USC leaders meet in May

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U.S. Conference church planting, publishing to minister with significant cuts

by Connie Faber

The U.S. Conference (USC) Leadership Board gathering May 1-3 was the last in a series of four denominational meetings April 28 through May 3 that drew 41 Mennonite Brethren national board and ministry leaders. The five-day stretch of consecutive meetings, held in Fresno and Bakersfield, Calif., began with an informal one-day district ministers’ gathering that was followed April 29-30 by a national Board of Faith and Life meeting and April 30 to May 1 by the Leadership Summit, both held on the campus of Fresno Pacific University in Fresno.

Leadership Board

When the Leadership Board met last month  in Bakersfield, Calif., the nine board members and USC staff knew decisions made that weekend would significantly shrink the denomination’s current church planting and publishing efforts. The 2008-09 fiscal year was projected to be a year of expansion, particularly in church planting. That growth was stunted by the painful decision to close three church plants—one in Oklahoma with the Southern District Conference and one in Washington and another in Oregon with the Pacific District Conference—and the global economic downturn. The USC froze spending for the last three months of the fiscal year in an effort to end the year in the black.

Faced with an ongoing decline in church giving, the Leadership Board asked USC staff to prune conference expenses to match realistic projections for church contributions and staff fundraising. While the 2008-09 budget reflected a commitment to ministry growth, the 2009-10 budget would balance faith and pragmatism and that meant cutting back to the tune of $200,000.

In March USC staff combed through the budget line-by-line and determined that a 48 percent reduction to the Christian Leaderpublishing lines and a 60 percent cut to the Mission USA program budget were the best options. So USC staff knew going in to the May board meeting what board member Matt Kolbert, Fresno, Calif., confirmed when he said, “The reality is that you will leave here with less money.”

When Ed Boschman, USC executive director, presented the budget, he said, “This budget says to the constituency that this is a realistic budget that honors what we think churches will actually give.”

The 2009-10 budget is built on church contributions of $414,800, the lowest church-giving budget since 2003. Additional fundraising by staff is budgeted at $200,000, a 30 percent reduction over the 2008-09 fund-raising goal.

The Leadership Board approved a 2009-10 budget of $707,150. It includes a 15 percent reduction in administrative expenses and a modest budget for the national Board of Faith and Life. Financial support for Mennonite Brethren ministries—Direction journal, Historical Commission, International Community of Mennonite Brethren, Kindred Productions, Center for MB Studies, National Youth Committee and Ministry Quest—remain at current levels as does funding to support the denomination’s participation in the National Association of Evangelicals, Mennonite Disaster Service, Mennonite World Conference and Mennonite Central Committee.

Both MUSA director Don Morris and Christian Leader editor Connie Faber affirmed their willingness to work with reduced budgets. “The reality is that we need to turn the flame down a bit for now,” said Morris. They also expressed concern that the budget reductions have the potential to negatively impact the strength of their respective ministries.

“We have created some momentum over the past four years,” Morris wrote in his report to the board. “I believe now is the time to advance.”

Budget reduction could prompt a shift in church planting philosophy, Morris said. “We started by saying we’d pour $24,000 or more into a church plant,” Morris told the board, citing the church plants in Colorado and South Dakota as examples of this strategy. “Do we shift that now? What model do we want to use? Is church planting and church health high on our priority list?”

Discussions made it clear that the Leadership Board does see church planting and church health as priorities. “You should never have to ask the Leadership Board if we want to turn the flame down,” said Brian Classen, board member from Papillon, Neb. “We don’t. We just might have only four sticks this year and next year we’ll have six.”

While the Leadership Board affirmed its commitment to strengthening the conference’s communication efforts, budget realities mean the Christian Leader will be published six rather than 12 time during the 2009-10 fiscal year. As part of an overall review of communication, the Board asked USC staff to bring to the May meeting recommendations regarding publishing in Spanish and Russian, enhancing electronic communication and strategies for better reaching younger adults. The Board also requested a report on the Christian Leader editorial philosophy. Editor Faber provided the reports and a three-year strategy for introducing language and electronic publications.

