Running more than an hour past the scheduled end time, the annual general meeting (AGM) of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches dealt with funding shortfalls and major structural changes Oct. 23, 2019, at Waterloo MB Church, Waterloo, Ontario.
The 2:15 p.m. secret ballot vote to approve the collaborative model rendered the AGM the last church-delegate meeting of the Canadian Conference of Mennonites Brethren Churches (CCMBC) with approval of 71 percent.
“This will be a significant day,” national director Elton DaSilva said at the outset of the meeting. He called delegates to approach the past and walk into the future with three questions: “What is God doing? What is my posture? What step of obedience will lead us into a new direction?”
Apologies and accountability
Responses to a financial narrative circulated to delegates a few days before the meeting dominated the discussion. The document outlined eight factors that contributed to a decrease in the CCMBC reserves from $17.7 million to $2.9 million over 2013–2018.
“Our response” actions from the executive board accompanied each point. The document constitutes an apology from the leadership, which was reiterated from the stage, as moderator Bruce Enns said God had humbled the Canadian Conference.
“All of us lead with clay feet,” said Michael Dick, pastor at South Abbotsford (B.C.), and assistant moderator during the period.
“A spirit of repentance and confession comes through in the document, but we’ve humbled ourselves through the decisions we made,” said Bryan Born, Ross Road Community Church, Abbotsford, B.C. “I hope we don’t blame this on God.”
“I want all of us to see this as a wake-up call,” said Janessa Giesbrecht of Fort Garry MB Church, Winnipeg. “It breaks my heart… We need to let go of things that speak to our division. I’m a youth pastor; I want them [youth] to see hope in the future.”
Brian Cooper, South Abbotsford (B.C.), offered a personal apology, as he was on the Board of Faith and Life during the period. “We need to recapture sense of leadership not as telling people what we should be doing but modelling what we should be doing.”
Ken Peters, Saanich Community Church, Victoria, called the document ahistorical: “Mennonite Brethren have always been passionate about church planting” and have been led by strong leaders in the past without this kind of problem.
Accountability—promised frequently in the report which cited mistrust—will happen individually and in meetings, Enns responded to delegate Carmyn Campbell of The Meeting Place, Winnipeg, who said, “I can say I am going to be accountable, but what does it actually mean?”
“I’m grieving for what is in report,” said Harold Froese, Fort Garry MB, who was moderator during the period. “I appreciate those who have come: they are still engaged. I grieve for those who aren’t here. My biggest grief is for all employees who used to work for the conference or our agencies.”
He called for monthly financial reports so variance could be analyzed. “The churches are the owners. We are responsible to them.”
Reg Toews, Greendale, Chilliwack, B.C., called the delegation to stand to acknowledge the apology. “We need to respond. I don’t want to miss this moment.”
Agencies and accounting anxiety
The theme of financial austerity reached into the rest of the AGM.
Mark Wessner extolled the work of MB Seminary in teaching leaders and expressed gratefulness for the half-million dollar donation that allowed the seminary to rescind two staff terminations. “That is not a long-term solution,” he said, asking for another $300,000 to remain sustainable. “We’re ringing the alarm bell,” he said.
“We’re not the same mission we were six months ago,” said Randy Friesen. Board and staff from Multiply (formerly MB Mission) apologized for the merger with the C2C Network which was abruptly undone in June 2019 amid a $1.5 million spending gap—almost a million more than the shortfall anticipated due to extra merger expenses.
“It was clear this church planting strategy was not working for us,” said Friesen. “Going forward as MB family, we will work on a single mission strategy that is local, national, global. Discernment is not just one organization’s responsibility.”
Friesen promised a new global lead team for the future to bring cross cultural experience into the leadership structure.
Though Multiply retains two staff to support church planting in Canada (Ewald Unruh, Canada East; Reg Toews, Canada West), responsibility for church plants returns to the provinces, Friesen said.
“The deficit was a surprise,” said Multiply controller Selwyn Uittenbosch. “We always assumed C2C was self-balancing.”
