Larry Miller remembers one moment clearly when, as a 38-year-old, he was weighing whether or not to accept the nomination to lead Mennonite World Conference. The year was 1988, 23 years ago, and he was sitting in a university library in Strasbourg, France, where he lived.
“I was working on my dissertation, and I looked up and noticed a book by one of my professors on a shelf. I pulled it down. It was dusty, and no one had ever checked it out. I suddenly realized that I was poised to write those kinds of books!”
Miller was finishing his doctorate in New Testament and was under consideration for a graduate-level teaching position in that field in the Protestant faculty at the University of Strasbourg. But something unexpected had come his way. The European Mennonite churches had together nominated him to be executive secretary of Mennonite World Conference.
Larry and his wife, Eleanor, had worked with international students in Paris (for European Mennonites and Mennonite Board of Missions of North America) and in peace activities and inter-church relations (for Mennonite Central Committee). “I was working internationally and ecumenically, and my interest and experience in those areas was growing. But did Mennonite World Conference – which most people understood to be those spectacular, once-every-six-year assemblies – fit my gifts and personality?
“My growing interest in MWC surprised people who knew me, including Eleanor! I sensed, however, that this might be a call to receive life through the global church.”
Miller became executive secretary during the closing event of the Winnipeg MWC assembly in 1990. The setting, the music, the ceremony had a touch of the spectacular, but Miller and the organization faced a frightening deficit as the week-long meeting ended.
Today, Miller reflects, “while MWC needed to deal with that reality, and we were able to, I never felt pressure to ‘succeed’ by building a large institution. Instead, the focus was on helping this little boat – MWC– to catch the wind in its sails. The wind was clearly blowing, so the task was to adjust the sails to catch the wind.”
Miller senses that he has served Anabaptists around the world during a time of fundamental change. “My primary calling has been to amplify the voice of the Global South and its rising. That voice, that capacity, needs more room and opportunity. I’ve often felt like John the Baptist, that something greater is coming.”
A big risk
In January 1997, the first Mennonite World Conference assembly under Larry Miller’s leadership took place in central Kolkata, India, inside tents on a sprawling school campus. The daring move stood in stark contrast to the just-prior assembly which had been held in a well-appointed convention center in Winnipeg.
“We had potential disasters everywhere,” Miller reflects about the Kolkata event. “Before I joined MWC, groundwork had been laid for the assembly to go to the diplomatic, aristocratic quarter of New Delhi. That location didn’t seem right to me.
“There was no model for holding a global assembly in Kolkata. It was counter-cultural. No other world communion had ever gone to Kolkata for its world gathering. So we had to create ours from scratch.
“Would people come? Could we pull off such a complex event there? Would it work financially? Would attendees be overwhelmed by the city itself?”
The national Indian churches who are members of MWC, along with national MWC staff, worked diligently and with extraordinary perseverance to host a world gathering of some 4,500 Mennonites and Brethren in Christ.
The bold decision and the stark contrast to past gatherings cleared a path for new aspects to be born as part of the assembly program. For the first time there was a Global Church Village, a venue where delegates learned about the life of churches in each continental region through food and cultural displays, and Assembly Gathered/Assembly Scattered. In fact, these elements worked so well that they have continued in subsequent MWC assemblies.
“My surprise,” says Miller now, “is that no part of the Kolkata gathering ended in disaster. And because we had a good, positive experience, the event allowed Mennonite World Conference to turn a corner. It permitted the reorientation of MWC. I view it as a watershed, make-or-break moment.”
The second assembly that Miller and his team shepherded was held in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Despite the country’s tremulously uncertain political, economic, and food situations, the Brethren in Christ churches provided extraordinary hospitality.
“Zimbabwe raised many of the same questions as Kolkata did. Was it courageous or stupid to bring thousands of people there? But we had survived Kolkata, so even a modest failure in Zimbabwe wouldn’t have wrecked MWC.”
“The church is both local and global”
Perhaps one of Larry Miller’s greatest gifts to Mennonites and Brethren in Christ around the world has been his belief, and consequent actions, that the church is never just the local congregation, or the denomination, or the world body.
“The church is both local and ‘global.’ It always has been and will always be. The special foundational task for MWC during these years has been to recover this New Testament view of the church. MWC needs to continue to make the global church real, to have it be seen, felt, touched, experienced.”
Gradually but persistently, Miller has created ways to make this daily reality apparent. He helped to conceive of, and then create, the Global Church Sharing Fund. (MWC member churches in the South apply for and receive funds for their ministries, as an expression of Jubilee redistribution.) He guided the development of MWC’s statement of “Shared Convictions,” brief paragraphs documenting the core beliefs that the scattered Anabaptist churches and fellowships claim. He has overseen the establishment of four commissions under the General Council of MWC, each composed of members from the five continental regions, each pledged to fostering greater faithfulness by MWC member churches and their support of each other. (The four are the deacons, faith and life, mission, and peace commissions.)
“At the same time,” he states emphatically, “the global church without the local church is not fully the church either. One without the other is heresy.”
Miller quickly moves to another theme which has characterized his leadership of MWC. “Even as we’ve begun to grasp the wonder of what it means to belong to our particular global family of faith, we are still a fragment by ourselves. What is emerging is our increasing connectedness to other Christian world communions. We must see other global Christian churches as part of the whole church universal to which we also belong. We must live within this whole church, or we won’t live.
“While the giftedness of our Anabaptist community is being acknowledged by other world communions, the limitedness of it is also. The same is true of these other churches. Together, we’re recognizing our need of each other,” says Miller.
The struggles and the gifts
What difficulties did Larry experience as MWC general secretary?
“I’ve lived a constant series of good-byes,” he says. “And while I’ve had so many points of contact, they are almost all distant.” The MWC office in Strasbourg, where Miller is based, includes an average of only four administrative staff. All other staff and executive leadership are scattered around the world.
“The work is sometimes heavy and lonely,” he reflects. “But it is always invigorating! This has been a place of life for me, a gift of life.”
What anxieties does Miller have for Mennonite World Conference, which he acknowledges is an organization with uncertainty, heaviness, and fragility?
“We are in a historic transition moment,” offers Miller. “There is decline in the churches of the North. But when you belong to a global body of faith, there’s always a part that’s experiencing new life and a vision that can draw all of us forward. The center of gravity of the global church has shifted South. We must continue to adjust our sails accordingly to catch this new wind of the Spirit.
“With gratitude and joy, I imagine César García (MWC’s new general secretary), and those with him, picking up the vision for the future. I look forward to seeing how they incarnate it. My experience of working with César has been among my top joys, among my very best MWC experiences. He and his team will live into the future from their own worlds and contexts, going forward with the Spirit. It is for them to imagine.”
On Aug. 1, 2011, the officers of Mennonite World Conference, plus a few staff and representatives of the four North American MWC member churches, gathered around a big table in Grantham, Pa. It was the kick-off for organizing the planning of the Assembly 16 to be held in 2015 in Harrisburg, Pa.
Danisa Ndlovu, president of MWC, opened the meeting with a devotional, acknowledging two reasons for anxiety that day: the start of planning for a new assembly, and César García’s first official day as general secretary-elect.
When it was Larry Miller’s turn to address the group, he said, “I can attest, after 22 years with Mennonite World Conference, that it is not a place of anxiety, but a place that gives life!”