The transition from old to new year is always a great time for picks and pans, for looking back and making lists. This year, of course, there was an entire decade to grab on to and re-consider.
The international and national scenes have already been covered by the media pundits, but I put my hand to a list of my own on a rather smaller scale: the top 10 stories of the decade for Mennonite Brethren.
Although I worked with the denomination for five years of the decade, please be assured there’s nothing official or sanctioned about this list, and please realize too the opinions and impressions are entirely my own.
In no particular order then, and for tried-and-true MB conference junkies only (I’m warning), here are my picks for the top MB stories of the decade:
1. A revitalized MBMSI.
The mission agency entered the decade celebrating its 100th birthday, but was underfunded and uncertain, it seemed, of its future and vision within the changing face of global mission. By 2004, it had the young and dynamic Randy Friesen at its helm, and has since made “relationship-based funding” work well, opened new areas of mission, and innovated in a variety of ways. It seems to be staying connected to traditional shareholders, but more importantly, engaging a younger demographic. One of its remaining challenges – and surely responsibilities – is ongoing connection to previous mission “fields” where we need to stay involved, and to help.
Hand in glove with the above, ICOMB (the International Community of Mennonite Brethren) became solidly established over the decade as the body where relationships and equality were worked out between the earlier “sending” countries (North America: Canada and the U.S.) and “receiving” countries with their own, now not inconsiderable, MB conferences. ICOMB drafted, then approved, its own Confession of Faith; hired an executive secretary (Victor Wall of Paraguay) in 2005; and held a first-ever global consultation on MB education in 2007. A global MB history book is on tap for the 150th anniversary of the MB movement.
2. A restructured Canadian conference. 1999 saw the divestiture of the General (or North American) conference, but the decade’s big change for Canadian MBs — debated, but nevertheless accepted at the 2004 convention — was the move to a new governance structure. The conference is essentially governed by one executive board now, with a second board (Faith and Life) functioning for theological matters, instead of a number of boards handling various aspects of conference work. The move was intended to increase efficiencies and provide better strategizing across the range of activities. It’s too early, and maybe just too difficult, to judge whether its intentions have been fulfilled. From the outside, at least, is seems things are moving at about the same pace as before, with the same amount of zigzagging by which most large bodies progress. One result of the new structure is that the press (the MB Herald, that is) has no access to the board meetings, and without annual Council of Boards meetings to attend and report on, communication to the constituency relies on the board’s own releases. So it’s hard to know at this point how to assess and weigh the governance change.
3. Women in ministry leadership, now possible; maybe. Voices in favour of full access to ministry leadership for women, defeated in the 90s, were raised again early in the decade, asking the Board of Faith and Life to re-consider the issue, which it did, in a series of “listening and learning” sessions across the country. The BFL then brought a motion on WIML (pronounced wimel, not to be confused with wimple!) to the 2006 convention, proposing that congregations be free to discern and grant women freedom to lead. This resolution passed with 77 percent. WIML created a lot of drama, but as positive as its ending was for many, it eventually came to feel somewhat anti-climatic, for by decade’s end it seems (though I don’t have firm numbers) as if there are even less women in visible leadership than before.
4. Leadership, period. If there was one word uttered more often than any other, one focus or theme, one concern that hasn’t gone away this decade, it’s “leadership.” The leadership of women (see # 3), but also the numbers of leaders (do we have enough?) and their state (why are pastors leaving, or struggling?) In 2001 “leadership development” was chosen as one of three main foci of the Canadian MB conference. In 2006, the conference conducted a major pastoral trends survey. In 2008, the launch of Regenerate saw more staff and programs added to leadership development. The language around leadership often seemed one of need and crisis. (Maybe in the next decade we could simply bring back ordination.)