Seventeen staff positions from C2C were not continued; 12 staff from MB Mission were moved to relational funding.
The board affirms Friesen’s leadership but is discerning the best place for him in the organization at this point, said Ed Heinrichs. “We’re also discerning whether a new board is needed.”
Delegates from Fort Garry challenged the move to relational funding. “It offloads corporate responsibility for financing… onto staff,” said Carl Heppner. “We should examine philosophically whether this is the path we should be on.”
“The name Multiply represents the disaster,” said James Toews. “Please go back to who we are: MB Mission.”
Mistrust, identified in the financial narrative, colored the collaborative model discussion.
Under the collaborative model, decision making will be a circular process 18-months long as the national ministry team and National Faith and Life team work out ideas to take to the provincial conventions for a vote, said DaSilva. Provincial representatives will represent their province to the National Assembly.
The Collaborative Model as presented has no governance model nor bylaws to approve because those will be developed though collaboration, said DaSilva. “We’re like a conference of conferences,” he said.
“Structures can be equally successful depending on how well they are accepted and how well they function,” said Peter Duerksen, Grace MB Church, Waterloo. “Will these changes in structure increase a sense of ownership, identity, brother/sisterhood among people in our pews?”
“This circular process will have many voices speaking into it,” said DaSilva. He cited 700 voices via the combined attendance at provincial conventions. (Attendance at national gatherings has not exceeded 400 in the last decade, at times barely exceeding 100.)
“The scope and definition of National Assembly may be asking provincial boards to do something they’re not built to do and not equipped to do,” said Michael vandenEnden, Grantham MB Church, St. Catharines, Ont. For example, the Ontario board is not a representative board.
“We’re really voting on two changes. How we make decisions and how we deliver services,” said Rod Schellenberg, Hepburn (Sask.) MB. “The level of detail is not there to support this model.”
“No matter how perfect we make the model, it is not a substitution for trust between churches, conference leaders, conference organizations,” said Kris Peters, Linden, Alta. “It’s not vision that moves churches but credibility.”
“I’m excited about the idea national church is willing to give up some of its power,” said Richard Lougheed, Quebec representative on the board. He views less financial dependence on national and more capacity to speak into decisions as a positive for his province.
“Everything is bound by trust and relationship,” said Sharon Simpson, BCMB moderator. “When you collaborate, you share vulnerably.”
A suggested amendment to implement the operational side of collaborative model minus the national assembly was deemed unfriendly and defeated. The vote proceeded and the collaborative model was approved.
Budget: No money for MB Herald
The discussion of the budget circled around the MB Herald line item which read $0 for 2020.
“It is clear the funds are not there,” said DaSilva of the $100,000 that would be needed to print MBH in 2020. He said the Herald’s 3,500 print subscribers represent weak engagement.
“New thinking in a new age of communication needs to take place,” he said. “Many partners have robust communication tools we can bring into this model.”
“Giving that you’re trying to rebuild trust, an entity which tries to speak to churches is vitally important,” said James Toews, Neighborhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C. “To cut this at this time is sending precisely the wrong direction.”
Informing the constituency about the closure of the Herald through a budget line item is “a highly problematic strategy for communicating with people about decisions,” said Brad Sumner, Jericho Ridge Community Church, Langley, B.C.
“We’ve been given so many good stories [from leaders] to persuade us the way to go,” said long-time editor Harold Jantz, River East Church, Winnipeg. “We needed a good give and take. When we claim a Confession we ought to be able to speak to one another within our confessional position—whether leaders or people in the pews.”
The proposed budget of $1,172,000 passed by show of hands.
“The Collaborative Model answers many of the questions you have raised here today,” said DaSilva.
“MB Herald goes out of print,” MB Herald news release
“Canadian MB leaders apologize for financial losses,” by John Longhurst for Mennonite World Review
“Canadian MB members share views on financial report,” by John Longhurst for Mennonite World Review
This article is reprinted by permission from the MB Herald online.
The MB Herald was the English-language magazine of the Canadian Conference of MB Churches. The magazine ceased print publication in January 2020 but continues to post on its website.