While it is too soon to know how big a financial hit Mennonite Church USA’s convention took due to lower registration in July, denominational leaders are adjusting to the reality of smaller conventions.
Fourteen years after peaking at 8,600 at Charlotte, N.C., in 2005, the biennial gathering drew 2,839 registrants July 2-6 in Kansas City, Mo.
A month after the convention, MC USA executive director Glen Guyton said not all of the financial data was available.
“But I’m assuming it will be a negative,” he said Aug. 7. “We’re still calculating receipts.”
This would not be the first year for a loss. Guyton said western conventions in 2007 in San Jose and 2013 in Phoenix were also losses.
“We’ve been hit-and-miss on the profitability of these, but we try not to have back-to-back losses,” he said, noting convention revenues are a key part of denominational finances and fund two or three staff positions that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
Though convention receipts have not yet been finalized, MC USA director of event planning Scott Hartman said the denomination was responsible for a shortfall in hotel reservations.
Based on the contract with downtown hotels, attendees were 1,692 hotel room nights short of the minimum for which MC USA was responsible, leading to a $138,000 bill, plus an additional $10,931 in city fees.
“What we ended up doing is going back to the hotel and renegotiating a few things to lower the amount we would owe them based on the contract,” Hartman said.
Reasons for decline
While Kansas City’s numbers were significantly lower than in the denomination’s early years — when attendance at the first three conventions topped 8,000 from 2001 to 2005 — 2019 was the first year youth represented less than 40 percent of overall attendance. Previously it was 50 to 70 percent.
Of the 2,839 registrants in 2019, 1,041 were high school youth. The 2017 convention in Orlando, Fla., had 3,200 registrants, including 1,700 youth.
In 2015, when the convention was also held in Kansas City, there were 4,680 attendees, including 2,371 youth.
Convention planners will evaluate attendance data to study the source of declines.
One cause is the denomination’s membership loss. The biggest departure was LMC, formerly known as Lancaster Mennonite Conference, which announced in late 2015 it was leaving MC USA. Three smaller conferences — Franklin, North Central and Southeast — have left since 2015, along with congregations that left other conferences.
“Membership in the denomination is tricky for us to manage,” Guyton said. “I do think the decline is due to some large conferences leaving, because they had large youth groups.
“But if you look at the percentage, we’re keeping a relatively similar percentage overall with who is participating in the denomination.”
He added that some churches aren’t sending youth groups anymore, or the groups are smaller.
“There isn’t as big a pool of youth and young families attending,” he said. “Several years ago people were having more children. And we also have more competition from travel sports. We’ve become more of a mainline denomination.”
When MC USA celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2021 in Cincinnati, the party will be at a smaller facility than previous conventions, though still in a downtown convention center.
Duke Energy Convention Center sits on two city blocks, compared to Kansas City Convention Center’s eight.
“It’s more consolidated,” Hartman said. “. . . It sits in more of a box shape, so you’ll be going up and down more, which in some ways keeps things closer so you aren’t walking so much.”
In an effort to lower costs in 2017, the convention was shortened by a day — to Tuesday evening through Saturday morning — a schedule that continues.
“Everything is open for discussion each convention,” Guyton said. “A delegate assembly is the one thing we have to have. But we look at everything and want to have a good time and be relevant.”
As chief operations officer and director of convention planning before he was executive director, Guyton reached out to Mennonite Church Canada about exploring joint gatherings, but the concept didn’t gain traction due to leadership transitions and MC Canada’s denominational restructuring.
MC USA conventions continue to be among the world’s larger Anabaptist gatherings. In 2021 the convention will take place July 6-10, at the same time as the Mennonite World Conference assembly July 6-11 in Indonesia.
“That may affect our numbers,” Guyton said. “I don’t know how many people have the means to go to Indonesia, and there will be some leaders who need to be there instead.”