How can an evangelical peace church manage potentially divisive decisions so as to stay well inside the definition of peaceful?
To find out I convinced Rod Stafford, now in his 20th year as lead pastor of Portland Mennonite Church, to allow an interview about the process that church worked through to become fully open and affirming of LGBTQ persons. About half way through the interview, I began to sense that I was unprepared for what I was hearing: a conservative church determined to do justice but equally determined to avoid divisive conflict. The interview took place in mid-November, 2018, in Rod’s office at Portland Mennonite Church in southeast Portland.
Jim: Am I correct that being Mennonite was a choice you made nearly 20 years ago when you came to Portland? Have you found a true spiritual home among Mennonites?
Rod: Actually, I first came to a Mennonite Church when I was in seminary in Pasadena, CA. Later I pastored for seven years in Lawrence, Kansas, and then came to Portland in 1999. I’d become acquainted with Mennonites through writers like Ron Sider, and I found a church in which I have felt very much at home. It really holds together a high view of scripture and a clear commitment to justice and peace. It’s interesting also because it has a strong cultural component as well that sometimes can feel exclusive to those who do not have that background. It’s been a big question over the last 50 years or so – how do you draw on the strength of that heritage but not let it stand in the way of welcoming others?
J: There are quite a few brands of Mennonites. To which is Portland Mennonite Church allied most closely, and what has been the stand of that group on LGBTQ inclusion?
R: PMC is part of Mennonite Church USA. Our ‘Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective,’ which was adopted in 1995, includes a statement that defines marriage as between a man and a woman for life. There are local churches and conferences that are very conservative on the issue and others more liberal, and one direction some churches have taken is to join a conference where their position is more likely to be accepted, but the tendency now is to try to work together for greater understanding of one another, and our denomination has called for forbearance with one another regarding how we handle our differences.
J: If you’re willing, can you give me something of your personal development on this issue?
R: I’ve watched people struggling with their sexuality and being misunderstood and rejected by their churches and feeling that what was happening just wasn’t right. I think for me personally it’s been shifts in how I read and interpret the Bible. For me the story of Peter in Joppa seeing the dream of unclean foods and being told to eat, and he replies, “No, I can’t eat these foods,” and he’s told that what God has made clean, he must not make unclean. The way I read the Bible and how the Spirit guides has been essential to my moving toward greater openness on issues of human sexuality.
J: When did you come to a point where you decided that PMC should also be on this journey?
R: Actually, human sexuality had been an issue here well before I became pastor. A young woman, the daughter of prominent church members, had come out as lesbian, and at that time the church wasn’t able to welcome her. A previous pastor, in response to a political issue in Oregon, had also written a letter urging the church to talk about what their response should be. So there’s been a long history of effort to consider the issue. Soon after I came to the church there was an eruption of conflict and controversy on this issue that was quite threatening. When that died down. we took time to consider how we should talk about such divisive issues. I wanted us to think about how our theology informs the way we talk with one another. How do we understand God’s intention about how we deal with controversy and disagreement? We actually wrote a document about how we intended to let the Spirit guide our discussions on difficult issues. I think I decided then and there that I would need to guide such conversations along the ways we’d decided. I’d need to be actively involved, with church leaders, in how we listened to one another and conversed with one another. So when issues of human sexuality came up, we applied those guiding principles, making clear we weren’t going to decide or change anything, but we would have a conversation. We had outside presenters, conservative, liberal, who would add to the knowledge that informed our conversation. We had workshops that weren’t about human sexuality but about developing our communicating skills. There were many meetings. I think we worked hardest at simply developing trust that decreased the distance between those with differing positions on the issue, and it seemed that persons on one side or the other learned not to push their position so hard that others were turned off or felt excluded. I don’t know why or how that really happened; it just did.
J: What about defections? Did some just go away?
