Districts Close Out Hearings Providing Input to Special Response Process

A group of young adults at a hearing on the Special Response process, last year at the Annual Conference in Pittsburgh, Pa. Since then, 115 hearings have been held across the denomination to gather input from church members on two business items related to human sexuality. The business items will return to the floor at this year’s Conference in Grand Rapids, Mich., in early July. The Standing Committee of district representatives–the group tasked with bringing recommendations on the two business items–will receive a report from the hearings prior to the 2011 Annual Conference. Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford

This month the Church of the Brethren’s 23 districts are closing out a series of hearings that have invited church members to provide input to the denomination’s Special Response process. This process for strongly controversial issues was entered into when two business items related to human sexuality came to the 2009 Annual Conference (see www.brethren.org/ac and click on Special Response for more background information).

A total of 115 hearings were scheduled across the denomination, according to a listing held by the Conference Office. In a recent telephone interview, Annual Conference moderator Robert Alley expressed gratitude for all those who helped to make the hearings possible.

Alley characterized the hearing format as including a significant question, What would you like to say to the Standing Committee about the two items of business? “Of primary importance to keep people centered is that we are dealing with the query and Statement of Confession and Commitment,” he said, “not the whole gamut of human sexuality.”

Hearings have been organized and/or led by members of Standing Committee, the committee of district representatives to the Conference. In many districts a number of additional facilitators and note takers were recruited to help lead hearings.

Although each hearing was to conform to a recommended format, the number of hearings and the scheduling of hearings have varied widely in different districts. Districts began holding the hearings last August, with most now having concluded their hearing schedule. In just a few districts, however, hearings are continuing through February. Atlantic Southeast District concludes its hearings this week, and Western Plains and Missouri/Arkansas are scheduled to hold their final hearings on Feb. 27.

Some hearings have gathered large numbers of people, while others have been held for small groups. Western Plains reported in a recent district newsletter, for example, that a hearing in Haxtun, Colo., “involved just 14 people with an age range of 13 to 88.” According to the listing in the Conference Office, Idaho and Western Montana District held only one hearing at a district board meeting on Nov. 1. Another much larger district, Shenandoah, reported in December–at a time when all but one of its five hearings had been completed–that “a total of 638 persons representing 43 congregations have participated thus far.”

The groupings of people in the hearings also have varied. A number of districts held regional hearings.In Northern Ohio District, a total of 13 hearings were held, with six identified specifically for pastors. In Western Plains District, an open invitation in the district newsletter encouraged each interested congregation or group to schedule its own hearing or to coordinate one with another group.

The report forms from each hearing are being collected by the Forms Reception Committee of Standing Committee, which will collate the information into a report to the full Standing Committee. The Forms Reception Committee is made up of three members of Standing Committee: convenor Jeff Carter, Shirley Wampler, and Ken Frantz.

Moderator Alley noted that the members of the Forms Reception Committee have been asked not to talk about their work. In addition, the original materials coming out of the hearings will not be made public, he said.

The Forms Reception Committee has until the end of May to complete its report to the full Standing Committee. The decision about whether or when to make that report public will be made by Standing Committee when it meets prior to Annual Conference in Grand Rapids, Mich., on June 28-July 2, Alley said.

“We want to be careful that we don’t create expectations we can’t fulfill,” the moderator said. “But also it’s not intended to be a secretive process,” he added. “The scheduling is meant to be helpful to the process, not to keep people out.”

For more information about the denomination’s Special Response process, and for background documents, go to www.cobannualconference.org and follow the link to “Special Response.”

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