by Robert J. Suderman
Update (03/29/16) – the preview on many links to this article reads “I would suggest that defining the congregation as “the foundational unit of the church” is indeed both radical and ground-breaking for MC Canada” (para. 11). Out of context, the author and others have identified this statement as possibly implying full support for the FD proposal, which is not the author’s intent. I (Jonas, EVI web guy) chose the preview statement, but agree that it loses something without its context. That said, you are encouraged to read thoroughly, and my apologies to Mr. Suderman. -JC
I wish to thank Gerald for his helpful reflections about the FDTF report. His comments begin to clarify some of the concerns that have been raised, specifically regarding the FD ecclesiological statement about the congregation being “the foundational unit of the church.”
I want to respond briefly. Let me begin by saying that Gerald and I have been colleagues and friends, and fellow congregational members for decades – dating back to the 1960s. Our friendship and respect for each other has regularly been strengthened by good conversations and even arguments. My response here should not be seen as anything but a continuation of this friendship and respect I have for Gerald, for his ecclesial rigor, and for the dedication and leadership he has provided to the church.
I also want to disclose that this is my first public foray into the debate about the FD proposals. I have engaged the Task Force, and Gerald, “behind the scenes” for several years, with specific focus on the question he raises about how to articulate our understanding of church. I have often wondered if there is an appropriate time for an ex-General Secretary of MC Canada to speak publicly into the discernment at hand. Perhaps my contribution at this stage can best be made by reflecting on Gerald’s “puzzlement” from a perspective of memory and recent history.
Gerald says he is “puzzled” by concerns raised about the statement of the congregation being “the foundational unit of the church.” He states: “The affirmation is neither radical nor ground-breaking.” As proof of this, he quotes an MC USA document (Purposeful Plan). This is striking and ironic, and is a signal that perhaps some memory is important.
The crux of the question at hand was a very hot topic during the process of integration and the establishment of two national churches in 1996-2002. MC Canada and MC USA ended up implementing significantly different structures as a result of different understandings. MC Canada preferred to stick to the understanding of “church” as articulated in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective- 1995. In the commentary to Article 16, the current question is identified twice in one paragraph: “Some have identified the local congregation as the primary unit of the church.” “One tendency has been to promote the congregation as the primary unit” (p. 64). In both cases, the Confession indicates that this is not the direction we wish to take. Rather it suggests an alternative, namely, that “The church should be viewed as one seamless garment, extending from the smallest unit … to the worldwide church. Accountability and responsibility apply to every level of the church” (p. 64).
The difference between MC USA and MC Canada became structurally/organizationally visible in at least two ways.
One was that in MC Canada there were comprehensive name changes, from Conference of Mennonites in Canada to Mennonite Church Canada; from Conference of Mennonites in B.C, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Eastern Canada, to Mennonite Church B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Eastern Canada. MC Canada expressed its preference for a “seamless garment” by applying the word “church” to each part of the system. In MC USA this did not happen. In MC USA, the areas or regions continued with the name “Conference” and did not become churches, i.e., given that the congregations were the “foundational units” it was better not to call the regional structures “churches.”
The other visible manifestation of this disagreement lay in the way international mission would be structured in the two bodies. In Canada, it would be Mennonite Church Canada Witness. The emphasis being that this was an initiative of the whole church to do together what could not (or should not) be done separately by congregations or regions. Accountability and responsibility would lie with the whole church, with the Witness Council being directly responsible to the MC Canada General Board.
In MC USA this model was rejected. Rather, MC USA chose to create a Network of mission: more arms-length from the “denominational church” and with its own governing body. This name is important. The sense was not that mission initiatives were joint efforts of the whole church, but that these would be individual, congregational, regional, or interest group initiatives that would be “networked” to each other. Accountability would rest with the initiating group. This was based on the conviction that the purpose of the wider structures was to facilitate the mission of the local initiatives, and not to do something on behalf of the whole.
So the fact that Gerald (and the FDTF?) needs to quote an MC USA document to support this suggested direction is not accidental. It is not the way MC Canada has preferred to define itself.
In this way, I would suggest that defining the congregation as “the foundational unit of the church” is indeed both radical and ground-breaking for MC Canada. That articulation moves against the preference as stated in the Confession of Faith and against what was decided in the process in which MC Canada was born. It aligns, rather, with the preferences as articulated by MC USA. Therefore, I don’t think that Gerald needs to be “puzzled” that astute readers would find this shift significant, surprising, and even unacceptable. Indeed, I would be more puzzled if astute analysis of the FD proposal, from within MC Canada, would not express concern.
Now I need to confess to my own surprise. I have been surprised that the FDTF has been so adamant in keeping this articulation even though it has been pointed out to them numerous times that this generates discrepancy with our Confession and with our preferred direction as discerned in the 1996-2002 re-organization process (more important are the biblical understandings that are foundational to both – a topic we cannot engage here). The final response of the FDTF to the “behind the scenes” discussions is the insertion of footnote #5 in the finalized “Back Story.” That footnote states:
Some suggest this stance varies from the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, Article 16. That is not our intent, nor should it be construed as taking away from seeing the church as a ‘seamless garment’ with accountability/responsibility at every level….
