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MCC centrality questioned

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Global church re-directs Wineskins re-visioning process

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is the largest and most influential Anabaptist organization in the world. It has nearly 1,200 workers and an annual budget of $82 million. Its reach extends to 62 countries abroad, and in North America it encompasses 14 denominations, covering the spectrum from Amish grandmothers to The Meeting House, a Brethren in Christ congregation and Canada’s coolest mega-church. MCC’s publication, A Common Place, goes to more than 75,000 people. More than 16,000 Canadians volunteered at MCC stores, relief sales, and material resource centres in the past year.

For many, MCC is close to the heart of what it is to be Mennonite. It creates commonality among North American Mennonites and connects us to the rest of the world.

Given MCC’s centrality, its four-year re-visioning process should be of interest to us. The New Wine/New Wineskins initiative, started in 2008, has cost $850,000, and brought together 2,000 people from 50 countries at 60 meetings to give input to the evolution of MCC.

Although the consultation phase is over and likely outcomes are fairly clear, final decisions have yet to be made, and implementation is expected to be completed in early 2012.

Behind the scenes

From the beginning, Wineskins was a two-headed process. One major issue was how to make MCC more accountable to international partners. “The people who you’re trying to help ought to have a say,” says MCC binational director Arli Klassen. Wineskins sought the best way to include the vast array of international partners in decision-making in a more thorough way than is currently the case.

The other issue at play has been how to “make more space for national differences between Canada and the U.S.,” says Klassen. That’s code for the fact that the Canadian branch of MCC is eager to oversee more international programming from Winnipeg, instead of sending two-thirds of the money to Akron, Pa., where most administration of international programming now happens. (Roughly half of overall MCC income is generated in Canada.) Also, MCC in Canada accepts millions in government money, while MCC in the U.S. has a staunch tradition of not accepting government money, keeping its distance from American foreign policy.

Other agenda items included strengthening MCC’s ties to churches at home and abroad, and finding better ways for the provincial, regional, and national MCC offices to coordinate decision-making.

Two main outcomes have emerged.

First, MCC’s Canadian office will most likely be granted its wish to administer a larger proportion of MCC’s international programming. Little will change from the standpoint of MCC supporters or the people MCC works with abroad. “We’re not changing what we do, but how we do it,” Klassen says.

The working proposal is that MCC Binational be disbanded, its work given over to MCC Canada and MCC U.S. These two branches would maintain their own boards, but would work collaboratively and with a single identity overseas. A new council would oversee overall governance of MCC, guide the vision, set standards, and “protect MCC’s brand,” says Klassen.

Theoretically, the shift would facilitate smoother and closer relations between MCC’s Canadian office and Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the federal government’s foreign aid department.

MCC’s provincial and regional boards, as well as the denominational conferences that ultimately “own” MCC, will have a role in approving changes. The approval process and complex task of figuring out how to divide the work between Canada and the U.S. are expected to take much of 2011.

The rich help the poor

The more interesting Wineskins issue is about “what it means to be globally accountable,” to quote Klassen. Being a rich and powerful North American organization creates an imbalance between the helpers and those who are helped. Although our faith emphasizes simplicity, sharing, equality, and humility, we in North America are far richer than the people we help, and in some ways we remain above them.

“Our temptation is to think of ourselves as possessing what other people need,” says Earl Martin, who served for 25 years with MCC. How can we have authentically mutual relationships with sisters and brothers around the world when we are always the helpers and they are always the helped? This imbalance of roles can lead to self-importance on our end and erosion of dignity on the other.

This complexity is not new. A 1993 consultation with African colleagues reported that “the old ‘fixing/saving/meeting human need’ paradigm [should] be subsumed and transformed under a larger paradigm of building global community and particularly global church community.” The Wineskins questions about global accountability are part of an ongoing quest for a more genuine equality in a world of gross inequity.

Globalization of MCC

In this context, a fundamental re-shaping and “globalization” of MCC was on the table from the beginning of the Wineskins process. One of the main models considered was for a variety of overseas Anabaptist service agencies to come together under the MCC umbrella, with the expanded global MCC possibly based outside North America.

