The parable of the ostrich
Four challenges and opportunities facing Canadian MB churches today
Have you ever seen an ostrich? Though awkward and gangly, these birds have a unique way of operating under attack. When threatened, the ostrich attempts to hide itself by lying flat on the ground and sticking its head into the sand. If this technique doesn’t work, it tries to run away. If cornered, the ostrich goes on the offensive with a kick of its powerful legs.
These responses are uncannily similar to the passive-aggressive responses one sometimes sees in the church! People sometimes exhibit an unhealthy mix of defensiveness and offensiveness. Usually this begins by pretending something doesn’t exist, and if that doesn’t work, they move quickly either to attack people who disagree or to run away.
It is clear we are living in a time of transition and challenge as the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. Like the ostrich, we as members of local churches facing denominational issues need to choose wisely how we respond. In this critical season, we can isolate ourselves and pretend that everything is fine; we can dialogue only with people who agree with our convictions; we can go on the offensive and attack those in leadership and those with whom we disagree. None of these responses, however, are ultimately productive.
Fortunately, unlike the ostrich, we have another choice: naming the issues that lie before our Mennonite Brethren family and working collaboratively to preserve the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3). Here are some items for discussion within our congregations as we prepare for upcoming conversations and decision-making moments:
1. We have financial challenges.
It is good to see the steps the Executive Board has taken in response to the motion approved at Gathering 2016 to reduce significantly deficits in the 2017 and 2018 budgets. This is never an easy mandate to implement, but this demonstrates responsiveness to the voices of member churches speaking into the financial health of CCMBC. Member congregations have a right to expect regular, accurate, appropriate reporting on CCMBC finances, including the evolution of the stewardship fund into Legacy Fund Inc., ongoing budget priorities, and existing and potential funding models.
Pay attention to upcoming financial updates and participate in a family conversation about what we spend our money on and why, and then give feedback to our leaders in constructive ways.
2. We have ongoing communication challenges.
The Executive Board has taken steps to increase communication with the constituency; greater transparency and responsiveness to feedback are helpful in building relational trust. As a pastor, I know the challenge of maintaining good communication about our congregational ministries. The challenge of doing this well in a national family with some 250 churches, multiple languages and four time zones is exponentially greater!
Reach out to a staff member or leader with a note or word of encouragement. Romans 13:7 reminds us “give respect and honour to those who are in authority” (NLT).
3. We have leadership challenges.
The Executive Board has publicly acknowledged the need for evaluation and change. Like many, I was saddened when existing leadership dynamics resulted in the release of executive director Willy Reimer. It’s a reminder of the difficult nature of the board’s responsibilities. As member churches, we have a responsibility to speak into the preferred structure and desired style of leadership. With fewer formal opportunities for conversation and dialogue in our conference structure, the need for robust dialogue and the exchange of a wide variety of viewpoints on key issues instead found expression through private conservations, regional gatherings, phone calls, texts and email threads. Though this has been helpful for some people, it has had limited benefit to the whole family. Some of the issues we face are systemic, so it is vital to have effective national forums for the open discussion of issues. Some of them are relational, making it is equally important to have conversations with CCMBC leaders and staff.
If you have something to say to a leader or staff person, invite them for coffee or get on the phone. Don’t be passive aggressive – ask your questions directly to the person or people involved.
4. We have process challenges.
The potential merger of MB Mission and C2C has highlighted both perceived and real gaps in our decision-making process. This is a critical decision, and it needs to be entered into with as much prudence as possible. Our leaders and the appointed task force have been working hard at discerning the rationale for this merger. The proposal has been processed with some, but for others, there remain unanswered questions around the financial, governance and theological implications of this proposed merger. Disagreement about process or strategy to achieve our ultimate mission is not a sign of disunity. Nevertheless, a hard truth is that sometimes as delegates we come underprepared to important decision-making moments, stick up our hands to vote on something in the last 30 minutes of a business session with our boarding pass for our flight in our hands and our heads already into the sermon we are preaching the next day. When it comes to decisions of this magnitude, it is appropriate to expect our conference leaders to honour member churches with the necessary information upon which to make such a decision.
As delegates, we must come prepared to engage.
My challenge to us is to avoid behaving like ostriches. We need a national family in which member churches – the “owners” of the conference – are enthusiastically active and generous. We must not simply ignore issues and hope that other people will solve them. We need to believe the best of others who differ in opinion, tactic or theology from ourselves.
This is a season to work together for the sake of the greater mission: a more robust and healthy national family that has the capacity and calling to be the people of God locally, nationally and globally.
[Brad Sumner is lead pastor at Jericho Ridge Community Church, Langley, B.C. He and his family will be spending a month in Tanzania this summer on sabbatical where they hope to see some ostriches roaming the Serengeti.
See also “Open letter to the CCMBC Board of Faith and Life and the CCMBC Executive Board” (Mar. 3, 2017)