“We know that the North American context and culture, and Christianity within it, is in the midst of immense change. Conversations with and feedback from hundreds of our constituents across Canada these past two years shows broad understanding that old assumptions about the place of church in society have changed.”
Thus opens the final report of the Future Directions Task Force sent out to congregations last month. This momentous assignment, chaired by Aldred Neufeldt of Toronto, assistant moderator of Mennonite Church Canada, and assisted by seven persons in leadership, including pastors, leaders from area churches and a retired university president, placed enormous responsibility on a small but representative group, to ascertain the state of national, provincial and congregational conditions across a whole country.
They could have been overwhelmed to presume to know all of the dynamics of this change in more than 220 congregations scattered across the country, all with different cultures and histories of their own. But they rose to the task, doing their research, visiting congregations, engaging persons from the pulpit to the pew, talking to church partners across the spectrum of our church life that encompasses leadership development, our global witness, schools and universities, camping ministries and communication.
In reading the report, one gets a bird’s eye view of just how far-reaching and accomplished we have been as a small denomination and how complex, despite our attempts to keep things simple and workable, our structures have become. Therein lies the conundrum. It is no coincidence that this final report is coming to us at the same time MC Canada announces a $300,000 shortfall in donations that triggered five staff layoffs.
Indeed the coming together of these two events represents a cautionary tale. Which one is driving the other? Our discernment of these Future Directions findings and recommendations could be much more sound and wise if we didn’t have the financial pressure to “do something” with all haste so that we can keep our entire faith system intact. When you are hastily changing any system—religious or otherwise—your judgment can be tainted and your vision blurred.
FD is placing huge new responsibilities on the local congregation, for instance, expecting it to pick up the larger functions of leadership development and global witness that were MC Canada’s. This is to be done through what they call a “cluster of congregations” under the direction of an “executive minister” assigned to work with these clusters.
Our sense is that local congregations, already challenged with expanded programs in faith formation with larger staffs working with children and youth, outreach in their communities, elder care and taking in refugee families, have their budget and staff stretched and will not welcome new responsibilities of a “cluster.”
The recommendation to move our global Witness program to “short-term assignments” is meeting resistance from all 24 Witness workers around the world. They have sent a lengthy letter to the Task Force and to MC Canada, questioning this move. The workers have worked long and hard to develop relationships with their partners in national churches and with colleagues from other mission agencies, all with a high consciousness of avoiding colonialism in their attitudes and efforts. These dynamics are not created overnight, they say; short-term workers would not have that perspective.
Besides, they lament, none of the 24 workers were consulted by members of the FDTF, in formulating this recommendation. They are asking for more time and conversation before making such a move.
In the area of communication, the Task Force is recommending that, rather than depending on national and international agencies to provide curricula and worship resources, the responsibility should shift mostly, again, to the local congregation, using social media and the internet, even producing their own videos.
That’s a grand idea but falls short, again, of the reality of most congregations. In our work with our own correspondents at the provincial level, we at Canadian Mennonite have a fairly good grasp of the capabilities and communication tools of the local congregation. To think they will pick up this function is a stretch.
FDTF also names Canadian Mennonite in this list of communication resources and questions its “independent status” role. This highlights an old and ongoing tension within the denomination, one that we have repeatedly said is an important stance to keep our constituency objectively informed. We do not see this publication as a propaganda piece or as a cheerleader for the institutions.