Formation Council recommends approval of MPN/Third Way merger

Despite expressing feelings of being blindsided by the proposed deal

November 10, 2010 | God at work in the Church | Number 22
By Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

More than a week after meeting with Mennonite Publishing Network (MPN) and Third Way Media reps to discuss a proposed merger of the two organizations, Mennonite Church Canada’s Formation Council has agreed to recommend to the denomination’s General Board that the merger be ratified.

“We think the merger . . . makes good sense, and there is a lot of good will on our part for it,” said David Bergen, executive secretary of Christian Formation, in a joint MC Canada/MPN announcement released on Oct. 29.

In the same announcement, MC Canada moderator Andrew Reesor-McDowell said he will ask the General Board to respond to the Formation Council recommendation as soon as possible. “The case for merger appears to make sense and appears to be a positive approach with potential synergies,” he said, adding, “We value the work of MPN.”

The joint announcement was much more upbeat than discussion during a day of frank talks at Hidden Acres Campground on Oct. 19, when the 10-member Formation Council, chaired by Lisa Carr-Pries, associate pastor at Waterloo North Mennonite Church, met with MPN board chair Phil Bontrager, MPN executive director Ron Rempel, and Third Way Media interim director Sheri Hartzler, to discuss the dislocation of staff losing their jobs, a feeling of being blindsided about the decision and grief over the possibility of losing MPN’s office in Waterloo, Ont. Also uncertain was the financial viability of going forward.

“If we don’t go along with the decision, it makes us [Canadians] look like spoilers, and that doesn’t feel good,” said Conrad Grebel University College professor Tom Yoder Neufeld, a member of the Formation Council, reflecting the sentiments of the Canadians who appeared caught in a conundrum of feeling positive about the synergies in producing new media while feeling “out of the loop” in the decision-making process.

“MPN has a history of working and producing binationally, but Third Way doesn’t,” he further elaborated.

To have the new entity located in Harrisonburg, Va., with a yet-to-be-named chief executive officer and the impending retirement of Rempel, a Canadian, gave council members considerable pause about how much the new media products would reflect Canadian culture and theology.

“It will be far enough removed as to be off our radar,” speculated Pauline Steinmann from Saskatchewan.

Responding to their trepidation, Bontrager admitted that the process of shaping a new organization will not only be “clumsy” but also complex. At the same time he assured the council that the MPN board will “reach out intentionally” to make Canada feel ownership, a move he said will have to be “nuanced” to satisfy all stakeholders. He was firm, though, that the present composition of the MPN board—three Canadians and five Americans—will remain in place for the new media entity.

From some of his other work binationally, Campbell Nisbet from Ontario said this kind of proportion in governance “tends to weaken the contribution of the minority and goes in the ‘dominant’ direction.” He called for an effort to tap the “creativity of Canada” by the new media entity.

“I find that rather inflexible stand [on board composition] a little concerning,” said Carr-Pries in processing the proposal with Formation Council members following the MPN/Third Way dialogue.

Vic Thiessen, executive secretary of MC Canada’s support services, wanted to know, “Will there be a Canadian hired for the staff in Harrisonburg?”

To which Hartzler responded, “We hadn’t thought of that.”

Reviewing the financial structures of the merging media organizations, Earl Reimer, who represents MC Canada’s General Board on the Formation Council, asked about their physical assets and who is holding title to the real estate.

The empty building at Scottdale, Pa., “is on the books at an appraised value of $600,000 [all figures in US dollars],” reported Rempel, but with a slow real estate market and its location in the rural western Pennsylvania community, “we will take almost anything for it!” He said the MPN board has been authorized to accept offers.

Third Way Media has a building in Harrisonburg that house a studio and warehouse with half of its space occupied by staff. It is owned by Mennonite Mission Network (MMN) with a market value of $1 million, according to Lowell Hertzler, who said title will pass to the new owner of the merged organization. “It is ideal space for producing and distributing products of the new organization,” she said.

In the current fiscal year, MPN expects revenues of about $3.2 million from the sale of books, curricula and other items, an estimated 17 percent of which is Canadian sales, while Third Way Media expects just over $532,000 from grants, donations and sales. In 2009, MPN reported a budget shortfall of approximately $149,000.

Since Third Way Media has been an MMN department for more than 50 years, MMN has pledged $194,000 a year for the new organization to facilitate the integration, especially during the first five years.

The integration of the two organizations was approved on Sept. 23 by the boards of MPN and MMN, at a meeting in Pittsburgh, Pa. The approval is subject to the affirmation of MC Canada, part-owner of MPN, and ratification of the MC U.S.A. Executive Board.

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