It was a tour to remember: three days, seven venues, spanning Manitoba from east to west.
Recently, Mennonite Church Canada Executive Minister Doug Klassen and I travelled around the province to meet with 45 pastors and other congregational leaders from 24 of our Mennonite Church Manitoba congregations. We wanted to know: How are our congregations and leaders doing? What are their questions and concerns? What challenges do they face? What’s happening in their congregations that brings them joy?
So, we stocked up on goodies to go with the coffee being provided by our hosts, and we hit the road. As we drove, we had our own conversations about the state of the church in Canada and around the world, the challenges and joys in our own work as executive ministers. And we wondered what we would hear from church leaders.
Each conversation had its own tone, reflecting the specific people gathered, the congregations they represented, and the regions in which they lived and ministered. Some were more optimistic about the future of the church, others less so. Some were more informed and enthusiastic about regional and nationwide church ministries, others not so much. Some were focused on the day-to-day tasks of church ministry, while others wanted to discuss cultural trends and theological issues.
There were, however, a few common threads in these conversations. For one, our church leaders have significant concerns about their congregations and the future of the church. There are concerns around the “unsettling and re-settling” that is happening in the Mennonite world (and wider) as conferences, congregations, and pastors realign around particular positions on theological or social issues. There are concerns around cultural shifts we are experiencing related to faith, the institutional church, understandings of community and commitment, and so on. There are ongoing concerns around aging and shrinking congregations.
These together point to deeper, larger concerns we heard often in our conversations: concerns around the unity and viability of the church, both as congregations and as a regional and nationwide church. What will the church look like in 10 years? Even in five years? Can we find our common centre in Jesus, around whom we can continue to gather and worship and serve together despite our differences? Are we able, and willing, to adapt to new ways of being and doing church, ways that are sustainable and life-giving for this generation?
Another common thread in our conversations, then, was the level of deep discernment happening in our congregations. Many of our churches are grappling with big questions. Congregational identity, vision, and mission. Inclusion around gender, sexual, or ethnic diversity. The use of our church buildings, even whether to sell or redevelop. How to reach out to our local community to meet the needs of our neighbours.
Yet despite these concerns and questions, there was another common thread running through our conversations: expressions of joy, even excitement, at what God is doing among us. Doug and I saw faces light up as our church leaders spoke of new initiatives in local mission, ecumenical partnerships in worship and community service, young people being baptized, older folks continuing to grow in their faith, the congregation gathering together for worship in new ways, and more. We heard appreciation for regional church work in supporting pastors and congregations, providing transformative camp experiences, and encouraging meaningful climate action. We heard enthusiasm for national church work around cross-denominational engagement, International Witness, and resourcing through Common Word.
As Doug and I left these meetings, hitting the road for home, our thoughts swirled and our hearts swelled at what we had seen and heard. God is at work among us. Yes, we have some significant challenges, and they are not small ones. Yes, we have some substantial work to do as congregations, as regional churches, and as a nationwide church to respond to these challenges and adapt to changing realities. Yet God has not abandoned us; indeed, God is actively at work among us.
May we have eyes to see the movement of God’s Spirit among us, around us, and beyond us, and may we have the courage to move with God’s Spirit into the future God wants to shape for us as a Mennonite church in Canada.
Michael Pahl is executive minister of Mennonite Church Manitoba. He lives in Winnipeg and can be reached at email@example.com.