Shifting to regions, Mennonite Church Canada breaks new ground

Apr 17, 2017 by and

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Mennonite Church Canada is going to find out if a national denomination can grow stronger by putting its regions first.

It’s a radical change that delegates approved in principle at last summer’s national assembly. Now the denomination is working out the details and hoping that organizing itself in a fundamentally different way will sow the seeds of robust grassroots.

Changes seek to streamline MC Canada at the national level to assist congregations at the local level, where most people claim their primary church identity. That already began when five MC Canada staff members were let go under a $300,000 budget crunch in late 2015.

Transition coordinator Keith Regehr said the new national structure would be a partnership of the five area churches — akin to Mennonite Church USA’s conferences — which will develop program priorities. Instead of congregations sending delegates to both area church and denominational events, national delegate assemblies would be made of area church board members, plus people delegated by area churches.

“We’re hoping national agenda will receive attention at area church annual meetings to figure out how each area church will speak to that, and then area churches together will articulate the national priorities and will give governance to that,” he said.

In times of waning loyalty and identity in many North American denominations, it is hoped that bringing many activities closer to the grassroots will increase engagement.

Regehr pointed to last July’s national assembly in Saskatoon.

“My recollection is only 50 percent of congregations sent delegates to the national meeting,” he said. “And congregations are much more engaged in their area church assemblies, so it’s not uncommon to have every congregation represented at their area church gathering.

“What we’re hoping is that it will deepen their engagement in national issues at the regional level where more congregations are represented.”

Mennonite Church Eastern Canada executive director David Martin echoed Regehr’s hope that engagement is maintained at the area church level. That’s because there will be no other place for congregations to be represented.

“The new structure will change how that voice is exercised and heard,” he said. “There’s no longer congregational delegates in the national level.”

Passing on a portion

MC Canada executive director Willard Metzger said area churches generated a report at annual spring meetings a year ago when concerns about some proposals were expressed. For example, initial descriptions led many to conclude international mission work would cease, and Metzger admitted those details haven’t been fleshed out enough. However, delegates approved MC Canada’s general direction with 94 percent approval at the July assembly.

Metzger has sensed less anxiety this time around.

“The real concern is that the regional churches don’t spin off into independent entities,” he said. “. . . That’s a very legitimate concern that’s expressed, and I feel quite good about that, because that shows a keen desire to have a strong national peoplehood of Mennonite congregations across the country.”

Financially, the new structure’s proposal does away with denominational fundraising so that congregations aren’t approached to support multiple MC Canada entities. In its place, area churches would collect funds from congregations and then pass on a portion to the national church.

Regehr said Mennonite Church Eastern Canada already functions in this way. However, a flat percentage won’t work for area churches that are much smaller, such as MC Alberta and MC Saskatchewan.

Working groups are developing formulas that would allow smaller area churches to retain more of their funds to fund more staff and ministries.

“As you can imagine, that’s fairly complex math,” Regehr said.

Can regions do more?

The intention is for area churches to increase staffing and empower congregations to carry out MC Canada’s ministry. Time — and giving — will tell how that change will work.

Metzger hopes area churches look at different ways to communicate commitment to a cause — in ways other than assigning staff. An initiative could have a director, or maybe $50,000 to $60,000 could be budgeted to bring in a speaker to conduct workshops across the country.

“It gives us more flexibility to imagine what we do to bring that to life,” he said. “I don’t think the best way is to attach a staff person to a priority, but we do want to budget for it, to give priority to it.”

Mennonite Church Manitoba moderator Peter Rempel said his area church has reduced staff in the last couple of years after three congregations departed, reducing the budget by $80,000 to $90,000.

“I don’t see a huge increase in our staffing,” he said. “We’ve sort of stitched things together over the last two years with these other declines, with the anticipation that the new formula can recover that. But we’ve had to draw on reserves to manage.”

Looking to what would change for his area church as the national level recedes, Rempel said the “prairie area churches” will likely step into the Canadian Mennonite University governance role that MC Canada used to occupy. The same area churches are discussing how to coordinate Bible curriculum for camps.

“That’s very exploratory at this point,” he said. “The new arrangement makes room or calls for that to be explored.”

Distance, if they want it

As area churches have given final input to the restructuring plan in meetings taking place from February to late April, several have split their attention with the Being a Faithful Church process (see sidebar below), which has encouraged MC Canada members to “create space” for testing multiple understandings of same-sex relationships.

The BFC resolution, passed by delegates in July, raised concerns in some conservative congregations that the official, traditional definition of marriage is eroding.

Metzger said the proposed new structure gives room for congregations to distinguish themselves from the wider body and define themselves exclusively as members of an area church. The new structure only names area churches, not local congregations, as members of MC Canada.

Since area churches are the new centers of decision-making, they could allow congregations to choose to designate their funding for only regional matters.

“Executive staff is trying to imagine . . . possibilities for congregations that want to express their concern and create some distance with the national church and remain part of a regional church,” he said.

Metzger, Regehr and others are working on that detail, among others, before a special assembly in October in Winni­peg, Man., when delegates will be asked to approve a final proposal.

Regions react to making space for dissent

Mennonite Church Canada’s Being a Faithful Church 7 resolution has dominated discussion at some recent area church annual meetings.

The resolution was passed at last summer’s general assembly in Saskatoon, Sask. It seeks to “create space” for congregations exploring various understandings of what the Bible says about same-sex marriage.

Canadian Mennonite reported Mennonite Church British Columbia passed a resolution reiterating its commitment to a definition of marriage being between one man and one woman for life at its meeting Feb. 25 at Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Abbotsford. Another resolution sharply critical of last summer’s national decision was defeated by the narrowest of margins.

A resolution that passed 105-52 states B.C. pastors will not officiate same-sex weddings, and “congregations will not appoint pastors and those in leadership positions in same-sex relationship.”

A resolution defining MC British Columbia’s connection to MC Canada as “a relationship of discord” was defeated 69-68. The resolution said that by adopting the BFC 7 resolution, delegates distanced MC Canada from the area church and that “it is with regret that we do recognize that MC Canada has entered into an impaired relationship with MC B.C.”

Mennonite Church Manitoba did not take any formal action during its annual delegate gathering March 3-4 at Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Winkler, but it did present a board statement responding to BFC 7 that encourages congregations to focus on what they have in common rather than what divides them and commit to each other in relationship.

Three congregations have left MC Manitoba in the last few years, with a fourth considering departure. An area church meeting Jan. 12 at Fort Garry Mennonite Fellowship was marked by confrontational conversation during open-mic time discussing LGBT people.

The board’s statement suggests congregations continue studying same-sex marriage for three years, knowing there are different understandings among the 45 congregations.

“We now let the issue of same-sex marriage rest and commit to coming together in three years to share how the Spirit has moved in our midst, and at that time to determine if our decisions have been a nudging of the Spirit,” it concluded.

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