, Virginia, a town of close to 50,000 people with a large Mennonite population. Shortly before she decided to attend seminary in Minnesota in 2001, she and her partner had a commitment ceremony, and she wrote a letter of resignation from her home church. “I knew at the time that me marrying a woman was not in line with the membership guidelines of the Mennonite church,” she said. “There was this tension within me of loving the church a lot and needing to be authentic and honest to myself.”
After graduating from seminary, Burkholder didn’t really look for jobs in the Mennonite community—she knew she probably wouldn’t find a church where she could do direct ministry as an openly gay pastor. Instead, she worked at a lay-led church, and then a Wells Fargo, before finding her way to Hyattsville in 2013. “The gift of Hyattsville … is a community that has been at its work long enough that two years ago, it was willing to hire me and not have my sexuality or gender identity be a part of that equation,” she said. “I do think the Mennonite church as a whole is missing out on the gifts of LGBT people.”
Over and over, Burkholder made a point of saying that her story—and Hyattsville’s story—is not just about a gay Christian pastor at an LGBT-friendly Mennonite church. “When I first got this job, somebody interviewed me for one of the Mennonite magazines and asked me if I thought I felt like a trailblazer,” she said. “I don’t feel like I’ve been called to Hyattsville as a community to serve as an activist. I feel called to Hyattsville to serve as a pastor.”
At Springs, people began returning from lunch, finding their seats in the church pews for the afternoon’s vote on Hyattsville’s future. And they sang: “Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on, let me stand. … Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light.”
As Cathy Spory, the outgoing moderator of the Allegheny Mennonite Conference, reviewed the Robert’s Rules of Order, there was some tense laughter (as in all democratically minded organizations, Robert’s Rules have apparently annoyed the Mennonites on occasion). Mostly, though, there was silence.
There were three resolutions before the church body: restoring Hyattsville to full membership, requiring a 51 percent majority to pass; removing Hyattsville from the conference, requiring a two-thirds majority to pass; or, if neither of those measures passed, dissolving the conference. Earlier in the day, Lapp told me she was nervous about the first vote, even though it only required a simple majority to pass. The attendance rolls showed that some of the more conservative churches had brought along as many delegates as they were allowed—even churches whose members usually didn’t show up to conference meetings, she said.
The floor opened for debate. Almost immediately, a representative from Springs proposed an amendment: Hyattsville should be allowed back in, but “members of congregations who are living lifestyles not generally accepted in conference should not be eligible to hold an elected position.” This restriction would apply to anyone whose lifestyle wasn’t in keeping with the Mennonite USA confession of faith, he said.
The pastor from Springs, Eric Haglund, rose and said that he had helped draft this amendment and written the morning’s sermon with it in mind—the conference needed time to adjust, he said, and this offered a compromise. “We can’t put deadlines on the Holy Spirit,” he said. “We have all been so bound up, I’m not sure we could recognize the Holy Spirit if he came crashing through the roof.”
But as another woman pointed out, the amendment might have unintended consequences. “I stand here a sinner: I am divorced, and I am an adultress,” she said. “I would like us to consider the challenge that would be before the leadership council if they had to screen people of certain sin categories from the leadership council.”
The moderators were ruthless in keeping the church body on topic. At one point, a man from Red Run Mennonite Church in Denver, Pennsylvania, came to the front of the room and began quoting Leviticus, calling “men who lie with men” an “abomination.”
“What do you believe: God’s word, or what the world wants?” he started to ask, but a moderator cut him off. “We’re speaking to the amendment,” he said—and the man returned to his seat.
The amendment didn’t pass—it got very few votes, in fact—but some expressed a desire for more time to formulate changes. Steven Olivieri, the current pastor at Mill Run, called for “both sides to get equal air time, outside of their two minutes [of allotted speaking time] to present all sides of the issue. I would have liked to have time to discuss this formally with other pastors.”
But a woman from Pittsburgh Mennonite Church stood up—a congregation that also welcomes gay members, but hasn’t been officially disciplined. “I’ve been surprised in a couple of recent comments to hear a call for more time in light of the fact that it’s been almost a decade,” she said.
The conference leaders handed out the ballots—simple slips of colored paper that might have been printed off from Microsoft Word. They weren’t checking who could and couldn’t vote—they even handed a ballot to the only reporter in the room. The conference, it seems, was determining the future fate of a church on the honor system.
When you’re waiting, time often seems to stretch into endlessness. Allegheny Conference, though, takes time-stretching to an extreme. As the votes were counted, leaders made announcement after announcement about the daily stuff of church life: opportunities to quilt with a neighboring Amish community; invitations to visit the Mennonite guest house in Washington, D.C.; calls for volunteers at Mennonite summer camp. Even after the vote counters came back into the sanctuary with their official tallies, the announcement-makers kept going. “We need prayer, volunteers, and quilts—three things that Mennonites are good at,” one woman said.
