Jean Kilheffer Hess is a member of East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church. She is a management consultant with Core4, Inc. and owner of StoryShare, an oral history interviewing and life story services business. She is a 2004 graduate of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary with a Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jean and her spouse, Gale, live in East Petersburg, Pa.
As Anabaptists, we believe that one’s personal commitment to follow the way of Christ leads necessarily to doing so in communion with others. “I” moves quickly to “we.” And the best of “we” is sharing worship and meals; mentoring, teaching and learning; Scripture study; fun times of fellowship, music and the arts; mutual support, discernment, anti-oppression work, and the list goes on. What we do, we often do together.
And who we are, we are together, but not in the sense of being the same or all understanding God in precisely the same way. The healthiest natural systems are diverse systems. The healthiest church is a diverse church. We are already gloriously diverse, and the Mennonite Church USA biennial convention is a great place to experience and contribute to the enlivening diversity of our church.
I love the church. I look forward to Mennonite Church USA conventions. So why, when my congregation asked me to be a delegate to Phoenix 2013, did I struggle with my response?
In addition to building relationships and getting to know each other face-to-face, conventions are a prime way that individuals, on behalf of congregations, participate in church leadership. In Anabaptist circles, we rarely talk openly about power. But in a church that invites broad participation in leadership decisions, contributing visibly to significant conversations, networking, and soaking in a variety of perspectives offers power beyond the delegate table interaction. This kind of participation offers name- and congregation-recognition, it builds trust, and it helps pave the way for invitations into specific leadership roles.
When Mennonite Church USA held the convention in Phoenix despite Iglesia Menonita Hispana’s call to relocate because of what was, in practicality, racial discrimination made law in Arizona, I understood it to be prioritizing administrative matters over the full fellowship and leadership development of our church. “I’ll sit this one out in solidarity,” I thought. I had attended many conventions but never as a delegate. “I’ve not been asked to be a delegate before. I won’t be asked now.” Wrong. The invitation came.
Ultimately I chose to represent my congregation in Phoenix. There is no tidy moral here. Like most decisions in life, it felt imperfect. But like other conventions I’ve attended, I had a rich experience.
As your congregation discusses sending a delegate(s) to convention, note that it’s about more than the mechanics of representation or the joy of worshipping together. Among other things, it’s about leadership development and making visible a diversely vibrant church. To convention planners and denominational leadership I say “thank you” for your hard, fraught work. I trust one of your prioritized tasks for Kansas City is to make sure all delegates feel welcome when they arrive at the table.