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AGMs are a taste of heaven

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I recently took a tour of several Mennonite organizations’ annual general meetings. First, the Canadian MB Conference, then Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA), and finally Mennonite Central Committee (MCCBC).

My little AGM tour only scratched the surface. There’s also MBMS International, the seminary, Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), and Family Life Network (FLN). There are colleges, schools, and camps. And the list goes on.

Why would I go to all these meetings? Is my life so devoid of interesting things to do that I resorted to this? Some may think so. But I had another reason. I went to become better informed about ministries that do kingdom work on behalf of our church.

We know these ministries exist. But for the most part, we’re not aware of the details of what they do. I decided to become enlightened.

I belong to a set of people who instinctively measure organizations by their public accounting. There are those who evaluate organizations by the heartwarming stories they produce. I like those narratives too – but promotional storytelling is a genre of which I’ve become cautious.

When annual reports are published, I go immediately to the financial statements. Where is the money coming from and where is it going? How is the pie split? What’s being done with the resources?

What I discovered about the financial stewardship of our agencies was incredible. Indeed, the work being done on our behalf is even more amazing than I had suspected. MEDA, with its micro-loans, is a world leader. And MCC is a remarkable entity. In B.C. alone, $1.5 million was raised from relief sales and thrift stores – much of this by selling household odds and ends. In addition to MCC’s ministry among local struggling people, more than 70 percent of its income is used for international relief work.

I wish I had been able to attend more AGMs. I’m sure I would have seen many other kingdom investments put to effective use by our churches. Hard work and sacrifice over the course of many decades has bequeathed us an astonishing legacy.

But there was a worrisome side to my tour. I still remember a time when financial reports were the heart of the meetings and delegates asked detailed questions. “Can you tell us more about line X?” “Would it be possible to have a detailed breakdown of line Y?” “Why are the expenses in line Z so much higher [or lower] than budgeted?”

I remember when the merits and effectiveness of programs and visions were actually discussed, deliberated, and submitted to scrutiny. There were debates – sometimes animated. But we assumed differences of opinion were part of healthy analysis and sharpened our purpose.

I also remember, with some chagrin, how I thought many of the questions were nitpicky. “Can’t people just trust leadership?” I grumbled to myself and others around me. Now, it’s as if my grumbling wish had come true.

Those “nitpicky” questions are a rarity. At the Canadian conference AGM, a point of order was raised. “I believe we did not approve the auditor’s report.” Indeed we had not, and that formality was summarily dealt with. But at least someone noticed.

Perhaps something important has gone missing. Not everyone needs to enjoy reading financial statements, but when our interest in the details disappears, things will go awry. Adopting an auditor’s report is a formality, but understanding the financial state of an organization and its mission is not.

Is it possible that the passive state of delegates at meetings represents a declining sense of ownership?

It may not be. When the stories are inspiring and budgets are healthy, it’s easy to be lulled into complacency. Surely someone somewhere is asking the harder questions, right? We certainly hope so.

But if our missional organizations are worth keeping, there are several reasons why an AGM tour should be more than just a novelty event.

AGMs define ownership. Healthy organizations must not only have competent staff, they must have active, diligent owners.

AGMs test the essence of mission. And our mission is not selling heartwarming stories to the highest bidder. Our mission is – by perseverance and hard work – to be salt and light in our world.

AGMs foreshadow the coming kingdom. “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them” (Matthew 25:19).

Do you want a taste of heaven? Go to an annual general meeting!

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