‘The signs are clear’

MC Canada leadership discerns a smaller church system

March 30, 2011 | God at work in the Church | Number 7
By Dan Dyck | Mennonite Church Canada

Mennonite Church Canada leaders spent much of their spring leadership assembly last month preparing for a smaller national church structure in the near future.

“We have done all the tweaking we can do to provide sustainable programming within our current income level,” says general secretary Willard Metzger. “The signs are clear.”

He was referring to a seven-year downward trend in donation revenue that shows “no clear signs of positive change in the near future,” citing economic realities of the last three years as one contributor to the downward trend.

The discussions focused on program and staffing reductions for the fiscal year 2012-13, with an eye to focusing on the essential work of a national church. Specific programs or personnel have not yet been identified for reduction, he says.

“What we do know is that to remain viable, we have to reduce our budget by approximately $500,000 from present levels for 2012-13,” Metzger says. This means that reductions and the associated costs of severance will occur within the current fiscal year with the goal of beginning Feb. 1, 2012, with the smaller system, he explains.

Leadership and executive staff have scheduled several meetings in the coming weeks to strategically discern what a new future might look like. The General Board will review a draft plan for reductions at its mid-April meeting.

It’s a composite, complex situation to communicate, acknowledges moderator Andrew Reesor-McDowell. MC Canada staff has always done its budgeting and spending carefully, and even more so in recent years, cautiously under-expending near year-end in preparation for potential income shortfalls, he notes.

“Staff have delayed filling vacant positions; they are increasingly working with part-time support staff; and have kept a close watch on hard costs,” says Reesor-McDowell. “But we have reached a point where further tweaking will not support all our current ministries well. We have reached a threshold, a critical point, in our economies of scale.”

A General Board decision, recommended by the Finance Policy and Audit Committee in 2003, dictates that budgets must be designed using the actual donation income from the previous year. This cautious measure has been prudent in light of the long pattern of declining giving, says Reesor-McDowell, but a tipping point has been reached. Unaudited figures show a $193,000 income shortfall for the fiscal year ending Jan. 31 of this year. The shortfall will be covered by a draw on reserves, as has been past practice, but this is an unsustainable pattern for the future, he says.

Matters became further complicated when a General Board staff salary scale review revealed that MC Canada salaries are dropping considerably behind salaries of comparable organizations, making it increasingly difficult to fill vacant positions. This led to a board decision in the fall of 2009 to develop a plan that would gradually bring salaries up to an equitable range—a $340,000 cost over three years—beginning in 2010.

This salary decision has been thoroughly critiqued and discussed, says Reesor-McDowell, adding, though, “It’s not easy to decide to improve salary scales when income continues to decline year over year. There is never a good time to make this correction to compensation, but it needs to be done. The General Board is responsible for looking after the overall long-term health of the national church. Continually underpaying staff over the long-term gradually undervalues the important contribution staff make to the overall life of the church, leads to increased staff turnover, and contributes to the ongoing instability and declining confidence and trust in the national church. We can’t go there. Comparable salary scales are necessary to fill vacancies promptly, and reflects healthy stewardship on behalf of those who serve the church.”

“I deeply believe Mennonite Church Canada is a generous church,” he continues. “We celebrate increased giving to the congregations and church-related ministries. At this time, it looks as though we must create a smaller national structure.”

Is the situation reversible? Yes, says Metzger: “For example, if a thousand people would pledge $1,000 per year for 10 years in additional giving to Mennonite Church Canada, starting this year, we could shortcut this process, begin replenishing reserves, and even begin to imagine growth.”

Metzger also notes that there are things to celebrate. “About 10 years ago, Mennonite Church Canada was one of the first national churches to intentionally restructure itself around a missional paradigm. Area churches and congregations embraced this missional pilgrimage and have grown a stronger capacity for mission in the pews. But I hope that we can also return Mennonite Church Canada to a position of missional strength, so that the church at all levels can be empowered and strengthened.”

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