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Family? Team? What?

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We need a good metaphor to describe the Mennonite Brethren conference. In the past, it was “brotherhood”, but the gender specificity disqualifies this term instantly these days. This term may not have the best connotations anyway.

Someone suggested to me recently that we should use the word “team”. That suggestion came in a conversation when I happened to use the term “family” to describe the MB conference. There are positives about both “team” and “family”, but I think each describes only a part of what we are about.

I’ve tried “association” (like the Willow Creek Association), but we are not just a bunch of loosely associated churches that pay an annual fee and mayor may not call themselves “Mennonite Brethren”.

In part, this dilemma comes as a result of trying to answer the question:

“What is the MB conference anyway, and why do we exist?”

I recall the exchange at the Canadian MB conference convention in 1996, when one leader said “the conference exists to serve the churches” and another roundly repudiated that perspective.

The MB movement has 140 years of history. There are extensive biological family connections within our fellowship. There are extensive church fellowship connections, too, where people still remember growing up in Winkler, Coaldale, Yarrow and some of the other core churches of the early part of the last century. That makes us “family”. We have a Confession of Faith, educational institutions and long-standing programs to nurture our fellowship.

Being a family is a good thing.

As in any family, individuals and church bodies in the MB conference have different “looks” and different approaches to theology, evangelism, teaching and worship. This diversity is rich. As in a family, we have to tolerate and appreciate people for who they are, even if at times their approach isn’t what we’d choose.

But we also have a mission.

We are a team; that is, we have a goal and a plan to achieve that goal. The reason the conference exists is so that we can work together to help churches achieve greater measures of health in order to reach more Canadians with the gospel.

We have three core priorities, and continually develop strategies to reach those. We try to put the right people into appropriate positions in order to “put the puck in the net”.

Our association as churches is voluntary. But we expect to support one another as we try to do greater ministry for God.

Churches don’t leave the conference every time there’s turmoil – we have too much connection.

Even new church plants are connected, at least by the fact that the leaders are accountable to the conference that pays for their start-up, and more so by people in the church plants who are connected to other MB churches.

Family”, “team” and “association”, while expressing part of who we are, fail to describe the fullness of what the MB conference is all about.

Instead, I suggest a metaphor from one of our core values:

“covenant community”.

Biblically speaking, community relates to fellowship, “spurring each other on to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24); expressions of love, grace and challenge; and giving room to enjoy each other’s character, idiosyncrasies and diversity. It means listening.

Covenant means we make agreements to stand by each other as churches when times are tough.

We agree to our Confession of Faith.

We agree to the mission.

We challenge conference leaders; leaders challenge churches.

We don’t bail out when storms hit. But we are “in” because of choice, not just birth.

How does it work?

Conference leaders devise programs to meet the needs of the churches. Not all the churches need those programs, but ideally they should have impact on most churches. If not, they must be changed.

Part of the conference role is to hear what the leading edge churches are doing and champion those models for others to adapt and use.

Part of the churches’ role is to support the conference initiatives, and help change them. In a real sense, there is a “we” that needs to be cultivated. Yes, the conference serves the churches, but the churches also shape the conference.

Together we are the Mennonite Brethren in Canada, trying to make a difference in our country for God’s sake.

Is the metaphor perfect? It’s doubtful. Perhaps, however, understanding ourselves to be a covenant community will help us on a path to greater love, fellowship, commitment, focus and accomplishment.

—David Wiebe is Executive Director for the Canadian MB Conference

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