Finally, the proceedings resumed. “The vote result is as follows,” Spory said. “72, yes, 70, no. The motion carries, with 50.7 percent.”
50.7 percent—that was the difference of one vote. The Allegheny Mennonite Conference had voted to keep Hyattsville in its midst—but only by rounding up.
Spory called for a moment of silence. As those in the church bowed their heads, a voice in the back of the sanctuary—a voice that sounded a lot like Steven Olivieri from Mill Run—called out, “God save you all.”
Before the vote took place, two congregations had already submitted letters announcing their withdrawal from Allegheny: Gortner Union Church in Oakland, Maryland, and Glade Mennonite Church in Accident, Maryland. Spory read the letters aloud, quick and businesslike. As she spoke, a representative from a third congregation, Red Run Mennonite Church, approached the podium with a letter—it, too, wanted to resign. In the last row of pews, seven people rose to leave the church—but not without first shaking hands with Jeff Jones.
Lapp and Burkholder made a statement, thanking the conference for choosing to walk with them. Earlier, Lapp had told me she was considering giving a different kind of message. “I don’t think I’m brave enough to mention this, but in one draft of my speech, I would say: In 10 years, we will thank the conference for disciplining us, because it has forced us to be clear about who we are.”
Up at the podium, the meeting leaders made a last-minute hymn selection to fit the moment. “The Lord bless you and keep you,” they sang, as still more people walked out of the church hall.
As people waited in line to grab their winter coats, Donna Mast cried.
“I was crying over the soberness of the day,” the conference minister told me, “over the reality that we are so deeply divided, but most specifically because we were saying good-bye and releasing from our membership three congregations that day. I was living with the knowledge that this probably is not the last of the congregations who will ask to leave.”
Being a person of any faith means finding a balance between taught tradition and the moral imperatives of modernity. In the Mennonite church, the call of the past is particularly strong across the theological spectrum.
“Sometimes I think those Lancaster Conference bishops had it right in the 1920s and 30s when they said no radios—nobody’s allowed to listen to the radio, because you’re going to get influenced by worldly music,” Lapp said. “Our congregation is quite traditional in our worship: We sing out of hymnals, we have an order of worship, and yet we’re seen as progressive theologically. I think that is actually true in many areas of the Mennonite church: The folks who have progressive theology are holding onto the tradition in terms of worship, wanting to get back to what it means to be Anabaptist.”
Even young Mennonites have a deep respect for tradition. “It’s frustrating to be mistaken for the Amish,” said Jacob Yoder, a 23-year-old from southeast Iowa who I met after services one Sunday at Hyattsville. But “in some ways, I’m honored when people say that, because I have a lot of respect for the Amish and very conservative Mennonites—there’s a lot that we can learn from them. There’s a lot of structure to Amish life that I see as valuable.”
But for the most part, Yoder and his Millennial peers don’t want to go back to riding horses and buggies and having debates over the length of sleeves. On the whole, the church is aging—as Kate Stolzfus, a 23-year-old from Ohio who’s currently working in D.C. for the Mennonite Voluntary Service, described her home church to me: “You look out, and all you see is a sea of white hair.” Whatever form it takes, the future of the Mennonite church will soon be handed to a smaller, younger generation—one that, in general, cares deeply about LGBT issues.
“In a way, [LGBT acceptance] is a surface-level issue,” said Brandon Waggy, a 22-year-old from Indiana, whom I also spoke with at Hyattsville. “Talking to some of my friends who have stayed in the Mennonite church, and some who haven’t stayed, there’s a frustration with how we handle conflict—that’s something that I think is especially frustrating to younger Mennonites. There’s this focus on peace-building—we’re going to solve everyone else’s problems, but we don’t do a good job with our own.”
Jones, Lapp, and Mast all said something similar when I spoke with each of them—there’s something paradoxical about a pacifist church that solves problems by forming schisms.
“The irony is that Mennonites are known around the world for the peace-making work that they’re doing,” Lapp said. “Yet within the Mennonite church denomination, we just struggle so much to figure out how can we bring those same principles to bear,” she said. “Mennonites certainly can be very passive aggressive to try to not be aggressive.”
Even though Allegheny didn’t choose to dissolve, its future isn’t clear. “I don’t know if it can hold,” Lapp said. “What we’re seeing at the conference level is really just magnified at the denominational level. It’s the same struggle: Financially, we can’t sustain all these institutions that we’ve built, there are people that are withdrawing. There are going to have to be hard decisions made.”
“The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord,” the Allegheny Conference sang at the end of its day at Springs. “By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed … Lord, give us grace that we, like them, the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with Thee.”
“I think that’s one thing we’ve got going for us,” Lapp said. “We can sing together.”