WATERLOO, Ont. — Individuals associated with the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches expressed their perspectives during and after the Oct. 23 CCMBC annual general meeting in Waterloo about financial challenges that have gripped the denomination in the past and apologies offered by conference leaders.
Here’s what they said.
Steve Berg: Important to tell the story
“It was important to tell this story,” said Steve Berg, interim executive director from 2017-18.
Berg led the denomination after the departure of Willy Reimer, who was executive director during the years of financial losses. He said none of the problems were the result of “intentional or malicious or wrongdoing.”
He suggested the losses and financial mismanagement arose because of a desire “to avoid conflict” and because some people responsible for making decisions and approving budgets were “not well-informed.”
While stating the main onus was on the executive board of the conference, he said the delegate body needs to be reminded it approved budgets during that time.
“There are lots of levels of responsibility for this,” he said.
While acknowledging the problems and errors was difficult, Berg think it will have a positive effect.
Board and staff need to “stay attentive,” he said, adding this can be challenging since “the complexity of the denomination has increased.”
One way to accomplish this would be by ensuring there aren’t only pastors on boards; they “need different giftings,” he shared.
Harold Froese: Still questions to be answered
For Harold Froese of Winnipeg, Man., there are “still many questions to be answered.”
Froese, whose resignation CCMBC executive board chair may have precipitated the soul-searching that led to the report, feels there is still a lack of information about spending and results.
But what saddens him the most is the impact on CCMBC employees.
“None of them deserve the emotional and financial trauma, which is a direct result of our board’s and senior management’s inability to implement basic board 101 policies,” he said.
To their credit, moderator Bruce Enns and executive director Elton DaSilva “continue to sincerely apologize in a very humble spirit,” he said. “I’m not hearing much from former management and C2C leaders, though,” he added, referring to the interdenominational church planting arm of CCMBC.
As for the report about the financial challenges, “I have my own biases and perspectives, but I am happy with it,” he said.
The goal was to write a document which was “transparent, honest, readable and that explained the financial concepts in lay terms. From my perspective, I think it does that.”
The information in the report, he acknowledged, is “devastating . . . the numbers are staggering.”
As for the cause, he attributes it to “a basic lack of governance, processes, accountability, financial reporting and policy implementation and enforcement.”
The executive board, he stated, “never had access to an accurate financial picture. They always found out after the fact.”
When he and others tried to warn about the problems, they experienced “spiritual language” — being told they didn’t have enough faith, were not obedient to God’s call or disbelieving God would provide.
The lack of information and inability to effect changes eventually resulted in his resignation.
In the future, he hopes the conference will implement basic governance and financial policies, including monthly financial information, “plus written polices and accountabilities about everything.”
Ken Esau: Crisis and opportunity
Ken Esau of Abbotsford, B.C., said this is a moment in the life of CCMBC that is both a crisis and an opportunity.
He felt it was moving “in the direction of opportunity” as long as it wasn’t a matter of apologizing, being forgiven and “moving on.”
“We need to create new structures so it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
Elton DaSilva: Feeling encouraged
For executive director Elton Da Silva, the event was like a family reunion where people could talk “honestly and openly.”
Although people felt strongly about the problems, he felt the tone was respectful.
“I leave here encouraged,” he said, acknowledging that for some questions remain.
This includes information about what the money that was spent accomplished through C2C’s church planting efforts.
“The problem is nobody agrees on the numbers or how to measure how many churches were planted,” he said, noting CCMBC, the provincial conferences and C2C “all have different numbers” and don’t agree on what metrics to use.
Going forward, he said he wants to work with others to ensure it doesn’t happen again through “more robust” systems of accountability.
He also wants to address the question of who should be leading church-planting efforts, and also “determine our own missiology” instead of importing it from the outside.
Dan Unrau: Apology appropriate and needed
For Dan Unrau of Vancouver, B.C., the “apology was appropriate . . . it was needed.”
However, he stated, “I’m not sure all of the right people were apologizing.”
The board can say “it happened on our watch, we were responsible for not protecting the finances,” he said. But, he added, “those largely responsible for what happened were not here,” referencing leaders of C2C.
Their absence from the meeting was “the elephant in the room,” he added, saying until they appear before the denomination “it’s still not complete. There is more to do.”
One of the things that remains is finding out exactly how much was spent, and what the results of that spending were. Most C2C church plants had no connection to CCMBC.
Unrau said he’s heard that much more was spent on church planting by C2C and the provincial and national conferences than was reported at the AGM.
“How many churches were planted since 2010?” he asked. “We don’t know.”
That, plus getting an accurate accounting of how much was spent, “is the big question at the end of the day.”
Bruce Guenther: A step toward transparency
Bruce Guenther, a professor at MB Seminary, has been following and giving attention to the CCMBC financial situation for longer than most.
For him, the report by CCMBC “provides a surprising level of candid description and explanation” for a situation “over which the board of directors had lost control.”
The report, he added, “signals a significant step in the direction of transparency.”
It contains “most of the necessary components of an actual apology,” he said. “While it doesn’t explicitly ask for forgiveness, it does offer a combination of both explicit statements and implied indications about things that were what was done that shouldn’t have been done, about things that were not done that should have been done better and what will be different in the future.”
That is exemplary, he stated, and lays “a foundation for public repentance.”
As for how so many things went wrong, “the document rightly and wisely highlights a multiplicity of factors rather than trying to pinpoint a single cause, person or factor,” he said.
Nevertheless, the explanations “seem more like a patchwork collection of interpretive fragments from insiders than a rigorously independent, investigative analysis” — something that had been called for earlier.
He was glad to see “some very helpful longitudinal perspectives on CCMBC finances that were missing in the information received at annual gatherings.”
