After years of developing documents, processing in meetings and finally voting approval in a special delegate assembly in October, Mennonite Church Canada took first steps in a new structure when its new Joint Council met Dec. 8-9 in Calgary, Alta.
The council replaces the General Board in a system that intends to streamline MC Canada at the national level by shifting emphasis and decision making down to the level of regional churches — similar to Mennonite Church USA’s conferences.
MC Canada executive director Willard Metzger said the inaugural meeting felt very positive, with council members excited about the new entity MC Canada has become. He and an executive staff member from each of the five regional churches worked in advance to prepare the docket, which is a new thing.
“It really felt like this is all common agenda, and that hasn’t felt that way in the past,” Metzger said. “We’re regional churches and a national church; we were two distinct entities, whereas now Mennonite Church Canada is the result of the five regional churches covenanting together, so it felt quite different and exciting.”
Under the previous structure, MC Canada’s General Board was made of program councils representing International Witness (missions), Christian formation and church engagement. While those groups’ agendas had direct implications for regional churches’ congregations, regional staff were not engaged in those projects.
Now, “it’s more that the executive staff group really functions as the engine of the new entity, so Joint Council is overseeing the work of the nationwide shared agendas,” Metzger said.
Mennonite Church British Columbia executive minister Garry Janzen said it already feels like MCBC is more engaged.
“Sometimes we in the regions felt we didn’t really know what was going on in these other aspects,” he said. “Now that the regional church is the go-to place for the ministries each region does and we do together, it just feels like there’s a wholeness to it.”
The change puts regional moderators and key staff in the conversation of discerning — and carrying out — shared national priorities. Denominational staff serving roles such as International Witness and communications were let go, with the idea that regional churches will coordinate among each other to pick up those initiatives.
“We’re meeting regularly as leadership of MCBC to relate to the other regions four or five times throughout the year face-to-face,” Janzen said. “In the past, we would see each other at conferences. It was always not so much a working involvement but fellowshiping. Now it is intentional working together.”
No special status
The new Joint Council is only one aspect of MC Canada’s new structure. To shift the focus from the national to the regional level, congregations are only members of the regional churches; the five regional churches are MC Canada’s only members.
This means there is no longer a separate category for congregations that wish to be members of a regional church but not the denomination.
Since 2006, Mennonite Church British Columbia has offered its congregations the option not to be members of MC Canada. That status now becomes redundant, because no congregations are directly members of MC Canada.
At the same time, it could be said that all congregations are indirectly members of MC Canada. There’s no longer a way for a congregation to officially distance itself from the denomination.
“In a sense, they are now being thrown back into a relationship they didn’t want to be a part of. Now everyone has membership again,” Janzen said. “. . . That is a concern.
“We’re saying to all of our area-church-only membership churches: In whatever we can, we want to make it fully possible to not be involved in any of the nationwide work. That includes . . . mak[ing] sure their giving will be kept separate.”
Metzger said he’s not aware of any other regional churches receiving requests for regional-only membership.
Though MCBC is the only regional church that has different forms of membership, its question of how to handle finances is shared by other MC Canada members. In addition to moving to a hybrid model of mission funding — which will coordinate congregations individually sponsoring a portion of a specific mission worker’s costs — regional churches will now pass on some funds to pay for denominational work that remains, such as some International Witness administration, accounting services and indigenous relations.
“There’s obviously nervousness in setting that figure, but I think we’re moving along well,” Metzger said. “There’s certainly a spirit of shared commitment.”
As staff are let go at the top (11 remain), regional churches have been called on to add staff as they take on projects more directly. Anticipating greater staffing needs, Mennonite Church Manitoba traded office space with MC Canada in Winnipeg.
MCBC plans to add a half-time worker for congregational engagement, using funds not given to nationwide work.
“There are fears of too much stuff being offloaded onto the regional church,” Janzen said. “That’s yet to be figured out to see what it will look like. . . .
“There have been varying voices [and] fear that we’ll get smaller, but also excitement from some of the possibility of being more directly involved in the mission of the church and having additional staff to do that. But there is uncertainty that there will be funds to do that.”