It’s planting season in South Dakota, and this time of year reminds me of my dad’s story about the evolution of farm machinery. Dad grew up when fields were tilled and planted with horse-powered implements. When his father changed to their first tractor, it was difficult.
Dad recalls the excitement of watching the first time the plow effortlessly raced across the field—seemingly propelled by the Divine. That excitement turned to horror, however, when the tractor got to the end of the field. Grandpa hollered, “Whoa! Whoa!” trying to convince the tractor to follow instructions like the horses did. Instead of slowing and turning to make another pass, the disobedient tractor plowed through the fence into the neighbor’s field!
In retrospect, it’s a comedic story, though I’m sure it certainly didn’t seem very funny at the time. Implementing change is difficult. Grandpa’s exasperation at the tractor’s unwillingness to follow verbal instructions eventually turned to an appreciation for the machine’s capabilities.
Change is not easy, and it’s rarely comfortable. During this season, I see many parallels between my farm work and my work with Mennonite Church USA.
In February, the Executive Board expressed a desire to reframe present church systems in order to increase our ability to be more faithful and effective as a church. We believe we have a message the world is longing to hear and that we can do better by learning from our past.
So far I’ve heard, “I thought we did this six years ago,” and “When will we ever be finished restructuring?” Some have expressed significant concern about this direction, while others are excited about what this means for our future.
I believe the first six years of Mennonite Church USA, combined with our 500-year history as Anabaptists, have served the role of preparing the soil for our future. The preparation has left us seeking a God-inspired vision that guides, transforms and enables us to fulfill the mission God has entrusted to us.
Our vision is healing and hope. Establishing communities of faith, hope and love are fruits of the Spirit. We are doing many things well, and God is nourishing many efforts throughout our church. We don’t want to lose that.
But as farmers optimistically planning for a bountiful harvest for Mennonite Church USA, we know our window for planting is only open so long. We don’t want to miss the prime growing season in a time when the sustenance of God’s healing and hope is needed. We cannot be so consumed by our problems that we fail to be the people God is calling us to become.
I hear from constituents that our denomination has too much infrastructure for our size. We have duplication among our churchwide agencies. Our churchwide system does not encourage optimum collaboration among agencies and conferences, nor does it adequately equip congregations for ministry in their communities.
The board seeks to plant and nurture crops of collaboration, relevance, simplicity, responsiveness and empowerment in our church structures, relationships and behaviors.
The recent Mennonite Member Profile tells us we are getting older, losing young people and less willing to share our faith. We’re also increasingly taking cues from our culture rather than our church.
While our Racial/Ethnic congregations are growing, we haven’t provided adequate resources to these congregations nor embraced their gifts.
We can’t let these things instill so great a sense of fear or defeat that we neglect to act. We can’t neglect to plant for fear of failure. The process of soil preparation and seed selection exhibits our trust in God’s Spirit.
The Executive Board invites you to join this planting season for the church’s future. We have set a direction and know what needs to be sown. But the ways and places we will plant have yet to be determined. We need you to join this work.
Currently, board members are meeting with people from across the church to listen to concerns and gain wisdom as we discern the best way to improve our relationships and structures.
The insights shared in these meetings will guide us as we prepare for a gathering of all Mennonite Church USA boards of directors June 20-21 in Columbus, Ohio. God has been preparing the ground for the crops we will sow for the future. Many opportunities are coming our way as we join God’s work. We have much to celebrate for we are in the season of planting—full of hope and anticipation for the harvest.
Sharon Waltner is moderator of Mennonite Church USA