During a July interview, Rick Cober Bauman—head of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Ontario—spoke with much enthusiasm about the $12-million Menno complex now under construction in Kitchener, Ont. At the end of our conversation he asked whether I found the case for the MCC-led project “compelling.”
His question reminded me of other occasions when the things that excited the heads of Mennonite organizations were entirely outside the realm of what would excite me. At the 2010 MCC Canada board meeting I was genuinely surprised and baffled by the degree of focus and near-enthralment with the internal restructuring elements of the Wineskins process. In past interviews with heads of Mennonite post-secondary institutions their most fervent comments were about building relationships with wealthy donors.
When I compare this to the subjects that evoke the most passion among my circle of Menno peers, I see a troubling discrepancy. I believe in diversity, but still, it feels jarring to realize that those with the power to set agendas have very different agendas than the segment of the church I find myself in.
My reply to Cober Bauman’s question about whether I found the building project compelling was muted—that wasn’t the time for me to hold forth—but If I had responded I would have explained what qualifies as compelling for me:
• Volunteers across the country who support released sex offenders, choosing to see Christ in people often portrayed as scary and disdainful.
• Catholic-Mennonite seminary student Jason Greig who, after 11 years living with people who have intellectual disabilities, seeks to bring the perspective of those people into the realm of theology.
• MCCers Dave and Margaret Penner who work with creativity and care to deepen the faith and improve the lives of Low German-speaking Mennonites in Mexico.
• A new Anabaptist-linked retreat house in Minnesota that brings together social justice, Christian service and contemplative spirituality.
I am compelled to overflowing by these people, who are present to the woundedness of the world in creative, loving and often simple ways.
I could go on with this list, but no matter how long I did it would never include the up-scale new MennoPlex in Kitchener. Nor the million-dollar Wineskins restructuring of MCC, nor other Menno building projects past or present.
I know Cober Bauman and other Mennonite leaders care deeply about the sorts of work I mention above, and I believe organizations deserve investments of time, money and creativity, but when I see leaders get so wrapped up in these internally focused projects, I worry.
Of course, the executive directors would say that institution-building efforts are designed to enable more of exactly the sort of work I list above. The logic of that argument is alluring but not convincing. It is too close to the logic of ends that justify means, of quantity over quality. It is too close to the logic of the business model, the right-side-up kingdom, the tyranny of numbers, the obsession with size and growth. It’s what everyone else is doing. Can’t we contribute something more creative and distinct?
The bigger-better logic also ignores the fact that big projects change the complexion of organizations. The MCC Ontario project, along with MCC B.C.’s $16-million capital project and MCC Canada’s office retrofit, represent a drifting toward affluence. They animate a certain segment of the Mennonite constituency—Cober Bauman says raising money for capital projects is part of the Mennonite ethos—but they alienate another segment.
I’m not certain how large this latter group is but I know it includes some creative, committed, spiritually-rooted people. I call them the creative fringe. Though I can’t attach the above attributes to myself without a string of disclaimers, I more or less associate with this group.
Of course, these folks are generally not affluent so they can be excluded without significant impact to institution-building. But they have other gifts, so organizations that leave them behind do so to their detriment.
A more troubling dynamic is that a move toward affluence makes it harder for MCC to support marginalized people when such support would be controversial among donors. You don’t have to talk to many MCC staff to know that this tension is not merely theoretical. Nor is it new, though the financial pressure of big capital projects amplifies this sensitivity.
Despite its imperfections, I believe MCC remains a great organization. That’s why I hope it doesn’t distance itself from the creative fringe or from the poor.
But my main hope lies outside the big buildings and showy head offices, in the lowly, ragged and unlikely places that the mystery of Christ’s love tends to appear most vividly. Institutions play an important role in church life, but God’s plan is far broader and less logical than capital campaigns and maximized budgets.