I have watched, with dismay, the growing disconnect between our local MB church families, and the provincial and Canadian conferences. There was a time when poverty, persecution, struggle, and common goals knit us together; but times have changed and the family is drifting apart.
What are the signs?
Attendance at provincial and national conventions is down. Canadian convention statistics show that attendance peaked in 1988 with 1,001 delegates and guests registered; by 2006, attendance was 464. A similar trend is evident at the provincial level. In my provincial conference, Alberta, we saw attendance peak with 157 delegates in 1986. In 2008, there were 64.
Conference giving is down. In 2008, 12 of the 25 Alberta churches gave less than $10,000; eight did not contribute. Five churches carried half the $248,550 provincial budget.
Another indication of the disconnect is the serious lack of nominees for elected positions. Unable to find volunteers for leadership positions at the 2008 convention in Alberta, the conference found itself at what moderator Willy Reimer described as a “crossroads.”
At the Alberta convention in May, 2009, I sat down with David Wiebe, executive director of the Canadian conference, and the Alberta interim moderator, Willy Reimer, to talk about what Wiebe describes as the “tenuous” connection between churches and conference.
What can be done?
When I asked David Wiebe what can be done to improve the connections, he said, “I’d actually be interested in an answer from the church point of view.” Because “it doesn’t feel realistic to poll 37,000 members,” the conference relates primarily to the 250 pastors and leaders. “We’re trusting that the pastors know their congregations.” The conference also counts on representatives on its boards to communicate the wishes of the churches.
Wiebe sees the Regenerate 21-01 initiative as adapting to the message churches sent about the Key Cities initiative. Instead of “planting churches to grow the denomination,” the new initiative is to do “holistic evangelism.” But if this new initiative has come from the churches, why do so few people know about it?
To strengthen lines of communication, the Canadian conference is also investing more in regional staff. About a dozen people, including stewardship representatives, Wiebe said, are in MB churches regularly. Meanwhile, “a feedback group” is putting together “the first draft for strong information gathering.”
The Alberta Conference’s response to the lack of church involvement in the conference was to ask its existing executive to organize an implementation team “to review the state of its ministry and to initiate a new strategy for the sake of our churches and our joint ministry” (implementation team report). A strategic planning survey was developed. Of 3,600 Alberta members, only 67 completed the survey: 23 of them pastors. At the 2009 convention, a new constitution and governance model were adopted.
This sound of silence resonates across Canada. Reimer said Alberta’s new structure “is positioned to elicit the information from the constituency about what the relevant needs are…they tell us [the board] what to do.” But if the strategic planning survey is any indication, the constituency simply isn’t talking.
Do we need an MB identity?
I asked Wiebe how the MB conference can keep its connection alive with churches that are distancing themselves from their MB identity. There was a long pause before he answered, “By my silence you know that I’m really struggling with that.” He explained that Doug Heidebrecht, director of the Centre for MB Studies, has been visiting churches and speaking and writing about our identity, and mentioned the significant role of study conferences. “There’s a huge diversity,” he said. The Mennonite Brethren, which he sees as evangelical Anabaptist, “have very porous theological boundaries, more so than other Mennonites.”
According to Reimer and Wiebe, some of the responsibility for bridging the gap lies with the local church. In our culture, Reimer said, “people are loath to participate in something they don’t see as having immediate and direct benefit to themselves.” Churches need to have a “heart for service.” He emphasizes that we need “a clear practical theology of the Holy Spirit… Service has to be Spirit-driven, not personality-driven.”
Wiebe also sees “the danger of participation only when we want to.” Reimer speaks for a lot of people when he said, “I don’t feel a real need for the conference at the local church.” He attributes that attitude to narcissism: “If I serve, what will I get?” He quoted Alberta convention keynote speaker, David Parker, “If you’re called: you give.”
How are other churches responding?
Our sister conference, Mennonite Church Canada, is also grappling with the disconnect issue. In a May 11, 2009 Canadian Mennonite article (“Future Church” by Evelyn Rempel Petkau) elder church statesman John Neufeld is quoted as saying, “Our congregations have become very independent…. Where our concerns used to be with the work of the conference, we now struggle with very local concerns.” And long-time pastor Jake F. Pauls says his conference “needs to realize our congregations have changed in terms of being the church in mission. They have become localized…something the conference has been promoting for years… Now the conference [is] like a fish out of water.”
Willy Reimer said he’s optimistic about the future of the conference. “Most are my age or younger…. It’s the middle generation saying, if there’s a clarity of mission, we’re in. If it’s about perpetuating institution, we’re out. Every institution has a self-preservation gene. If we want to live, we have to die. My peers are great guys. From that perspective, I have hope.”
“I have hope with caveats,” said Wiebe. “We’re going to rally around the mission God has in mind for us, or we will fly apart. Mission meaning ‘nurturing our identity and our community so that we can present a credible witness in our country.’ I think if we hang on to our Anabaptist idea, we will actually offer something to Canadians that will be of interest to them. Canadians lack community and we have traditionally been very strong…. [they are] looking for clarity about God and a relevant witness will come out of our evangelicalism. I think MBs have tons to offer.”
“We have a good family and a strong one,” Wiebe concluded, “but in our new structure, we have to work hard to inventively listen to the church.”
I think the local churches have already spoken. The children are growing up and moving out. They are developing their own visions, structures, strategies, and initiatives. In view of this growing independence, perhaps it’s time for the conference to redefine its role. I firmly believe that the children still need the unifying and stabilizing influence of the parents. But the role of the parents has changed. I wonder if they’re listening?