For 30 years, USMB staff member Donna Sullivan has helped to plan the U.S. Conference biennial conventions. If you had told her that USMB Gathering 2020—complete with speakers, testimonies, worship, prayer, communion, voting and leadership transitions—would successfully take place online, she wouldn’t have believed it.
“We actually held a convention online,” she wrote in an email just after the final online session of the 33rd national convention. “Who would have ever thought such a thing could be possible—and actually happen.”
USMB Gathering 2020, scheduled for July 21-25 at Stoney Creek Hotel and Conference Center in Independence, Mo., was slated to include the National Pastors’ Conference (Tuesday evening through Thursday noon) and National Convention (Thursday evening through Saturday noon), with a half-day gathering for Congolese pastors sandwiched in between. But the in-person event was cancelled June 1 due to the realities and restrictions of the coronavirus.
Instead of driving or flying to the Kansas City area for the week, the 191 registered participants slept in their own beds, found lunch and snacks in their own refrigerators and attended four webinars, opening and closing sessions and a business session via video conferencing July 22-24 in the comfort of their homes or offices.
“Doing a convention online is something we’ve obviously never done before, so I was thankful that it went so well,” says Don Morris, USMB national director in an interview after Gathering 2020 Online. “We accomplished some very good and positive connection among our MB family. It wasn’t like being face to face, but it was still good.”
The online format and time constraints meant USMB Gathering 2020 Online was not able to accommodate everything on the original schedule—including MB Foundation’s dinner celebration of their 30 year anniversary and 140 years of stewardship and the 100th anniversary reception hosted by Mennonite Central Committee.
Morris and Sullivan worked with USMB Leadership Board convention task force members Boris Borisov, Luke Haidle and Lianne Nikkel to determine what from the original schedule to provide online.
“We decided to use a limited number of previously arranged workshops as webinars for the online convention,” Morris says. “We selected four that we thought would be a balanced approach with a fairly broad spectrum of input. One downside was that some presenters who wanted to do their workshop as a webinar weren’t able to.”
Online participants heard from two of the five Gathering 2020 plenary speakers—Boris Borisov and Kadi Cole—who were also scheduled to lead workshops, as well as two workshop presenters—Jon Wiebe and Ron Klassen—in a webinar format.
Webinar 1 – “Increase Your Church’s Impact in the Community”
Boris Borisov, lead pastor of Pacific Keep Church (PKC) in Spokane, Wash., shared practical ways churches can engage their communities, aligning their unique strengths with opportunities to join God’s active, redemptive work in the world (Missio Dei).
Community engagement is done in three steps, Borisov said: immerse and listen (absorb), connect and befriend (relate) and participate and enrich (serve). Interaction will look different in urban and rural settings, Borisov said, recommending churches invite civic leaders to the conversation to learn about context-specific needs.
For example, PKC partnered with 25 local churches in 2019 to empower involvement in their city, aligning individual strengths with community needs ranging from kids’ mentorship programs to an outdoor farmer’s market and music venue.
PKC itself launched SMILE (Single Moms in Life Empowerment) in response to a need for childcare. The group meets once a month and provides spiritual, financial and educational support to single moms.
The key to church community impact is offering unique gifts in service, Borisov said, asking, “Does the community feel like there is a sacred presence in their neighborhood or in their city because of our church?”
Webinar 2 – “Increase Our Impact Through Generosity”
Jon Wiebe, president and CEO of MB Foundation, explored ways churches can maximize generosity while growing strong disciples.
“Stewardship is an essential piece of discipleship,” Wiebe said, acknowledging that the realities of a global pandemic, racial concerns and economic issues have informed and changed the ways churches think about generosity and stewardship.
An MB Foundation survey of USMB churches found that 55 percent of churches reported either no change or improved charitable giving during the coronavirus pandemic. Forty-five percent reported a decrease in giving, with 18 percent reporting a decrease of more than 20 percent
Wiebe outlined seven attributes of a generous church and gave recommendations for best practices while his colleague Bruce Jost shared related results of the recent MB Foundation survey of USMB churches and their response to the coronavirus pandemic.
For example, Wiebe listed “Generous churches teach people a holistic theology of stewardship, generosity and the kingdom” as the fourth attribute and emphasized giving as an act of worship as a best practice. With 76 percent of USMB church planning to offer online giving even after the pandemic, Wiebe asked, “How do we ensure that our giving is not just like paying all the other bills?”
The pandemic has also changed how churches approach their reserves, Wiebe said. The survey found that 65 percent of MB churches had cash reserves of three months or more prior to the pandemic, while 12 percent had no reserves.
