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Fall 2016 · Vol. 45 No. 2 · pp. 209–216 

Ministry Compass

Compassionate but not Affirming: Interview with John Neufeld

Vic Froese

John Neufeld, lead pastor of The Meeting Place (Mennonite Brethren) in downtown Winnipeg, has spent much of his adult life involved in some aspect of pastoral ministry. He has been in his present position for eight challenging but, he would say, rewarding years. Earlier he served as the associate and then the interim pastor for the McIvor Mennonite Brethren Church, also in Winnipeg. In between, he worked as director of Ministry Quest, a Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary program designed to identify young men and women with pastoral ministry potential. When that program had run its course, John was called by the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches to help create a leadership development program. If it can be said of anyone, it can be said of John that pastoral ministry is in his blood—and in his heart.

As the interview below reveals, John’s interest in sexuality issues is driven by a desire to be faithful to Christ in shepherding those under his care. His “sheep” are of many kinds. But even in engaging with individuals whose practices are at odds with those convictions, he has been determined to be gracious, welcoming, and compassionate even as he upholds the Confession of the Mennonite Brethren Church.

I ask readers to remember that this is an interview, not an academic lecture or treatise. I did not ask John to present arguments or offer an extended rational defense of his views. What you have here is rather a series of snapshots of one pastor’s experience of ministering to people of various sexual orientations and living arrangements who have chosen {210} to make The Meeting Place their church. The interview took place on August 24th, 2016.

Tell me about your church, John. I know it’s a large urban church, different from many MB churches I’ve visited. How would you describe it?

TMP, as we “shorthand” it, is focused on people who don’t know Christ. We’re a downtown urban church, but we draw from all around the city. It’s only in the last number of years that we have a meaningful neighborhood involvement. In a sense, we were a city church in an urban location, and it’s only been lately that we’ve truly become an urban church with a strong presence in the neighborhood and the neighborhood participating in the congregation.

On Sunday morning, we have about 950 in attendance. And like many churches these days, regular participation would be two out of four Sundays. So we know, based on our record-keeping, that in a three-month period about 1,800 people have regular contact with us. But our parish is probably double the 1,800 when we include the people we receive calls from about hospital visits and funerals and marriage crises and significant distress in the family. They don’t appear in our database, but they call us home even though we don’t have a close tracking of who they are.

Does your ministry to those 3,600 parishioners ever give you occasion to talk about sex?

We talk about sex a lot. We talk about it both remedially and proactively. It seems easily approached in conversation now in a way that wasn’t true ten and fifteen years ago. And I don’t know if that’s due to the setting of the church. It’s what’s happened in our culture, making sexuality a very open conversation for many. Certainly, being an urban church might highlight that a bit more than might be true in a smaller community where there’s a high degree of overlap in people’s relationships between family and employment and congregation and school. There’s more privacy or discretion in highly overlapped environments than in an urban setting where your only relationship point may be the church.

The other piece is, media has also made every small town an urban environment. We should be careful about thinking that there’s something unique or just slightly ahead of the curve about an urban church that isn’t true in every smaller or rural or suburban congregation, because media has democratized the urban environment. So, pornography {211} is as powerful a force in a small community as it is in a downtown urban core.

Hypersexuality and pornography have a powerful impact on the church. What’s shaping the imagination of believers? That’s a significant thing for all congregations to consider. So conversations about sexuality have to be part of every discipleship conversation. You can’t presume—and in fact, you must assume almost that people are experiencing various versions of sexual oppression or distress or bondage.

The thing that has been a gift and a challenge to our congregation is that for a long time we were adjacent to a historic gay nightclub. I had frequent interaction with that community, and many of them were people who had childhood experience of the church—very often the evangelical church—and had experienced a lot of judgment in those environments, and therefore saw the church only through the lens of judgmentalism. And yet they wanted to be in a worshiping community. For them to say, “We know what you think about homosexuality and what your biblical convictions are, but can we just come and worship?” That was something we probably experienced more than most congregations, but it was a proximity thing. Larger congregations also allow a certain anonymity. Anonymity allows someone to slip in and slip out without making identifiable commitments or involvements or specific relationships, and so their sexuality outside of the church doesn’t seem to come to scrutiny in the same way. If you have a story of sexuality that is alternate or indifferent to what Scripture would call us to, it’s safer (in their minds) to attend a larger conservative congregation than a conservative one that’s smaller.

So, you welcomed them.

Oh, absolutely. Had many conversations with them. And many frequently and regularly worship in our community and are part of our community in significant ways, though it’s not generally known to most people.

In what ways are they involved?

