Tour Reflection: Institutions

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by Anika Reynar


Can cultural, financial, and generational challenges really be addressed through a new structure?

During the EVI listening tour, this question was often repeated. It’s a question that continues to be asked implicitly in many of the Working Group reports, and was recently addressed by John. H Neufeld, in his article Constants in the context of change. In all of these places, I hear similar answers: Yes. We can imagine a new structure that will address some of the challenges we’re facing. But, no, a new structure is not and cannot be our end goal. It’s only a part of figuring out how to be the church together.

Throughout the transition process, a new structure has been posited as one way, if not the primary way, to respond to growing cultural challenges. By shifting resources from the National to the Regional Church, the hope, as expressed in A Proposal for Revitalizing MC Canada & Area Churches, is that the National church will function “as a place of connection, communion across the country, identity,” enabling us “to serve and worship God together more faithfully and effectively.”

This sounds good in principle. And yet, I want to linger for a moment with the word “effectively.” We want to move our church structure in the best and right direction. We want it to be effective. We desire to follow the calling of God’s Spirit in a time where we are challenged by trends that often seem to be beyond our control:

  • Individualism and a lack of commitment
  • Impatience with diversity
  • A shift to postmodernism (defined broadly by a distrust of objective certainties and absolute truths)
  • Technological fragmentation
  • Disillusionment with professionalized institutions

In light of these trends, what does our desire for an effective structure point to? What are we trying to accomplish? Let me test out an idea.

When faced with shifts that we feel are beyond our control, we try to find ways to be effective in the things we can exert control over, namely, the structure of the church. Yet, as we seek to take control of the direction of the church, our fears and anxieties about our lack of control over both the church, and the broader cultural trends surrounding us are also at play.

In the EVI listening tour, many people expressed a desire for control, and the feeling of lacking control over the direction the church is headed. These expressions might be split into two dominant and opposing postures: “Hanging on” and “Letting go.”

Those who are hanging on understand the National Church structure to be the best entity to mitigate individualism. Here, a desire was expressed that the National Church structure would continue to be the primary unifying body, functioning to:

  • Minimize further isolation and division between congregational groups
  • Maintain theological certainty
  • Hold together a common Mennonite/Anabaptist identity

Those who are letting go expressed a desire to release the “professionalized,” “hierarchized,” and “bureaucratic” national church institutions. In this posture, the increased focus on the congregation (rather than the National Church) comes with a sigh of relief, insofar as:

  • institutional and cultural identities can be held more loosely, recognizing, as one workshop participant stated, that “God is not bound by our structures.”
  • each congregation has the freedom to do as they choose, provided others are allowed to do the same.
  • Space is created for theological uncertainty.

Each of these postures carries its own dangers.

For those who are holding on, the desire for a stable Mennonite identity and an effective structure can quickly come at the cost of creativity and flexibility, and can effect the marginalization of those on the theological and geographical edges.

For those who are letting go, the temptation is to fall into a pattern of independence and toleration where each congregation lets the others do as they wish, seeking neither unification nor agreement. Here, the temptation is to avoid the differences that might make conversation worthwhile.

At the Mennonite Church Canada Special Assembly in October, these postures, as well as other postures, will be brought into the same space. As various perspectives intersect, I hope that each of us will be open enough to recognize that no one person has possession of truth. I hope that we will be humble enough to recognize that we’re not going to get the structure right. I hope that we are aware enough to recognize that whatever structure we choose, it is not going to solve the many challenges that we face in today’s time and age.

So where does this leave us?

I think it leaves us with the question that was appropriately posed by John H. Neufeld: “What is the core vision for the church which undergirds whatever structures we create and is foundational for the life of every congregation?”

I would suggest this: When we think about the core vision for the church, let’s remember that we all belong within the same story – the story of Jesus.

Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus taught his disciples to release all desires for power and control. Jesus continues to call us, the church, to form a new social body that is not enslaved to the powers, structures, and claims of the world, but rather is focused on the love of enemy, nonviolent resistance, repentance, servanthood, and so on.

This release of control, and commitment to the path of Jesus, is patient and vulnerable work. As we near the assembly in October, I hope that we will be wise enough to recognize, in the words of John Howard Yoder, that “the key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience.”

