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MB leadership over 150 Years

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As we discuss leadership in this issue, it’s helpful to look back at how Anabaptists and Mennonite Brethren have understood the role of a leader.—Eds.

Luther popularized the concept of “priesthood of all believers” (1 Peter 2:9), but Anabaptists realized the shift from defining the church as trained clergy to believers in community. Early Anabaptists appointed a bishop or elder as overseer of a region, but emphasis was on recognizing members’ giftedness and remaining accountable to the congregation.

The Schleitheim Confession of 1527 prescribed that a “shepherd” should be “a person according to the rule of Paul” and have “a good report of those who are outside the faith.” Their tasks included exhorting, teaching, admonishing, and presiding in prayer and in the breaking of bread.

The document of secession which founded the MB church in 1860 described two scriptural ways ministers could be called: “chosen by God alone,” and “called through the instrumentality of true believers, as recorded in Acts 1.” For the first 80 years, the MB church was led by bivocational ministers and elders chosen from within the congregation on the basis of giftedness and service.

Overall, MB congregations were characterized by “a brotherhood concept of the church, a multiple lay ministry, and an interdependence of churches.” The emergence of promising leaders from within the community was an ongoing priority.

A major shift began in the 1950s and 1960s, when many Canadian MB churches hired full-time, salaried, seminary-educated men for pastoral ministry, usually called from outside the congregation. As congregations became more urban, it was common for leadership to centralize under one pastor, supported by a church council of committee heads. Church leadership became more democratic and authority shifted from a group of lay elders to a paid pastor.

During the 1980s, “church growth theory” was popular in North American churches, influencing many MB churches with its emphasis on evangelism. In this model, the pastor was often compared to a corporate chief executive officer (CEO). Many MB churches replaced the council model with an elder board, locating authority in a group of spiritual leaders who no longer looked to congregational consensus for decision-making.

Ratified at Gathering 2006, the board of faith and life resolved that on the “non-confessional” issue of women in ministry leadership, the conference “bless each member church in its own discernment of Scripture, conviction, and practice to call and affirm gifted men and women to serve in ministry and pastoral leadership.”

At present, several congregations are following the lead of the Canadian Conference of MB Churches, realigning board governance structures to Les Stahlke’s Relationship Model. “Servant leadership” is listed as a core value, described as “a quality of attitude and action that characterizes those who are the source of authority to others…who are responsible for delivering the ministry.”

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