Holdeman Mennonite General Conference Agenda to Include Shunning and Holy Kiss as US Membership Declines
On November 15, 2022, thousands of members of the conservative Anabaptist denomination Church of God in Christ Mennonite will converge on Tupelo, Mississippi for the church’s general conference. General Conferences are members-only meetings held every several years to address pressing issues and to amend the church’s book of rules for members, known internally as the Conference Decisions. As the conference approaches, a leaked copy of the agenda shows a church leadership seeking to circle the wagons and fasten the hatches as controversies mount for the church and as year book records show the church’s U.S. membership declining.
Following the 2022 Ministers and Deacons Council, a document outlining the “conference questions” approved by church leaders was briefly posted on the church’s internal website. Though it was removed from the website soon after, I have obtained a copy of the document. In this article, I will go through some of the “conference questions”, providing context and explaining what is at stake.
One of the most important issues on the general conference agenda is the church’s official stance on shunning, or as they call it, The Avoidance. Since its first General Conference in 1896, the Holdeman church has officially embraced the shunning of excommunicated former members. While the application of this practice has varied over time, it has usually involved the elements outlined below. In recent years, many church members have chosen to treat expelled persons respectfully, some rejecting the practice outright. However, church leaders are seeking to use the 2022 conference to “Strengthen the doctrinal practices that have been weakened with the passage of time, including scriptural avoidance.”
What does The Avoidance include?
Church members are forbidden from eating at the same table with an excommunicated former church member. This means that former members, including members of one’s own family, must be seated at a separate table from church members at meal times as a sort of public humiliation intended to “be unpleasant to the flesh” and to “remind the apostate of his fallen conditon” as outlined in the church’s doctrinal publication Bible Doctrine and Practice.
Church members are forbidden from extending their hand to a former church member.
Concerning the avoidance, we believe that it shall be for the destruction and punishment of the flesh, as the apostle writes in 1 Corinthians 5:5, and as he also says, “Have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.” Therefore, according to this command, we have no privilege of offering an expelled member of the church our hand but to withdraw it. -Conference Reports, Page 16
Church members must dissolve business partnerships with former members. Historically, church members have dissolved business partnerships and refused to do business with former church members, at times resulting in financial ruin.
Church members are forbidden from attending the wedding of an excommunicated former church member.
Church members are instructed to only communicate with expelled members if the goal of that communication is to cause them to rejoin the church.
Any communication with an excommunicated brother[or sister] should be motivated by a genuine love and interest in our fallen brother and a longing for his [or her] return to fellowship. — Conference Reports, Page 190
The tenor of the Word of God teaches against lighthearted conversation[with expelled persons]… — Conference Reports, Page 190
Why does it matter?
Church of God in Christ Mennonite does not acknowledge that there is any legitimate reason to leave the church and resign membership. Mennonite historian Clarence Hiebert had this to say about the Holdeman denomination in an article he penned for gameo.org.
“They have a tightly knit, closed system of church member control centered in their “true church” concept; an insistence on unity in doctrine and practice; unquestioned following of their ordained leaders; decision making relegated basically to the ordained men; and a rigid doctrine and practice of church discipline which is coupled with the threat of eternal penalty. — Mennonite Historian Clarence Hiebert
All this means that over the years anyone who disagreed with the church on almost any topic or who wanted to leave the church for any reason had to be excommunicated. The decision made at the upcoming general conference will affect thousands of people throughout North America.
We reached out to Dr Darrel Ray, a clinical psychologist and one of the world’s leading experts in shunning and religious trauma. He pointed out that the emotional devastation caused by The Avoidance is not limited just to the people who are shunned.
Shunning has been practiced for centuries by many cults. Its use is designed to enforce rigid rules within a group. Unfortunately, it is also a devastating psychological practice. While the goal is to eliminate someone from the fold, it also damages many people that stay in the group. The shunned person suffers social isolation and much emotional damage but the parents, children, grandparents, siblings and many others experience deep loss and grief. Shunning of one person is like an emotional bomb going off that damages many other people. Unfortunately, those who stay in a cult are not allowed to mourn or acknowledge their loss and are often expected to act as if the person never existed, even though they had a deep connection to others. Emotional denial is the central harm of shunning and is made far worse in knowing the shunned person is still alive. I would submit that shunning hurts the “shunners” as much as the shunned. The shunned often move on to create emotionally balanced lives while the shunners experience the pain of loss with no reasonable way to grieve.
-Dr. Darrel Ray
This is not the first time the Holdeman church has revived The Avoidance. In the 1970s, concerned by what they saw as a drift within the church, leadership began a process of “paneling” or interrogating every member throughout the United States and Canada, excommunicating hundreds who they determined were not fit to remain within the One True Church. This archived documentary filmed by CBC 24 Hours circa 1975 gives viewers a glimpse of the devastation this sort of shunning can cause. The events depicted took place at Steinbach Congregation near Steinbach, Manitoba.
