The Canadian Conference of MB Churches recently hired Ron Toews as director of leadership development. Laura Kalmar sat down with Ron in September to talk about his personal faith journey, his understanding of Christian leadership, his passion for young leaders, and his vision for the future.
Tell us a bit about your life journey.
I had the privilege of being born into a Saskatchewan farming family, which gave me a profound respect for creation. I learned that those who till the soil have an obligation to feed the stomachs of world. So, I’ve always understood my spiritual gift was giving.
Faith mattered for my parents, and I saw a kind of selflessness in the way they lived it out – giving to church and mission, serving others. They modelled generosity in many ways. For example, we found ourselves in a community where there were General Conference Mennonites, Mennonite Brethren, and Mennonite Conference – and on the other side of the tracks were Catholics. Through my parents’ example, I found it easy to interact respectfully in those various worlds. I’m so grateful for that start.
Through all this, it wasn’t unnatural for me to think I could make a difference. The entrepreneurial world of farming seemed like a great place to make a kingdom difference.
But you didn’t stay on the farm.
God’s call to leave the farm was something I contested long and hard. I did my best Jonah for a couple years. You know, the amount of time we spend wrestling with God tends to be commensurate with how important something is. So, this wasn’t a little wrestling; it was a big wrestling!
Yet, God persevered and I became obedient to what I knew I needed do – let it all go. I had to burn the bridge so I couldn’t walk back across it, so we sold our interest in the farm.
In your youth, you went through some difficulties that proved formative.
Yes. I had a number of challenging experiences with health in my teenage and young adult years that left me with a sense that I might not live long; that if I intended to make a kingdom difference, I had better get busy living by faith and taking risks.
So, you finished your BRE and MDiv, and spent the next 15 years in pastoral ministry – seven at Kitchener (Ont.) MB Church and eight at Dalhousie Community (MB) Church in Calgary.
I wasn’t a year and half into Kitchener before I began to sense that I needed to dig deeper into studies. Not that my experiences in education up to that point were ineffective: I just wanted more. I entered into a DMin program, which I thoroughly enjoyed. For all kinds of reasons. My love for Jesus grew and I was spiritually enriched. I was able to develop specific callings and spiritual gifts, which the local church had discerned in me, including mediation and leadership.
Then more health challenges came your way.
I was diagnosed with testicular cancer when I was 42. For several months, my life seemed to hang in the balance. The experience forced no small amount of soul searching, learning to give up control (again!), to trust God knew what he was doing in my life.
After that, you found yourself on a new journey from pastoral ministry into the education system.
When I started my DMin, I didn’t have any aspirations that it would open doors for other ministry assignments. But it did. The phone started ringing. MBBS-ACTS seminary in Langley, B.C., was one of the places that called, asking if I’d like to teach. I said no. Repeatedly.
At one point, my son Nathan asked, “How do you know God hasn’t healed you for such a time as this?”
So Dianne and I agreed to pray. It was one of those really hard decisions. We left a church we loved – a meaningful, grace-filled community.
Landing in an academic role was a shock to my pastoral system. I’m not a purebred academic so it was a real challenge to be confined to an office, focused almost solely on researching and writing lectures. But it was also during that time, I later reflected, that God put a more robust theological and philosophical foundation under what had largely been an intuitive approach to my understanding of leadership. Did the students grow? I pray they did. But I probably grew the most.
I eventually ended up in the corner office at ACTS as interim principal. When the committee came to me and asked me to consider the position, I said, “I’m not looking for a job!” Dianne and I went to Africa for our 30th anniversary, agreeing to think and pray about it. At the end, we had peace to say yes.
When you arrived back in Canada, you and Dianne faced one of the greatest challenges of your lives.
We arrived at the Vancouver airport to the news that our son Nathan had been killed in a car accident. That thrust us into our darkest hour – and it made cancer look like a cakewalk. The early part of this journey was marked by unending tears, darkness, and a profound sense of disillusionment.
Because of the nature of the accident that claimed Nathan, it left our daughter-in-law a widow; our other daughter-in-law with serious injuries; and a grandchild who was born premature. There were many numbing days and nights when we didn’t know how things would end.
Suffering has a way of calling for clarity. Early on, we reaffirmed that God was with us, even in the darkness; that we live by faith in the finished work of Christ; that he is up to something we may not understand.
I’ve come to appreciate something Carol Kent says in her book A New Kind of Normal: “When suffering shatters the carefully kept vase that is our lives, God stoops to pick up the pieces. But he doesn’t put them back together as a restoration project patterned after our former lives. Instead he sifts through the rubble and selects some of the shards as raw material for another project – a mosaic that tells the story of redemption.”
How did Nathan’s death affect your leadership at the seminary?
It’s difficult to lead a seminary to reinvent itself when the river of grief is running so wide and deep. I came to appreciate that I probably couldn’t heal and lead at the same time.
