by Peter Epp
Allow me to indulge some of our caricatures of one another, in order to help us to begin to overcome them.
While engaging the FDTF process as a member of Emerging Voices, I’ve been struck by the ways MC Canada members describe one another and what that really says about us.
First, people like me—people who find deep identity in Mennonite institutions—often fall back onto a caricature of our institutions’ leaders. Though it’s usually more nuanced than this, in these hard times, we often treat our leaders as quitters. “They’re not doing enough to preserve what we have,” we say. “They’re not leading.” “They haven’t brought enough Anabaptist vision to the job, and now, when that has inevitably lead to failure, they just want to throw it all away rather than admit that they’ve been the problem all along.”
Our leaders, quite understandably, see caricaturized versions of us too. To them, we have much in common with caricatures of overbearing parents, ones who won’t stop harping on how our children (in this case, Mennonite institutions) must be the best, and how any leader who can’t make that happen must not be an effective, sensitive, or committed leader. Of course, our Mennonite measurements of success aren’t necessarily the typical stuff of overbearing parents. It’s stuff that’s probably even more difficult to achieve: things like, say, church unity, the elimination of all prejudice, and the growth of overseas mission programs that will achieve world renown without ever doing anything colonial. You know, easy stuff like that.
To try to communicate how difficult they’re finding this, our leaders often tell us overbearing parents about a third caricature they keep encountering: lazy teenagers. Our leaders don’t actually call anyone that, of course, but they do emphasize the dire numbers that indicate that our denominations are full of these types. “Whereas people once attended denominational events because they were like family gatherings,” they tell us, “most people don’t show up at all anymore.” “Studies show that today’s regular church attenders only go once a month.” “Ninety per cent of Mennonite Church constituents really don’t care what happens with the denomination.” “Fewer and fewer people can be bothered to tithe.” The often-unspoken point is this: you overbearing parents are demanding things that are impossible when the church is full of all these lazy teenagers.
The dynamics accompanying these caricatures are insidious. As an overbearing parent-type, I contribute to a culture of mistrust and burnout that chews up and spits out leader after leader. Reacting to this, leaders may well entertain feelings of just wanting to quit, and it only makes sense for them to want to point to how many lazy teenagers there might be and how difficult to work with they are. In response, I get more entrenched in seeing my leaders as “quitters,” and they get more entrenched in insulating themselves from these accusations by portraying the church as mostly made up of lazier and lazier teenagers. Meanwhile, we both end up dehumanizing the many in this church family we label “lazy teenagers.” As an overbearing parent, I prefer not to acknowledge our “teenagers” much at all, often assuming that they simply don’t “get” the Mennonite Church because they are less educated (or less Mennonite-educated) than I am. I prefer to try to exercise influence over my leaders to make sure that the church is what it “should be.” In fact, I probably try to protect my church from those who don’t have the same entrenched narratives about Mennonite identity that I do. Leaders, meanwhile, may well unintentionally be creating a problematic self-fulfilling prophecy: if you assume that most people don’t care about church and denomination, over time, that is likely to just become more and more true.
So, with these caricatures and dysfunctions in mind, here’s what I truly think about FDTF. For all the ways that I as an overbearing parent was angry about what I saw as a lack of clear vision, theological rigour, and consultation, I am convinced that FDTF has been a watershed moment spearheaded by courageous leaders. Why? Because FDTF represents a moment of honesty that sought to break the cycle we’ve been stuck in. I didn’t always like that honesty, and I still don’t agree with everything it concludes—nor will I. More than this, it continues to be incredibly tempting to point out how leaders seem to be contradicting themselves by saying in one moment that the church is full of lazy teenagers that we’ll have to build lower expectations around, while saying in the next moment that this is a plan for an ambitious, robust, and more-faithful new future. But to focus on those things would be to miss the point and to ignore the way that I have created conditions that make my leaders feel required to say both things. The point is that our leaders have said, “No more!” They have been the first to say, “We will no longer tolerate more generations of leaders being chewed up and spit out. We will declare how impossible it feels for us to meet the needs of the over-bearing-parent types. Come what may, this must change.”
At Assembly, our leaders and our overbearing parents sat down together—along with more “lazy teenagers” than either would probably have liked to acknowledge were there—to figure out what our next moves should be. Through the grace of God, it produced another step in the right direction. After our leaders had been honest through the FDTF final report, us overbearing parents had spilled our sometimes-angry, sometimes-tearful guts out on area church delegate meeting floors, in blog posts, in open letters, and in Canadian Mennonite editorials. In the midst of this hard, sometimes-painful honesty, an addendum had emerged, one that represented a hopeful break in the cycle of how we relate to one another. Leaders had risked future burnout by including challenging and ongoing feedback from their demanding constituents in that addendum. Demanding constituents had risked the loss of our beloved institution as we know it by then passing the amended FDTF proposal that many of us still found unclear and terrifying.
In so doing, we all stepped back, ever so slightly, from our caricatures of one another, and, instead, moved forward in trust and with a growing recognition that MC Canada is all of us, not just the leaders and not just those of us who have come to see ourselves as its true caretakers. There’s more work to be done, of course. I suspect that we won’t get where we need to be until we sit down at home to listen to our “lazy teenagers.” And we won’t know that we’ve truly heard them until we can start to see them for something far more than our caricature of them too. Make no mistake, that will be where the really hard work lies. But we have taken the courageous first steps of honesty and trust required to undermine our stereotypes and dysfunctions. The hardest work lies ahead. But the hard decisions that are needed to do that work well—the decisions to trust one another despite our caricatures—have begun.
May we continue to walk in such faith in the crucial months to come.
Peter is finishing an MA (Theological Studies) at CMU, where he has also recently begun working. Though his involvement in EVI will decrease in the coming year, he looks forward working with the group in new ways. Peter, his partner Shanda Hochstetler, and their son Oliver look forward to having a little sister join the family soon.