Jan29WedJanuary 29, 2020
Did you know that 141 years ago, the roots of First Mennonite Church began with Mennonite families gathering together just north of Tremont? Families had settled in that region four decades earlier to plow the land and plant corn by hand in rows made by a single shovel plow. Worship services at the newly built Pleasant Grove Church included singing, prayer, Scripture reading, a sermon, testimonies by leaders, more singing, more prayer and a dismissal. At that time, the 95 members of Pleasant Grove were part of the Western District Amish-Mennonite Conference.
Over the next forty years, Amish-Mennonite believers began to share missional and educational work with other congregations in Illinois. In 1920, a gathered assembly of approximately 1600 people affirmed redistricting Mennonite congregations according to geography. A year later, the Western District Amish-Mennonite Conference dissolved and the new Illinois Mennonite Conference emerged with unity around vision, theology and proximity.
A lot has changed since those early days. For example, there is no longer a church building at the Pleasant Grove location, although our cemetery is still there. Instead, our congregation moved to Plum Street in Morton for several years before establishing itself on South Baltimore Ave. But one thing has not changed over 100 years, we are still actively joined with the Illinois Mennonite Conference, seeking to pursue Biblical theology and remain on mission.
Illinois Mennonite Conference (IMC) has had several substantial difficulties over the past couple of years. Strong disagreements regarding same-sex unions have been at the top of that list. Therefore, the Missional Leadership Team (MLT), who manages IMC, authored a document in 2017 regarding credentialing practices. This document restated the importance of the Confession of Faith. It also stated that “we will not credential or hold the credential of a person in a same-sex relationship” and “officiating a same-sex marriage will initiate a credential review of the pastor by the [Church Life Team].”
In 2019, three IMC congregations openly disagreed with this direction, two credentialed pastors officiated same-sex unions and one credentialed hospital chaplain made her lesbian lifestyle public. The Church Life Team began credentialing reviews in April. The chaplain, a member of First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana (FMCCU), had her credentials removed, but no other action has been taken regarding the other IMC pastors. Inconsistencies from IMC leadership have congregations on both sides of the issue frustrated. This is the current reality of IMC and the climate in which delegates will be gathering on February 15th. The delegates are planning to vote upon a new document proposed by the MLT which has removed any reference to the Confession of Faith. Visit illinoismennonite.com/delegate-information to learn more. You can also read about FMCCU’s position, and reasons for staying in IMC, in an article published on Monday, January 27th in the Mennonite World Review (mennoworld.com).
As a congregation, we have already shared a unified statement with IMC leadership, which said, among other things, “We reject the belief that multiple interpretations ought to be the standard teaching position for Mennonites. Instead, we re-affirm the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective as a sufficient guideline for the interpretation of Scripture and the source of guidance for belief and practice among all Illinois Mennonite congregations.” But…what should we do if no action is taken to remove the credentials of wayward pastors? Is geography enough to unify a conference or do theological issues matter more? These are hard questions, but ones that we will need to talk about. Because of our long history with IMC, I encourage everyone to pray about how to respond as a unified congregation. I believe that First Mennonite Church will play an important role regarding the future of Illinois Mennonite Conference – just as we have in the years past. Our faith and history compel us.