Wendi Thiessen: We are further ahead

Multiply Board of Directors chair talks ups and downs, goals for next 12 months

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Wendi Thiessen, far left, was elected chair of the Multiply Board of Directors at its September 2021 meeting. Thiessen is pictured with three of the U.S. board members who gathered in Denver, Colorado. The other half of the board met in Abbotsford, British Columbia. Standing beside Thiessen is Vince Balakian, Aaron Halverson, USMB national director Don Morris, and Kathleen Sherman. Photo: Wendi Thiessen

Multiply, the North American Mennonite Brethren mission agency owned jointly by the U.S. Conference of MB Churches (USMB) and the Canadian Conference of MB Churches (CCMBC), is coming out of a tumultuous season.

Approximately two years ago, at the request of the Multiply Board of Directors, a task force was struck to review many aspects of Multiply, including leadership, governance and culture.  Following a comprehensive review and the acceptance of the task force’s report, a new board was appointed to implement the report’s 18 recommendation. The new board also began a search for a general director to replace Randy Friesen.

In spite of a new start, the Board of Directors continued to experience upheaval as four of nine board members, including the two co-chairs, resigned. (For more, read the articles listed at the end of this interview.) Wendi Thiessen was elected as Multiply’s board chair during the Sept. 26-28, 2021 board meeting.    

Christian Leader editor Connie Faber talked with Thiessen about the Multiply board’s ups and downs this past year and her goals for the Multiply board for the next 12 months. Their conversation has been edited for length.

CL: Multiply is a binational ministry of the U.S. and Canadian Mennonite Brethren conferences. From your perspective, how did the two conferences differ in their response to the problems of the past several years?

WT: This is important because when trouble hit a couple of years ago, the responses from north and south of the border was different. While the relationships with our Canadian churches were definitely impacted, the relationships with our U.S. churches were damaged and trust was eroded.

As a board, we inherited some history that we need to respond to. We have to take every opportunity to reconnect with our U.S. churches. We are looking for ways to build bridges. It will take some time, but we are committed to being transparent. We’re also trying to be better communicators.

CL: How do national interests play-out with this new board?

WT: Our board is trying to stay away from U.S. versus Canada discussions. We are focused on putting the right board members into the best positions, regardless of nationality. Recent evidence of that is our Board Executive Committee. Our board executive is made up of Aaron Halverson (Olathe, Kansas) as vice chair, Vivian Wheeler (Blaine, Washington) and me. We work well together, and I am thankful that they have stepped into these roles.

Another recent example is how we gathered for the September in-person board meeting. Many of us have never met each other and were looking forward to finally being in the same room, having meals together and being able to share life together. With COVID-19 restrictions still in place, gathering together as one group wasn’t going to work. So, we implemented plan B, with me flying to Denver to spend two days with a group of Americans. Vivian Wheeler and Ed Boschman drove from Linden, Washington, to Abbotsford, British Columbia.

We actually share many common interests. For example, our missionaries mention that they don’t see us as being either Canadian or American—but a binational organization that allows them to maximize their flexibility in terms of where they raise their support and who they partner with in North America.

CL: Given the board turnover, is the Multiply board currently complete?

WT: No, we are actively looking for two Canadians. We currently have four Americans and three Canadians appointed by their respective national conferences. According to Canadian rules pertaining to our charitable status, we are required to have one more Canadian than American on the board. We are actively recruiting for one position that will be filled by a CCMBC appointment and the other position will be filled by the Multiply Board.

CL: How often does the board meet?

WT: We have four board meetings per year. Two are in person and last for a day and a half to two days. The other two meetings are three hours long and will be conducted over Zoom.

Also, the Executive Committee meets with the general director monthly.  I also have a one-on-one with the general director every month.

CL: Over this past year the Multiply board has had four members resign. Has this delayed the board’s progress?  Do you feel like you’re starting over?

WT: By the grace of God, I think we are further ahead than we were 10 months ago. I believe we have moved forward.