Around the same time, at a Holdeman congregation near the small town of Greely, Colorado, members dared to disagree with church leaders. In part, because the local minister refused to allow the paneling and excommunication of members in his congregation, every member of the congregation was excommunicated for apostasy.
The congregation continued to function independently for a number of years. In 2022, a group of those who were expelled recorded a video describing the events that led up to their excommunication and detailing the pain it caused their families.
As the Church of God in Christ Mennonite gathers to discuss bringing back The Avoidance, the well-being of many families hangs in the balance.
The Holy Kiss
Another controversial practice up for discussion at the 2022 general conference is what Holdemans call “The Holy Kiss”. The conference agenda document seems to indicate that church leaders are concerned that the practice has “been weakened with the passage of time”. The holy kiss has received attention on social media recently as former members of the church spoke out, describing how the practice made them feel.
What is The Holy Kiss?
Codified in a conference decision many years ago, the holy kiss is a greeting that church members of the same gender use when encountering each other. It combines a handshake and a brief kiss on the lips. Once a common greeting within the church, the Holy Kiss is now mostly relegated to being a part of church ceremonies like baptism services and communion services, though the greeting is also commonly practiced when meeting someone new or meeting someone who one has not seen for a long period of time. The holy kiss sometimes involves minors feeling pressured to kiss adults on the lips.
We greet one another: it is not an option. As the older ones greet, the young should not be excluded. In a home or away from the public, the holy kiss may be practiced with freedom. — Bible Doctrine and Practice, pages 324, 325
Why does The Holy Kiss Matter?
In early 2022, former church members took to social media to discuss the practice of the holy kiss. In one TikTok video, which has now received over 200,000 views, a former member turned children’s rights activist described her experiences with the holy kiss after being baptized as a 14-year-old child.
I will never forget how dirty it made me feel. The first time I had to kiss a whole bunch of adults for the sake of what was considered a holy ritual, it sure didn’t feel holy to me…
…Just after I’d been baptized a line formed of females, and one by one the females from this line came up to us others that had just been baptized and kissed us on the lips one right after another. There was a lot… — Hannah Prosser
Hers is not an isolated experience. The comment section below her video and other similar videos are full of former church members adding their voice to hers. “Yup I grew up Mennonite, was baptized at 15 and went thru the exact same thing,” reads one comment. Another chimed in. “I feel you there. I was a Holdeman Mennonite. I hated the holy kiss.”
Writing for the popular psychology blog VeryWellFamily, licensed clinical social worker Amy Morin explains that it is harmful to require children to engage in physical displays of affection.
Kids who think they need to comply with adult requests for affection are more likely to be sexually abused. If a child is told by a predator to do something she’s not comfortable doing, she may feel obligated to comply. But, a child who has been taught, “It’s your body and you get to say no to things you don’t want to do,” is more likely to be able to say no if someone asks her to do something she’s not comfortable doing. — Amy Morin, LCSW
As church leaders contemplate the future of this practice they may do well to consider eliminating it from baptism services and to acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons one might choose to opt out.
Questioning the Authority of the Church
Near the bottom of the agenda document, an item caught my eye. Church leaders plan to address the “challenging spirits that are affecting the church today, [including ] questioning of the authority of the church.” In recent years, a number of current and former church members have spoken out, challenging the church’s positions on a number of key issues. Historically, the church has not tolerated dissenting voices. Together with increasing shunning within the conference, it is likely that church leaders will use this gathering to push back against what a recent article in their biweekly newsletter, The Messenger of Truth, titled The Deceptive Spirit Attacking the Church in Our Day, referred to as attacks by “wolves in sheep’s clothing”.
The Holdeman Expose
In early 2022, Last Stand Studios interviewed several former members of the Church of God in Christ Mennonite for a film titled Holdeman. In long form interviews, they told of experiencing spiritual abuse within the church, pushed back on the church’s claim that it is the only true church, and described finding a spiritual home outside the church, among other topics. Holdeman was released on Jul 29, 2022 on YouTube and Facebook. Notably, YouTube and Facebook are both blocked by the church’s mandatory CloudVeil software. The film was followed up a few days later with several unedited interviews, including one with former Holdeman minister Lance Dirks, who described how church leaders tightly control clergy within the denomination.
The Church Split in Nigeria
“The members of Akpaa Mbato Congregation wish to notify you, the Nigeria Mission Board of Church of God in Christ (Mennonite) and her tributaries that we, from this day, 16th January, 2022, cease to be part of your conference body,” begins a crumpled letter addressed to the church’s General Mission Board, and signed by three members of the congregation including Minister Ebere Okwandu “for and on behalf of the congregation”. Trouble had been brewing for some time, according to a number of sources, and it culminated with the congregation opting to separate from the church.
“We state it unequivocally that we from this day are independent. We have observed the downward spiral movement of the church’s present state and felt it is time to separate. We state it clearly and unequivocally that:
The Mennonite church in Nigeria is politicized.
