The future is now

Taking stock six years into Future Directions

March 13, 2019 | News | Volume 23 Issue 6
Will Braun | Senior Writer
Mennonite places of worship across Canada.

I posed one question to the 186 Mennonite Church Canada congregations for which my search engine found email addresses. My question: “What changes has your congregation experienced as a result of the Future Directions decisions of October 2017?”

The most succinct reply was one word: “None.” End of email. That was also the best summation of the 51 responses I received—mostly from pastors or church council chairs. This can be interpreted as good or bad. 

But first, even people who care about “conference” and went to the assemblies are confused about what was decided. Here’s the recap. In 2012, faced with gradual decline in donations and people in the pews, the Future Directions Task Force was given two questions: “What is God’s Spirit calling us to in the 21st Century? And, what are the best ways—programs, structures, strategies—for the church to thrive and grow?” 

By the time deliberations wrapped up in 2017, MC Canada had been forced to lay off numerous staff. The final decisions formalized this, with a greatly reduced MC Canada—10 staff—making way for a new emphasis on the five area churches, which were renamed regional churches. Now, technically, congregations belong only to the regional churches and donate only to the regional churches, with a portion of money forwarded to MC Canada. Some regional church offices have increased their staff; one did the opposite. 

A significant reduction in international work is also a “future direction.” 

One respondent to my query said Future Directions had “little impact” on her congregation and, to her, this means “the transition process has been successful.” Churches are carrying on despite restructuring. 

But the whole point of Future Directions was that the church critically needed change, both in structure and vision. In the end, the vision piece was a focus on the congregation as the “foundational unit of the church.” The final report talked about revitalizing and energizing congregations through “congregational clustering,” “missional catalyst teams,” and best practices in calling and training leaders. 

In 2016, Keith Regehr told me that, for people in the pew, the main difference of Future Directions would be a closer connection to the regional church. Regehr—a consultant whose firm was paid about $100,000 to assist with the Future Directions process—told me he was excited about the prospect of rejuvenated congregations. 

None of the responses I received spoke about rejuvenation or new vision. Only a few spoke of a closer connection to the regional church.

Other responses

While the dominant response indicated little or no change, there were other comments. A few said their congregation’s primary connection is to the regional church and that will continue. Some said they are focused on their mission, not denominational structures. Some conflated Future Directions with the largely simultaneous Becoming a Faithful Church process that centred around same-sex questions. A few said they don’t know what Future Directions is about. Some said it was a “waste of time,” bogged down by “wordiness” that left most people behind, or simply “irrelevant.”

Some praised new communications staff in Alberta and B.C. In an interview, Ryan Siemens, executive minister for MC Saskatchewan, said staff from the five regional churches are working together more regularly and meaningfully in the new reality.

International Witness

Several respondents expressed concern about International Witness work. This raises the largest remaining question about Future Directions: “As MC Canada’s direct support for Witness workers declines, will individuals and congregations take up the slack?”

Over the past year, four International Witness families completed their terms. According to Jason Martin, director of International Witness for MC Canada, these workers will not be replaced. That leaves 11 Witness workers serving in China, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, the United Kingdom and Vietnam.

Essentially, this is the new normal, at least if Witness workers can raise at least 50 percent of their funding. MC Canada has announced a three-year transitional plan, during which time Witness workers will be “enabled to achieve the necessary relational funding,” money that workers raise themselves, with the help of regional church staff and Witness Support Teams (groups of five to eight volunteers from one or more congregations, as identified by Witness workers). 

The International Witness Working Group had recommended that Witness workers not be required to raise their own funds, as no other national or regional staffers are asked to do so. 

The Working Group also referred to a study that found that between 2005 and 2010 only 4.5 percent of congregational giving among MC Canada churches found its way beyond Canadian boundaries. The vast majority was spent on things that benefit church members. 

Martin says that “at least 10” new partnerships between congregations and Witness workers have developed, although no Witness Support Teams are as yet in place. A manual for such teams is forthcoming. Garry Janzen, executive minister of MC B.C., expects it will take some time for the new Witness reality to settle in. 

Meanwhile, as we enter regional church annual-general-meeting (AGM) season, we will get a closer picture of the financial sustainability of the new structure, even if the vision remains obscure. 

