Study with the church in mind

An interview with Doug Heidebrecht

Last July, after teaching at Bethany College in Hepburn, Sask. for 16 years, Doug Heidebrecht moved to Winnipeg to become director of the Centre for MB Studies. Doug has studied at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, Cal., and Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon. He is currently doing PhD studies in applied theology at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague. He is married to Sherry and they have two grown children.
He recently spoke with Dora Dueck about his new job, his dreams for the Centre, and the challenges facing Mennonite Brethren. Here is part of their conversation.

Dueck: You’ve gone from teaching classes of lively young Bible school students to poring through historical books and old papers. What’s the link?

Heidebrecht: The link is the church. At the college we were training young people to be involved in the life of the church. And here there’s an opportunity to be directly involved in the life of the church, to speak into it through the Centre.

Behind the scenes though, my work is very much the same. I’m doing research and writing, preparation, and I’m also having opportunities to teach, in churches.

How would you describe the Centre for MB Studies to someone who’s not familiar with it?

I would first describe it as a resource for the churches, and second as a keeper of memories for Mennonite Brethren. It includes a library at the Centre’s location, and a large state-of-the-art vault, which holds the papers and minutes of the Conference as well as those of churches and individuals.

What particular vision or passion for the Centre do you bring to your new role?

I want to see the Centre function as a resource for theological reflection within the churches themselves. That is, to encourage and facilitate local congregations thinking through the implications of their faith – how they live out their lives, how they do church, how they do mission.

Do churches have time to do theological reflection and conversation?

We feel we don’t have time, but we can’t afford not to do it.

Perhaps they would prefer that theologians do this work and then provide guidance.

I think we have a misunderstanding of how theology should be done. Scholars participate in the life of the church and speak into the theologizing of the church but theology is primarily the task of the church. And it happens at a variety of levels. There are some issues we address as a group of churches or conference, but a lot of things we should be talking about at the local church level. And that’s where the Centre could help churches, to engage in conversations with each other.

At the heart of it is, how do we hear God speak? I think God speaks when we gather together as his people around the Word. And that must include conversation with each other. We hear the Spirit speak through the Word as we gather together.

How are you hoping to fulfill this vision, practically?

One way is in conversation, one to one. I meet with a lot of pastors and leaders. Also, we’re planning to develop a series of web-based resources for churches, where they can have access to study papers and to articles that have been written by Mennonite Brethren regarding a variety of topics.

I’m also interested in trying to develop some symposiums where we really wrestle through a particular issue. I’ve been dreaming of bringing together some of the younger leaders, for example, people in their 20s, to talk about what it means to live in this culture as Mennonite Brethren. How we work it out.

Why is it important to know what we’ve done or thought as MBs about various issues in the past?

We’re joining an ongoing conversation. As Mennonite Brethren we’ve talked about a variety of issues over the years, from baptism to ordination to homosexuality to mission. To somehow assume we’re now starting that conversation is to forget that we’re simply part of a larger one.

And I think it’s also important that we have the conversation with those who have shared values, shared convictions. It’s good to talk with those who think differently but we also have to talk with our past. We tend to hear voices from so many sources outside of ourselves, shaping who we are, that we fail to talk with each other – both historically and currently – and to recognize that there’s a certain perspective, a certain conviction, that has been shaped in our experience as a people. As we lose touch with that, we are kind of set adrift and we don’t know where to anchor, in terms of what guides our practice and our life in the church.

And so by creating a web-based resource, we’re hoping to provide church leaders, students, and others with the Mennonite Brethren conversation around a particular issue. It will be organized topically.

Say someone is looking at the issue of ordination. Rather than simply going outside of the denomination to find resources they can go here and see what Mennonite Brethren have said. And there may be disagreements within the body – disagreement is part of the conversation that we need to be aware of – but as we’re engaging with that conversation there’s a set of assumptions and values that get passed on, that we get in touch with. It allows us then to shape or be aware of our own values, so we don’t simply look to those who have had a very different journey as having all the answers.

Are there any issues coming at us now that we haven’t talked about before?

I think most of the issues we face today have been addressed in the past, whether it’s engaging in our culture, particular ethical issues, Mennonite Brethren identity,  how to do mission. When our world changes, how we apply what we believe may look different, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t addressed that kind of issue in the past.

You’ve been meeting with many pastors and church leaders. What are you asking them?

The question I’ve been asking this fall is how we define Mennonite Brethren theologically. What is at the heart of who we are when it comes to describing what we believe? We say we’re Mennonite Brethren. How do we articulate what that looks like in terms of our faith and our convictions?

And if we can describe what we believe as Mennonite Brethren, then we have to ask the next question, which is, what are the implications of that for our life in the church?

The other question I was asking pastors was, how do you hold together being Anabaptist and evangelical? I’ve found there’s a lot of interest in engaging with who we are and how we live that out. I hope to later set down in writing what’s coming out of these conversations.

What topics would you encourage young MB scholars to investigate further?

My encouragement to young scholars is to explore areas they’re interested in, topics that arise out of their experience, and to do so not just for their own interest but so they can speak to the church; to study with the church in mind. Some important current areas are leadership, ordination, the nature of the church, and acculturation.

I very much want to connect with younger leaders. I want them to see the Centre as more than archives and dusty papers. I haven’t found a dusty paper yet! It’s all very exciting.

Did you know that… the Centre for MB Studies holds:

  • Congregational records of MB churches across Canada. These reveal the struggles and achievements of people striving to be faithful to God.
  • More than 70 photos taken by C.F. Klassen of churches and institutions established by 1920s MB immigrants. Many of these buildings no longer exist.
  • A tiny hymnal (pictured beside), 4.5 x 6 cm, 378 pages, with the best songs of Martin Luther and others, printed in 1688, donated by the Benjamin Horch family. It was probably designed small so it was easy to hide.
  • Copies of all the papers given at Mennonite Brethren study conferences over the years, from 1956 when they began, to the present.
  • A complete set of the Mennonitische Rundschau, the oldest Mennonite periodical published continuously under one name (1880 to 2007), which documents the life of Mennonites in North America and Europe for nearly 130 years.

These are just a few of the treasures found in the shelves of the Centre.

—Compiled by archivist Conrad Stoesz

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