Canadians need stake in new media merger

October 27, 2010 | Editorial | Number 21
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

Canadians have every right to ask questions about the merger of Mennonite Publishing Network (MPN), with offices in Waterloo, Ont., and Scottdale, Pa., and Third Way Media, located in Harrisonburg, Va.

It is not that anyone is against the creation of a “dynamic, innovative, fully integrated multimedia” enterprise (the “spin” courtesy of an MPN/Third Way press release) combining the expertise and resources of an historic publishing arm of the binational Mennonite church with that of a U.S. based electronic media ministry.

Nor is anyone here opposed to both struggling organizations finding their legs in a fast-moving information age.

It is that bringing the two North American bodies together—one more than three times the size of the other (855 congregations in the U.S. to 230 in Canada)—brings to mind former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s apt metaphor that living next to the U.S. feels like “sleeping with an elephant.”

The back story here is important and should be a part of the deliberations. It shouldn’t be forgotten that only eight years ago MPN had to be rescued from near-bankruptcy by a series of restructuring moves, several paid consultants and a “barn-raising” fundraising effort to pay off $2.4 million worth of debenture notes from individuals, congregations and denominational agencies.

 And while Ron Rempel, the present executive director, his board and staff have given the new publishing entity financial stability in the last half-decade, it had a budget shortfall this year of $149,000. Collateral assets are not strong, given an empty printing facility in Scottdale with a dubious market value of less than $200,000. And Rempel is retiring next summer.

Third Way Media, likewise, is not in a strong financial position. Supported almost entirely by $500,000 in annual funding from Mennonite Mission Network, Elkhart, Ind., over recent years, it has now been cut back to $194,000 per year for the next five years due to declining overall support for missions efforts in the U.S.

Historically, Third Way Media was a resource to congregations attempting to self-identify Anabaptist core beliefs at the community level and, more recently, produced television documentaries on the themes of peacemaking, forgiveness, mental health and now Christian-Muslim relations for the national U.S. TV, none of which provided self-sustaining income. The organization is under the direction of interim co-directors Sheri Hartzler and Lowell Hertzler, after Burton Buller, with Canadian roots, recently resigned.

Which is to say, this new merger brings neither the strength of financial resources nor in-place leadership. The proposal on the table now calls for a new CEO to be named for the new organization located in Harrisonburg, which does have a valuable asset in the form of a building that has a sound studio and warehouse space valued at $1 million.

At the more subjective level, it must be acknowledged by our U.S. counterpart, that old feelings don’t die easily. There are still echoes of resentment about what was then Mennonite Publishing House’s closing of the Kitchener, Ont., Provident bookstore in the late 1980s, in a move to economize by getting out of the bookstore business.

And with the denominational merger in 2002 of the General Conference (GC) and Mennonite Church Canada and MC U.S.A. and the ensuing closing of the GC-sponsored Faith and Life Publishing in Newton, Kan., much of the Russian Mennonite interest in, and purchasing of, church curricula/books/DVDs from the newly-formed MPN diminished.

In light of these historical perspectives, MC Canada, through its Formation Council recommendation on the new merger, should ask for no less than significant input as to who is the new CEO for the new Harrisonburg entity, to insist that one of the staff be Canadian, to set up a structure where the intellectual resources (writers/media producers) of our Canadian Mennonite universities (Conrad Grebel, Waterloo, Ont.; Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Man.;, and Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, B.C.) are intentionally tapped and used in the production of new media.

And the formation of a new governing board would be a good idea, rather than keeping the present MPN board in place.

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