About 6,000 members of the largest Mennonite body in America are gathering in Pittsburgh this week to make decisions about how to make decisions.
Rather than debate and vote on social issues, "we propose experimenting in Pittsburgh with a different way of working out our assembly business," said the Rev. Ervin Stutzman, executive director of the denomination.
These aren't horse-and-buggy Mennonites. They wear modern clothing, use technology and often hold professional jobs. But all Mennonites share a biblical faith that requires pacifism and teaches that patriotism should never overshadow commitment to God's kingdom.
The Mennonite Church USA, whose social teachings don't align with any political party, is beginning to feel the same partisan social rifts that have divided mainline Protestant churches for decades.
At their last national convention in 2009 there was heated debate as some members challenged the church's teaching that same-sex partnerships cannot be blessed by the church. This year its leaders hope that delegates will forego voting on issue-oriented resolutions and instead discuss a long-term plan to return the church to its roots.
"It tears at the fabric of our church when you get into partisan politics. It tends to realign the church more in keeping with party platforms, as opposed to theological convictions," Mr. Stutzman said.
Opposition to abortion is part of the church's teaching on nonviolence, and the church upholds the belief that same-sex partnerships violate biblical teaching on marriage. But it also defends the rights of immigrants and supports environmentalism and a social safety net for the poor.
"A Missional Vision and Purposeful Plan for the Mennonite Church USA," referred to as "The Purposeful Plan," says that secular politics shouldn't be the church's priority.
"Denominational leaders should focus primarily on strengthening the church as a kingdom community with alternative allegiances and loyalties in the midst of the world. On occasion they are called to engage in political advocacy. This will have the greatest credibility when this advocacy reflects the common mind of the church on an issue," it says.
The denomination has 105,000 members in 42 states, the largest number in Pennsylvania.
"It is the largest, most visible Mennonite group, because of their size, the scope of where they live and the influence of their periodicals and institutions," said Donald Kraybill, senior fellow at Elizabethtown University's Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies and author of "The Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites and Mennonites."
The church was created in 2002 through a merger of two Mennonite bodies. The group that was strongest in Pennsylvania had absorbed many people who left the Amish, and tended to have a stronger emphasis on separation from the world and on the authority of regional church government, he said. The other group was more politically active and allowed congregations to set their own rules. Those tensions remain.
According to "The Purposeful Plan," the church has lost 16,000 members or 13 percent since 2001, though many left early in objection to the merger. It has started 96 churches in the past five years.
But its own studies show an aging membership and "a growing support of nationalism that runs counter to our convictions for peace and justice," the plan said.
Surveys show that while 81 percent of Mennonites in 1972 said they would seek alternative service as conscientious objectors if they were drafted into the military, only 65 percent said so in 2006, Mr. Kraybill said. One of the plan's top priorities is to strengthen core Mennonite convictions through improved religious education.
The church faces pressure from gay people and their families within its ranks. Pink Menno, which advocates for full inclusion of gay church members, will encourage supporters to wear pink at the convention. It will also hold optional seminars.
"The Purposeful Plan" notes that the nation's social rift over sexuality has begun to be reflected in the Mennonite Church USA.
"We cannot afford to ignore these differences of conviction, neither can we afford to allow this issue to become the most important issue in our life together," it said.
Convention leaders have proposed two alternative ways of addressing divisive issues. The first they dubbed "the Pittsburgh Experiment" before learning that the city is home to a Christian organization of the same name.
"The heart of it is that, instead of debating resolutions about social issues on the floor, that we concentrate on [discussing] 'The Purposeful Plan.' The whole idea is to see if we can get into a mode in which we engage in discussion and discernment to hear what the word of God is saying among us," Mr. Stutzman said.
A companion to that is the Conversation Room, where participants can engage in mediated discussions about difficult issues, including sexuality, immigration, and health care.
"We are basing the Conversation Room on the concept that you can have the most productive conversations on difficult matters if you have people who want to be there, as opposed to forcing conversations on people," Mr. Stutzman said.
Luke Yoder, who is on the leadership team of Pink Menno, said he likes the idea of the Pittsburgh Experiment and the Conversation Room in principle, but worries that advocates for gay inclusion may feel intimidated. Some clergy and congregations that have supported gay couples have faced church discipline, he said.
"The problem for people who are advocates of inclusion is that there is a lot at stake. If you speak out, you might face some kind of consequences," he said.
Mr. Stutzman hopes the convention will bring the traditional hallmarks of Mennonite identity to the fore.
"We are people who care about bringing hope and healing to the world. That is what 'The Purposeful Plan' is about," he said. "Part of that is to look at issues of sexuality and address the deep questions about sexual identity and belonging. These are things that tear churches apart.
"But that is not the main thing we want to be about. We want to be known for our disaster relief, peace and justice involvement, concern for immigrants and care for the earth."
The convention runs today through Saturday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.
Ann Rodgers: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.