The Leadership Board deferred action on the publishing plan, specifically the recommendation that the CL continue as a monthly publication as funds are available. The board requested that the staff do additional reader research. At its October 2009 meeting the board will continue discussing a publishing strategy that includes print and electronic publishing.

In order to build up the denomination’s relationship with USC Slavic churches, the Leadership Board approved using $10,000 from USC reserves to partner with another denominational agency to hire a minister to Slavic constituents and another $10,000 to initiate a Russian language publication. The funds being tapped for this initiative are earmarked for ministry with immigrant congregations.

In other business, the Leadership Board affirmed David Hardt of Bakersfield, Calif., as a new board member replacing Brad Barnes. They discussed the Mennonite Central Committee proposal regarding its restructuring and vision, approved revised bylaws from MB Foundation and Mennonite Health Services and adjustments to the pastors’ life insurance plan. The board appointed Valerie Rempel to the Mennonite Health Services Alliance Board and to the Mennonite World Conference Faith and Life Commission and Winnie Bartel to the National Association of Evangelicals executive board.

Board of Faith and Life

The Board of Faith and Life (BFL) reviewed progress on several projects, including updating a brochure series on Mennonite Brethren beliefs and contemporary issues and reviewing documents related to pastor credentialing. The nine-member BFL also worked on plans for the 2010 National Pastors’ Orientation, scheduled for April 19-21, and discussed the Memorandum of Understanding created in 2000 to guide the theological work of the U.S. and Canadian Conferences following the divestiture of the binational General Conference Board of Faith and Life.

Under U.S. Conference bylaws, adopted in 2006, BFL provides oversight to MB Biblical Seminary, MBMS International and MB Foundation in matters related to the Confession of Faith and a series of informal meetings with each of the agencies are intended to explore how best oversight can take place. BFL began this series by hosting what chair Larry Nikkel of Hillsboro, Kan., described as a “non-agenda” meeting with seminary faculty.

“The link between BFL and the seminary should be encouraging to the churches we serve,” said Jack Falk, MBBS board chair, thanking Nikkel at the Leadership Summit for talking with faculty members about concerns present in the constituency.

Nikkel has repeatedly affirmed the wisdom of including district ministers from the Central, Pacific and Southern District Conferences as members of the national BFL. A by-product of their BFL membership is the natural opportunity it creates for district ministers to meet for informal fellowship and ministry coordination, as was the case on the Tuesday before the April BFL meetings. Ed Boschman, U.S. Conference executive director, hosted the district ministers’ gathering.

Leadership Summit

The Leadership Summit, introduced in 2004, annually brings together the chief executive officers and board chairs of all U.S. Mennonite Brethren ministries and district conferences and the nine members of the U.S. Conference Leadership Board.

While the components of Summit gatherings vary each year, a standing feature and highlight are the brief ministry updates from those present. This year the national BFL, MBMS International, MB Foundation, Tabor College, Fresno Pacific University and the five district conferences—Central, Latin America, North Carolina, Pacific and Southern—gave reports. Common threads running through the reports were leadership development and financial challenges.

MB Biblical Seminary, represented by interim president Lynn Jost, board chair Jack Falk, board member Steve Goossen and faculty member John E. Toews, gave an extended update on the seminary’s progress in its strategic plan.

Summit participants discussed a proposal that denominational ministries collaborate to hire a bilingual staff person to serve Slavic congregations in an effort to minister to Russian-language congregations and to draw these congregations more closely into the denomination. They discussed working cooperatively in leadership development and affirmed the value of Ministry Quest, a program initiated by the seminary with grant funds that will expire in the next 12 to 18 months.

Summit participants gave feedback to a proposal from Mennonite Central Committee as to what vision and structure should guide the global inter-Mennonite peace, relief and service agency in the 21st century. Mennonite Brethren will be among denominational representatives and MCC boards that will gather in central Kansas the first weekend in June to take action on the proposal.

The Leadership Summit also included a broad opening discussion about denominational health and devotions given by two local Mennonite Brethren pastors: Vyacheslav Gladysh, who is also a Fresno Pacific University staff member, and James Bergen.

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