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Mennonite Church Canada embraces unity in diversity at Assembly 2016

7.18. 2016 Written By: Hannah Heinzekehr, The Mennonite 1,754 read

Photo: Delegates at the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly, July 6-10. Photo by Matt Veith. 

Delegates at Mennonite Church Canada’s 2016 Assembly found unity in surprising places, making four large decisions, with each resolution passing by a large majority. The decisions included votes on recommendations from two long-term task forces: the Being a Faithful Church (BFC) Task Force, which led a nine-year process of discernment around human sexuality and same-sex relationships, and the Future Directions Task Force (FDFT), a group commissioned in 2012 by MC Canada and its area churches to discern new denominational structures.

Three hundred forty-three registered delegates from across Canada met at TCU Place in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, July 6 to 10. For the first time, congregations were encouraged to appoint youth delegates.

On July 9, the FDTF recommendation was affirmed by 94 percent of delegates (318 yes, 21 no, and

Willard Metzger, executive director of MC Canada, speaks during July 10 worship. MC Canada photo.

Willard Metzger, executive director of MC Canada, speaks during July 10 worship. MC Canada photo.

four ballots “spoiled”). The FDTF report was released for consideration in December 2015 and recommends a pared-down structure (including a smaller national staff) that more fully integrates national and regional area church work, moving more decision-making to the local level. The resolution called for a two-year (or less) process led by administrative representatives from each of MC Canada’s five area churches, as well as national staff to flesh out a proposal for structural transition. Delegates will vote on the final proposal before it is implemented.

The FDTF developed to address decreased budget revenue for the denomination as well as a shifting Christian context in Canada.

Willard Metzger, executive director for MC Canada, says denominations can’t and shouldn’t try to maintain the same level of structure that they have always had as society shifts to a post-Christendom context. “That just means that the church needs to think differently,” said Metzger in a July 14 phone interview. “We can’t assume the level of support – emotional or financial – that we’ve been able to assume in the Christendom model.”

Metzger also sees the work of the FDTF as offering hope for new growth in the future.

Metzger used the analogy of Jesus’ instruction that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24) to describe the work MC Canada faces now. “That’s our challenge. How can we die sufficiently enough that new growth will be generated?” said Metzger. “If we don’t pare down sufficiently enough, as new growth emerges, old structure will just naturally try and absorb it into itself, and that, I think, will be the death of the new growth.”

Also on July 9, 85 percent of delegates (277 yes, 50 no, 23 abstained) voted in favor of the BFC

Safwat Marzouk, associate professor of Old Testament at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, was the keynote speaker during worship. MC Canada photo.

Safwat Marzouk, associate professor of Old Testament at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, was the keynote speaker during worship. MC Canada photo.

recommendation to allow congregations to differ from one another in their understandings of same-sex relationships. The recommendation, which included four subpoints, affirms the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, a document shared by MC Canada and Mennonite Church USA; it acknowledges that some congregations have reached different understandings of marriage as defined by the CoF as “one man and one woman for life” and recommends that “we create space/leave room within our Body to test alternative understandings from that of the larger Body to see if they are a nudging of the Spirit of God.” The recommendation also specifies that national and area church bodies will work on a way to monitor implementation among congregations.

“No congregation would be forced to accept something that they would not be ready to accept. This recommendation is not asking for all congregations to become alike,” said Metzger. “We’re asking to acknowledge those who after prayerful discernment feel led in a different way than the Confession of Faith indicates and to make space for that.”

Metzger is aware of several congregations that had indicated that they would enter into conversation about leaving MC Canada if the BFC recommendation were approved. Metzger says MC Canada staff will watch closely and be in conversation with congregations considering this possibility.

On July 7, delegates collectively repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, a 15th-century framework that gives “Christian governments” moral and legal authority to dominate Indigenous peoples and take Indigenous lands.

On July 9, delegates also affirmed a resolution calling for nonviolent solutions to injustice in the

Attendees participate in table group discussion at a seminar. Photo by Matt Veith.

Attendees participate in table group discussion at a seminar. Photo by Matt Veith.

Israel-Palestine region. Only one delegate voted against the resolution. The resolution also included acknowledgment of the suffering of Jewish people and a commitment to work with Jewish organizations in Canada. Canadian delegates had processed and tabled a similar resolution in 2014. In 2015, Mennonite Church USA delegates processed and tabled a similar resolution on Israel-Palestine. MC USA delegates will revisit the resolution at the 2017 Delegate Assembly in Orlando, Fla.

Young adults invest in the future of MC Canada

 At Assembly 2016, two new collectives of young adults—the Emerging Voices Initiative (EVI) and Pastors in Exile (PiE)—made an impact in denominational conversations.

Founded in January, EVI began when several Mennonite students and faculty members at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba, gathered to talk about the proposal from the Future Directions Task Force. The group, which included around 50 members at its peak, met regularly to discuss its hopes and dreams for the future of the church, launched a blog, met with church leaders and attended area church gatherings, and tried to invite others into conversation about the future of the church. Out of their conversations, the group developed a vision listing 11 things the church is called to be about.