The single-year focus to reporting at annual meetings “made it difficult to detect and understand trends over a longer period of time.”
Also making it difficult to detect problems was “the variation in the way expenses were categorized in audited statements, and the way budgets were organized and presented.”
This made it “difficult to track the relationship between approved budgets and the actual results” he said.
While appreciating what was included, he wished there had been an examination of some other things like “why the CCMBC was involved in buying and selling land for speculative purposes, why capital assets and the investment reserve were not protected more aggressively, the difficulties in meeting Security Commission requirements, or the reasons for the steady decline in giving by congregations.”
Surely, he said, “that would be a worthwhile question in an analysis of CCMBC finances.”
As for the report of C2C’s annual budget versus actual spending, that is “among the most disturbing items in the entire report. This was an operation that had very poor fiscal controls,” he stated.
In addition to regular overruns in certain budget categories, equally disturbing was learning that less than 50 percent of the total amount spent “ever reached actual church plants. Staff salaries and travel alone routinely accounted for 40 percent or more of the C2C’s annual expenses,” he observed.
C2C, he noted, was able to raise an impressive amount of money that, “even without such substantial financial support, would have been sufficient to operate a significant church-planting ministry.”
As for the total cost of church- planting efforts, its hard to tell because the focus of the report was limited to only a six-year span,” he noted.
As a result, the total amount spent in the past decade by C2C is not clear in the report; estimates could be as high as $36 million, he indicated.
Given that the net number of MB churches declined by seven during the period being reviewed by the report, many may wonder what the conference and its donors “accomplished with the expenditure of approximately $36 million,” he said.
While some consider church-planting to be the most effective tool for evangelism — and he affirmed that church-planting is an important strategy in a highly secularized culture — there is no Canadian research that shows church-planting as a primary source of church growth, he explained.
“This may not have been the right report for answering questions about the effectiveness of various approaches to church-planting and evangelism, but it certainly needs to be done before MBs once again get involved in church planting,” he said.
The report also fails to explain the negative effects that the disproportionate allocation of funds toward C2C had on other ministries, including the MB Herald denominational magazine and the seminary, he said.
Alongside this omission is the absence of any reference “to the human cost involved in this story,” he said, referring to “individuals who paid a price by enduring the spiritual abuse by leaders, who labored in conditions of famine while others feasted, whose voices were silenced or marginalized, or whose lives and callings were disrupted by job loss as a consequence of fiscal mismanagement.”
Some of the language about “strong, driven leaders” is troubling, he added.
The description of people who were “passionate, hard-driving and entrepreneurial” fails to include mention of “moments of insubordination, incompetence and manipulative use of spiritual language,” he stated.
“Did they really call us to “risk-taking obedience,” as the report puts it, “or was it risk-taking recklessness enabled by a decision-making culture permeated by the lack of transparency and accountability and respect for good governance?”
The appeal to “honorable intentions without naming the problematic aspects of ‘strong, driven leaders’ is also problematic,” he added.
“There is no reason to think that leaders did not believe they were doing the right thing . . . however, there is a vital difference between responding to intentions and the actual impact of actions.”
The report, he said, “leaves the impression that everything is fine as long as leaders are well-intentioned, which ironically, exemplifies the exact reluctance in holding people accountable that the report highlights as a systemic problem.”
As for the future, he wonders if “the remedial steps promised in the report, some of which have been promised before,” will “be sufficient to convince churches, which are now even more at arms-length from national conference decision-making, that leaders not only understand governance and fiscal oversight better than they did in the past, but also have the necessary ability and resolve to make better decisions, and to hold ministries and staff accountable?”
He also wonders if the changes are “being driven primarily by the reality that the financial wells have run dry, or has the decision-making culture changed?”
Jonathan Janzen: Book is not closed
For Jonathan Janzen of Abbotsford, B.C., the report was good, “but there are some significant gaps.”
At the same time, he added, “some key people are getting a free pass.”
In addition to getting results of the spending, he would also like the conference to ask “whether church planting is the best strategy for growth.”
He worries that people might think this chapter is now over and closed.
“We have turned the page, but not closed the book,” he said. “We need more time to lament and repent. We can’t just move on.”
Sharon Simpson: A path forward
Sharon Simpson is new to conference involvement; her first gathering was in Saskatoon in 2018.
At that event, “I didn’t fully comprehend what was involved,” said the moderator of the B.C. MB conference.
This year she understood more and appreciated the openness displayed by people like Enns and DaSilva.
“I thought it was exceptionally brave,” she said, adding she was “taken aback” by the size of the loss.
When delegates stood to accept the apology for mistakes in the past, she said she cried.
“It was a visible expression to me of forgiveness,” she said, adding it was also “tears of relief that there is a path forward.”
She also feels bad for those who lost jobs because of the losses.
“The report is not just a piece of paper,” she said. “It represents lives. Many people have been hurt.”
As for the experience of the past, “this is a deep wound,” she said. “It will be remembered a long time.”
Kennedy Froese: Impressed by humility
For Kennedy Froese of Winnipeg, the experience surrounding the losses was “deeply saddening,” but she was “very impressed by the humility on display on the stage.”
The first-year Canadian Mennonite University student appreciated the apology, and how conference leaders recognized there were “problems that were ignored.”
While the size of the loss was “shocking,” she loves CCMBC and is hopeful for its future.
“I love the MB conference. It’s near and dear to my heart,” she said.
At the same time, she would like to know the results of all the money spent on church planting, even if it “might turn out to make us feel sad all over again.”
Then again, she added, “maybe there is also good news . . . I think God is doing amazing things with the MBs.”
Coverage of the CCMBC annual general meeting is at: mennoworld.org/2019/11/06/news/canadian-mb-leaders-apologize-for-financial-losses.