Prospects for an intense conversation on several issues appear to be gaining traction for our upcoming assembly in Saskatoon in July.
The agenda features the conclusion of the Being a Faithful Church (BFC) process after seven years of discernment. And many delegates will come with serious questions about the Future Directions Task Force recommendations. The conversation at the area church level has already been rigorous around these recommendations, sent out to the congregations with only a six-month window for discernment.
One example is the feature-length open letter from 10 young pastors across the country, who observe “expressions of mistrust, or even woundedness” in this process, saying that the unfolding of the Future Directions process has significantly eroded the trust between congregations and area/national church leaders.
On the more positive side, there is the proposal for Mennonite Church Canada to enter into a five-year dialogue with the Anglican Church of Canada, an initiative coming from the Anglicans to partner with a “church on the margins” that might help change their own identity as a “church of empire.” They want to participate in our long-held belief in peace and justice in exchange for liturgical gifts they offer to enrich our worship.
That might be a wonderful distraction from the angst sure to be a part of the BFC discussions, especially around the issue of sexuality, and to give us some confidence in our future as a church amid the differences around restructuring.
There is a lot of concern about what will happen to our international Witness program, with a basic question as to what will become of our Witness workers around the globe and their relationship to local partners. There is serious doubt that persons doing short-term mission assignments in these places will understand the local culture in enough depth to be as effective as our MC Canada workers.
These and other issues portend a heavy agenda for the five-day gathering. It could be a daunting experience unless we prepare our hearts and minds to process these issues with a liberal dose of joy, grace and courage. We could be overwhelmed unless we are determined ahead of time to pull together despite our differences.
Let us suggest some rules of engagement:
- Let us pray for an attitude that not all is doom and gloom. Palmer Becker suggested to us that we should try harder at making this biennial event more of a celebration, a telling of good news and success stories from congregations as to how God is working to produce the good fruits of the Spirit among us.
- Let our disagreements be authentic—open and honest, stated clearly without malice or judgment of the “other.” Can we resolve to disagree without being disagreeable? Critique should not be discouraged or diminished by those leading discussions. Rigorous debate from many different viewpoints is necessary to come to sound decisions.
But can we talk with each other without being contentious? Speaking for yourself or your congregation should be everyone’s disclaimer, not exaggerated claims of widely shared viewpoints.
Our denominational leaders should be as forthcoming and honest as possible, avoiding “spin,” which can present too rosy a picture, thus feeding mistrust and cynicism among delegates.
For instance, our national leaders have wanted to downplay the fact that a downward trend in giving to the national church, ending in a $300,000 shortfall in a $3 million budget this past year, is not a major factor in driving a restructuring of the church body. But their claim is also that MC Canada is not “financially sustainable” over the long term and thus should be phased out over the next two years.
In the Future Directions discussions at the local level, national leaders seem to deny that finances are the urgent dynamic behind the restructuring proposal. Further, according to a denominational leader speaking to a Sunday school class, the shortfall is not primarily due to congregations giving less to MC Canada, but gifts from major donors who are not happy with what they perceive as the “left turn” of our theology and practice—such as being pro-Palestinian, the emphasis on creation care and the tendency towards inclusion in the sexuality issue—and are withdrawing their support.
That’s an important detail that should be known to the delegates, especially for the congregations who might be feeling guilty about not giving enough to the denomination.
See another editorial on Assembly 2016: “Speaking with the heart.”