I’ll give you a short story. A woman called me, and she gave me about a two-hour interview on the phone. I’d never met her. She’d not yet been to our church. Her question was, “Can I attend, with my lesbian partner?” She was a Bible college grad from a Canadian evangelical Bible college. She had been a youth pastor for some time in a rural church. And she was now moving to the city [Winnipeg] with her lesbian partner. And they wanted to know: Would they be judged? And {212} what would we allow or accept? Her forthrightness—and this has often been the case—the forthrightness of the question gives a permission in the answer. You don’t have to wedge your way into the conversation. The conversation has opened up for you to engage.

And so, absolutely: attend and worship, regardless who you are, and (we hope and pray) leave changed. I did not promise her that she would not be hurt or not be judged, because individuals respond according their own feelings, prejudices, convictions, and experiences. I said, “You may be judged but we’re not a judgmental community.” (We aggressively attend to judgmentalism.) “But where you experience grace from others, please don’t also assume that’s agreement. In terms of being involved, you’ve got gifts, training, and ability. As you’re involved, I would ask that you declare yourself, so that you don’t find yourself being engaged in an activity that we suddenly have to withdraw you from because we would not allow you to serve given your sexual practice currently.”

We make a clear distinction between practice and orientation. The Bible is profoundly behavioral. Of first concern is not orientation; of first concern is conduct. We are all called to live sexually faithful lives, regardless of the inclinations we have, whether we’re heterosexual or homosexual. She was profoundly grateful for candor in the conversation. She and her partner attended for about a year and a half before they moved out of the city again. They never got involved in any ways of serving, but they did participate in a life group, and they were growing spiritually, though it’s hard to say how much somebody can grow when there’s a significant element of their lives that they’re withholding both from Jesus and from others.

Do people ask you why you take the positions you do on sexual issues?

Yes, but the largest one that we attend to in conversation regularly is not homosexuality. It’s living in an ongoing sexual relationship with a partner, not married. “What’s wrong with that? What business is it of the church to say that this is different than marriage? What business of the church is it to speak to my sexual conduct?” That’s a much more frequent conversation, because that’s where we often engage proactively. We’re stepping into somebody’s life saying, “You know, we would really encourage you to make a significant change in your choices.” That one comes to us without us looking for it. People’s struggles with pornography—we don’t have to go looking for that one. That one comes to us frequently. It’s interesting that people do not generally have any defensiveness about it. They recognize that it’s wrong, whether they’re believers or not. They recognize that this is a distorted sexuality that’s {213} damaging them. That’s not true about people’s premarital sexual relationships or cohabitation relationships. There they feel quite entitled to sexual activity.

The more common challenge for us around questions of homosexuality are not our convictions but how do we support families who are going through the tension and distress of their family members’ sexual choices, which are contrary to the family’s norms and creating a dissonance and disagreement within the family about how to deal with a son, daughter, brother, sister. The family support is probably more significant than the actual conversations with people who are expressing a gay lifestyle.

Family situations in which some take one approach to a gay child or sibling and others take another?

Yes, exactly. Or where they’re feeling their external families or their extended families or their church’s strong judgment or censure of the family and therefore they’ve lost relationship with the church or the extended family, and they find themselves at The Meeting Place looking for support, care, guidance, spiritual growth.

How do you approach a couple that’s living together and you want to encourage them to marry?

There are varieties of ways because in one sense it’s always case by case. A few complicating factors influence how every conversation goes. One is their previous relationship history. Very often this isn’t their first relationship. They may not be married because one of them may not yet be divorced. They’ve been in extended separations. They’re now in a new relationship. They’re cohabiting because legally they couldn’t get married. Often one is a believer and one is not. As a result, the believer, knowing the church and Scripture upholds that a believer should not marry an unbeliever, will live together with a partner but will not pursue marriage because that contravenes their own convictions. They don’t want to do something against their own convictions, but they don’t have a problem with living together, though they often do so with a degree of shame or guilt. They become rather sensitive to conversations because the shame or guilt makes them hyperalert to people’s responses to them. Often, people are bringing children from previous relationships, and they’re living together as a blended family household. Their choosing not to get married often has as much to do with questions of children and parenting and family as with the couple themselves. {214}

What do they know and believe about what Scripture says? Often they’ve got very fuzzy beliefs about it. And so the simple question—Why not get married? You’re living that way already—is often enough to open up a pastoral care conversation about things that aren’t about sexuality at all. It often is a clarifying discipleship conversation. Almost yearly we have a conversation where it’s clear that one of them is not a believer, and in the process they become a believer, because we’ve invited them to examine the claims of Jesus and what Jesus says about relationships.

Cohabiting couples will often come and want to be involved in a place of service because this is their community. They want to do their part. And when we put a check on their progress and we say, “Slow this down a bit,” they realize that their domestic arrangements are not private affairs. They have an impact and influence on others. So, if you’re working with the grade-seven-boys’ small group, the choice you’re making in your domestic arrangement with your partner is modelling something, and therefore the choices you make have an influence on others. It’s not private. When they realize those things, there’s often an openness and willingness to make significant changes. But that doesn’t happen quickly. And how do you disentangle a fully entwined financial and domestic life that may involve children from previous relationships? Mortgages, those sorts of things. It’s not as simple as, Well between now and getting married, the two of you should move apart.

