Substance over glitz


September 9, 2020 | Editorial | Volume 24 Issue 19
Tobi Thiessen | Publisher
Jon Lebold seals a Mennonite Central Committee relief kit with the help of his son, Jed Lebold. 'Mennonite agencies like MCC and others have found ways to serve people in critical need for a century,' Tobi Thiessen writes. 'They do it with little glitz but a lot of substance.' (Photo courtesy of

While public conversation swirled in July over the details of WE Charity’s speaker fees and all-expenses-paid trips for donors, my church was having a sermon series on Mennonite Central Committee’s 100 years of service in the name Christ.

Over several weeks, church members who had volunteered with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Canada and around the world spoke about their experiences, why they felt called to serve and what they did while on assignment. Some weeks, we had guest speakers who currently work for MCC. Each Sunday, we had a glimpse into some aspect of MCC’s programs for relief, development, justice and peace. We heard about the positive impact these programs made on people in communities. We heard that even small-scale, low-budget programs can bring about major improvements in people’s daily lives.

Such a sermon series could also be done with stories from people who serve with other Mennonite agencies like Mennonite Church Canada Witness, Mennonite Disaster Service or Christian Peacemaker Teams, among others. These agencies are all founded on common values. They do needed work with simplicity and humility.

Doing voluntary service is something that is close to the Mennonite heart. Those of us who haven’t done an extensive term of service, often volunteer in our churches and at events to raise money for Mennonite agencies. And beyond our gifts of time and energy, we offer direct financial support. Mennonite agencies are the strong arms of our church body, as Doug Klassen, MC Canada’s executive minister, observed in the Feb.12 issue of this magazine (“A call to strengthen our core”). They have done much good work around the world. We identify strongly with their missions and we are glad to help them carry them out. 

When the public scrutinizes secular charitable practices, such as WE’s staging of glitzy events to motivate students to do fundraising, Mennonites might look at how we manage our charities and what motivates us. All charities, Mennonite included, face the challenge of mobilizing volunteers and donors to support their missions. How do we motivate our supporters and volunteers?

Anyone who has been on a voluntary-service assignment, and anyone who has been to a typical fundraising event for one of our beloved agencies, knows that glitz is not our style. Still, when donor dollars start to flag, or when needs outweigh available resources, some may wonder if our more-with-less approach is outdated, and whether more glitz would work better. (Frankly, we get the same tension in this magazine, when some wonder if we would get more subscribers if we used better paper.)

As Mennonites, we are motivated particularly by scripture passages such as Matthew 25:31-40, where Jesus says that serving other people in need is tantamount to serving Jesus himself. Menno Simons gave the passage prominence when he wrote in 1539: “True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant. It clothes the naked, it feeds the hungry, it comforts the sorrowful, it shelters the destitute, it serves those that harm it, it binds up that which is wounded, it has become all things to all people.” Mennonites are motivated to serve because to do so is a way of showing love for God.

Mennonites offer our time and our money to the service of others as a basic part of our discipleship. We serve others in the name of Christ. Historically, no additional motivation was necessary. 

In this issue, we present a Focus on Money section, with the feature article, “Selling generosity” by Darren Pries-Klassen, chief executive officer of Abundance Canada. Pries-Klassen writes that people often need encouragement to be generous. If they have been making donations out of a sense of duty, they will not stay motivated for long. 

Pries-Klassen points out that the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” in our society, making it clear that there are needs waiting to be met and injustices waiting to be addressed. “As painful as this pandemic continues to be, it is also a chance for us to step up and be better than we were,” he concludes.

Mennonite agencies like MCC and others have found ways to serve people in critical need for a century. They do it with little glitz but a lot of substance. Now here is a pandemic around us where we see more needs. Let’s continue to respond to the call to serve, and let’s do it gladly, in the name of Christ.

Related story:
12 organizations worth recognizing during Mennonite Heritage Week

Read more editorials:
Together, in song
Potluck faith
Shattering spears and bows
A COVID-19 commandment
Reading, watching, listening: A buffet

Jon Lebold seals a Mennonite Central Committee relief kit with the help of his son, Jed Lebold. 'Mennonite agencies like MCC and others have found ways to serve people in critical need for a century,' Tobi Thiessen writes. 'They do it with little glitz but a lot of substance.' (Photo courtesy of

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In the CM editorial "Substance over Glitz" the difference between MCC and We is defined as substance over glitz. Perhaps that difference is more appearance than fact.

Both charities are utilized by the Canadian government to deliver Canadian government program priorities. MCC last year gained some 9 million in subsidies from the Canadian Government for its work, in the neighborhood of 10% of its budget. The question may be asked, does this mean MCC priorities and Canadian government priorities align, and is this problematic or not? A question of substance, not glitz?

The We charity is closing its doors in Canada, but the equity We founders (Kielburgers) hold remains?

Will MCC also curtail its activities if donations decline? Or will its social enterprise -thrift stores- make up the difference in anticipated donaton revenue decline? We don't know. Time will tell.

The parallels that link MCC and We are more substantial upon investigation than first seems apparent. When one adds the Federal government subsidy to the Canadian Mennonite (257 thousand 2019 Annual Report), and CFGB and MEDA, one has an emerging picture that is both ironic and troubling.

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