If it is “not our intent” to be “ground-breaking,” why this tenacious insistence on this particular articulation? Gerald does helpfully suggest an alternative: that we could think of congregations as “cells of an organic whole.” I like that. If the present statement must be preserved (in apparent obeisance to MC USA), would it be too much to ask that a tiny shift be made: from the congregation as the foundation unit of the church, to the congregation as a foundational unit of the church? It seems almost silly to suggest that a shift from a definite to an indefinite article (the to a) is important, but indeed it is. A definite article makes the “foundational unit” exclusively so. An indefinite article makes it inclusive of other “units.” This, it seems, is the intention, and if so, why not say it that way?
I have not yet said anything about structure. By and large I agree with Gerald’s reflections on the nature of structures, namely, that there is no one structure that guarantees the translation of a preferred vision into action. I appreciate his transparency in revealing that the FD proposal may not be the best one and that it does not reflect his own preference. He articulates a compelling vision for an alternative model, a vision that would be closer to my own preference. I am concerned, though, about Gerald’s statement that his preferred alternative “… was not to be. Regional pressures worked against it.” This is telling. It appears that the regionalized proposal is already the child of some of the very dynamics (and weaknesses) that many have identified. This in itself is ample cause for a sober, second look.
I have learned – sometimes in the school of hard-knocks – that structures are teachers. Structures may seem at first to be relatively benign, utilitarian tools – servants of larger purposes. But it does not take long before structures begin to define the purposes, rather than to serve them. I ask myself: what will these proposed structures teach our children and grandchildren? What will they have learned from the structures 20 or 30 years from now? How will our society experience the structures we put in place now, 15 years from now?
Gerald says that it is unclear to him why the proposed structures might be understood as “concessions to the regionalism or localism of our time,” – something that is certainly not intended by the FD proposal. But is it not logical to assume that if the “integrated table” is composed primarily of local and regional representatives, that the primary passion, expertise, budgets, and agenda they will bring to the table will reflect local and regional needs? Is it not reasonable to project that over the years the integrated table too will become more local and regional than was intended? Structures will become our mentors. They always do.
It seems to me that we need to strengthen what is already weak rather than to strengthen what will inevitably tend to be dominant; i.e., let’s feed the mouse too, not only the elephant. The dominant tendency of our culture in the 21st century, it seems, will be to absorb more and more resources and resourcing for local purposes, and the larger initiatives will increasingly be there to serve ourselves. This is already happening, and will continue to happen, whether we plan for it or not. What will not happen without a careful plan is the implementation of the counter-cultural values that we cherish as a church. What are these? I would suggest at least the following:
- a) common identity in the midst of individualized purposes;
- b) unity of peoplehood in the midst of disagreement and diversity;
- c) partnership in ministry in the midst of internet capacity to “google it” on our own;
- d) communal discernment of faithfulness in the midst of privatizing tendencies;
- e) capacity to speak with a consolidated voice in the midst of relativizing pressures;
- f) capacity to offer solidarity from a foundation of communal conviction;
- g) participation in ecumenical and global entities from a credible and representative base; and
- h) a communal vision in the midst of particularized preferences.
These, in my mind, are some of the key values that new structures need to provide and/or protect. Proposed structures, at least those for the “integrated table,” should be measured and evaluated by such hopes. The limited common resources at our disposal need to be well focused on these values that won’t come automatically; they will require much energy, strategic planning, and visionary leadership. With Gerald, I wonder whether the regional model, albeit, authorized for integrated agenda, can survive the regionalizing and localizing tendencies and pressures. He indicates that these pressures were already strong enough on the Task Force to generate the proposal for a regionalizing model. I am not confident that the safe-guards designed to counter-act the localizing tendencies (annual meetings of regional executives; Congregation of Ministers every two years; Confirmation of Call for ministry partnerships, etc.) are sufficient to avoid the pressures of regionalization. It is quite easy for me to understand how the focus on the congregation as the foundational unit can be a catalyst for localizing tendencies of our time.
And just a word about process. There appears to be an emerging strategy related to the recent procedures in the Area Church deliberations. The concerns expressed by delegates are duly noted and acknowledged. And then approval for the “principle” is requested, with the assurance that the concerns will be passed on to the “transition team.” I want to suggest, with all humility, that the concerns raised in this response are not agenda for the transition team. The transition team will have no mandate to address what is discussed here. These are concerns that address the nature, essence and principles of the FD proposal.
In the final paragraph, Gerald rightfully points to the crises that are present in congregational life. He suggests that the vitality of the larger church will depend on the extent to which local congregations renew their vision for mission and for becoming Spirit-infused cells of God’s Kingdom. I agree. But to this I would simply add that “cells in an organic whole” both feed and are fed by the whole. Generating vitality will of necessity be a two-way street. Sometimes the congregation can inject vitality into the larger system. But at other times, the larger system needs to inject energy, possibility, and vision into the local congregation. The channels must be open in both directions. The model we choose will need to be strong enough for the organic whole to both nurture and to be fed. May it be so.
Robert J. Suderman, New Hamburg, Ontario
March 24, 2016 (published March 28)
Robert J. Suderman is the former General Secretary of Mennonite Church Canada. We are thankful for his reflections, published with his permission. Please continue the conversation by sharing, posting comments, or contacting us directly.