So let us be patient, seeking to listen deeply to the people who have already done incredible discernment work — the Transition team, the working groups, various congregations, members of EVI, and others – as well as to those voices who have yet to speak.


This piece continues our series of post-tour reflections. For the summary of themes covered, click here. Let us know what you think! Leave a comment below, or send a message.

Tour Reflection: Institutions

Tour Reflection – A Litany

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by Emerging Voices Initiative


During our workshop tour last fall and winter, one of the most meaningful parts of each event was reading a litany with everyone gathered. We developed this litany from a collection of hopes and laments that were written on paper leaves and pinned to a tree by attendees at Assembly 2016 last summer. When we shared this litany on tour, we encouraged participants to imagine the ‘we’ as not only those gathered in this room, but as people from across Mennonite Church Canada – we may have different concerns, but we all share a love for the church.

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EVI members Tim Wenger and Esther Derksen add leaves to the tree at Assembly 2016.

The litany will help us focus the still-coming reflection posts based on the themes of our summary. The full text follows (bolded parts read by all):

Creator God,
In this place, we gather as your people.
We gather, in the presence of friends
Seeking to be the church together
We gather, aware of our divisions
recognizing that history and hurt still dis-member us.
We gather, aware of those who are absent
And remembering those who have come before us.

In this place, we carry our fears…
Our fear of difference
Our fear of Isolation
Our fear that silences our courage
Our fear of losing our love for each other
Our fear of the future
Together, we cry,
Lord, in your mercy, calm our fears.

In this place, we name our losses…
The loss of a broad national identity
The loss of a communal voice
The loss of congregations
The loss of trust in our leaders
Together, we cry,
Lord, in your mercy, hold our losses.

In this place, we acknowledge those who are hurting…
Those who feel excluded
Because of…
race or sexual orientation
family history or past experiences
belief or perspective.
Those who feel silenced (pause)
Together, we cry,
Lord, in your mercy, heal our wounds.

In this place, we affirm our faith that
God is moving, and is greater than our fears
Jesus is at the center of our church
The Holy Spirit is leading us
Together, we pray,
Lord, in your mercy, guide our path.

In this place, we long for a spirit of welcome
For a church that is
A home to the outcast
A place for the outnumbered
Joy for the oppressed
Love for the hated
Gentleness to the oppressor
And peace for the broken
Together, we pray,
Lord, in your mercy, encourage our hospitality.

In this place, we hope for a unified church
Where intergenerational bonds are strong
Where shared underlying values are recognized
Where friendships are formed amongst differences
Where young voices remind us that the church is a gift
Together, we pray,
Lord, in your mercy, gather your church

In this place, we join our voices. Together, we pray,
O God, who longs for reconciliation with us and among us,
We long for a re-membering,
A reformation of broken bodies,
Shattered relationships,
And scattered communities.
Enfold us in your embrace,
That we may return to the kind of wholeness we need.

O God, giver of joy,
We thank you for stories,
For voices joined in song,
For friends, family, and strangers
And for this community gathered here.
Enfold us in your embrace,
That we may always turn to You in gratitude.
Through your grace we pray, Amen.


This litany is free to use and modify with attribution to Emerging Voices Initiative, 2017.

We’re glad to be church with you! As always, you can comment here, or send us a message.

Tour Reflection – A Litany

Workshop Tour Prep: Understanding FDTF

Anneli

by Anneli Loepp Thiessen


So you find FDTF confusing. We’ve all been there. Here’s a few points to bring you up to speed!

• FDTF stands for the Future Directions Task Force. This was a group of people who were asked by Mennonite Church Canada to look at our changing church and create a report about how the church can stay current and faithful. They began their work in 2011.

• The FDTF Final Report was released in December 2015. The report basically proposed that instead of relying on Mennonite Church Canada as a national structure, our Mennonite church should move to a regional model. A lot of the support that congregations got would come from their area church (like MCEC or MCBC for example) instead of from the national church (MC Canada).

• This report was met with confusion and some frustration. People were scared at the idea of not being able to rely on a national structure. This new model would put more responsibility on area churches. However, this report also generated excitement. There is a lot of room for new opportunities here!

• In July 2016 at the MC Canada Assembly in Saskatoon, delegates from churches across the country voted to move ahead with the FDTF recommendation to move toward a regional model. Delegates at the assembly were asked to provide input over the next two years as these changes are worked out in detail.

