The transition from old to new year is always a great time for picks and pans, for looking back and making lists. Here, in no particular order, are my picks for the top 10 stories of the decade for Mennonite Brethren.
(Although I worked with the denomination for half the decade, please realize there’s nothing official about this list; the opinions and impressions are entirely my own.)
1. A revitalized MBMS International. The mission agency entered the decade celebrating its 100th birthday, but was underfunded and uncertain of its future and vision within the changing face of global mission. Since 2004, with Randy Friesen at its helm, MBMSI has made “relationship-based funding” work well, opened new areas of mission, and innovated in a variety of ways. It seems to be staying connected to traditional shareholders, while engaging a younger demographic. One of its remaining challenges is ongoing connection with previous mission “fields” where we need to stay involved, and to help.
Hand-in-glove with the above, ICOMB (International Community of Mennonite Brethren) became solidly established over the decade as the body where relationships and equality were worked out between the earlier “sending” countries (Canada and the U.S.) and “receiving” countries with their own, now not inconsiderable, MB conferences. ICOMB drafted, then approved, its own Confession of Faith; hired an executive secretary in 2005; and held a global consultation on MB education in 2007. A global MB history book is on tap for the 150th anniversary of the MB movement.
2. A restructured Canadian conference. The decade’s big change for Canadian MBs after the 1999 divestiture of the general (or North American) conference, was the move to a new governance structure – debated, but nevertheless accepted at the 2004 convention. The conference is essentially governed by one executive board now, with a second (board of faith and life) functioning for theological matters, instead of a number of boards handling various aspects of conference work.
The move was intended to increase efficiencies and provide better strategizing across the range of activities. It’s too early, and maybe too difficult, to judge whether its intentions have been fulfilled. From the outside, it seems things are moving at about the same pace as before. One result of the new structure is that the press (the MB Herald, that is) has limited access to board meetings, and communication to the constituency relies on board releases. It’s hard to know at this point how to assess the governance change.
3. Women in ministry leadership (WIML), now possible; maybe. The board of faith and life came back to the issue of full access to ministry leadership for women this decade, in a series of “listening and learning” sessions across the country and a motion proposing that congregations be free to discern and grant women freedom to lead. It passed with 77 percent at the 2006 convention. Although WIML created a lot of drama, and was a positive ending for many, it came to feel somewhat anticlimactic, for by decade’s end it seems (though I don’t have firm numbers) there are even fewer women in visible leadership than before.
4. Leadership, period. If there was one word uttered more often than any other, one theme, one concern that hasn’t gone away this decade, it was “leadership.” The leadership of women (see #3), but also the numbers of leaders (do we have enough?) and their state (why are pastors leaving, or struggling?). In 2001, “leadership development” was chosen as one of three main foci of the Canadian MB conference. In 2006, the conference conducted a major pastoral trends survey. The 2008 launch of Regenerate 21-01 saw more staff and programs added to leadership development. The language around leadership often seemed one of need and crisis.
5. Changes at the MB Herald. From publishing twice monthly in black and white at the decade’s opening, then 17 issues a year, the Herald was down to 12 issues a year by the decade’s end, though now in colour all the way through. The decade also saw several changes in the editor’s chair, from Jim Coggins to Susan Brandt to Laura Kalmar. Uncertainty about the role of the paper (whether promotional agent for conference, or agent of critique) seemed to resolve itself over time, and with the help of a new mission statement. The paper came “back home” – to more content about and by MBs, that is – and also got a redesign. At decade’s end, the magazine’s existence seems assured, though access to “insider” activities is more limited than before (see #2). Together with the conference communications department, the magazine’s next horizon is a greater presence online.
6. Four things that ended: The 55-plus conferences in 2005 after a run of three events; National Youth Conventions in 2005 after a run of 12 events (every third year since 1971); Encounter magazine, an outreach effort of the MB Herald, after a twice-yearly run over several years; and the Mennonitische Rundschau, the conference’s German periodical, after a run of 130 years.
7. Theological discussions, done or begun. The decade saw discussion or study conferences on a number of issues besides women in leadership: ministry after divorce, spiritual warfare, baptism and membership, and our relationship to culture. The first two seem mainly resolved, the third not talked about much at the moment, the latter too huge to be sure what the questions are. The most recent pressing issue concerns atonement, and is still on the table. The issues around homosexuality are done, or not begun, depending on your perspective. Except for the odd article or wave of letters in the Herald, the topic has seemed almost invisible. Is our keeping at bay something that some of our sister Anabaptist conferences have had to engage with so intensely a strength and virtue, or head-in-the-sand?
8. Educational ups and downs. The merger of Concord College, Canadian Mennonite Bible College, and Menno Simons College into Canadian Mennonite University (Winnipeg), which might have seemed impossible to imagine even a decade before this one, by many marks, has been a successful venture. MB-supported Bible colleges (Bethany, Columbia, ETEM) have held their own, with variations.
But there’s been a curious detachment within the conference as a whole from the educational enterprise of the church, and the life of the mind.
The institution to which we have the strongest national commitment, MB Biblical Seminary, has had an “interesting” decade, beginning with its 50th anniversary celebration. There was the shock of moral failure by the seminary’s president; anonymous attacks through a since-closed website directed at the school and several professors; layoffs because of the recession; and most recently, the disappointment of Fuller Seminary’s withdrawal from talks about working together. Still, MBs aren’t about to give up on seminary education, and the next decade may see (God willing) new solutions for its challenges.
9. Wars and rumours of war. Here, I’m referring to hints about church threats to leave the conference, such as the listening committee identified at the 2009 study conference, and rumours that circulate in other ways. Why are many churches, or those who disagree with certain conference directions, not coming to conventions? Is our ongoing unity in spite of diversity the story here? Or is it the fear that unreported, behind-the-scenes, manoeuvring provokes? These matters alternately whisper and roar around everything else.
10. Regenerate, hopefully “heading north.” The Key Cities Initiative in various Canadian cities filled much of the decade, but was winding down as a focus by the end, and something new – Regenerate 21-01 – was introduced and accepted at the 2008 national convention. This program/concept/strategy was called “a prayer and a process for change” but became something of a public relations challenge because of ongoing confusion about what it was, exactly, or how it related to the six conference services that had been “branded” to the constituency already. At last count, Regenerate seems to be stretching and shaping itself into a kind of impulse concept for conference work across the board, and may be the story of the decade ahead – especially if we get the prayer piece of the puzzle in place.