Our Changing Mennonite Church

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This week marks the end of an era. Even though I know many people know nothing about the Mennonite church, I feel the need to write this blog because it's my community. I also think that few people will read through the bundles of paper that explain what's going on, so the more I can do to help them figure out what's going on, the better.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of being a part of the last Mennonite Church Canada National Assembly as we know it. It was a full house, with just under 400 people gathered in Winnipeg to discern the future direction of our church. It was a time bathed in worship, food, and fellowship; and through table discussions, plenary sessions and focus groups, we decided on a new course for our national church.

This was neither a surprise nor a secret. Our church has been undergoing change for several years, and we knew this could no longer be sustainable. In the last 17 years of Mennonite Church Canada, amazing work has been done. We have had wonderful staff who have led the ministry of the church and seen a lot of lives changed as a result.

Mennonite Church Canada has facilitated the gatherings wherein our Mennonite congregations would discern theological issues, celebrate and worship, and do things together that we could never do on our own. We were engaged in Christian formation through our schools and resource development. We were also involved in Indigenous relations and international witness. We worked with churches to connect them to the work of the Kingdom and to train leaders and pastors for the church.

We had a big dream when we amalgamated to form Mennonite Church Canada in 2000. However, after 17 years of holding on to this dream, it became clear that we couldn’t support that kind of structure anymore. Congregations were members of both their area church and the national church. We were giving to, running, and investing in two separate organizations. We sent delegates to both, even though most people in our churches thought that our denomination was one entity. But for many of us who were invested and knew the importance of Mennonite Church Canada, learning to let go was a difficult process.

So where did we go wrong? Why, after only 17 years, did we need to restructure our church? We could name all kinds of reasons why the money simply wasn’t there to run the programs we said we wanted to run. Perhaps it was because of the change in society. We are following the trend of post-Christendom in Canada, where fewer people are identifying as Christians or committing themselves to a church. Maybe we could name our fading trust in institutions. We simply don’t seem to trust people in power to act on our behalf anymore. Or maybe it’s our disagreement on certain theological conversations that has strained, and sometimes split, our relationships.

Whatever the case, when we as churches say we are going to do something, and then are unable or unwilling to follow through with our support, something must change. In this case, the lack of giving has meant we need to revise and restructure what we do as a denomination on the national level.

So that’s what we have been doing for the past 7 years. We have been having conversations and gatherings concerning what this new structure will look like. This past weekend, we voted to modify our bylaws to make that change possible. While the bylaw discussions weren’t the most invigorating, they were guided by hope for a new life and vision for what our churches can be.

In short, we have decided to change the way Mennonite Church Canada functions. It will still exist and do work on our behalf, but whole congregations will no longer be members. Instead, all congregations will only be members of their area churches, and the area churches will form a membership that will covenant together to do national and international work. From now on, everything will flow from the congregation through the area church, eliminating the direct relationship Mennonite Church Canada had with individual congregations.

So what does this mean? Even though this is a simpler structure, the onus is placed on congregations and regional churches to be engaged, connected, and committed to the work to which they are called. It will require more of us to create resources, build relationships, and support work around the world in a more direct way. It will now be up to us to do the work that we want to do together.

There is hope in this new structure. I sense a vision that calls congregations into tighter partnership with each other. I see more people getting involved in international witness and church engagements. I see us sharing more with each other and helping one another in times of crisis. It has potential, so long as we are faithful followers of Jesus.

And yet, as we move forward with this structure, I lament the fact that our lack of commitment and giving has led to the lay-offs of many amazing staff of Mennonite Church Canada. The days following our Assembly were anticipated by our staff for a long time. This week they discovered if there was space for them in our new structure, and for some this meant the end of their time working for the national church.

This week, and in the last few years, we have lost committed and gifted workers of the church. They showed unwavering love and support for the work they did on our behalf, and I grieve this loss with them. As their former colleague, I can speak to their faithfulness, and I find it unfortunate that things unfolded in this manner. I feel that I carry some of that responsibility.

As we change and continue, I pray that God will give us healing, hope, strength, and vision for the future. I pray that we will continue to make Jesus the centre of all we do, that we will take seriously our commitment to one another, and that the work we do will bring reconciliation and peace to us, our communities and to the world.