One question, many answers

Below are a sampling of responses, in no particular order, to Will Braun’s question: “What changes has your congregation experienced as a result of the Future Directions decisions of October 2017?” Respondents were granted anonymity.

  • We have seen next to no change that would be noticed in the pew.
  • MC Eastern Canada is now more directly involved in "overseas mission," as some of our newer immigrant congregations are returning directly to their countries of origin in shorter-term initiatives.
  • I have missed regular emails from MC Canada, including our executive director's regular musings.
  • I would say that our congregation has not experienced any changes as a result of the Future Directions decisions.
  • Probably the biggest change we have seen is increased attention to the regional church news/information. It took a little while to get communications sorted out, but [the communications person] has done a stellar job of taking initiative and working hard to connect the churches. It has been really heartening!
  • We have not experienced any changes that I can put my finger on.
  • I think the basic outcome of these changes is confusion. . . . While there is still good belief in, and support for, the working of the church, there is an increasing distance from the ways and movements out of ongoing imprecise directions. Greater communication is definitely needed to rebuild identity and direction of who we want to be.
  • The appointment of Kevin Barkowsky as communications coordinator and church engagement minister [for MC B.C.] has meant that our congregation's leadership receives weekly emails from him about regional and national events. This inspired our congregational coordinator to send a weekly email to all in our congregation, including relevant news items from Kevin's communications and from other sources, resulting in our congregation becoming more informed than only having items in the bulletin, because the weekly emails reach everyone, whether they attend a particular Sunday or not. Kevin sometimes attends the regional pastors meetings, strengthening the communication back to him.
  • I would be surprised if 50 percent of our church knew what the old national church structure was, and how and why it has changed. The reality is that we have always valued our connection to the wider church, but we have not been as invested in being a part of the decision-making and programming of the larger body.
  • I think there is general confusion about what [MC Canada] does and how we connect with it. I am personally confused about what is going to happen with our Witness program. I was sad to see how much it shrunk.
  • I am skeptical about the gathering in Abbotsford and wonder if people will show up.
  • I feel like we have lost a lot and are at a stage of uncertainty, which feels uncomfortable. But I am also hopeful that something new will emerge.
  • Anticipating that building or maintaining relationships across the country may be more challenging with the changes of the Future Directions decision, in 2018 we invited a pastor from B.C. to be a part of our AGM (via video).
  • Our congregation feels as though it is in a bit of "wait and see" position with regards to MC Canada. Our congregation continues to value the programs and resources that are associated with MC Canada, and want to be sure to continue to support the good work that is being done. At the same time, they are also concerned with what feels like a lack of a comprehensive plan or sense of direction for MC Canada.
  • Many people have not noticed a difference since the decisions made in Oct. 2017. Some needed to be reminded of what the decision had been. [One] person was pleased with the prayer requests and announcements provided by the regional church office.
  • As far as I can perceive, we have not experienced any significant changes. Being a little bit removed from other conference churches because of distance, we haven't always been involved in what the national or provincial conference is doing with regards to participation in programs or outreach.
  • We are small and at a distance from any other Mennonite church, and seem to matter very little to (the regional church) except when a pastoral changeover takes place.
  • We have experienced very little change directly. Some congregants remain concerned about the Witness program and the ability of the national church to have a united voice. There have been a few questions as to why we can’t send delegates to the 2019 Gathering. In general, though, because of our strong connections to (the regional church), the changes have had little perceptible impact.
  • The decisions made at Future Directions are hardly ever (could say virtually never) apparent at our congregational level. We are, and want to be, a conference church, but this change has not changed anything in our church setting.
  • We maintained the same conference budget but, rather than splitting between MC Manitoba and MC Canada, we now send it all to MC Manitoba, recognizing that they will pass a portion on to MC Canada.
  • I would say we’ve experienced nothing detrimental in the shifts that have happened with the Future Directions decisions. In fact, receiving communication through our regional church about MC Canada programs/initiatives (e.g. Indigenous-Settler Relations) has seemed more efficient, less cumbersome and has been experienced as a positive change.
  • For us, Future Directions doesn’t mean much.
  • I am unaware of any changes in our congregation related to the decisions of October 2017. We are part of MC Eastern Canada, so our first call has always been to our area church office anyway.
