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A leader with mission-tinted glasses

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Executive director Willy Reimer sees a vivid future for the Canadian conference.

In August, Willy Reimer began full-time as executive director of the Canadian conference (CCMBC). MB Herald editor Laura Kalmar sat down with Willy this summer for a chat.

You’re not a new face to many of us. You served as moderator of CCMBC from 2006–2008, and most recently as a leadership coach for pastors and churches. You also planted SunWest Christian Fellowship in Calgary. Tell us a bit about how you came to this national role.

It would have been sin for me to say “no” to this opportunity. God’s leading was so clear from his Word and how he spoke through other people – from his affirmation through the broader constituency, as well as my own church leadership and small group. I literally had dreams and visions. It was overwhelmingly obvious that I didn’t have a choice!

What excites you most about your new role?

What excites me most will probably be our greatest challenge. We have an opportunity to work together across this country to reach this country. We have great leaders, great churches, amazing resources.

But there are great things happening in our churches that our other churches don’t even know about. We tend to think and network north and south, but as Canadian MBs we need to work together east to west. Our greatest challenge is to get unified.

You’ve seen some of our unity break down in recent years?

Yes. It’s probably because, in the last decade or more, we haven’t articulated a clear theological centre. We’re very theologically eclectic, which has created uncertainty. We haven’t put a stake in the middle and said, “Here is the heart of what we believe! Here’s the essence of it.”

Because we haven’t done that, there’s been confusion. A leader says something controversial and people wonder, “Is that the centre or is it an edge?” If you know what the centre is, you can play on the edges.

So, we have a theological problem.

There’s a theological problem and there’s a mission problem. We’re not clear about what it means for us [as a denomination] to pursue the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.

When CCMBC processed divestiture from the U.S. conference, and MB Mission and the seminary became their own legal entities, we seemed to lose our way missionally for a period of time. While MB Mission and the seminary are still our strategic partners, we seemed to drift from a nationally unifying mission around which we could focus our energies. Even with our national emphasis on the Key Cities Initiative and, more recently, Regenerate 21-01, we still seem to struggle with a national “reason for being” as a conference.

Most provincial conferences have gone through a similar thing. Manitoba is a good example. Family Life Network and MBCI have become their own legal entities, so they now have their own annual general meetings. But they used to be huge reporting agencies at provincial conventions. People are asking, “Why do we get together now?”

We need a clear centre. For that, I would go back to our understanding of the cross; to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Jesus preached the kingdom of God. At the heart of [his message] is the transformation of the individual and of society. God is the business of transforming people. But it’s not just that individuals are saved – when the reign of God is present, society is transformed at a systemic level.

Isn’t that what we’ve been about all along?

We’ve gotten distracted by sidebar conversations. We talk about other significant theological issues, but they’re not what Jesus majored on. As Mennonites, we hold that the Gospels are the highest point of Scripture, but the first thing Jesus said to his disciples was, “I will make you fishers of men.” The maturation process happened on the road to mission.

You do theology differently when the lens through which you look is mission. When the disciples said to Jesus, “Hey, everyone wants to talk to you,” he said, “No, I’ve got to keep going. I came to preach, not to hang out.” We’ve become a little preoccupied with hanging out.

When you’re unclear on mission, you become much more myopic – you turn inward, and then often you start fighting about issues that aren’t central to the gospel.

It sounds like we need a different focus.

We need a stronger focus on mission. For example, as the [new Canadian] seminary is forming, we need to ask, “How is MBBS Canada going to help us train up leaders to reach Canada for Christ?” They might say, “Well, what about raising up MAs, PhDs, and counsellors?” That’s fine, but that’s not why we are here. Those are by-products. That’s not the primary purpose of the seminary. We need to be training leaders and pastors to fulfill the mission of reaching Canada with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We also want mission to be the primary lens through which [the Canadian conference] views how we resource churches. Whatever resources we bring to churches – a church health piece, a leadership development piece, or even a financial services piece – all are for the sake of mission. They’re not for the sake of raising up leaders, or even for greater efficiency. They’re for accomplishing the mission we’ve been given.

