WATERLOO, Ont. — Discussion about financial losses dominated the annual general meeting of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches on Oct. 23 at Waterloo Mennonite Brethren Church.
Results of the losses include the closure of the denominational magazine, MB Herald.
Moderator Bruce Enns reported a drop in investment reserves from $17.7 million in 2012 to $2.9 million in 2018.
Wherever he goes, he said, three questions come up: Where did the money go? What role did church planting play? Why should we trust conference leaders?
As reasons for the loss, Enns cited a large write-down in land and mortgage values held by the conference; an ambitious church-planting strategy led by C2C, the conference’s former church-planting arm; and the presence of “strong, driven leaders” who were hard to monitor and hold accountable.
Other reasons included a lack of financial expertise on the CCMBC board, which was better suited to governing “a spiritual family,” and the use of “spiritual language” to shut down questions about financial issues and silence those trying to raise concerns about spending.
“We did not lead well,” Enns said, adding that this is “a time of lament and honesty. . . . God has humbled us.”
Executive director Elton DaSilva, who was hired in 2018, joined Enns in asking forgiveness on behalf of the conference for “how we behaved with your money, entrusted to us.”
Delegates raised questions and concerns. Tony Martens of Dalmeny, Sask., said it would have been helpful to have known about the problems earlier.
Brian Born of Winnipeg, Man., reacted to the idea that God was humbling the conference.
“It feels like we are blaming God,” he said. “What happened was not God’s fault. I think we have humbled ourselves.”
“I see this as a wake-up call for everyone,” said Janessa Giesbrecht of Winnipeg. What happened “breaks my heart.”
Brian Cooper from Abbotsford, B.C., noted the conference had strong leaders before but had never run into these kinds of financial problems.
“We need to rethink our theology of leadership,” he said.
Noting that C2C had spent $18.6 million on church planting over six years, Ken Peters of Victoria, B.C., asked, “What do we have to show for it?”
Enns said he couldn’t answer with any certainty.
For Harold Froese of Winnipeg, this was a time of grief for the conference and for all who lost their jobs due to the financial woes.
“I’m humiliated by what we have done to ourselves,” he said. “It’s unbelievable that this could happen.”
Delegates stood to accept the apology and pray for the conference and its leaders.
MB Herald closure
One result of the losses, combined with a downturn in giving, is cutbacks in staff and the closure of MB Herald, DaSilva reported.
Founded in 1962, the magazine will cease operations early next year due to low circulation and the cost of continuing in print.
Former Herald columnist James Toews of Nanaimo, B.C., said it was short-sighted to close the denomination’s main channel of communication “at a time when rebuilding trust is necessary. . . . A way to speak to churches is vital.”
Harold Jantz, editor from 1964 to 1984, acknowledged circulation had fallen but traced it to the editorial direction of the past decade or so.
The magazine was “treated as the voice of leaders, not a place to talk to one another,” he said.
When that happens, it’s no surprise a publication “is not embraced by readers,” he said. “I think we could have a strong publication if we do what a strong publication should be doing.”
Paul Cumin of Edmonton, Alta., echoed Jantz, saying the magazine had been turned into a “head office corporate mouthpiece.” As a result, “people lost interest,” he said.
Ken Peters of Victoria expressed concern for the 3,500 subscribers who “will feel cut off further” from CCMBC and may not read information online.
Some will experience it as “a slap in the face, [showing] we don’t care about the person in the pew,” he said.
Da Silva acknowledged the important role the Herald played for 57 years but said there was no way to keep it going.
“There simply is no financial possibility of continuation,” he said, in response to calls from the floor to reverse the decision.
Ringing the alarm bell
In addition to CCMBC’s money woes, both MB Seminary and Multiply, formerly MB Mission, reported financial challenges.
For the seminary, funding cuts from CCMBC and a decline in giving led to staff and faculty cuts. Only last-minute donations by a group of individuals allowed it to rehire two faculty members.
“If there’s one thing we learned, it’s that we didn’t ring the alarm bell early or loud enough,” seminary president Mark Wessner said. “I’m ringing it now.”
Also reporting financial challenges was Multiply, which merged with C2C in 2018 after the church-planting agency was set free from CCMBC.
Executive director Randy Friesen apologized to delegates for underestimating the challenges of merging the two organizations.
“The budget was clearly unsustainable,” he said. “It is painful to walk it back.”
Due to the financial downturn, Multiply has released 17 staff and moved 12 to what it calls “relational fundraising” — raising their own support.
In response, Carl Heppner of Winnipeg expressed “deep reservation” about relational funding.
“It off-loads our corporate responsibility” for staff, he said, noting fundraising is a skill not everyone has.
Friesen acknowledged this was not the preferred path, but it was “either this or release more staff.”
John Neufeld, also of Winnipeg, suggested the problem was created by how C2C operated, “spending and believing [donations] would come in. . . . You need to return to only spending as you receive.”
Friesen apologized “for the way it played out. . . . I’m coming with hands wide open, walking with humility.” He said the organization is committed to “aggressive cutting of costs and modest expenditure of money.”
The meeting concluded with a vote to use a new collaborative model that features a common mission and agenda, a common measuring system to track progress and results and clear relational structures for reporting and accountability.
DaSilva believes CCMBC can learn from the past and build a new collaborative way of working together and communicating with members.
“God has called us to something significant,” he said. “I leave here encouraged.”
For other responses to this year’s CCMBC annual general meeting, see: mennoworld.org/2019/11/06/news/canadian-mbs-share-views-on-financial-losses.