Is full of hatred
Is controlled by a few
Therefore we feel insecure to belong to such a so-called Christian organization, and we are therefore obliged to stand as an independent church.
Finally, we wish to thank you for all these years of being together and we pray that the Lord “refine and re-establish you.” -Notification Letter, Jan 16, 2022
As members gather for the general conference, and as church leaders seek to push back on questioning of the authority of the church, no doubt issues like these are top of mind.
Separation of Church and State
Another topic to be featured at the upcoming conference is the church’s stance on the proper separation of church and state, with church leaders seeking to strengthen their existing doctrine. A leaked event schedule shows that church leaders plan to address what they call “emotional involvement in politics.” The Holdeman church’s relationship with secular authorities is complicated. Although their members are forbidden from participating in elections, prohibited from being employed by the government, and prohibited from serving in the U.S. armed forces, the Holdemans benefit from a variety of accommodations and legal loopholes which allow the church to operate outside the oversight of secular institutions. Recently, though, the church‘s insistence on separation from government has provoked scrutiny.
Sexual Abuse and Mandatory Reporting
On August 2, 2022 a Virginia based non-profit called Mennonite Abuse Prevention went public with a report documenting a pattern of Holdeman clergy choosing not to report sexual abuse of minors to police. Like many conservative Anabaptist denominations, the church historically dealt with abusers internally, but Mennonite Abuse Prevention’s report says, “External repercussions are changing community norms.” The report, drawing from court documents and news reports, documents four cases in which ministers knew of sexual abuse and chose not to report it to police. Despite being sued over the practice in 2017, the report documents a case from Wisconsin in which ministers knew of the sexual abuse of a minor for years and did not report it, opting instead to “finally urge Toews[the perpetrator] to talk to law enforcement, but not until four years later, in 2021, as a condition of Toews’s requested return to fellowship from excommunication.”
Sub-Par Education System
In 1972, the Supreme Court decided in the case of Wisconsin v. Yoder, in which a conservative legal clinic, seeking to cement a sort of radical religious freedom into supreme court precedent, defeated the state of Wisconsin which had attempted to ensure that all children had access to a high school education. The court ruled that states could not require children to attend school past the eighth grade if their parents objected on religious grounds. Two years later, in 1974, the Holdemans decided, at a general conference in Lone Tree, Kansas, that they would formally oppose high school education.
We encourage continued efforts to secure exemption from attending high school, yet endeavoring to avoid court procedure. -Conference Reports
Around this time, congregations were establishing their own parochial schools, which would operate outside government oversight and scrutiny. Today, the Holdemans operate approximately 135 such schools. Wherever possible, education is ended after the eighth grade. Teachers are not licensed or otherwise properly credentialed, and usually have only an eighth grade education themselves.
In regards to high school and colleges, we believe that they are no means for the promotion of Christianity. Therefore we are opposed to their attendance… — Conference Reports
As a part of their investigation described in the above section, Mennonite Abuse Prevention obtained sexual abuse policy documents which explicitly require teachers, who are mandatory reporters by law in all 50 U.S. states, to report suspected sexual abuse to clergy or school board members, rather than directing them to report to police. “If there is reasonable suspicion that a child is suffering from abuse of some kind, the teacher should share that concern with a member of the school board or a minister or deacon of the local congregation for any necessary action or reporting to legal authorities.” Another document explicitly calls for school board members to report abuse to ministers. Under the heading For those in responsible positions in the local congregation, including parents, volunteers, schoolteachers, school board members, other committee members, and ordained ministers and deacons, etc. it says “When someone in the congregation has a complaint of sexual abuse involving a child, youth, or vulnerable adult, it is to be reported to a local minister or deacon. The local minister or deacon will arrange a meeting with the alleged victim/family to investigate.” In many states, laws and/or education department guidance explicitly state that escalating an issue to superiors does not satisfy a teacher’s obligations as a mandatory reporter. This policy is particularly concerning given the church’s questionable record concerning mandatory reporting.
As church leaders and lay members assess the church’s position with regard to separation of church and state at the upcoming general conference, they may do well to consider how increased cooperation with secular authorities could improve the lives of children within their congregations.
Other Agenda Items
In addition to the important agenda items discussed above, church leaders plan to address the following issues.
1.Ratification and clarification of the decision on recordings forwarded from 2017 Ministers’ and Dea-cons’ Council
2. Ratification of liability policy decision forwarded from the 2018 Ministers’ and Deacons’ Council
3. Ratification of retirement plans decision from the 2020 Ministers’ and Deacons’ Council
4. Clarification of the 1993 Conference decision on sports in public parks
5. Review and clarify the 2015 Conference decision on photography
As thousands of members of the Church of God in Christ Mennonite gather for their church’s general conference, much hangs in the balance. The agenda indicates that leaders plan to touch on a wide variety of topics ranging from the controversial, to the critical. I hope you found this informative. Please comment below if I’ve missed something or if you found a mistake.
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