While Mennonites in Canada enjoy an era of economic abundance, less and less of that wealth is trickling down to the area and national churches.
Last year, combined donations to Mennonite Church Canada and the five area churches—B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Eastern Canada—were roughly 75 percent of what they were a decade back, calculated in 2012 dollars. Over the same period, the official membership in MC Canada congregations declined from about 34,000 to around 31,000.
MC Manitoba and MC B.C. fared worst, collecting only 60 percent last year of what came in a decade ago. MC Alberta did the best, bringing in 40 percent more than 10 years ago, although still less than five years ago.
Albertans gave the most per capita, more than $350 per member to the area church and national church combined. MC Manitoba gave the least, at about $175 per capita.
Looking only at amounts congregations allocated to MC Canada, Albertans again were the most generous per capita, while MC B.C. and MC Eastern Canada gave the least.
Overall, the reality is one of slow and steady shrinkage. MC Canada suffered a $237,000 giving shortfall last year. It’s an old story by now.
Willard Metzger, executive director of MC Canada, says his colleagues in other denominations are dealing with the same thing. Five other denominations have struck committees similar to the Future Directions Task Force of MC Canada and the area churches. Their job is to figure out how to adapt to the new realities.
Several factors are contributing to the decline. Metzger says congregations are focusing more on activities in their local context. Also, in our post-Christendom era church as a whole simply does not enjoy the sort of societal prominence it once did, nor the almost automatic loyalty it once garnered.
Competition for donor dollars also contributes to the shrinkage. Between Canadian Mennonite University, Conrad Grebel University College and Mennonite Central Committee offices in Ontario and B.C., the Mennonite donor pool is being asked for nearly $50 million for new buildings.
Metzger says this is a “significant” factor for MC Canada. Some large individual donors have indicated that their substantial contributions to these projects mean they will give less to MC Canada.
Although Metzger did not mention it, competition also comes from countless non-Mennonite organizations, such as World Vision and the American evangelical organizations that have been featured prominently on local radio in southern Manitoba’s Mennonite belt for decades, and which are not shy about asking for money.
Given this context, MC Canada spent $450,000 on fundraising in the past five years, hesitantly joining the growing micro-industry that seeks to cozy up to Mennonite money. Inevitably that means people with money have increased direct access to church leaders. It does not necessarily mean, though, that this is balanced out with increased connection to “the least of these.”
Metzger says he tracks his time carefully, giving attention to youth, young adults, congregations and multicultural segments of the church, as well as the business sector.
The area churches themselves continue to spend relatively small amounts on fundraising.
Despite MC Canada’s move into the realm of open competition for funds, when it comes to money and church institutions, Metzger’s message is markedly different than that of the organizations engaged in capital projects.
By nature, people “accumulate and build,” he says, “and you get to a point at which you have too much. . . . Perhaps God is inviting the church in North America to a time of disencumberment.”
The cultural shift is drawing the church into the “wilderness” and you can’t take everything with you on that journey, according to Metzger, who says, “All the programs we have and all the structures we have” may not be necessary. He acknowledges, though, that this process is “very painful” for church staff, whose jobs are on the line.
He sees this not as a matter of punishment or judgment, but of grace. “Because of God’s mercy, we are forced to do what we know is good for us.” This prevents us from getting “crushed” under the weight of all we have built up.
Metzger is not sure what the church’s adaptation to the new reality will look like. The only certainties are that the new way of doing things will have to be simpler and it will not come quickly. Metzger expects it will be 20 years before we “really see what this new paradigm will look like.”
Part of the task now is to “equip ourselves,” as Metzger says, “for a time of mystery and disorientation.”