Covenant Mennonite Fellowship is hard to find. There’s no big sign out front, no giant cross—just a piece of letter-sized paper stuck to the inside of a glass door in a one-story office building along Southgate Circle. It’s Sunday morning, and before the service starts, pianist J.C. Shenk warms up on a keyboard while his wife, Jewel, brews coffee and sets out mugs and cookies.
Through a bank of windows, you can see leaves twinkle in the breeze and Phillippi Creek flow by. Just over two dozen congregants, most of them in their 50s and older, trickle in.
The name “Mennonite” conjures images of bonnets and buggies, but you won’t find those here. Instead, members dress in polos and blouses and drive cars. Mennonites are members of a small denomination, with some 300,000 members in the United States. They’re splintered into many decentralized groups. Sarasota’s Mennonite community—about 2,000 regular worshippers in the summer and twice that during season, estimates J.B. Miller, a Covenant congregant who teaches a class about the community at Suncoast Technical College—reflects that diversity, with 14 different congregations. Their theological stances range from strict and traditional to broad-minded and progressive.
Put Covenant in the latter category. Eight years ago, Covenant was threatened with excommunication for having a gay pastor. The congregation fought back in a conflict that foreshadowed a fierce debate about homosexuality that’s dividing Mennonites around the world today.
Neither Protestant nor Catholic, the Mennonite religion is rooted in the Anabaptist movement that began in Europe in the 1500s. Anabaptists taught that only adults could make the conscious decision to follow Jesus’ teachings and so they refused to baptize newborns, a stance that led to violent persecution. As a result, Mennonites today emphasize pacifism and social justice. (The Amish, a subset of Mennonites, also hail from the Anabaptist tradition, but unlike the others, they choose to live apart from society.)
Founded in 2000, Covenant has always had an open attitude toward issues of gender. Susan Kauffman, one of Covenant’s founders, grew up in a conservative Mennonite church in Indiana. “Men were in charge, men were in authority and men made the decisions,” she says. But at home, raised alongside four brothers, Kauffman says, “My gifts were encouraged, no matter what they were.”
Kauffman studied pre-med at Hesston College, a Mennonite liberal arts school, before switching to the Bible and religion. In 1984, she got a job teaching at Sarasota Christian School, a traditional Mennonite institution where women weren’t allowed to wear pants. After a leadership shakeup at a local church, she was asked to become youth coordinator. She became the first female employee in a leadership role in a Mennonite Church in the region.
Not everyone in the church approved. After two years, she says she felt “traumatized” by the objections and began reaching out to others with a vision for a different type of congregation. “I wanted a church where my daughter could believe she could be anything, and I wanted my son to go to a church where he believed a woman could do anything,” Kauffman says.
But Covenant remained in the Mennonite fold. The church belonged to the Southeast Mennonite Conference, which is based in Sarasota and is a division of Mennonite Church USA, one of 40 or so overarching Mennonite groups in the United States, with close to 100,000 members.
But in 2007, after the church’s first full-time pastor, Randy Spaulding, got divorced and announced he was gay, conflict erupted. The Mennonite Church USA considers homosexual activity a sin and insists that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. Although the congregation supported Spaulding and kept him on as pastor, the Southeast Mennonite Conference stripped Spaulding of his credentials and threatened to kick the congregation out of the church. Covenant eventually withdrew from the Southeast conference and realigned with the Central District Conference, based in Goshen, Indiana. While the move makes little geographic sense, the Central District network is less hierarchical than others, and member congregations are freer to live the Mennonite faith as they see fit.
Arguments over whether to accept LGBT members, gay marriage and gay—or even female—leaders soon began to divide other Mennonite congregations around the country. In 2015, Mennonite Church USA reaffirmed its definition of marriage as between a man and a woman but also granted greater freedom to individual churches to tackle the subject of same-sex marriage on their own.
But while many Mennonite churches are struggling with issues of gender and sexuality, Covenant has moved on. After Spaulding left his post as pastor to attend seminary, a handful of interim pastors have guided the congregation. The church attracts an increasingly diverse membership.
“All are welcome,” says Kauffman. “A number of gays and lesbians make it a church home, as they can be openly gay and lesbian without anyone batting an eye.”
This November, the church will take another step forward, when the husband-and-wife team of Linford and Mary Etta King move to Sarasota to lead the church.
Today, Andrew Hudson is filling in as pastor. Dressed in a short-sleeved button-down tucked into khakis, he asks the congregation what an alien might think of America if it landed in the Midwest today. “Jesus asks us to question normal,” he says.
Outside the windows, leaves shiver, grass rustles and the brown waters of Phillippi Creek crawl by. Like faith, a scene that is always there, and forever changing.