On behalf of the Future Directions Task Force I express sincere thanks for the thought and time you’ve put into the open letter received last week from Norm Dyck, Mennonite Church Canada’s Witness Council chair. (See an abridged version of the letter at “Witness workers bring forth concerns about ‘Future Directions.’ ”)
The questions and concerns you raise regarding international Witness work are important, welcome and timely. We agree it’s a topic bearing further conversation and discernment, something we sought to recognize in our report (www.commonword.ca/go/469) when we said: “We envision a review of current programs and partnerships to discern funding support or to transition to other arrangements as needed.” Our intent was not to limit such review to a conversation on funding, though financial sustainability is important. Rather, it was the broader question of our role abroad that should be given careful thought along the lines set out in the conclusion to your letter.
Before elaborating, I’d invite you to consider the context of the Task Force’s work. Specifically, I refer to how churches of all denominations in Canada have been impacted by the shift from what some speak of as “Christendom” to “post-Christendom” times—some more than others. We’re grateful to be among those less impacted, yet the impact is real.
There are a variety of indicators, but the one most immediately relevant to our conversation is in funding by congregations for work we do together on behalf of the whole—whether at area or national church levels, and by extension the work you carry out as our representatives. For more than a generation there’s been a gradual but persistent decline in funding. Arguably we’re wealthier, more educated, more connected than ever. Yet there has been a growing gap between assumptions about the kinds of work that should be done—reflected in budgets—and the extent to which people in our congregations are prepared to fund them.
The looming issue was recognized in 2003, and again in 2006, and good servants of the church sought different ways of coping, but the gap continued to grow. Cuts to staffing and programming provided temporary relief. By 2010 it was clear more substantive changes were needed. Assumptions about what we should do, and how we should organize ourselves to do it, seemed not to hold anymore. It’s not that we didn’t have good people doing good things. We did and we have. It’s a question of whether we’re doing the right things for this time in history—one of realigning ourselves with where God already is—to cite Vincent Harding in our report.
For some, the times are troubling. For our part, we choose to believe these new times, while challenging, are filled with opportunity to witness to the truth of our faith in Christ Jesus as Lord and Prince of Peace, as your greeting puts it.
But the times do require us to change. So when we propose that congregations and regional bodies be involved in discerning international ministry commitments, it’s about closing the gap between what we do together and congregations, in order to rebuild a relationship and trust once there. The same argument applies to other aspects of our report. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be safeguards in place to avoid the kinds of concerns you raise about short-term assignments. There should be. Nor do we underestimate the importance of a national body as the face and representative of the whole. MC Canada will continue, not disappear.
Of course, the church is larger than all that, but we work at what we can. The changes proposed speak to more closely tying together national, regional and local expressions of our body—all in ways that enable our expression of the church to be spiritually vital and healthy in witness and mission in a sustainable way.
So, back to the desire for further conversation and discernment.
We are aware of the many changes in approach that have been made over the past several decades, and the importance of partnerships you speak to. Yet the question lingers: Just what is it that MC Canada is particularly called to do abroad at this time, and how to do it?
I don’t expect any of you feel our current approach, good as it is, necessarily is the final word. We have faith that if we can articulate a 21st-century reset of our vision of how to engage God’s mission internationally, congregational support would follow. Towards that end, consideration is being given at several levels to how such conversation might best be carried forward once the Task Force concludes its work.
Again, our sincere thanks for your letter and the points you raise. In our view, it should help stimulate the kind of conversation that we would benefit from.
Aldred H. Neufeldt is chair of Mennonite Church Canada’s Future Directions Task Force. This is an abridged version of the letter sent to MC Canada’s Witness workers.