We are a group of pastors from each of the five area churches who have gathered around the current Future Directions Task Force conversations in an effort to understand and respond together. We write as younger pastoral leaders with hopes for many years yet in service to the Mennonite church in Canada, and so with a significant stake in this ongoing process. We would like to offer the following reflections, encouragements and prayers for our shared family of faith.
At the heart of our shared concern is the recognition that we have all observed expressions of mistrust, or even woundedness, in this process. We have each been part of conversations in our various local settings that circle around themes of trust, transparency and confidence. These conversations seem to reflect a fracture between congregations and area/national church leaders. Our concern is that the Future Directions process has exposed fractures or even initiated them. However it has happened, the unfolding of the Future Directions process cannot be characterized by trust and mutuality within the body. In some circles, in fact, trust has been significantly eroded.
As pastors, we recognize that we have not always contributed well to good communication. We have struggled to bring the activities and realities of our denominational bodies into our local settings. We have not always shared a compelling vision for our life together as a broader faith community. And we recognize that much responsibility lies with the individuals in our congregations as well. Many of our congregants simply are not invested beyond our own congregations or are perhaps over-invested in a model that is no longer viable.
And yet we also lament a lack of pastoral sensitivity in the way that the Future Directions process was developed and led. Many groups felt unheard—even when they were asked for feedback—in the feedback they offered, while others felt manipulated and pressured in the decision-making process. Some have experienced a sense of “spin” from leaders who have tried to put everything in the most positive light possible. While we do understand the challenges and constraints of the process, we also long to hear some sense of lament from our leaders for places where there have been oversights or missteps, or to simply help us understand some of the inevitable conflicts. We sense a growing divide between the local congregation and our national church, and thus call for more pastoral sensitivity from our church leaders when addressing these realities.
While we acknowledge that this process should not be shrouded in lament, we do name lament and confession as an important posture in this time of change. We encourage some avenue for corporate lament, including from our leaders at Assembly 2016 in Saskatoon, as a step in the direction of healing and reconciliation.
On questions of transparency and accountability, we also have some practical suggestions. We understand that there has been conversation regarding the development of a listening group in the transition process. We strongly affirm this direction as a healthy mechanism for transparency and accountability. We also see this listening group as integral to keeping present to us the questions and concerns of those often absent in the formal paid and unpaid leadership structures of the church. We identify the need for this group to reflect the voices of our Witness workers (indigenous and international), new Canadian/non-white congregations, youth/young adults, and lesbian/gay/ bisexual/transgender/queer (LGBTQ) members and adherents. We also call for this group to reflect the theological diversity in our congregations and to aim for good gender balance. It is our hope that such a group would aid in addressing questions of accountability and transparency while hopefully nurturing trust in leaders and the process.
Further, we understand that key leadership in the transition process will be taken up by area church moderators in some form of interim council. Given the lack of diversity in this group, we recommend the addition of a few “at large” members who can provide additional perspective.
Finally, we recognize that questions of triumphalism, homophobia, racism, sexism and other abuses are not named at any point in this process. However, given that any organization is an organization of power, we insist that present and possible abuses of power be identified and addressed in the transition process. Institutions are, by nature, conservative, and so we confess that the church, as an institution, has often responded with hostility to groups and individuals that do not fit its beliefs or practices. We see our calling to address these systemic abuses as part of the peacebuilding work of the church, much like the “Undoing sexism” and “Undoing racism” initiatives within Mennonite Church U.S.A. We can see in retrospect how such attention would have benefited the Being a Faithful Church (BFC) process regarding who was included in the formal levels of discernment and decision-making.
We affirm that the future of the church needs to be accountable to, and informed by, those inheriting the church structure. In light of the BFC recommendations, we also ask that space be made in any transitional structures for LGBTQ members, as well as representation from those groups noted above. We see this kind of major change to our church structures as an opportunity to ensure that they reflect our attentiveness to the marginal and vulnerable believers in our midst.
Lingering questions remain about how we will continue to express ourselves as a national body. The current proposal will see more work done by area and national church staff. We understand that these individuals will still be accountable to area and national boards. We also acknowledge that there have been various conversations around the development of national gatherings focussed on study and worship. We affirm the need for such gatherings but we also name that this remains an area of ambiguity. How will our larger vision and shared documents be developed and approved responsibly within an ecclesiology that encourages strong congregational and individual engagement? In the midst of these questions we acknowledge that we will need to let go of some expectations and opportunities once afforded to us by a larger structure.
We confess some uneasiness and an inability to clearly see the vision and processes of our national body. We call for greater care, attention and clarity to be given to these questions.
We acknowledge that the Future Directions Task Force has worked under considerable constraints of time and resources. Additional constraints have been imposed by the constituency through expectations that are either contradictory or impossible to fulfill.
We commit to refrain from placing unrealistic or unhelpful expectations on the Task Force and on the transitional structures of the coming years, in whatever form they take.
Despite some difficult and disconcerting experiences in this process, we do also celebrate and give thanks for the various conversations and connections that this process has inspired. We give thanks for the Emerging Voices Initiative (EVI) that reflects the vitality of our younger members, even as conventional wisdom insists that youth are less interested in the work of the church. EVI models a helpful and hopeful approach to theological reflection and spiritual practice. We have also been grateful for the connections with each other that have taken place in developing this statement. In the course of the Future Directions process, important questions of faith, church and theology have been brought to the surface.
We give thanks for the life and work of the church, and commit to publicly celebrating and sustaining the conversations that are emerging at this time.
Each one of us carries pastoral concern for the broader Mennonite church alongside that of our own congregations. So, in a spirit of pastoral response, we offer a “Prayer of preparation for Assembly 2016” to help gather God’s people around both the Future Directions and BFC processes as they come to fruition in Saskatoon this summer. We encourage the use of the prayer both personally and congregationally as we prepare to gather as one body of believers in July.
Emmanuel Mennonite Church, Abbotsford, B.C.
Lethbridge Mennonite Church, Alta.
Wildwood Mennonite Church, Saskatoon, Sask
Charleswood Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, Man.
Susie Guenther Loewen
Charleswood Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, Man.
First Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, Man.
Virginia Gerbrandt Richert
Altona Bergthaler Mennonite Church, Man.
Grace Mennonite Church, Steinbach, Man.
Stirling Ave. Mennonite Church, Kitchener, Ont.
St. Jacobs Mennonite Church, St. Jacobs, Ont.
1. What do you envision for the future of Mennonite Church Canada? Where do you see signs of hope?
2. It has been said that today’s individualistic world has less respect for authority than earlier generations. How does that impact the church? The young pastors who put together this letter write, “We sense a growing divide between the local congregation and our national church.” Do you agree? Is mistrust inevitable if congregations don’t feel engaged at the national level?
3. Are you aware of people or organizations who feel they have not been heard in this discussion about restructuring the national church? How important is it to listen to all voices? How can we work at building trust at all levels of the church? Would a listening group with broad representation provide more accountability to the process?
4. Does the “Prayer of preparation for Assembly 2016” speak to you? How could this prayer help with the restructuring discussion? What else could be included? Can you think of examples of how God’s Spirit is “moving in our midst”?
—By Barb Draper