by Gerald Gerbrandt
One thing became very clear during the task force conversation: in the imagination of most of us, Mennonite Church Canada (similarly, even if perhaps not to the same extent, the Area Churches) is an “it” or “they.” Currently the larger denomination is experienced as an entity apart from, distinct from, the local congregation and its members. We may affirm the services the denomination provides, or the programs it delivers, but these are “it” doing things for “us.” Having staff convey greetings from Mennonite Church Canada at congregations or regional assemblies reflects and only supports that impression. It is not uncommon to view the denomination as competing with the local congregation for resources and attention. Pastors easily feel that attending denominational assemblies is a responsibility or obligation, not a gathering of partners from which they benefit, or as times for strengthening local and larger identity, or local and larger mission.
How did we get here? Did it begin in the 1970s as denominational leadership shifted from pastors to lay people? Or did this trend already begin earlier with the hiring of staff, the adopting of budgets, and the growth of programs? How much was it impacted by the dramatically increased professionalization of assemblies where budgets were no longer debated in detail or 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?
To reverse this trend will require diligent effort. After all, we live in a time in which larger identities are weakened everywhere, and localism is prominent. But the Christian church is called to be counter-cultural. As kingdom cells, we must nurture an identity not simply shaped by the world around us.
It may be helpful to remind ourselves of the larger picture, and of who we are. I begin with three convictions:
- That the Christian church is first and foremost the world-wide body of Christ. Indeed, this is the most important reference of the word “church,” and as such the church is a seamless garment transcending all geographic and denominational divisions. Anything less is only part of the church. Our tendency to speak of Anabaptist distinctives works against appreciating this conviction.
- That the local gathering of Christians (not any particular form of the congregation—much greater diversity is needed here) is the foundational unit within the larger church. This is where real people worship together, fellowship together, and witness to others. The congregation, however it may be formed is the flesh and blood, or cells of the organic whole, out of which the worldwide church and denomination is formed.
- That Mennonite Church Canada (with its Area Churches, programs, congregations, members) is a critical middle level between congregation and the world-wide church. Although an imperfect body, it remains the primary vehicle by which congregations participate in, dialogue with, benefit from, and contribute to the larger church. It serves as the passageway between the individual congregation and the larger church with resources, wisdom and identity flowing both ways.
Local gatherings of Christians, as well as the church as the world-wide body of Christ, are enduring “givens” already present in New Testament times. In contrast, Mennonite Church Canada as an organization, even taking into consideration its predecessor bodies, has existed for less than two centuries. Despite this contingent nature, I believe for today it is the best way for our congregations to participate in the larger body of Christ, and of nurturing biblical convictions important within Anabaptism. And further, that in the face of contemporary pressures towards localism, building up that middle level must be a priority for us.
To say that is not a defense of the status quo, nor an argument for greater centralized programing. In fact, it requires that we change the way we work together so that the middle level becomes more critical in shaping our identity and mission, so that it truly inspires, resources, and holds congregations accountable as part of the larger body of Christ.
But this will only be achieved if the national body is experienced not as distant from the congregation, not as an “it” but a “we.” It will require greater congregational participation in that larger church, not less. The proposal that congregations become responsible for the national agenda and body via their Area Churches may not be the only way to structure this. But it is a way of building up from the congregation, rather than from the top down. “We” are Mennonite Church Canada—the members of the congregation, the congregation in its local activities and mission, the Area Churches as they relate to congregations and work together in national identity building and programs.
Critical in this reimagined model are the local congregational leaders, especially pastors. The conferences preceding Mennonite Church Canada all began as gatherings of congregational leaders, lay ministers, who experienced these gatherings as life-giving. Here they reflected on their theology, they challenged each other’s understandings, they fellowshipped together, they held each other accountable, and over time, they became persuaded that the mission of God would be furthered by programs undertaken by the congregations working together. One might even say they began as “we” working together, and evolved into “it” doing it for us. The programs did not drive the identity but developed out of it.
The proposal to develop a Congregation of Ministerial Leadership is one concrete suggestion for fostering that congregational ownership of the larger body. Retired pastors, theologians and other church leaders might well be included, but its core should be congregational leaders. The proposal does not tie this entity as integrally to the rest of the structure as it might, but that may also be one of its strengths. Its focus then can be on asking larger questions, not administering major programs, with potentially a new “Faith and Life Committee” developing out of it. Alongside it is the suggestion that congregations broaden their leadership beyond paid pastors to include lay or non-paid ministers. This would then be a significant body of congregational leaders which over time has the potential to shape our larger identity.
Obviously this one proposal alone cannot carry all the weight of fostering a greater “we.” Other aspects of the task force report are critical as well. A national program in pastoral leadership development, along with a national vision and strategy for higher education are necessary, and consistent with an understanding of congregations as the building blocks of the whole. Consistent, integrated communication with congregations, with a common look and branding will help. A significant program (e.g., international witness) in and around which congregations can participate and rally also is important. Regular gatherings for study, worship and fellowship are needed.
Moving from the denomination as an “it” to a “we” will not happen overnight. But it is a crucial step in nurturing a greater sense of identity in and with the larger church, the body of Christ, with a significant presence and witness in our society.
Gerald Gerbrandt is President Emeritus and Professor Emeritus at Canadian Mennonite Unviersity, and a member of the Future Directions Task Force. The views expressed above are not on behalf of the Task Force. We are grateful for Gerald’s second contribution to our blog-see also: Reflecting on the FDTF Report.