• Guess what? You have the opportunity to provide input now! Emerging Voices Initiative is hosting conversations on this across the country with Mennonite Church Canada. Join us to contribute to what happens next!


Anneli studies music at Canadian Mennonite University. In her spare time, she serves with Mennonite Worship and Song for Project 606 and does tons of work for EVI.

What’s this tour all about? See our tour announcement post.

Workshop Tour Prep: Understanding FDTF

EVI Announces Workshop Tour

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by Emerging Voices Initiative


We are very excited to announce our Fall 2016 Workshop Tour! Members of EVI will host interactive discussions in each area church of Mennonite Church Canada between November and December.

This tour is part of our response to MC Canada’s call for more engagement during transition, after the Future Directions recommendation passed at Assembly 2016. As our own Anneli Loepp Thiessen put it, “often the best, most influential conversations happen in person.”

While only a dream at first, the tour is being made possible with financial support from MC Canada (EVI will host the workshops independently).

Anneli: We met with Willard [Metzger] and Coreena [Stewart], and Willard asked us what we would want to see happen if time and money weren’t barriers. Through the resources of donors, and Coreena’s will and wisdom, we found a structure for hosting these conversations.

Workshops will coincide with area church executive meetings. The dates, as currently scheduled (updated December 1), are:

  • November 10 – Toronto, ON (Toronto United Mennonite Church)
  • November 11 – Waterloo, ON (Conrad Grebel University College)
  • November 12 – Leamington, ON (United Mennonite Educational Institute)
  • November 26 – Saskatoon, SK (with MC Sask’s Leadership Assembly)
  • November 27 – Winnipeg, MB (Canadian Mennonite University)
  • December 2 – Edmonton, AB (First Mennonite Church)
  • December 4 – Abbotsford, BC (Columbia Bible College)
  • December 6 – Winkler, MB (Emmanuel Mennonite Church)

Note: We had previously scheduled a workshop in Calgary for December 3, which has since been canceled. More on that in this update. Sorry for the confusion!

Our workshops at MC Canada Assembly and MC Manitoba’s Annual Gathering (pictured below) both drew over 70 people, and were a lot of fun! We are grateful for new opportunities to bring people together and listen to voices across MC Canada. Please plan to attend your nearest workshop!


You can also download our official tour news release (pdf). For more information, please contact us!

 

EVI Announces Workshop Tour

Overcoming Caricatures

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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.

Overcoming Caricatures

Dyck: MC-MB Connections

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by Matthew Dyck (photo from canadianmennonite.ca)


On Friday July 15th, a small group of CMU students, staff and faculty gathered in Marpeck Commons. They were there to discuss the Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite Church Canada gatherings, the way the church functions, and the culture that surrounds it. Andrew Dyck (no relation) initially extended the invitation to discuss what cultural and societal trends are currently affecting the church. This question was raised in a paper I wrote on the cultural factors that were affecting the MC Canada, specifically regarding the Future Directions Task Force. Cheryl Pauls, Terry Shellenberg, and Gordon Zerbe were present from the administrative side of CMU. Gerald Gerbrandt, John Brubacher, and Andrew Dyck rounded out the faculty involvement, while Andrea De Avila and I represented the student body.

The discussion moved between topics, from the effects of Post-Christendom on the authority of the church and how it affects how we teach, to the effect of identity politics on the way discussions of doctrine are presented. We were discussing theories, but we were all concerned about how the theories would affect the church in practice. It was interesting to note how although the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches is a slightly larger conference (37,000 to 31,000), there was a significantly larger presence at the MC Canada Gathering (estimated 500 attendees at MC, estimated 200 at MB). I continue to be impressed by MC Canada’s ability to lean into the unknown and change as a group. Coming away from these discussions so far, I simply hope that the congregations and congregants of the MC Canada will be able to keep supporting the leaders and structures that they are moving towards. The conversation continues.


Matthew Dyck studies at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU), pursuing a BA with a major in Social Science, and minors in Communications and Bibilical and Theological Studies. His home church is Fort Garry Mennonite Brethren. He attended the 2016 Mennonite Church Canada Assembly because of a paper he wrote for Rodney Reynar’s Qualitative Inquiry in the Social Sciences class (click here for a pdf).

