by Gerald Gerbrandt (a member of the Task Force, but not on behalf of the Task Force)
Photo from cmu.ca
This past weekend [March 5] it was Mennonite Church Manitoba’s turn to react to the Future Directions Task Force report. And respond it did. I was humbled and pleased at the sensitive and serious reactions to the report. Especially gratifying was the very thoughtful response of a group of young adults largely from Canadian Mennonite University calling themselves Emerging Voices. Both at the MC Manitoba assembly, and elsewhere the report has instigated conversation about the church and its future. On this level the report can only be deemed successful.
And yet, the responses force me to review and rethink what we as a Task Force said in the report. How do we understand the concerns and criticisms raised? What might we have said differently? What did we miss? And perhaps most significantly, where did the critical reaction identify genuine disagreement, and where was it more a matter of failed communication, whether due to less than helpful language in the report or due to less than careful reading of the report?
The Congregation and the Larger Church
One statement in the report that has received considerable reaction is the affirmation that the congregation is the foundational unit of the church. I am pleased at this, but also puzzled at how the affirmation has been often heard or interpreted. After all, the affirmation is neither radical nor ground-breaking. For example, the MC USA’s missional vision document similarly notes “As Anabaptist Christians, we believe that congregations are the primary expression of God’s work in the world” (“Our Purposeful Plan,” 2014, p. 17).
I understand the affirmation as descriptive of our experience and practice, and quite consistent with Anabaptist theology. The congregational setting is where Christians experience church. It is where we worship on a regular basis, where mutual support happens, etc. Our practice of baptizing people into particular congregations, and ordaining ministers, church leaders and missionaries in the congregation is consistent with that. The largest portion of financial and human resources are devoted to the congregation. Discernment and discipline take place in the local congregation, even as it is an insufficient setting for these (more below). As Anabaptist Christians we believe that the church is not some ethereal, invisible body, but is only fully realized when real people gather together in real communities. As such the affirmation is fairly straight forward and non-controversial, one reflecting both our theology and practice.
I suspect the criticism of the affirmation has less to do with the affirmation itself than with what it is taken to imply, presumably impacted by later language and proposals of the report. That phrase then becomes the target of genuine disagreement over some of the later aspects of the proposal.
It is unclear to me why the affirmation has been taken as a concession to the regionalism or localism of our time. I very much agree that localism (whether excessive congregationalism or provincialism) is a trend and a temptation today, and needs to be directly challenged. It is all too easy for church people, even leaders, to feel a pressure to go with the flow, to think that in order for the church to remain relevant it needs to become only local. I do not believe the report does that. In fact, the report, and the phrase itself, points to the importance of the larger church. Instead of saying “the congregation is the church,” the report points beyond the congregation to affirm the local congregation as only one small part (unit?) of the church, the New Testament body of Christ. Personally I prefer the term “congregation” for the local community over the term “church” so as to reserve “church” for that larger body. Clearly the report has done an inadequate job of communicating this conviction, or its implication.
Given that conviction, it may be asked, what is the significance of affirming the congregation as the foundational unit of that larger church. Consistent with the Anabaptist tradition (and, I believe, Biblical story), the affirmation indirectly challenges a popular trend. Much has been written about how for many spirituality (or religion) has become essentially an individual emotion or experience, quite removed from the life of a community of people interacting with each other in worship, fellowship and witness. This is in tension with the Anabaptist tradition that the church consists of real communities, congregations of people in relationship with each other. That contemporary tendency to imagine faith as an individual spirituality the affirmation challenges.
But there also was a more particular unsettling reality among us that the affirmation challenges. I was surprised during the Task Force process at how much the larger denomination had come to be understood as an entity quite apart from, distinct from, or removed from the local congregation. Mennonite Church Canada (similarly, even if perhaps not to the same extent, the area churches) has become an “it,” or “they” which provides some services to the congregations, but as often as not, is perceived as a financial drain on the life and work of congregations. All too often pastors consider church assemblies as events they feel pressure to attend, not as times for strengthening local and larger identity, local and larger mission. Yes, the larger denomination does some programs on behalf of the local congregation, but the perceived difference between those programs and similar programs of other independent agencies is often perceived as minimal.
Seldom did people use the name “Mennonite Church Canada” (or the parallel area church names) as including themselves. This was true of pastors as well as laypeople. It could be argued that even in the imagination of staff working for the denomination, the denomination was something different from the congregations or their members. How else can one explain an MC Canada staff member coming to an area church assembly, and “bringing greetings from Mennonite Church Canada”?
Historians will assess how this shift happened. Did it begin in the 1970s as denominational leadership shifted from pastors to lay people? Did this trend already begin earlier with the hiring of staff and adopting budgets? Was it related to significantly increased programming that followed? How much was it impacted by the dramatically increased professionalization of assemblies where budgets were no longer debated in detail or even revised on the floor? Did the merger of 2000 bringing formerly separate traditions, along with the creation of a new structure and new name, play a factor? No doubt larger societal shifts also contributed to this distancing of conference from congregation.