“The challenges will continue, so I encourage you to keep leaning in; don’t lose heart,” Wiebe said. “We’re all in this together, and God is the one that will see us through, no matter our circumstances.”
Webinar 3 – “Increasing and Maximizing the Impact of the Town and Country Church”
Ron Klassen, executive director of Rural Home Missionary Association in Morton, Illinois, and former pastor of Corn (Okla.) MB Church, shared strengths of small, rural churches and suggestions for maximizing impact by focusing on relationships.
The small church is both the right size and unique, Klassen said, clarifying: “(This) webinar is not about what size is best, but about how to be the best given the size that our church is.”
A small church can accomplish its purpose, Klassen said, pointing to the church in Acts 2, which met in homes. Colossians, too, was written to a small house church.
Secondly, the small church is unique, Klassen said. Although a smaller church’s methods may differ from a larger one, neither is inferior.
“Our goal is to come to a place where we realize that our small size is not a problem that needs to be solved but a strategic advantage that God wants to use,” Klassen said, quoting author Karl Vaters. “Instead of being problem oriented, we’d do well to be strengths oriented.”
Strengths of small churches are their personal and relational nature, Klassen said, providing four suggestions for maximizing that strength.
“The smaller church can accomplishment everything that the church has been put on earth to do,” Klassen said. “It can be all that God designed the church to be.”
Webinar 4 – “Increasing Our Impact Through Leadership Development”
Speaking during Friday’s webinar, author, speaker and leadership trainer Kadi Cole shared practical ways to develop female leaders in the church.
Women make up 61 percent of the average church in the United States, but hold less than 10 percent of formal leadership roles, Cole said, referring to roles like Sunday school teacher or director of a greeter team and not necessarily roles like senior pastor or elder that could cause theological debate.
So Cole, who has worked at and with churches from a variety of theological viewpoints, sought to find the disconnect.
“What we found in our research is that the ability for women to lead with confidence and fruitfulness in their church had almost nothing to do with the theological background of the church,” she said. “It had everything to do with the leadership culture and the practices of the male leaders on the staff team.”
Women weren’t participating, she said, because the culture in the church was not conducive for elevating women. Theological position, she found, was not always an indicator of women’s participation in leadership.
Pulling from her book, Developing Female Leaders, Cole shared three of eight best practices for developing female leaders in the church, including seeking to understand women who desire to contribute in the church, clearly defining what a church believes theologically to ensure alignment of church culture and developing a support system for leaders—men and women alike.
The goal, Cole said, is unity according to John 17. Cole said this about what gives her hope: “It’s not about changing theologies, it’s about shifting our culture to make space for all the leaders that God has already brought to our church.”
Zoom platform aids discussion, translation
Webinar attendees were encouraged to make comments and ask questions during the presentations using the chat feature that is part of Zoom, the conferencing platform used for the event.
The chat feature also made it possible to offer translation from English into Spanish. Juan Wall, Fresno, Calif., and Aaron Hernandez, McAllen, Texas, were the translators. Morris expressed his appreciation for the translators, saying their work was “well done and well received.”
The business session was also held via Zoom, with 98 registered delegates. USMB executive assistant Lori Taylor worked with the various ministry representatives to develop the slideshow for the business session, learned the ins and outs of Zoom screen sharing and coordinated numerous trial runs with USMB staff and Leadership Board members.
“Lori did great with getting the convention online,” Morris says.
The business session, moderated by Leadership Board chair David Hardt, included elections, a financial report and brief reports from nine ministry leaders—Morris, Kyle Goings, chair of USMB Youth; Tim Sullivan, chair of U.S. Board of Faith and Life; Jules Glanzer, president of Tabor College, who provided a video message; Valerie Rempel, representing Fresno Pacific Seminary president Joseph Jones, who unexpectedly had no Internet service; Jon Isaak, MB Historical Commission; Jon Wiebe, president and CEO of MB Foundation; Randy Friesen, president of Multiply ;and Christian Leader editors Connie Faber and Janae Rempel.
Convention report booklets, prepared by Sullivan, were mailed prior to the online convention. The written reports were also posted on the USMB website.
Business session highlights
Items of note in the verbal reports include an announcement from Goings that the every-four-year national youth conference is being discontinued, and a national summer camp is being planned for 2021 as a new annual national event for high school students.
Jon Wiebe, president and CEO of MB Foundation, announced the expansion of the foundation’s Fresno, California, office to include new staff members Marlin Hiett and Nathan Yoder, who will begin in September.
Morris noted that a task force comprised of members from the U.S. and Canada will soon conclude its review of the culture and leadership of Multiply, the North American MB mission agency.
