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Photo: Participants at the 2017 Mennonite Church Canada special assembly, Oct. 13-15. MC Canada photo.
At a special assembly in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Oct. 13-15, delegates from across Canada voted to dramatically restructure Mennonite Church Canada, building on the work of the Future Directions Task Force, a group commissioned in 2012 to reexamine the denomination’s structures, and a denomination-wide vote at the 2016 MC Canada Assembly.
Mennonite Church Canada will continue but will be administered by five regional churches (called area conferences in the United States). Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, Mennonite Church Manitoba, Mennonite Church Saskatchewan, Mennonite Church Alberta and Mennonite Church British Columbia will covenant together to form Mennonite Church Canada. Individual congregations remain members of their regional church only.
Regional churches and congregations will be responsible to fund and set priorities for Mennonite Church Canada. A joint council formed by the regional churches will replace the general board and will appoint an executive minister (replacing the position of executive director), who will hire national staff.
The proposed budget for Mennonite Church Canada’s national staff and programming is about $1.9 million Canadian, a reduction of about $2.5 million from the current year’s projected income.
This will mean a decrease in spending on international ministries, communications, leadership development and executive functions, explained MC Canada executive director Willard Metzger at the assembly. “Some of that will become the responsibility of the regional churches.”
The restructuring is an effort to simplify the configuration of the denomination and refocus on congregations. It comes as a response to broad societal shifts in Canada where churches as institutions no longer hold the prominent places they once did. Fewer people attend church, and those who do attend less often and give less money.
Many congregations have left Mennonite Church Canada in recent years, many of them over the issue of same-sex marriage and Mennonite Church Canada’s efforts to be more inclusive of LGBTQ people.
In 2015, Mennonite Church Canada experienced a donation shortfall of $300,000, resulting in the layoff of five staff members. Additional staff members have departed in the past year, and it is expected that more will lose their jobs in the days to come.
“While many of us celebrate the change and new vision, there’s a shadow side to our actions,” said Aldred Neufeldt, a member of the transition team. “These past several years have not been easy….It’s gut-wrenching to consider layoffs, particularly in a church organization, yet sometimes it can’t be avoided.” Neufeldt thanked former staff for their service and recognized current staff who continue to work despite the uncertainty of their jobs.
More than 400 people attended the special assembly, at least 100 more than organizers had anticipated. Tightly crammed into an auditorium at the Radisson Hotel in Winnipeg, delegates discussed and amended the new model and its bylaws before voting 94 percent in favor of the new structure. Delegates also approved a new covenant and operating agreement and elected a slate of officers for Mennonite Church Canada.
Some people raised concerns that the new structure would dilute the identity of Mennonite Church Canada and cause congregations to become more isolated.
“I fully support an emphasis on the local congregations,” said Gerald Gerbrandt of Bethel Mennonite Church in Winnipeg. “But I become concerned when it appears as if our notion of church is reduced to only the local congregation, with other levels of the church existing largely to serve the local congregation and its mission. Church is much more than the local congregation…and much more than our small Anabaptist family. It is the global body of Christ, crossing geographical, denominational and ideological boundaries.”
Other delegates expressed worry about the capacity of regional churches to raise the necessary funds.
Steph Chandler Burns, of Kitchener, Ontario, pointed out that the new covenant and operating agreement didn’t acknowledge power dynamics. “It assumes that power is equal among us,” she said. “Power is not equal among us. We know there is unequal power between genders; we know that there is unequal power [in] the size and the makeup of our regional church bodies, and all these things will affect the way we go about living out our covenant.”
Many were optimistic about the change. “I love the idea that there is an emphasis on local church,” said Randell Neudorf, pastor of The Commons, Hamilton, Ontario, “because they’re the closest to noticing what happens in a neighborhood, where Jesus lives. I’m excited about that. It resonates with me, and I know it resonates with my church.”
Metzger said he was pleased with the spirit and tone of the conversation. “People have been expressing fears and concerns, but that’s because they really do love the church and they want to make sure it remains strong and that that the nationwide identity remains strong.…I think there’s a fear that regional churches won’t adequately remain committed to the nationwide agenda and health, that they’ll disintegrate into more local focus and commitment. That’s a fair criticism, but what I think will counteract that risk is that regional church delegates will become much more engaged in nationwide agenda at the regional church gatherings.”
Mennonite Church USA has faced its own financial stresses in recent years, seeing a budget shortfall of over $230,000 in the last fiscal year. In addition, three area conferences have voted to leave the denomination since 2015.
The changes to MC Canada structure will affect the work the two denominations do together, said Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA. “We hold many documents in common. Our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective is jointly held by our two denominations and literally dozens of documents that have to do with congregational ministry. I wonder whether Mennonite Church Canada will have the capacity to continue to hold those jointly or to help produce them jointly. Right now we don’t have a partner staff [person] in Canada to carry that together with us, which in the long term will raise a question: Are these really jointly held documents or will they reflect more of a U.S. perspective because U.S. staff are maintaining them?”
Stutzman said he’ll be watching to see what happens when regional churches in Canada become responsible for the affairs of the national church. “All of them are stretched by their own responsibilities for resourcing their congregations. I’ll be curious to see how that works. I certainly wish them the best.”
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