The affirmation that the congregation is the foundational unit of the church challenges this bifurcation between congregation and denomination/conference, emphasizing that the larger church consists of congregations. It is not a giving in to congregationalism (much less some perceived General Conference tradition) but an affirmation that the congregations are the integral units of that larger body, they are “cells of an organic whole.”
But unless this larger church, this “organic whole” is embodied in a particular structure with clear roles, it has little meaning. Some kind of organization is needed to give flesh to this larger church, a structure which contributes to at least the following goals and roles:
- 1) To be a visible sign of that larger church, with the potential for dialogue with other parts of the church;
- 2) To be a setting within which conversation (e.g., discernment, discipline) can take place, representing a more diverse community than commonly present in a congregation;
- 3) To support, encourage, challenge and inspire the local congregation;
- 4) To initiate and administer programs too large for a local congregation.
Incarnating the Larger Church in Structure
Unfortunately there is no direct or easy road from the affirmation that the church is much more than the local congregation to a particular structure or model. I am not sure a biblical case can be made for the model with which we have been operating in the past fifteen years versus some other model, nor for that matter, for the existence of a Mennonite denomination distinct from a Lutheran denomination, much less 5 or 6 different Mennonite denominations. The best structure is one which is experienced by those involved as most effectively furthering the mission of the church in a particular time, place and culture, both through congregations as well as through larger programs of the larger organization.
The question the report then forces us to confront is: “What organizational model and structure has the best potential to do that?” Is it the model proposed by the report, or some different one? One might ask similar questions retroactively, e.g., is our current structure, or the ones we had previously, the best ones possible.
I must confess, I am not sure the model proposed is the best one, nor is it my first choice. My view is that a model which would have united all of our congregations in one strong national body, with that body having regional office, staff and program arms (cf. Mennonite Foundation) could have served us more effectively. Such a model, I submit, would more helpfully embody or give flesh to the larger church, it could more effectively foster common Anabaptist identity, and it could more readily continue or initiate programs which serve congregations as well as reach out beyond congregations. Such a model, I believe, would also have had the ability to deal more flexibly and beneficially with the huge differences across our body in demographics and resources, a major challenge for us. But that was not to be. Regional pressures worked against it.
Fortunately I am not one who believes there is just one right model or structure—each potential model has its strengths and weaknesses. If a model is to work well, those weaknesses or temptations must be recognized, and then guarded against with concrete policies and safeguards. I believe the model proposed can work, and it can work well, but in order to prevent its weaknesses from undermining it some more concrete governance provisions and policies are still needed.
An obvious strength of the model proposed is that it builds on structures closer to the local congregation. As such it can be more responsive and flexible to local needs, with the potential to build greater relationship and identity between the local congregation and the larger church. Perhaps area assemblies can be reimagined and reinvigorated to include much greater participation from congregational members than just the official delegates.
Additionally, I do believe the model does include some elements which, if they are retained or enhanced, have the potential to counter its weaknesses. Perhaps most significantly, the proposal does call for the formation of a Congregation of Ministerial Leadership, a national body which would meet regularly “for purposes of studying ethical and theological issues, fellowship, networking, discerning vision on theological matters.” Such a body has the potential to nurture larger identity as it functions as a context for difficult discussion (without necessarily becoming a decision-making body). It also has the possibility of more closely connecting the local congregation to the larger church through its ministerial leadership (perhaps in association with national worship and study conferences). Other elements of the proposal that move it beyond the region are the call for a national plan and program in leadership development, and a national strategy for higher education. Important as well is the recommendation to develop a unified communication plan, along with a common name and logo.
Each of these, if implemented into an integrated whole has the potential to nurture and strengthen a larger identity, contributing to a sense and reality in the local congregation that it is part of something larger. But that statement also draws attention to what may be a weakness in the report (or in expectations of the report). At this point the details of the proposed model are either not spelled out in any detail (governance of the national body), or are described in fairly vague language. Further, I expect we could have sharpened aspects of the report, e.g., by organizing the responsibilities of the national work into a few simple categories.
The challenge will be to follow through on the report in a way that serves the larger body, especially given the localism/provincialism so endemic to our time. An important aspect of this is developing the model so that it takes into consideration or overcomes significant regional disparities in numbers and resources. Area leaders will need to expand their identity and vision beyond their own area to the larger body so as to prevent local agenda from taking over. Having a larger national program (e.g., international witness) would certainly also help bind the body together.
Returning to the Congregation
A final observation, once again building on the affirmation of the congregational as foundational in the church. The report itself devotes much space to structure and organization. That was necessary given the Task Force’s mandate. And yet, the vitality of the larger church in the future will be dependent not on finding the right structure, but on what happens in the congregation. That is where the most radical change currently is taking place, and where it will take place in the future. It is the local congregation that people are leaving in large numbers, where there is all too often a loss of clear conviction, identity and vision. The vitality of the larger church will be determined by the extent to which congregations regain their vision for mission, for becoming spirit-infused cells of the Kingdom of God, through which God’s healing and hope spread out to the world.
March 11, 2016 (published March 18)
Gerald Gerbrandt is President Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of Bible at Canadian Mennonite University. We at EVI are grateful for his permission to publish these reflections.