5. Changes at the MB Herald. From publishing twice monthly in black and white at the decade’s opening, then 17 issues a year, the MBH was down to 12 issues a year by the decade’s end, though now in colour all the way through. In 2003, it was “mutually agreed that Jim [Coggins] complete his service as editor.” Under the leadership of interim/acting editor Susan Brandt, the paper tried to come “back home” — to more content about and by Mennonite Brethren, that is. Uncertainty about the role of the paper (whether promotional agent for conference, or agent of critique) seemed to resolve itself over time and with the help of a new mission statement by the (then) Board of Communications. At decade’s end, the magazine’s existence, once a month at least, seems assured, though access to “insider” activities is more limited than before (see # 2). Laura Kalmar, appointed as editor in 2005, has overseen a re-design of the magazine and is seeking, together with the conference communications department as a whole, to foster a greater presence online (at www.mbconf.ca). The latter developments are too new to assess, and audiences still relatively small, but clearly electronic access to the Centre for MB Studies materials, for example, and new kinds of storytelling hold tremendous potential.
6. Four things that ended: the 55+ conferences in 2005 after a run of three events; the National Youth Conventions in 2005, after a run of 12 events (every third year since 1971); Encounter magazine, an outreach effort of the MB Herald, after a twice-yearly run over several years; and the Mennonitische Rundschau, the conference’s German periodical, after a run of 130 years.
7. Theological discussions, done or begun. The decade saw discussion or study conferences on a number of other issues besides women in leaderhip: ministry after divorce, spiritual warfare, baptism and membership, and our relationship to culture. The first two seem mainly resolved, the third not talked about much at the moment, the latter too huge to be sure what the questions are. The most recent pressing issue concerns atonement, and is still on the table. The issues around homosexuality are done, or not begun, depending on your perspective. Just before the decade opened, the Calgary Inter-Mennonite Church lost its MB membership because it included practicing homosexuals. Since, except for the odd article or wave of letters in the MBH, the topic has seemed almost invisible. Is our keeping at bay something that some of our sister Anabaptist conferences have had to engage with so intensely a strength and virtue, or head-in-the-sand? I’m not sure.
8. Educational ups and downs. The merger of Concord College and Canadian Mennonite Bible College into Canadian Mennonite University (Winnipeg) might have seemed impossible to imagine even a decade before this one, but it did happen, and by many marks, has been an exciting, successful venture. The Bible colleges that MBs support (Bethany, Columbia, ETEM) have held their own, with variations, but on the whole – or so it seems to me – there’s been a curious detachment within the conference as a whole from the educational enterprise of the church, and the life of the mind.
The institution to which we have the strongest national commitment, the Seminary, has had an “interesting” decade, beginning with its 50th anniversary celebration, and educating throughout at various delivery sites besides the “Mother House” in Fresno, Cal. There was the shock of moral failure by the seminary’s president; anonymous attacks through a since-closed website directed at the school and several professors; layoffs because of the recession; and most recently, the disappointment of Fuller Seminary’s withdrawal from talks about working together. Still, by any number of indications, MBs aren’t about to give up on seminary education, and the next decade may see (God willing) new solutions for its challenges.
9. Wars and rumours of war. Here I’m referring not to solid facts reported in the MB Herald, just hints about church threats to leave the conference such as the listening committee identified at the 2009 study conference, or rumours that circulate in other ways. Has an influential church in B.C., for example, withdrawn selective financial support because of variance over one issue or another? (Many others, of course, don’t support to begin with, perhaps for very different reasons.) Why are many churches, or those who disagree, not coming to conventions? Is our ongoing unity in spite of diversity the story here? Or is it the fear that unreported, behind-the-scenes, maneuvring provokes? Either way, these matters whisper and alternately roar around everything else.
10. Regenerate, hopefully “heading north.” The Key Cities Initiative in various Canadian cities filled much of the decade, but was winding down as a focus by the end, and something new — Regenerate 21 – 01 (as in the current and first centuries) – was introduced and accepted at the 2008 national convention. This program/concept/strategy was called “a prayer and a process for change” but became something of a public relations challenge because of ongoing confusion about what it was, exactly, or how it related to the six conference services that had been “branded” to the constituency already. Was it the moniker for some of these services, or for all? At last count, Regenerate seems to be stretching and shaping itself into a kind of impulse concept for conference work across the board, and, in spite of its less than stellar start, may be the story of the decade ahead – especially if we get the prayer piece of the puzzle in place.
Oh, and by the way, happy 150th birthday Mennonite Brethren — today, January 6.