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A Mennonite pastor is suspended and a denomination is splintered (COMMENTARY)

(RNS) What a waste of effort, to put a good pastor on trial. What an absurd tragedy that a historic peace church would reprimand those who want to bless loving, committed relationships.

Two men kiss each other during a pro-gay demonstration in front of the Nossa Senhora da Paz church in Rio de Janeiro.  Photo courtesy REUTERS/Bruno Domingos. Eds: This photo may only be used with RNS-FLORIAN-OPED published May 27, 2016.

(RNS) The Virginia Mennonite Conference suspended a pastor’s ministerial credentials Wednesday (May 25) because he officiated at a same-sex wedding.

The Rev. Isaac Villegas of the Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship and my pastor, is “at variance” with the conference, which belongs to the Mennonite Church USA. The denomination, with some 100,000 members, holds that marriage is “a covenant between one man and one woman for life.”

The conference was aware of Villegas’ plan to officiate the wedding well in advance, as the congregation has been in dialogue with it for years over the matter of fully welcoming LGBT people in the congregation.

But the conference went one step beyond an immediate suspension of the minister’s credentials. It shifted the tone of the conversation, not to mention the power dynamic, from “variance” to “misconduct.”

So much hinges on these word choices. Variance applies to those congregations who are allowed to continue barring women from the pulpit despite the denomination’s most recent affirmation of women’s gifts and calling. Variance applies when a minister chooses to bless the union of persons who have been divorced and seek to remarry.

But misconduct?

Misconduct applies when a minister steals from the church. Misconduct is when a minister is presumed guilty of physical and/or sexual abuse.

Misconduct is not blessing the marriage of two committed adults, with the full support of their church community, an action that roughly half the ministers in the conference support. Yes, there is a range of opinions in the conference. But it has chosen to shift the narrative from one of theological diversity to one of punitive measures, from variance to shame and censure.

The Mennonite Church is not alone in its struggle to navigate such theological diversity; mainline Protestant denominations around the country are splintering over LGBT people, too. Young talented leaders in growing congregations are driven away — sometimes formally, as with Villegas, and sometimes simply because they are worn down by the fight. The lament over the lack of young people in churches is a common refrain, yet the unwillingness of denominational leaders to consider inclusive theologies is likely a contributing factor.

Leaders in the conference believe Villegas has sinned, and must repent. Yet their own guidelines say ordained ministers are to “build up the local body and to further engage the congregation in the mission of God.” Villegas was carrying out the calling placed upon him in his ordination, ministering to the local church body he serves, a body that welcomes LGBT people without hesitation. Villegas and his church understand his actions as those of a faithful pastor.

Meanwhile, when it comes to actual instances of misconduct, of abuse in the church, predators continue to find safe haven in the conference. While officiating at the wedding of two committed adults will result in punishment for the pastor who blessed the marriage, the conference seems willing to make every effort to protect pastors who kept quiet about abuse in their church, as they have done with Lindale Mennonite Church in Linville, Va. They will punish those who seek to create safe, open spaces of mutual accountability in our churches, while protecting those who are complicit in violence.

What a waste of effort, to put a good pastor on trial. What an absurd tragedy that a historic peace church would reprimand those who want to bless loving, consensual, committed relationships, while failing to train pastors on how to respond to real violence in their communities.

The Virginia Mennonite Conference’s guidelines speak of the minister’s breach of trust, but it is conference leaders who have shown themselves to be untrustworthy, as they continue to foster an environment that is unsafe and unwelcoming for so many people.

(Meghan Florian is a writer teaching at William Peace University and the Center for Theological Writing at Duke Divinity School)

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