While Multiply dealt with significant losses in 2018, the agency decreased expenses in 2019, was able finish fiscal year 2019 with a surplus and has experienced strong financial support in 2020, said Multiply president Randy Friesen.
With regard to the coronavirus, “2020 has not been an easy year,” Friesen said. “But we are still planting churches around the world in spite of COVID-19…. We are grateful for how God is at work in mission in the midst of this crisis.”
After outlining the responsibilities and recent activities of the U.S. Board of Faith and Life, Sullivan concluded his report by speaking briefly of the challenges in responding to accusations of a pastor’s moral failure and the board’s ongoing work with the Pacific District Conference Board of Faith and Life regarding the departure of former PDC district minister Gary Wall.
Hardt passed leadership of the USMB Leadership Board to new chair, Luke Haidle, Henderson, Nebraska.
The business session closed with a commissioning and prayer for all board members led by Dennis Fast, interim Pacific District Conference minister, and Rick Eshbaugh, Central District Conference minister.
Church planting update
The business session picked up again Friday during the closing session that included video updates from the International Community of Mennonite Brethren, Mennonite World Conference and Mennonite Central Committee.
A large chunk of time was given to a church planting report, moderated by Morris. Fred Leonard, a member of the Church Planting Task Force and pastor of Mountain View Church in Fresno, California, challenged listeners to be excited about planting new churches.
“Let’s be people who are trying to start something from nothing,” Leonard said. “It’s (church planting) a boat-load of work. Our time is short—let’s get fresh movement happening. I’m excited about new church planters who will continue to take risk and start new things.”
Two USMB church planters—Christian Kohs of Redemption Church in Owatonna and Phil Wiebe of Lakeview Church in Stansbury Park, Utah—shared about the growth of their church planters. Both Kohs and Wiebe have plans to plant more churches.
Opening session focuses on worship
The only session that did not use Zoom was the opening session, planned as a time of worship. In an effort to offer a quality experience for viewers, the opening session was pre-recorded and posted on Facebook Live and YouTube.
“Pre-recording allowed us to put it on platforms that can handle that kind of service without glitching,” Morris says.
Morris recruited Matt Ehresman, media director at First MB Church, Wichita, Kan., with experience using Facebook Live and YouTube, to help with the pre-recording, While Morris says the technology may not have worked perfectly, he was pleased with the contribution of the presenters and with the response of viewers.
“We wanted a platform that would allow people to interact during the worship service even though it had been pre-recorded,” Morris says. “I thought there was a lot of very good interaction.”
The opening session featured a worship team from First MB Church and a prayer time led by Multiply staff member Stephen Humber from Denver, Colo., and Kelly Pankratz, Wichita.
Alternating between Spanish and English, Aaron Hernandez, pastor of two Texas congregations, Grace Point at Grulla and Grace Point at McAllen, preached on what holds back a follower of Jesus from increasing their impact in the world. Hernandez had been asked to speak at the Kansas City convention, but family commitments kept him from accepting the invitation. When the convention moved online, Hernandez was able to participate.
Hernandez challenged his listeners to “slay your significance monsters.”
“My greatest challenge—our greatest challenge—for increased impact is me,” Hernandez said. “Before God wants to use any person in a significant way, he calls men and women to slay their significance monster. In the kingdom of God only one interest matters and that’s the heart of God.
“We live in a selfie-culture—it’s all about you. We’re encouraged to think the world revolves around us. When we follow the path of our culture, we fail in increasing impact. The challenge is to step away from this cultural norm and to step into a life that is fully surrendered before God.”
Hernandez encouraged his listeners to daily embrace the will of God over self-interest. “To die to self so that Jesus can live through us, that’s where maximum impact comes,” he said. “When you are willing to sacrifice your time, your energy, your right, your privileges, your comforts and when you go after Jesus and surrender that before God, you are ready for increased impact.”
Viewers used the Facebook Live and YouTube comment features to affirm and thank Hernandez for his “powerful” message and “challenging” and “convicting” words.
Concluding with communion
Holding the USMB biennial National Convention online did not alter the usual practice of closing the convention with communion. This year, convention attendees were asked to supply their own communion elements for the service led by Terry Hunt, Eastern District Conference minister, and Dan Strutz, Central District Conference minister. A pre-recorded worship song by the First MB Church worship team concluded the event.
To view all of the Gathering 2020 Online sessions and webinars, visit the USMB website. Three plenary speakers were also guests for LEAD Pods. Their interviews with host Matt Ehrsman can also be found on the USMB website.
By Connie Faber and Janae Rempel