On July 7, five EVI members led a seminar for Assembly attendees. They created a fabric tree wall-hanging and invited attendees to place yellow and green leaves naming their hopes and laments for the church during this time of change. The tree found its way into the delegate assembly and was referenced often during the sessions. EVI also was given a chance to address the delegates.

Jonas Cornelsen, a member of EVI, attended Assembly as a delegate for his home congregation, Hope

Jonas Cornelsen speaks during the EVI seminar. Photo by Matt Veith.

Jonas Cornelsen speaks during the EVI seminar. Photo by Matt Veith.

Mennonite Church in Winnipeg. Cornelson graduated this spring from CMU and is now living in Vancouver.

Cornelson said left Assembly feeling both “hopeful and motivated.” He said one of EVI’s purposes is to encourage people to get involved. “We’re all responsible for what happens next,” he said in a July 14 phone interview. “This restructuring process is driven as much by lay people and congregations as it is by leaders.…I felt motivated to continue working on that conversation.”

PiE was founded by Jessica Reesor Rempel and Chris Brnjas, two young adults who at the time were theology students at Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ontario. As they were finishing their degrees and preaching in several local churches, Reesor Rempel says they noticed a lot of fear in churches. “They were wondering, Where are all the young adults?” she says. “People felt that everyone was leaving.”

Reesor Rempel and Brnjas both knew many young adults who were passionate about faith and spirituality but weren’t necessarily connecting with a congregation on Sunday mornings. So they formed Pastors in Exile, an organization that serves as “bridgebuilders” between young adults in the Kitchener-Waterloo area and established congregations. PiE is supported by Mennonite Church Eastern Canada as well as individual donors. Some of the group’s outreach so far has included a feminist Bible study, regional meetups for conversation and prayer, and hosting a blog. “We’re really trying to make this a community movement,” said Reesor Rempel. She notes that most of their outreach programs have grown out of interest from individuals they are connecting with.

Both Reesor Rempel and Brnjas were delegates for their local congregations and Brnjas hosted a seminar with the provocative title, “Young adults don’t need the church” that focused on intergenerational dialogue and addressing some of the fears about young adults not being engaged.

When the FDTF report first came out, Reesor Rempel says, she had many concerns and questions—especially centered around moving MC Canada Witness mission workers away from long-term partnership models and into more short-term mission arrangements and a lack of diversity at upper leadership levels who will lead the transition process.

Still, Reesor Rempel says she found herself impressed with the ways the task force has responded to

Ervin Stutzman addresses delegates at the MC Canada assembly. Photo by Irma Sulistyorini.

Ervin Stutzman addresses delegates at the MC Canada assembly. Photo by Irma Sulistyorini.

questions and suggestions from area churches so far and is optimistic about the future of the church.

“There was really strong disagreement present in that space, but we were really able to have civil discussion,” she says. “I don’t think we have a sense of where the church is headed. Maybe this [restructuring} is temporary and we’ll be moving toward something else in the future. People have done careful discernment, and I’m cautiously optimistic about what’s ahead.”

Mennonite Church USA connections

 Several representatives from Mennonite Church USA attended the conference, including Ervin Stutzman, MC USA executive director, who brought greetings to the delegates at the beginning of their meetings.

Stutzman says he was impressed by the sense of unity he witnessed, as well as the large majority by which many of the motions passed. He cites several factors, including a smaller number of regional church bodies (MC Canada has five area churches, compared to MC USA’s 19 area conferences), that contributed to the decision-making process.

Stutzman notes that MC Canada and MC USA are bound together by sharing agencies and organizations such as MennoMedia and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Ind., as well as sharing a common confession of faith and ministerial polity manual.

“It was important to be there to support them in these big decision processes and see how they do their processing, and even to see what we can learn from their processing,” said Stutzman in a July 13 phone interview.

Allan Rudy-Froese, assistant professor of Christian proclamation at AMBS and a former member of MC Canada, attended the event as an AMBS representative and also led worship during a pastor’s day on July 6.

Rudy-Froese says he was impressed with the “nonanxious” feeling at Assembly and wasn’t surprised by the widespread embrace of unity in the midst of theological diversity that MC Canada seems to have embraced. He credits Canada’s diverse political system, which includes six political parties and many “median positions,” as having an influence, in contrast to the two large political parties in the United States.

He also credits long-term proactive denominational discernment processes in MC Canada to talk about sexuality and structure. The BFC process included eight years of Bible study, conversation, education and resources generated by national staff and the BFC task force. “It’s not like we can be in a season of discernment at one point and then stop and 10 years later we’re at another one,” he says. “The church is always in a mode of discernment.”

Safwat Marzouk, assistant professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at AMBS, was the keynote speaker for the assembly, focusing on Jeremiah 31:33 and the theme God-Faith-People.

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