My explanation is that there are fundamental components of orientation that one has to do every time a new board member starts. But if you think back to last November, we were all brand new. In November 2020 we were given the orientation documents to read. Frankly, it was quite overwhelming. We are now rereading some of these documents.

My hope if that over the next 12 months we can update our governance documents to ensure that they reflect our new reality. We will also focus on Multiply’s mission/vision/values.

CL: So, what are your goals for the Multiply board for the next 12 months?

WT: I’m hoping that we can be boring and dull. We’re going to focus on governance matters. I really feel like our role is to do governance well. That is our job. If we do governance, then the staff and the missionaries can do what they’re supposed to do.

This is our window to inventory and update the documents and to make sure that they reflect today’s operations. One practical aspect in implementing the 18 task force recommendations is adding them into the respective components of both the bylaws and the governance manual. As an example, in the governance manual there is no reference to a Board Executive Committee meeting regularly with the general director—or even the existence of a Board Executive Committee. The creation of a Board Executive Committee and scheduling regular meetings with the general director came out of the 18 recommendations. We have to document what we’re actually doing.

We also want to look at the strategic plan, not to change it necessarily but to make sure we know what it is and to update it, as needed. We’re also going to work with staff so that we all understand Multiply’s mission/vision/values.

I hope the board can stop being the focus of conversations, and that will allow everyone to put the focus back where it should be. We want people to celebrate all of the good things rather than asking: Is the board is getting along? Are they listening to the owners? If we focus on governance, I hope we can shift the main focus back to churches getting excited about missions and connecting with Multiply projects.

Coming out of the September board meeting, we want to create a communications plan. I hope to have a cycle that includes an annual letter from the board and quarterly reports from a variety of staff and missionaries. We want to ask what good communication looks like, as well as good governance and good financial management.

CL: The Multiply board is searching for a new general director. What update do you have on the search process?

WT: I think there’s at least another six months before a new general director is hired. During the September board meeting we talked about our options for the general director going forward. Vic Wiens (interim general director) has agreed to continue until August 31,2022.

CL: Is there a search committee?

WT: We have a Personnel Committee chaired by Maryanne Berg from Saskatoon. Committee members are Kathleen Sherman from Denver and Aaron Halverson from Olathe. We haven’t hired an external search committee, but we are working actively with our owners in terms of casting the net and talking to certain parties.

CL: I hear people talk about the “Multiply culture.” As someone who’s new to Multiply, what do you see as its strengths—and weaknesses—in terms of culture?

WT: Multiply is an incredibly supportive and diverse family. This is clearly a strength of Multiply. Being welcomed into the family was one of the nicest things that happened to the board members. In order to learn about Multiply during the pandemic, we asked if we could participate in a few of their “family” meetings, also known as Together Tuesdays, where many staff and missionaries regularly gather together on Zoom to worship, pray and share life.

I think everyone is feeling a little tired. This would be one of my main concerns.  Multiply staff and missionaries have had to respond to and live with a lot of change in the last few years.

I think the entire world came to a stop for 18 months (because of COVID-19). God, however, isn’t resting and continues to show us new projects and ministry opportunities. We need to be obedient to the tasks we each have been given, set the groundwork and then engage.  I’m excited for what’s to come.

Read more about Multiply changes:

Shifting the focus: Multiply board chair hoping for “boring” year (Nov. 1, 2021)

Multiply Board of Directors has a “complete reset” (July 26, 2021)

New appointments complete Multiply Board of Directors (June 29, 2021)

New Multiply board meets, affirms recommendations (Nov. 17, 2020)

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Connie Faber
Editor
Connie Faber joined the magazine staff in 1994 and assumed the duties of editor in 2004. She has won awards from the Evangelical Press Association for her writing and editing. Faber is the co-author of Family Matters: Discovering the Mennonite Brethren. She and her husband, David, have two daughters, one son, one daughter-in-law and one son-in-law. They are members of Ebenfeld MB Church in Hillsboro, Kansas.

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