Mennonite Church Canada delegates affirmed restructuring the denomination to increase influence and ownership at a more local level at their July 6-10 assembly in Saskatoon, Sask. What remains to be seen is exactly how that will be lived out.
A proposal to approve the recommendations of a Future Directions Task Force passed with a 94 percent vote. The task force spent about two years addressing low national giving and an ebbing sense of denominational investment.
“What we do know is going to change is that the area churches will together discern what the shared national priorities will be and that the area churches will together be responsible to fund those shared priorities,” said MC Canada executive director Willard Metzger a week after the assembly’s conclusion.
Area churches are like regional conferences, each gathering congregations in one or two provinces. Congregations had previously funded the national MC Canada work and more local area church work separately.
The new approach has congregations giving only to area churches, which will in turn fund denominational programs. The goal is for area churches not only to fund MC Canada’s priorities but also to decide what those priorities will be.
“We don’t know the exact programs that will be offered from a national level,” Metzger said. “We also don’t know what the national staffing structure will be.”
An interim council made up of area church moderators and the MC Canada moderator and vice moderator will develop a transition team and identify a project team leader as congregations begin merging budget lines for area churches and MC Canada. That process is anticipated to conclude with a delegate vote in two years or less.
No structural changes will occur without delegate approval, though budget limitations may force some adjustments before that can happen.
Area church changes
Metzger believes some area churches anticipate expansion as their responsibilities increase.
Relatively small area churches expressed trepidation about such a change. Mennonite Church Alberta, with 15 congregations, voted earlier this year not to approve the task force’s recommendations, expressing concerns about its regional viability and a need for greater clarity of the proposed plan. Metzger said he felt a strong commitment across the denomination to make sure every area church is cared for and supported.
He likened the new model to Mennonite Central Committee’s, in which people donate to a provincial MCC entity, with the understanding that they are supporting a global mandate.
Metzger said it had grown difficult for many congregations to feel connected to and support both their area church and national church.
“In our Canadian context, regular church attendance is anyone who comes once a month or more, which is very different than the time when that meant at least once a week,” he said. “It takes more effort to have this sense of family at a local level, in addition to an area church and a national church. It just takes too much effort.”
Critique of process
Consulting a denomination of more than 30,000 members spread across one of the world’s largest countries isn’t easy. Some pastors and church members experienced the task force’s consultation process as rushed and closed. The group’s report and recommendations were released in December for area churches to approve before the assembly.
A group of 10 young adult pastors from across Canada wrote an open letter in the June 6 issue of Canadian Mennonite expressing concerns about eroded trust.
“We weren’t allowed time to grapple and engage the content,” said Jeff Friesen, one of the letter’s organizers and associate pastor of Charleswood Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, Man., in a July 19 phone interview.
He identified a sense of mistrust that goes both ways — leadership hesitant to engage in communal discernment with the body, and congregants and pastors downplaying and disregarding the national church’s role.
“We were quite concerned about the lack of diverse representation on the interim council, particularly because right now it’s four men, one woman, each of which is about 58 or older,” Friesen said. “We were just trying to say this is an opportunity to write into the process the voices that have been overlooked.”
An addendum to the proposal for the assembly did address many concerns. It outlines a plan for consultation that includes more congregational involvement before the 2018 vote. Marginalized groups may also be included on the transition team.
The addendum also adds provisions for continual gatherings for worship, study and discernment — something Friesen feels will be important as MC Canada works to come together.
“There needs to be a greater concern given to theological considerations of who we want to be,” he said. “A lot of times our shrinking size — the crisis we’re in now as a national church — is described as a sociological phenomenon rather than a theological one. That shows a shifting of priorities in our lives.”
Still a national brand
While the emphasis will move from the national to a more local level, MC Canada will also work to strengthen denominational branding. The national office in Winnipeg won’t be closing.
“There has always been a sense that we want a clear national identity,” Metzger said. “We heard that very strongly across Canada — a strong affirmation of area churches but a very loud caution that area churches don’t spin off into independent entities.”
He said some roles are best served by the national entity, such as being a representative in ecumenical and Mennonite World Conference settings, education, communications, financial services and the pastoral pension plan.
One proposal addressed international missions, known as Witness. It suggested shifting workers from long-term partnerships into facilitating shorter experiences. Many workers discouraged the “parachute” approach, saying cross-cultural relationships take years to nurture.
Metzger said MC Canada is working closely with sister national churches as they articulate needs. Witness will continue in some form.
“We also began to envision what it would look like if congregations took more of a concrete effort in the support of our international workers,” he said. “Not everybody’s happy with that way of thinking, but it’s a part of envisioning it differently.”