R: Not many at that point. I also made a conscious decision that I would be a moderator and not vocal about my position on one side of the other. I was determined to be the pastor of all in the discussion. I think of some pastors being primarily prophetic. They make clear where they stand and the aims of their leadership and can be quite successful doing that, but I think that path I took was a more pastoral role toward all in the church. I knew that as soon as I would say something that clearly stated my own position I’d affect the conversation that I wanted to be free of that influence, so I made an effort to hold back my own point of view and leave space for the congregation to discern. . , which wasn’t all that important anyway. I saw my role as leading the process and I think that was fairly well respected.
J: I must say that I really respect your clear understanding of how important that sort of neutral leadership has been to the process here at PMC, and thinking of myself, I can imagine how difficult that has been, but you were able to maintain that self-control, and I consider that enormously admirable, and undoubtedly essential to the process here.
R: I made the commitment early on not to unilaterally bless any same-sex unions or marriages. The congregation would first have to decide to change its theological position and practice. This is a congregational system here, and I respect that greatly. I believed that unless the church makes changes in its own theology intentionally, it won’t happen—and changing our position on human sexuality would be a theological change, to be sure. I also made clear that to the elders of the church that I did not see it was my role to prevent anyone leaving the church—that was a decision they should be able to make for themselves—but my role was to guide the process so that everyone felt included and heard and so that we continued to move ahead. I did not want to cause people to leave because we seemed to talk and talk and get nowhere. There needed to be movement, and if that caused folks to leave, well, that was their decision.
Another thing I sought to do, and always seek to do, is to normalize the discussion, and by that I mean to make following Jesus the normal thing we do. The Christian church has always had disagreements. It disagreed in Jerusalem. It disagreed about slavery. Do you think when we get this resolved, we’ll be done with disagreement? Not likely.
This latest issue was a major issue that required rethinking and changing our theology. We’ve had to make difficult decisions before but none that required such a critical change, and there was lots of pressure and tension around it. I got used to living with a lot of tension: people on this side, people on that side. About two and a half years ago, it became clear that we couldn’t just go on without a decision, hard as that would be. There would be people, on both sides, who would give up in despair that we would get past our talking about the issue, and I saw that church leadership would need to actively guide the church toward a resolution of the issue without much more delay.
One result was that I wrote a document intended to articulate, not where I stood on the issues, but where most of the people of the church seemed to be and what the Spirit was telling us about the issue. So after we’d worked on it internally, I got up and presented this proposal, and I remember thinking that this was probably one of the most significant points in the congregation’s history. We then created several venues for people to talk to each other and tell their stories. We also invited people to write public letters to people who held opposing views. People who were struggling with the issue or against it could write letters. The letters were open to all so that people could read all of them. We gathered for meals, we prayed together. Not everyone felt we got the process right. There are people who still didn’t think the process was right. I suppose that when the process isn’t going the way you like, then the process gets the blame. I think what happened is that in our by-laws we want to work toward consensus, but after we’d presented the proposal, our leaders said to the congregation that we ought not just go on and on talking. In our bylaws is a provision that if consensus cannot be reached, there can be a vote with 80% affirmative to pass a motion.
So we finally got to a point where we knew could go on talking for hours and hours but nothing more was going to be learned. Instead we needed to come to a decision, and so we voted. It was a very tense time. I was pretty sure that if everyone voted, we would have the necessary votes to pass the proposal, but I wasn’t sure. It was a very tense time, and I had the feeling that if we got say 75%, the church just wouldn’t go on as it was. If you’ve got 75% of the people who strongly support the issue and 25% who don’t, it just wasn’t going to work, but we got an 85% affirmative vote.
So after that vote with 15% disagreeing, there were two families with young kids who left us and also one older single person. Though it was difficult, I think we parted in peace. I continued to see those families occasionally. I also sat down for good talks with the older woman, who had been a long-time missionary in Africa, and we could express our appreciation for one another. I felt very sorry that she needed to leave. There are also people here who stayed for various reasons who still didn’t agree, and the first year were still pretty raw. You know honestly we’ve tried not to be triumphant or to rub it in. think that after a year those who’ve stayed no longer made the issue their central concern and found much else to care about.
