Sixty-two executive directors, board chairs and senior staff from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), Mennonite World Conference (MWC) and MCC member churches met for a summit in Akron, Pa., on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. The topic of this rare gathering was MCC’s New Wineskins revisioning process.
Our leaders talked about four things:
- The proportion of MCC boards that must be made up of church conferences appointees (two-thirds).
- Collaborative Program Management for MCC U.S. and MCC Canada as they take over administration of international programming from MCC Binational.
- The shape of the Joint Ministry Council that will connect the newly expanded MCC Canada and MCC U.S. (a joint standing committee of the two boards).
- An affirmation of MCC’s participation in the Global Anabaptist Service Network, an international group of service agencies working towards greater collaboration.
This partially comprehensible list raises a question: How has the $850,000 Wineskins process—which included broad, accessible and participatory public consultations—narrowed to a process that is only intelligible to senior insiders?
The leaders I’ve spoken with say the internal re-organization that dominates the Wineskins process in these latter stages need not be of concern to people in the pew. Neither MCC supporters nor recipients of MCC assistance are likely to notice much change, they say, and few of the 2,000-plus people consulted were interested in re-structuring. Perhaps that’s okay; internal workings can be left to administrators.
But why the consultations then? What did the 2,000 people tell MCC and how is it reflected in the Wineskins outcomes?
I see three links between the consultations and outcomes:
- The first is renewed emphasis on MCC being accountable to overseas stakeholders, although this wasn’t really new and it happened largely via a parallel MWC process.
- Second, people told MCC that its Anabaptist and faith roots are essential. As a result, MCC has strengthened ties with its member churches, or at least with administrators of those churches, like those at the summit. Most notably, they will have more control over MCC board appointments via the two-thirds quota.
- Third, Arli Klassen, MCC Binational director, says the re-organization is guided by values expressed in the consultations.
None of these examples show robust links between the grassroots consultations and Wineskins outcomes. The roughly $400,000 spent on consultants—whose fees hardly fit the more-with-less category—does not seem to have yielded much.
The Wineskins process seems to have been prompted largely by a need to deal with serious internal tensions. Klassen says MCC was “being pulled apart,” and that within 10 years these tensions “could have had a very negative impact.” The agency’s Canadian, American and Binational offices each had different planning frameworks and foundational statements, she says, and the trend was towards greater differences.
Member churches had concerns about whether MCC is, to use Klassen’s words, “an agency of the church,” or “an agency made up of members from the church.”
Cross-border discord was another one of multiple dynamics at play. “These [national] differences shouldn’t matter,” says Herman Bontrager, MCC Binational board chair, but the reality is that part of the Mennonite church is situated within a superpower. Resulting differences, he says, “get into our bone marrow.” Bontrager does not fault one side more than the other.
Klassen says the various national and other tensions have been dealt with. There will be a single MCC strategic plan, a single “brand” and a Joint Ministry Council to hold it together.
These are important developments. Internal matters require effort, and in an organization as exceptionally diverse as MCC, they will require considerable investment. Administrators involved in the process say the restructuring will better enable MCC to carry out its mission. They say the restructuring is very significant, even calling it “exciting.”
But why was a public consultation process awkwardly grafted onto the internal restructuring? What exactly does MCC have to show for the $850,000 (including travel costs) it spent on Wineskins?
The public element of the Wineskins process could have energized the Mennonite community around the urgent needs facing humanity: ongoing disparity, environmental crises, polarization and violence. The consultations could have probed how we can overcome an energy addiction that harms the earth and the poor. They could have engaged us on the matter of conscientiously objecting to consumption of products that fuel resource wars. Our leaders could have held a summit to talk about new ways to apply the best of our faith traditions to the burning needs of the world.
Then, instead of only them being excited, people in the pews—most of whom have long since tuned out—could also have renewed energy for MCC. And perhaps by focusing on larger issues, some of the internal matters would have fallen into place more easily.
Will Braun is a freelance writer and former MCC service worker. He lives in Winnipeg and can be reached at email@example.com.