Mission and identity under construction

June 14, 2010 | Editorial | Number 12
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

Not only is the younger generation, labelled “natives” in my last editorial, holding authority and institutions in less regard, the modality of leadership has also changed in the last half-century. This, too, represents a seismic shift in the perception of our mission and identity as a Mennonite culture.

Binational leadership for our mission and service from the 1950s forward was articulated and administered by very bright, multi-gifted personalities, such as Frank H. Epp, Harold S. Bender, Orie O. Miller, Peter J. Dyck and John Howard Yoder—iconic, bigger-than-life church statesmen who, with the force of their giant intellects and charismatic personalities, led the church in clearly redefining its Anabaptist theology and uniting the scattered Mennonite diaspora around common causes.

In retrospect, as their biographies have emerged, some of these leaders were shown to have had some serious character flaws, perhaps diminishing their legacies somewhat in the eyes of this generation.

Bender, for instance, who defined us better than most with his now famous “Anabaptist Vision,” also possessed a giant ego, according to his biographer, the late Al Keim, and ironically didn’t take kindly to the biting criticism of his brightest disciple, John Howard Yoder. Yoder, leading a group of young theological rebels calling themselves the “Concern Group of Seven” in the early 1950s, was told by Bender, when challenged for his “Zwinglian tendency [defending the religious status quo],” that Yoder and his cohorts were “helping fringe men and movements who are beginning to open up vistas of individualistic action and constitute a disintegrating threat.”

Yoder, who went on to become our most high-profile biblical scholar and ethicist, best-known for his radical Christian pacifism, confessed to allegations of sexual misconduct several years before his death in 1997, submitting to the discipline of the Indiana-Michigan Conference of what is now Mennonite Church USA.

While these personal shortcomings should not detract from these leaders’ brilliant leadership, it has cast a shadow over them and the institutions they helped to shape. The younger generation of Mennonites, although theologically formed by the likes of Bender and Yoder, are not as awed by these institutions as were their elders.

Leadership, at the institutional level, appears to now have shifted from the force of personalities to the force of the corporate model—from the strong voices of a few to the multi-voices of many with specific gifts and expertise. Those who lead our mission and service agencies—colleges and seminaries, Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Economic Development Associates, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and MC Canada Witness and Christian Formation—are no less dedicated than their high-profile predecessors, but are, well, much more low-profile.

This doesn’t mean that our mission and identity has changed substantially. It does mean that congregants, thinking there is the absence of a personal dynamic, find it harder to make a personal connection, and thus reach into their pockets with spontaneous giving and personal identification with the mission.

We, at the congregational level, should take the initiative in getting to know more intimately both the mission and leadership of these multi-voiced, multi-faced partners, and our institutional leaders should make a more compelling case for our common cause. Our mission and identity are one and the same.

Meet your board member

Carl DeGurse of Winnipeg, Man., represents Canadian Mennonite Publishing Service on the publication’s 12-member board. Currently an assignment editor for the Winnipeg Free Press, he has 30 years of experience at small and large newspapers as a reporter, columnist, editor and manager. He is a member of Douglas Mennonite Church, where he is currently a deacon and has taught Sunday school to teenagers for 15 years. Married to Lois Schmidt, they are the parents of three sons: Paul, 20; Thomas, 16; and James, 14. He can be reached at 204-632-7609 or by e-mail at: carl.degurse@freepress.mb.ca.

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