  • The other change is the disappearance of the Formation department. We depended on this area for Advent/Lent recourses (and much more over the years). Now, some material from previous years is being recycled . . . but for how long? And will someone at some point say that we need someone to be resourcing the church on a nationwide perspective again?
  • When we have “Witness worker support groups” raising money from congregants outside of the church’s budget, will giving to the church budget decrease? This is a struggle for us already when our schools and Mennonite Central Committee, etc., actively fundraise like this.
  • I am a new pastor (six months), but have never heard of the Future Directions decision.
  • I would say the Future Directions decisions don't feel like they've had much impact upon the life of our congregation, except perhaps that they've caused us to have more conversation about what MC Canada is.
  • There was some grieving and protest to the loss of a close national identity and relationship. We also miss the support and communication we once received from the “higher” level granted to MC Canada. Since then . . . we have become more congregational/more individualistic as a church. I think this is very sad.
  • Conference giving can feel like a big black hole and communication/stories regarding the ministries this supports would be very helpful!
  • I'm not sure how this has affected us.
  • I feel hopeful about the Future Directions decisions. It feels like an active step to address current conditions. I think it may help to connect local churches with a wider mission, but through provincial contacts rather than national connections, which naturally feel more distant. I believe it will take time to develop, though.
  • No matter what the conference says or does, [our congregation] will always be Mennonite, even in the face of bad theology and wasting financial resources at the conference level. It has dropped its financial support considerably due to this and the BFC Anti-Christ decisions.
  • The executive of MC Alberta has made a determined effort to improve communications with the members. For members who have signed up, the newsletter is now emailed out and a communications staffer has been hired.
  • I think it’s fair to say that our congregation has not experienced any changes as a result of the Future Directions decisions. Our main “conference” connection has been with MC Eastern Canada, and this has continued as before, maybe with a little more info about Witness workers, but most people would not notice this. (We don’t have a direct partnership with any Witness workers.) Our donation patterns to MC Eastern Canada—with portion going to MC Canada—have not changed. 
  • Our congregation has likely not experienced perceptible changes as a result of the Future Directions decision. However, as leadership ,we have become more deliberate about promoting awareness about MC Canada's presence, since the restructuring seems to have eliminated much of the direct communication to congregations.
  • For our congregation, I don't feel like the Future Directions has made a significant impact. I think the ideas and themes brought forward were important and, in many ways, seemed necessary. But, for a smaller congregation like us, the questions of making the budget, of filling the pulpit and finding people to clean the church feel much more pressing. It's hard to reach for the big ideas and steer towards new dreams when the carpets need to be cleaned and the cold weather keeps many people at home. Am I saying that Future Directions didn't matter? No, it absolutely did. But I think its impacts might not be so evident in the smaller, rural churches.
  • As far as I can tell, the Future Directions decisions have had little impact on my congregation, for which I am grateful. To me, this means the transition has been successful.
  • We are grateful for the gift of our denomination. However, we also feel that the enormous amount of work and energy that went into Future Directions was misplaced. So we decided to stay focused on our mission (God's mission) of  . . . offering hospitality to all as our way of making God look good to our neighbours.
  • [Future Directions] is not our focus or current issue in our ministry. Our focus is the expansion of God's kingdom (mainly in mission) and sharing the love of God to the needy.
  • People have some uncertainty and they want to be informed.
  • Where does the money go?

See also the editorial, “Are we there yet?”

Further reading:
Overwhelming vote in favour of new MC Canada structure
Delegates affirm Covenant and Operating Agreement
All International Witness workers being recalled next June
Is it a financial plan or a budget?
Communicating priorities
Staff transitions at MC Canada in the wake of Special Assembly 2017
Is Future Directions a First-World problem?
Future Directions dream

Mennonite places of worship across Canada.

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Comments

I read Will Braun's article with great sadness.

Our current cadre of AMBS-CMU-CGC graduates that populate in majority positions of responsibility in our conference structures, have no lasting positive contribution through the Future Directions process.... save that they remain employed in a withering church community.

The simple commentary as recorded is a withering critique of irrelevancy.

After so very much coin and conversation expended, to have congregations respond with "none" speaks clearly, loudly and with gravitas the dilemma we are in. Is anyone listening?

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