This concept was on the table when 27 Anabaptist church and service groups from 18 countries met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last August. While the gathering, convened by Mennonite World Conference (MWC), was not part of the Wineskins process per se, the potential globalization of MCC was a primary factor in discussions.

“People were very grateful to MCC,” says Pakisa Tshimika, MWC’s global church advocate, but the organizations at the gathering opted out of an expanded MCC. The groups decided to work toward greater collaboration within a formal network, but did not want MCC to globalize in the way it had been considering. The decision was not a rejection of MCC itself – which received affirmation – but of the approach it had been considering. While MCC is a central body for North American Mennonites, it turns out it is not the central committee for the global Anabaptist community.

“It’s humbling to be told we are not the centre of the Anabaptist service world,” says Klassen. She admits, “It was pretty ethnocentric to think that others would want to become part of MCC.” So MCC will not “take on an entirely different shape,” a hope Klassen expressed in 2008. International representatives will likely be added to MCC’s Canada and U.S. boards, and the global entity envisioned at the Addis Ababa consultation will provide another element of international accountability, but MCC will remain a North American organization – something MWC had actually been advising for years.

Elephant and mouse

In terms of MCC’s global accountability, the key question now is the future relationship between MCC and MWC. MWC represents 99 Mennonite and Brethren in Christ national churches from 56 countries, and is the only Anabaptist body with a truly global mandate. Yet MWC is dwarfed by MCC in terms of budget and capacity (MWC’s annual budget is $1.4 million and it has 26 staff, 22 of whom are based in North America or Europe).

Tshimika uses the elephant and mouse metaphor to describe MCC’s prominence in the realm of global Anabaptist organizations. Despite this imbalance, he says that in Addis Ababa, it felt like “everyone was on the same level.” This speaks to the potential for MWC to create a forum in which MCC can practice genuine mutuality.

Although the global Anabaptist church, in the form of MWC, provides the most logical forum of international accountability for MCC, it has limitations.

Many of MCC’s overseas partners or aid recipients do not fall under the MWC umbrella. MWC cannot represent MCC partners who are not Mennonite or Christian. Furthermore, closer ties to MWC could result in automatic selection of MWC-affiliated partners rather than discernment of those best-suited to particular initiatives. Ron Mathies, who served as MCC binational director for nine years, articulated some of this tension, asking if MCC’s mission, like MWC’s, is to serve the church by facilitating mutually enriching exchange between the two halves of MCC’s “two-fold constituency” (North American donor churches and “program partners and participants around the world”) or to become a more effective NGO – to raise as much money as possible, and help as much as possible?

Surely the answer is some of both, but sometimes the two conflict.

A humble, unifying role

Although MCC sometimes feeds a “noble helper” identity among its supporters, it also has an outstanding record of fostering unity and exchange among an exceptional diversity of people. This ability is one of MCC’s greatest strengths, more unique and impressive than its fundraising ability. Perhaps MCC can address the global accountability question not only by adjusting organizational charts, but by doing more to show North Americans how much the rest of the world has to offer them.

Both Mathies and Martin are most passionate when speaking about how MCC’s two-fold constituency “desperately need each other,” as Mathies puts it. Martin says that while we are called to share what we have, “just as strong or stronger is the call or opportunity to listen to and learn from people of other cultures.”

The Addis Ababa gathering called the organization – and, by extension, its North American supporters – to a deeper humility. Part of the lesson was that the “elephant” will not be done away with by simply globalizing organizational structures. A shift in posture here at home may be the more important factor.

In Addis Ababa, MCC personnel were challenged “to let go of some of [their] ideas,” says Klassen. Perhaps that also captures what MCC’s North American supporters can take from the Wineskins process.

We are indeed people who help, and we do so generously and competently, but, more importantly, we must also be people who recognize the complexities of helping and the need to be humble recipients.

Will Braun served for five-and-a-half years with MCC in Brazil, in B.C., and at the Winnipeg office. He attends Hope Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, Man. This article first appeared in the Canadian Mennonite.

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