Family matters: Ontario convention works at conflict
As is typical of most family get-togethers, the 80th convention of the Ontario Conference of MB Churches called attendees to “Remember, Reflect and Renew.” And like most family gatherings, the Feb. 18–19, 2011, meeting of leaders and 156 delegates at Waterloo MB Church included encouraging celebrations and tough conversations.
Welcoming guests to Friday evening’s worship time, moderator Peter Durksen said a good way to clarify vision and mission is to look at God’s past blessings. Hosted by Susan Muntz, the evening celebrated two church plants that are now long-standing pillars of the conference: Kitchener MB and Scott Street MB. Ontario MBs remembered how Camp Crossroads, Eden High School, Bethesda Homes (for developmentally challenged individuals), and seniors’ homes (Tabor, Pleasant, Valleyview) have for decades enabled them to share the love of Christ with their neighbours.
Keynote speaker Jim Evans, pastor at Orchard Park Bible Church (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.) declared the daring risks and growing pains of the past “should be the stuff of the hopes and dreams of the next generation.”
While Friday’s rememberings were more upbeat, Saturday’s reflections on the present were sobering. With many of their agencies enjoying stability and growth – Tabor Manor, for example, will begin construction on a new 128-bed long-term care facility in spring 2011 – much of the attention and discussion centred on conference unity, financial support, and agency spending.
Vidya Narimalla, the chair of Ontario’s board of faith and life (BFL), set the tone by noting a lack of confessional and ethical unity and accountability because many pastors and churches are not cooperating with the province’s credentialing requirements. In addressing the decreasing financial support of the conference, Narimalla said, “We stand on the shoulders of faith of people who had meagre resources, yet did marvelous things in the name of Jesus. What is the Ontario MB Conference’s legacy going forward? Will our children and grandchildren say, ‘They didn’t get along. There was very little unity. Everyone did their own thing. And the conference dissolved’?”
Both the leadership council and board of church extension (BOCE) reports, along with the BFL, acknowledged difficulties in their working relationships. BOCE chair Ed Willms admitted, “We haven’t been as good at communicating.”
Ontario conference minister Richard Martens said, “We are a family that has its dysfunction,” but was pleased efforts are being made to “stay at the table long enough to deal with our challenges.” For example, in 2010, the leadership council met with representatives of 13 Ontario congregations to listen to them, and work is already being done to meet with the remaining churches in 2011. At the same time, Martens is organizing regional clusters in an effort to build a sense of unified community among MB church leaders.
Response to the BOCE’s report highlighted other tensions. First, delegates complained the application process and decision-making criteria for receiving grants were unclear. More specifically, delegates expressed concern that a conflict of interest exists when members of the BOCE approve funding for their own congregations.
Second, delegates challenged the wisdom of providing grants to large churches in order for them to develop satellite campuses in neighbourhoods where MB congregations already exist. Delegates wondered if there was a consultation process.
Finances and accountability
The afternoon’s 2010 financial report and presentation of the 2011 budget provoked further candid conversation and two austere amendments. The following garnered the bulk of delegates’ time and attention:
- The conference had a $96,000 deficit in 2010, in part because congregations gave $38,000 less than budgeted. (At the 2010 convention, Ontario approved a funding model that called congregations to contribute the equivalent of four percent of their individual church’s total revenue to the conference.) Delegates challenged the leadership council and the conference minister to talk with under-contributing churches to consider the ethics of their financial decisions.
- In 2010, two established congregations gave well below the four percent benchmark, yet received $12,000 and $10,000 from the BOCE, respectively. Leadership council was challenged to step up its role in requiring conference boards to work at justifying their budgets and expenditures.
- The proposed budget for 2011 called for $216,000 from the congregations, yet only 13 churches had pledged to give a total of $125,200.
“We cannot support this budget”
Noting that “we cannot promise what we haven’t committed,” Vidya Narimalla, pastor at Kitchener MB, proposed the pledged amount of $125,000 be the budget, with the proviso that the leadership council be free to use any additional income or surplus funds as it sees fit. After further debate, the amended budget was approved.
The second amendment passed related to the funding of BOCE. There are two sources of funding for BOCE – one is a subsidy from the Ontario conference budget and the other is donations from individual congregations and donors. In response to the proposed fundraising budget for 2011, delegates noted the lines of accountability for this budget were unclear. Consequently, David Wiebe (Fairview MB) proposed that no monies generated through fundraising be used for operational costs, and that any spending of BOCE be first approved by leadership council.
The approval of the amended fundraising budget was surprising and unsettling for many. “We’re trying desperately to be about extending the kingdom,” said BOCE chair Ed Willms. “Why are we wrestling so much internally when we’re not even the enemy?”
In his keynote address to close the convention, Paul McIlwraith, pastor of host church Waterloo MB, said Ontario MBs live in difficult and confusing times, but they are “part of a heritage in which people have demonstrated great faith, taken huge risks, made big sacrifices to overcome challenges and advance the gospel.” He called Ontario churches and delegates to take the risk of renewing their trust in one another, and to be “each other’s greatest cheerleaders.”
In his closing remarks, moderator Peter Durksen observed that the day’s family gathering “wasn’t easy. Not everything has been resolved. But we talked.” Durksen dismissed delegates with an encouragement to remember, reflect, renew, and to continue the conversation.