The tendency within us is to take care of ourselves. But, biblically, we don’t exist for the saved, we exist for the lost.

Some may have difficulty with the language of “saving the lost,” saying it could alienate people. Many prefer to talk about a faith journey than about being “saved” or “lost.”

Yes, that language has fallen out of favour. We’re all on a faith journey. But it’s like marriage – finally somebody asks and somebody answers. When you buy a house, you finally sign on the dotted line. Any big decision in life has a decision point.

It’s not about “praying the prayer.” I’m much more interested in disciples than decisions. But the reality is that people who don’t have a relationship with Jesus are lost.

People need a clear understanding of what it means to recognize their need for Christ and to accept his atoning work on the cross on their behalf. That may take 6,000 small steps or one cataclysmic step. It depends on the person, on the context. But ultimately you need to make a decision.

So, that’s the set of glasses you want us to wear.

Yes! And the other thing [we need to address] – which is partly Canadian and partly Mennonite – is the fact that we do a poor job celebrating the good things, the good leaders among us. We’re skeptical. We pick things apart. We’re not a people who ooze affirmation.

We need to look across the country and say, “God is blessing this thing.” Is it perfect? No. But God is doing something here. We need to be cheerleaders of our people, our leaders, and our churches across the country.

At the ICOMB higher education consultation, Alfred Neufeld spoke of “cultural dialysis” and the church’s role in transforming culture. How does this connect with mission?

I believe we need Christ-followers in every profession on the planet. But there’s something we’ve missed. We come from a very works-oriented background, so we’ve understood the commandments about what we’re supposed to go and do. What we’ve missed is the deep intimacy with Christ out of which the work happens.

A missionary once used a line that completely captured me. She said, “Intimacy with Christ leads to passion for Christ, which leads to compassion for others.” Your walk with God gives you the heart of God, which then leads you to the activity of God.

Speaking of activity, you recently hired Gord Fleming as national church planting director. Why was that the first role you chose to fill?

For us, church planting is the primary way to express our mission right now. I believe God is doing something amazing through church planting, and the Lord has opened doors with other denominations across this country in unprecedented ways. Many leaders are answering God’s call to be missionaries to the people of Canada. Families are uprooting and moving into cities, making financial sacrifices and stepping out in faith. We live in a time of great spiritual opportunity. God is at work in new and exciting ways!

With your office located in Calgary, there seems to be a move to decentralize the national conference. What kind of changes and opportunities are we likely to see in the next year with you in Alberta?

We want to engage our constituents more directly. I believe that having our senior staff spread out across the country will help accomplish that. If we’re all tied into different local settings, we can speak with more insight than if we just went for a visit.

Many leaders struggle with burnout. For example, you recently took a leave from your ministry at SunWest. What are some guardrails you’ve put in place to stay healthy as you move into this national role?

I believe most people burn out because they don’t know who they are. They derive their identity from what they do and from feedback people give them. But the place you find your identity is in Christ!

I need to continually develop my spirituality and my identity in Christ – to have a healthy devotional life. I also have guardrails around my health. I need to continually watch my boundaries around my schedule and physical fitness. I’m a Type 2 diabetic and I treat that by lifestyle, maintaining a regular fitness routine, eating right. Another piece is a prayer team that prays for me.

I also try to protect my marriage. Gwen [my wife of 23 years] is working part-time, but she will travel with me a bit so we can be together on mission and ministry. We have 3 boys: Joshua is 20, studying at the University of Calgary. Carter will be 19 this fall and he’s at Briercrest. Matthew, who is 16, will be going into Grade 11. It’s very important to stay connected to my kids and involved in their lives as they move into adulthood.

Any final words?

I’d like to highlight the intimacy with Christ piece. My request is a call to prayer for me, our churches, our leaders, and Canada. I have a dream for us as Mennonite Brethren – that we would be a people who have a clear understanding of the gospel, that we would be led by the Holy Spirit in life and ministry, and that we would be on our knees praying for our country!

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