I left after 21 months, and eventually accepted a leadership development role with the B.C. Mennonite Brethren conference, where I served from 2009 to September 2012.
When Willy Reimer called this past year and asked if I would be interested in a shift to national leadership development with the Canadian conference (CCMBC), I tested the request with a dozen-plus people. Everyone said, “We think you should be open to this.”
I had to admit Willy’s call represented kairos, a moment where I could see how the Spirit had been weaving my life experiences together into a tapestry for his redemptive purposes. We committed the request to prayer and I accepted the role.
Leadership development has been one of the main foci of CCMBC for a number of years. Tell us about your thoughts around equipping leaders.
Today we use the word “leadership” differently than it has been used for much of the history of the church; somewhere along the way, leadership became a science. (One of my faculty colleagues, who did a PhD in leadership in the 80s, figured it had been possible to read nearly every book written on leadership – about 300–400 titles in all. By 2010, a leadership bibliography is easily 150 pages long). Until five decades ago, we didn’t really think of “Ephesians 4” folks as being leaders, per se – we thought of them as apostles, teachers, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. Yet each exercises a leadership function in the body of Christ.
The purpose of Ephesians 4 category leaders is to equip. The Greek word for equipping, katartismos, has two strands of meaning. One has to do with preparing, like a potter prepares clay for usefulness by forming it into the shape of a bowl. The other has to do with repairing; i.e., bowls crack and need to be repaired. Ephesians 4 leaders prepare and repair God’s people “for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attain to the whole measure of faithfulness in Christ” (vs 12–13).
How do you go about doing the work of preparing and repairing?
I’m less interested in the form leadership development takes. But I do care that young women and men have the opportunity to be equipped for missional life in the church.
I’ve observed a useful leadership development metaphor in B.C. We apply a red L for learner or a green N for novice on the back of a new driver’s car. When we approach an intersection and see that letter, we are supposed to think: “Pay attention. Here’s a person who is learning to drive. She may need a little extra space.”
That’s what I like to see happen – young believers walking in relationship with equippers, giving them space, providing opportunities to be prepared and repaired for vital ministry.
Does it concern you when you don’t see a lot of young people at Gathering or provincial conventions?
Not really. In the Old Testament, important matters were discussed at the city gates. But it tended to be the elders – literally the “olders” – who came to those gates. I don’t necessarily expect young women and men to be seated with the elders.
What I do look for are places for young women and men to be called out – and called in. Called out of a lifestyle that moves away from Christ, called into a lifestyle of knowing God intimately and living by faith in community with the “olders” using the gifts and passions given them by the Spirit for the sake of the kingdom. If young men and women are given opportunities – like TREK or SOAR or Ministry Quest or Outtatown or CIT programs at camp – I’m delighted, whether they are at Gathering or not.
Of course, leadership development is going to look as diverse as the geography in which we find ourselves. Whether I’m in one of our Chinese congregations in Vancouver or in the rural church where I grew up, we’re going to have to come at it through the cultural lenses God created for us.
Tell us about the first steps as national director of leadership development.
I didn’t want a fast-change start. So I structured a 100-day scenario that allowed me time to travel the country, reading the temperature by connecting with key people (including executive staff of CCMBC and the provinces, select pastors, and regional opinion shapers). My goal was to understand the leadership development and church health interests of Mennonite Brethren in Canada. I learned a lot.
Can we expect new programs soon?
I’m not trying to think of programs. Yet. I first want to find out what the needs are and where God’s people are discovering they need equipping – either preparing or repairing. And I especially want to work with provincial conference ministers and executive directors so they can help shape existing and/or new ministries.
My interests will also include conflict resolution training. Conflict is too valuable to waste. Whether it’s a conflict between staff, neighbours, people on the street, or leaders in our conference, I’m looking at creating a resource that can help make the next conflict more productive than the last.
It sounds like there’s an exciting future for leadership development across Canada. Are there any words of wisdom you’d like to share with younger leaders? You’re 55 years old now. What are some keys to longevity in leadership?
Leadership isn’t a science. It is stewardship, a grant of responsibility that grows out of a deep and intimate relationship with Jesus Christ and results in a deep commitment to the purposes and people of God.
At ACTS, we said that Christian leadership is about “taking the initiative to know God deeply, to reflect his holy character, to draw together and influence communities through loving relationships in order to fulfill his purposes in the world.” That’s a rich definition; take away any part of it and leadership longevity is diminished.
Another element that contributes to longevity in leadership is the understanding that leaders are themselves part of community. Leaders aren’t lords or solo operators. Rather, they are members of the body and part of Christ’s family. Paul’s 12 or 13 “one another” texts in the New Testament – pray for one another, serve one another, bear one another’s burdens, etc. – apply equally to all members of the body. Longevity in leadership is as much the result of receiving “one another ministry” from the body as it is about offering preparing and repairing ministry to the body of Christ.