Covenants Made and Broken: BMC and Brethren Volunteer Service
A few months ago, we announced that Stan Noffsinger, General Secretary of the Church of the Brethren, finally approved BMC as a placement site for Brethren Volunteer Service. We were delighted by this designation because it meant that Brethren and Mennonite young adults who wanted to serve their denomination could actually do it through a Brethren agency and not have to go through Lutheran Volunteer Corps or Volunteer Ministries of the United Church of Christ as is currently the case.
As is fairly predictable, there was a loud negative response from a vocal, aggressive faction of the church. The Church of the Brethren Mission and Ministry Board held an intense, closed door session about this issue at its March board meeting, and issued a statement that critiqued communication but also acknowledged the process that the General Secretary and Executive Committee had followed in making a decision about BMC’s Brethren Volunteer Service project.
The fury ignited again when the 2012 BVS Project Book was distributed that included a description for the BMC position under its “peace and justice” project section. Charges were made by excited distracters that the description “advocated for homosexuality” in a way that was not acceptable to them. Under extreme pressure, the Executive Committee of the Mission and Ministry Board instructed the General Secretary to demand that BMC rewrite the description or be removed from the project list. It was suggested that labels bearing the new position description be printed and sent out with instructions to place the new label over the old description in the BVS Project Book. A May 24 deadline was set.
Here is the project description that is listed in the 2012 BVS Project Book:
The Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Interests (BMC) seeks to cultivate an inclusive church and society and care for the Mennonite and Brethren lgbt and allied community. BMC is seeking a volunteer to serve as the Kaleidoscope Coordinator, where he/she will focus their efforts upon resourcing and empowering Mennonite and Brethren youth and young adults for the work of lgbt justice, support and understanding. Visits to college campuses, social networking, the presentation of safe zone trainings and youth advisor workshops, faith based organizing, and participation in denominational events are all part of the coordinator’s responsibilities. In addition, the volunteer works closely with the Executive Director to carry out the mission of BMC and maintain the BMC office. Requirements: To be successful at BMC, a volunteer needs to have a passion for lgbt justice and a desire to bring change within challenging circumstances. An interest in the Anabaptist and Pietistic traditions is essential, with a bachelor’s degree preferred. Creativity, flexibility, persistence, maturity and strong communication skills are necessary.
Here is BMC’s response to the demand that we rewrite the description:
May 2, 2012
Mission and Ministry Executive Committee
Stan Noffsinger, General Secretary
Church of the Brethren
1451 Dundee Ave.
Elgin, IL 60120
Dear Stan and Members of the Executive Committee:
A few months ago, we celebrated the decision to include BMC as a project placement for BVS. For us, this was an important acknowledgment of the work that we do and have done for nearly four decades in helping our church to live into the gospel message of justice, hospitality and grace. More significantly, it signaled to the young Brethren volunteers who have worked with BMC or are contemplating such work, that there is a place for them within this church that has shaped and nurtured them. No longer would they need to go through the Lutheran Volunteer Corps or the Volunteer Ministries of the United Church of Christ in order to serve their own denomination and express their commitment to the life and witness of Jesus.
The process by which BMC was approved as a placement site was extraordinary and involved a scrutiny and administrative involvement that has been unprecedented. In the ten or more years that we have been requesting approval, we have patiently provided any and all information that was requested, carefully demonstrated our alignment with BVS goals and values, answered any questions directed to us, swallowed our disappointment at the numerous rejections, welcomed Stan to our home offices, and diligently filled out all the forms required of us. It was an arduous and tedious process, and the joy we felt as we learned of our approval and signed the final contract was in direct proportion to the numerous difficulties that we had experienced.
And so you might imagine our deep sense of disappointment as we learned that yet another hoop, another obstacle, has been placed before us. Sadly, this is familiar terrain. We were already asked to rewrite a description for an insight session at Annual Conference, which we did. Attached is a copy of our presentation at a Standing Committee regarding the disturbing history of a BMC booth at Annual Conference. It is not uncommon that simple BMC requests for participation are met with avoidance, the development of new guidelines and special procedures, inconsistencies, denials and irrational explanations. Surely you can understand the weariness that such behaviors have generated within us, and also the wariness as new demands and expectations are levied.