For more on Matt’s experience at Assembly 2016, check out this Canadian Mennonite article.

Dyck: MC-MB Connections

Martens: Women in Ministry

Carrie

by Carrie Martens


My experience of women in leadership has spanned Mennonite Church Canada, the Evangelical Mennonite Conference, the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, and Mennonite Church USA. I have to say that while each of these denominations has rather different understandings of women in leadership on paper, in practice I’ve experienced a push/pull reception to women in leadership in all four.

In each of these spaces I was invited into ministry as either a pastoral intern or paid pastoral staff. So the invitation to participate was clear. And yet, my lived experience felt much more conflicted. In some cases it was explicit, such as being asked not to speak openly about a preaching class I was taking or being told by a member that my ministry was to children and she would walk out if I were to preach. In others, it was more subtle; it was the casual mention that certain congregations or conferences were simply not options for women applying for ministry positions. It was the whispered caution to avoid being alone with a particular male church member (this caution is all too common and indicates an unhealthy environment for all women).

Currently, I minister in a congregation with a longstanding tradition of women’s leadership and I often find myself attending to gender balance from the other side of the spectrum. And yet the push/pull reception to women in leadership remains. Even though it’s not evident in my own congregation, it seems strikingly obvious at an Area Church and Conference level that there is a lack of women in leadership positions.

In July at the MC Canada Assembly I heard Anneli Loepp Thiessen voice her concerns from the floor during a delegate session on the Future Directions Task Force Recommendations. She named that the lack of gender diversity that she saw in leadership frightened her. She noted that it seemed like we hadn’t come very far from her mother’s early days in ministry. I share Anneli’s concerns.

I also heard three comments that gave me pause. One came from Mennonite Church Eastern Canada moderator Paul Wideman, who named that, as moderator, he does not represent his own personal views. Rather, he represents the views of the constituency and the diverse group of individuals who sit on the various councils of MCEC. The problem with this argument is the assumption that the individual is a blank sheet of paper or a conduit through which the constituency communicates. This simply isn’t true. Regardless of demographic, the moderator can only hear their constituency, understand their experiences, and voice their concerns through the lens of the moderator’s own life experience. This means that who we have in leadership does matter. So if we care about women’s voices in our Area Churches and in Mennonite Church Canada then we need to have women in leadership who will bring a lens of female experience (broadly defined) to their work as representatives.

The second comment I heard came from Ryan Siemens, the Area Church Minister from MC Saskatchewan. He spoke passionately about the fact that countless women are asked when trying to find someone to say yes to leadership in the Area Church and MC Canada. These positions are open to everyone. Anyone can say yes to these roles. To my ears this sounded like the problem we have with women in leadership is that women just don’t say yes. This doesn’t ring true to me. In my experience as a woman and as a pastor, I generally find that women are incredibly likely to say yes, but they are also incredibly likely to be juggling multiple roles. However, if women are being asked and are declining these positions to this extent, then we need to be asking why.

The third comment I heard came from a young adult from a church in SK. She implored us to work toward diversity in leadership right from the outset as we transition to a new structure. She indicated that yes, finding leaders from New Canadian churches can be difficult, but if we really value diversity, we will make it happen. I suspect that the same is true for gender diversity.

Seeing women in leadership positions and experiencing their gifts and their mentorship were key in helping me to imagine my own place as a leader in the Mennonite church. I’m concerned with current lack of gender diversity in the Area and National Church. I’m concerned that young women may not be seeing a place for themselves as pastors, council members, moderators, task force leaders and as something more than a token under-20 member on a committee. It is past time for us to put an end to the push/pull invitation for women in leadership.

Some things to consider moving forward:

  • Do we really care about having women’s voices in church leadership?
  • If women are being asked for particular roles and they decline, why is that?
  • Are there aspects of the role that make it challenging for a woman to say yes (this could be asked for many other peoples as well)? And if yes, how could we shift things to make their presence possible?

Should we require councils to have a minimum number of women and men (for example, a council with 8 members should have at least 3 women and 3 men) to ensure some gender balance?


Carrie is Pastor of Faith Formation at Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church, Kitchener, ON. We are grateful for her reflections-please reply and share!

Martens: Women in Ministry