You’ve given us some success stories. Can you think of any failure stories?

Oh, many. Many. Often when people move in together and we essentially remove them from an area of service because they’re leading others and they’re modelling something contrary to Scripture, we often get some very angry reactions. Curiously, not from the individuals in question themselves but from their family system. “How dare you say this to my son/daughter?!” The whole family network reacts much more strongly than the individuals themselves. The individuals themselves have agency. They have the ability to influence and shape the next step, whereas parents don’t. That’s not uncommon.

People who have a hard time separating their practice from their identity seem always to have a stronger sensitivity to things, whether it’s about sexuality or career or whatever it is. And when it’s about sexuality they will say, “When you say this, you’re judging me.” Some people turn away, some people turn towards. {215}

For a long time, I felt terrible about the “turn-aways.” And I felt a little victorious about the “turn-towards.” Neither of those is the right response. I cannot ultimately accept responsibility for or take credit for how people respond to Jesus’s challenges in their lives. I think the church being bold and clear also cleans up a lot of the misconceptions, because people don’t live with uncertainty about where they stand. If they’re choosing otherwise, at least they know and we know that we have a shared recognition of where the conviction of this community lies. That removes and reduces a lot of the hurt.

What would you say to a new pastor preparing to deal with people’s sexuality issues?

I would say, clarify your own convictions and talk about them often with other leaders, so that you’re not stumbling verbally. A lot of the pain that we cause is because we lack fluency. If pastors don’t become fluent with conversations about sexuality, where they can easily engage it on a moment’s notice, recognizing when they stray into language of judgment and shame, where they are talking about categories but they don’t have scriptural support to back it up, where they can’t in fact help someone else see from Scripture where things are, then we get into just being opinion leaders rather than spiritual leaders. I would suggest that we practice those conversations with our leaders first, so that they can in fact say, “When you say that, this is how it comes across,” because it’s a safe place to do it. And then we try it more broadly in the congregation, proactively. And then beyond that we pursue those conversations either proactively or remedially in individual situations. But let’s not start with individual situations.

What sexuality-related concerns worry you most?

The silent one concerns me the most, and that’s the church’s almost total ignoring of a very large part of our community, and that is the single adult. It concerns me for a couple of reasons. We see single adults as being nonsexual. They don’t have desires, needs, and drives. Or we think that they’re all being managed. And you get married so you can stop managing your sexual drives. I think the alienation and loneliness that the church accidentally manufactures for single adults is not the single adult’s issue. It’s the church’s issue. We are typically family-centric. We place significant priority on the household over the church. If I would say, “This Christmas, I would ask you to invite two or three single adults over to your home, so that they can experience full relationship {216} when their friends are mostly celebrating without them,” nine out of ten households in your church and my church would resist, and would not reply to the challenge. It might be higher than that, it might be ninety-nine out of a hundred. In that sense, the church is profoundly neglectful of the relationship needs of single adults.

When people who are mid-forties, mid-fifties, capable in every respect, making significant contributions to the congregation, long for and desire community, the church mostly neglects it and, when challenged, actively withholds it—that is the single largest issue in sexuality I believe. And that issue—it’s the church’s issue, not a single-adults issue—creates footholds and strongholds for other unhelpful, inappropriate, or sinful relationship choices. And in that sense, we’ve backed them into a corner as a church. And I believe God will hold us accountable for it.

How does your church to try to address that issue?

Oh, we struggle with it! The challenge of providing relationship spaces and full inclusion, when you make it programmatic, we ghettoize; when we make it nonprogrammatic we have to change people’s understanding of the gospel. And changing people’s understanding of the gospel as it relates to community that is fully inclusive to the stranger, the alien, the outsider, to the recent immigrant, to the new believers who need to be included in powerful community, and to single adults, that’s a stretch, a challenge that many of us aren’t taking seriously enough.

Thank you, John. I appreciate your willingness to share your experiences and insights with our readers. Any parting words for us?

We need to celebrate successful relationships. Marriage—not only should we honor it; we should celebrate the many good ways that it works so well. Because people have come to have a bleak view of marriage. And if the church doesn’t know how to celebrate covenant, I think we should not be surprised that people aren’t attracted to it. We have to find ways of celebrating the covenant of marriage, not just with weddings but with a recognition of enduring relationships, relationships that have gone through the difficult times and come out stronger and much happier and more joyful. We need to scaffold relationships with the kind of supports they need to successfully weather the challenges. And there’s a lot of challenges in a relationship.

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