We are aware that our very existence is unacceptable to a vocal segment of the church that will use every means possible to make certain that our participation in the life of the church is restricted or denied. Each one of us has witnessed the vitriolic comments, the subtle and not-so-subtle threats, the posturing and back room maneuvering that has defined this segment. We recognize these as tactics of intimidation and bullying, and realize that continually acquiescing to each demand only validates such behavior and establishes a precedent for an ongoing destructive cycle of threat and response.
For all of these reasons, and with great sadness, we conclude that we are not willing to rewrite the project description for BVS. BMC acted with integrity, openness, and in good faith through a long and laborious process; appropriate approval was granted; and a contract was signed. We have walked far beyond the second mile and endured more scrutiny and hurdles than any other project of which we are aware.
Brethren are fond of reminding ourselves of our tradition where “our word is as good as our bond.” In that same spirit, we would ask that denominational leaders respect and uphold the agreement that has already been made, so that we can each be about the work of BVS: to advocate justice, work for peace, serve human needs and care for creation.
BMC Board (members listed)
Sadly, throughout this whole process, not one member of the Mission and Ministry Board or its Executive Committee had communicated directly with us about any of their concerns. Although it had taken nearly a decade of process before BMC was made a Brethren Volunteer Service Project, the process to have that decision rescinded was proceeding at a fast-tracked pace. On May 23, we sent the following email to members of the Mission and Ministry Executive Committee:
Dear Executive Committee Members of the Mission and Ministry Board:
In a spirit of Christian community and mutual respect, we write to express our deep concern with the pace, style and content of the Mission and Ministry Board's actions related to BMC and our BVS position. We are disturbed by the fact that no one from the Executive Committee has communicated directly in any way with BMC about your concerns, despite a letter that we sent to each one of you. We are dismayed at the position into which the General Secretary has been placed, with the demand that he revise a decision and covenant that was made with us in good faith. We are confused by the hastiness of your actions and the seemingly opaque nature of any agenda or process. Finally, we are bothered by a persistent pattern of conversation and decision making about us that does not include us.
For these reasons, we affirm the recommendation by the General Secretary that representatives from our board meet face to face with you, in the spirit of Matthew 18, and as sisters and brothers who share a commitment and concern for the well being and life of our Church.
We look forward to gathering around a table to hear and understand one another in order to discern a path that is peaceful, respectful and Christ-like.
With anticipation and hope,
In addition to the email, we had indicated to the General Secretary that, in order to ease the tension, we were willing to put the BVS position on hold until after a conversation could take place.
The Situation Escalates:
The General Secretary was scheduled to meet with the M&M Executive Committee on Thursday, May 24th. It is our understanding that at that meeting he was expected either offer a rewritten position description, or inform the committee that he had withdrawn the position. The implication was that a failure to do one of these options would be regarded as insubordination. According to Stan, the Executive Committee was open to having conversation with BMC, but was not willing to set aside the project until the conversation could take place. They were insisting upon a decision.
Seeking another avenue, Stan drew on a policy that allowed him to call a special board meeting where board members could be polled in order to offer their advice to the General Secretary before he/she made a decision about a particular issue. Minutes from this kind of meeting are required to be public, unlike the previous closed session board meeting that was held in March. Unbeknownst to us, this meeting was held via conference call on Thursday evening, May 31st. We have requested, but have not yet received the minutes from this meeting.
The General Secretary called the BMC office late Friday afternoon, June 1 to inform us of his decision to withdraw the position. He indicated that the Mission and Ministry Board had supported the withdrawal, with some registering their "disappointment" yet concurring that this would be "for the good of the church." He also reported that the Board was unanimous in expressing their desire that the Mission and Ministry Executive Committee meet with the Executive Committee of BMC "in a spirit of Matthew 18." Upon completing the call, Stan immediately released his news statement through denominational communication avenues.
This episode raises numerous and disturbing questions about good governance, respect for agreements, staff/board relationships, the increasing use and effectiveness of aggressive tactics, the decline in quality and style of communication, and the ethics of refusing to engage those most impacted by the conversation and decisions. It reflects poorly upon denominational leadership, particularly that associated with the Mission and Ministry Board, and seriously calls into question their trustworthiness, professionalism, and good will. The appeal to Matthew 18 after supporting a unilateral decision to exclude BMC is particularly egregious and reflective of either a self or community deception that is quite troubling.
What you can do: