An open letter on Future Directions

June 1, 2016 | Feature | Volume 20 Issue 12
Various Contributors,

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.

Chris Lenshyn
Emmanuel Mennonite Church, Abbotsford, B.C.

Ryan Dueck
Lethbridge Mennonite Church, Alta.

Krista Loewen
Wildwood Mennonite Church, Saskatoon, Sask

Jeff Friesen
Charleswood Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, Man.

Susie Guenther Loewen
Charleswood Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, Man.

David Driedger
First Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, Man.

Virginia Gerbrandt Richert
Altona Bergthaler Mennonite Church, Man.

Kyle Penner
Grace Mennonite Church, Steinbach, Man.

Carrie Martens
Stirling Ave. Mennonite Church, Kitchener, Ont.

Kevin Derksen
St. Jacobs Mennonite Church, St. Jacobs, Ont.

See also Susie Guenther Loewen’s reflections in her blog: “Future Directions” and “More thoughts on Future Directions.”

 

For discussion

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

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Comments

This letter by a group of young pastors and leaders from across Canada could be an important moment. I say "could be," because if it represents a hopeful movement among our pastoral leadership, it is barely more than a half-step, and if it is not followed by more, it will be forgotten.

Much of the letter is concerned with whether the process followed by the Future Directions Task Force has been adequate, whether all voices have been heard, whether inappropriate power dynamics have been at play, and whether there has been enough time to develop and consider the FDTF recommendation. The letter barely speaks to the actual FDTF recommendation itself, but clearly the group is not happy with the outcome.

To that extent, the group gives voice to concerns held by many. However, this is not yet leadership. In fact, there is a sense, between the lines, that there is "someone else" who ought to address these concerns. Who is that someone else? The FDTF? (is it even still in existence?) The regional and national leadership? They have already spoken and have laid the recommendation before the delegates for approval, rejection or amendment. The delegates to the upcoming national assembly? If so, someone needs to articulate a constructive position that sympathetic delegates can latch on to and support as an alternative to the recommendation that is on the table. In fact, if there is no such position available, it is fairly easy to predict how things will play out. A whole lot of people will complain. There will be some vague and ambiguous adjustments to the recommendation that will create an impression of engagement, and then the recommendation will pass, because the alternative is to do nothing, and for most delegates, nothing is not an option.

It is here the letter endorsed by the 10 pastors represents a glimmer of progress. In various ways these individuals have already been called as leaders in the church. More importantly, by signing on to the letter, they have accepted a responsibility for leadership that extends beyond their local congregations and regions to the national church. They are young pastors, and as they mention, have a special stake in the future. Who is better positioned to articulate a constructive, positive proposal that can stand as a real alternative to the FDTF recommendation? If they do so, others hoping for something different are sure to engage with them, and the process of discussion and debate, before, during and after this summer's assembly may very well lead to a better result.

Here is a challenge to the 10:
1. Articulate a succinct, clear and theologically grounded answer to the question: Why is a robust national church important?
2. Propose two or three succinct, concrete amendments/alternatives to the FDTF recommendation that flow from your answer in item #1. Presumably these will speak to both national and regional church governance structures.
3. Make items 1 & 2 available for constructive debate and criticism before the summer assembly so that delegates have time to consider whether they are worthy of support. Depending on response, put the results of that conversation before the delegates this summer for approval or rejection.

I said a loud and sincere “AMEN!” to your prayer, especially the portion:
“Together we confess that some of us hold power over others
– implicitly or explicitly –
Due to race, gender, orientation or economic means.
We lament the stories left unheard and absent in our gatherings.
We forget that we are all part of
Your collective body
That knows no borders or division.”

But then, I noticed that you all are white young Mennonite Church Canada pastors. Where is the voice of the young Chinese Mennonite pastors/leaders? Korean Mennonite pastors/leaders? Or, a First Nation Mennonite church pastors/leaders? And others important segments of our Church whose voices need to be heard?

Peace and blessings!

Lakan Sumulong
(better known in my Spanish colonial name as Luis Daniel “Dann” Pantoja)

First of all, I do appreciate the courage and wisdom of this submission. The value of a common voice of ten young church leaders is high and welcome. I especially like the call to prayer and the content suggested.

In this letter and in much of the debate I've heard and read so far, many seem to miss the reason for the FDTF mandate. You do mention that there is a divide between congregations and the national Church. All pastors and lay leaders should feel some responsibility for this and you do acknowledge that to some degree, however the overriding concern seems to be with national and regional Church leaders. These leaders are also equal members of our church and have been asked to lead our church as you have been asked to lead your congregations, so I think they deserve a little more benefit of the doubt that many people are giving them. All leaders make mistakes, because they are human, but it is very easy to criticize if we put ourselves in opposition rather than collaboration.
The current national church is no longer supported financially nor in many other ways and cannot be sustained as is. The reasons for this are not completely clear, but we need to do something different than we have done for the past. That is what FDTF is telling us. I'm not sure that the new structure is the perfect structure, but I can see it working better than our current organization. I encourage everyone to see the possibilities in it and work towards making it work rather than simply repeating what is scary and not clear. We need a new vision than what we imagined in 1999 in St. Louis.
Again, the voices in this letter are important as is the voice that says we need a new solution. I am encouraged by the discussion overall and hope we can agree on a plan in Saskatoon that we will all embrace and support.

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