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Situational awareness

How do denominations stay spiritually alert?

When two Northwest Airline pilots overshot their destination because their laptop computers distracted them, we were reminded that a loss of “situational awareness” is a serious thing. On the other hand, the US Airways pilot who in January 2009 successfully landed his jetliner in the Hudson River after the plane struck a flock of birds was an example of someone who showed excellent awareness in a crisis situation. 

Situational awareness refers to the ability to demonstrate complex decision-making skills and to process large amounts of information in a situation where poor decisions can have serious consequences. The birth of the Mennonite Brethren Church, an event we will be celebrating in 2010, offers examples of good and bad situational awareness.

The founders of our denomination didn’t mince words when they informed the church elders that they had decided to form a new fellowship. They wrote of “the decadent condition of the Mennonite Brotherhood” and an “openly godless living and wickedness (that) cries to God in heaven.”

Was it really that bad? Had the situation deteriorated to the degree that disassociating from the Mennonite Church was the answer? Diaries and other sources suggest that the answer is yes. Mennonite leaders of the time describe illicit sexual relations, stealing, drunkenness and partying, fights and wife beating—among church members. The lack of discipleship and preventive church discipline added to the crisis.

These 18 Brethren and their families showed spiritual situational awareness: They realized that what was going on around them was having a negative effect on their spiritual health, and they took action, signing a Document of Secession Jan. 6, 1860.

The formation of this new fellowship set off a chain reaction of harassment and poor treatment at the hands of church and civic leaders. Controversies, misunderstandings and mistreatments poisoned the relationship between the Mennonite Brethren and the Mennonite Church, and when members of the two groups immigrated to North America the conflict came along. One hundred years later it was a new generation of leaders that offered the kind of leadership that could have avoided the deep schism. In 1960, the president of the General Conference Mennonite Church came to the Mennonite Brethren North American convention and apologized for the “feelings, words and deeds expressed by our fathers in an unbrotherly way and in a manner contrary to the spirit of Christ.”

This difficult chapter in Mennonite Brethren history illustrates the importance of good leadership. For a variety of reasons, the Mennonites in South Prussia lacked godly leadership and that void contributed to the lifeless spirituality that so frustrated the Brethren and led to a 100-year rift between two groups of Mennonites.

We Mennonite Brethren continue to need leaders who have a strong situational awareness. That is one reason why MB Biblical Seminary (MBBS) was founded—to develop leaders who have had a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, who look at faith and life from an evangelical Anabaptist perspective and who have been trained for pastoral ministry. Ironically, today, 54 years after it was founded, the very seminary established to train such leaders finds itself in crisis, struggling to flourish in a time when theological education is changing and adapting.

Some would say that MBBS has responded too slowly to a 20-year decline in enrollment and that its leaders have clung too tightly to a traditional educational delivery system. Maybe. But the current administration is acutely aware of the situation they face, and has been talking for the past year with Fuller Theological Seminary about a partnership. Fuller’s decision to withdraw its offer to partner with MBBS in Fresno was disheartening. But the seminary vows to continue developing new models of leadership training. In a Nov. 4 statement, the MBBS Board of Directors says it supports newly installed president Lynn Jost in effecting “major changes in the structure and delivery of theological education at MBBS over the next few years,” with 2012 as the target date for implementing “innovative delivery, curriculum and church-based graduate program initiatives.”

What can we do to help the seminary in this process? We can recognize that institutions are multifaceted by nature, and that change will take time. There will be multiple options to consider, and so we can pray and have confidence in the power of these prayers to guide and uphold our seminary leaders. We can offer continued financial support. We can call out people in our churches that have leadership potential and recommend MBBS to them. As the seminary continues to explore new partnerships, we can offer our feedback when asked.

Adapting MBBS to better meet the needs of prospective students and the churches that look to the seminary to provide its leaders will dominate the school’s agenda for the near future. I affirm the MBBS board, administration and staff for demonstrating situational awareness and for taking on this difficult task. I also caution us to learn from the past and to remember that our denominational health demands that we have well trained leaders with the situational awareness to make wise decisions in a complex world.—CF

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