I think the next big test will be when one of the pastors agrees to officiate at a gay marriage in the church, which could happen or perhaps a gay person on our staff. In fact, last year we baptized two men who are married to other men. The way I’ve described it to the congregation, the way I understand it, is that in Acts as Peter described it the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles had been broken down, and that here in this church the dividing wall between straight and gay has been broken down. If you want to join the church, If you want to be a leader in the church, the question isn’t whether you are gay or not, but whether you want to follow Jesus with us or not and whether you have gifts for leadership or not. With that being said, there are still people in the church who do not agree. We try to address the relational tensions, but we’re not going back.
J: Returning to the denomination, do you have allies?
R: This is a big conversation going on. You know, we’re a congregational polity, and there’s a lot of conversation going on in the churches, work being done on the issue. The church in Seattle has made this decision, the church in Boise. The reality is we’re the biggest church in our conference and so a welcoming posture starts to become the ‘facts on the ground.’ Around the denomination, it’s in process. I have a friend back in North Carolina—they’ve not revoked his credentials, but there’s a disciplinary procedure for him. He’s been working to have his church join a different conference where his credentials would be recognized and the church’s position accepted. There’s been a long, long conversation about how churches should be treated. The Seattle church for instance, the pastor has been much more prophetic about the issue, and that’s been divisive. Given that we’re one of the larger churches I think word got out that this is the direction we’re going to go, and they’re not going to change that.
J: It appears to me that a major reason for the successful process here was the quality of your leadership over many years, your patient but persistent guiding the process, that’s been the key factor in where this church is today, and I think that sort of leadership is what I’d like others pastors who want to see their churches make progress on this issue to learn from the good work you’ve done here.
R: Thank you. No question, it’s a big issue for many churches. We have quite a few Spanish-speaking churches, and they tend to be move conservative on this issue. We used to do a yearly communion service together, but there came a point a when the pastor asked not to continue. We’re very close, and I think we can disagree on this issue and still have good relationships locally. I think one of the biggest issues to get some clarity on is how we read the Bible, and how we recognize and respect that we can read the Bible differently but still stay in relationship. I recall one occasion several years ago when a man, a church member, who was troubled by our discussion of this issue, appeared at a leadership meeting and started talking about his disagreement with where we were going, and one of the leaders said to him “But can’t we understand the Bible differently and still be together?,” and he answered, “No, I come to church to have my faith strengthened by our being in agreement.” I can understand where he was coming from: for him, the Bible is fixed and you need to agree with it all and your strength comes when you agree on issues fully, and that’s one way to deal with it. But to others, it is more like a spider web; we uphold each other, get strength from one another, learn from each other as we continue to trust the Spirit to guide our conversations and lead us forward to new places. It’s really difficult to bring those two views of the Bible together. Perhaps here at PMC we’ve been able to move ahead because that spider web approach is predominant; there’s a dynamic understanding of faith that allows us to let the Spirit lead. But if you’re in a church where many hold the more static view of the Bible, moving ahead on this issue would be more difficult.
J: There’s one final question, although in fact, you’ve already given the answer, but here it is: What would be your advice to a church that wishes to face directly the challenge of working through the LGBTQ issues? What’s essential? What’s a key pitfall to avoid?
R: I think the essential is to give enough time to developing trust through much open conversation where people speak freely and others listen well. Pitfalls? Not seeing the need to go slow enough to convince people they can talk about the issue. Maybe a pastor unwilling to maintain a neutrality that allows fully caring for people on opposite sides of the discussion. I’m not seeing that what I call the prophetic approach where the pastor stakes out a position and defends it is very successful. For me a pitfall would have been to act unilaterally. I think that would have undermined our effort to develop trust. We must be firmly grounded in our faith, clear about how the church works. From the start I was clear about our being a congregational church, to trust that the body will be guided by the Spirit.
J: I am deeply impressed. I think you and PMC have modeled well a successful journey from your earliest discussions to the point where now you’re fully open and affirming. I can only commend you for your effective leadership, and I thank you for your willingness to share this story.