When life gives you lemons

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How communication grows community

It doesn’t matter what circumstances prompt a change, one thing that is a constant about change is that change offers new opportunities. And so assistant editor Myra Holmes and I are doing our best to take the lemons we were handed in May and to make lemonade, to paraphrase an old adage. For at least the next 12 months, you will receive the Christian Leader every other month rather than monthly. Since it was first published in 1937 as a monthly magazine targeted at young people of the Mennonite Brethren Church, the CL has been published either monthly (the first nine and the past 15 years) or biweekly (for 48 years, from 1946 to 1994).

I don’t know what prompted the first frequency shift in 1946, but I do know that in 1994 the magazine went from 22 issues to 12 in order to free up funds for Mission USA, a visionary initiative that leaders saw as a task that would unite all denominational ministries in the U.S. for the cause of evangelism.

The current change in the magazine’s publishing schedule is prompted not by vision but by economics. As reported elsewhere in this issue, the CL is experiencing a 49 percent reduction in our publishing budget and Mission USA is looking at a 60 percent cut. U.S. Conference ministries, including the CL and Mission USA, are funded by contributions from U.S. Mennonite Brethren churches and individuals. Unfortunately church giving, which has been steadily increasing from 2002 to 2007, is expected to drop again this fiscal year as it did last year thanks to the current recession.

While the timing of this change in frequency is related more to money than to vision, our goal is that vision rather than dollars will guide the next set of decisions we make about communication in our family of churches. Publishing six not 12 times this fiscal year was a we-don’t-have-a choice decision, which means that at some point we will need to decide if we return to a monthly schedule. A second issue that we and most everyone involved in communication is exploring is how best to incorporate new electronic media options into the existing communication strategy.

U.S. Mennonite Brethren are often described as a family—a family of churches spread across 17 states and comprised of at least a dozen cultural groups. Given this diversity, staying connected is both a challenge and a priority. So what guides our strategy for family connectedness?

Thinking about how I remain close to members of my own extended family helps me think about how the Mennonite Brethren family can stay connected. There are two areas in which this comparison is helpful.

In our extended families we don’t rely on one method of communicating with each other. We keep in touch with e-mails, phone calls, Skype, text messages, MySpace, cards, visits and reunions. Variety should also characterize the way U.S. Mennonite Brethren communicate.

We’ve relied on the Christian Leader for 75 years, and it will continue to be an integral component of a U.S. Mennonite Brethren communication strategy. But what should we add? Is there something else you would like to see us do in print? 

There are numerous electronic options available to us today that Peter H. Berg, the first CL editor, could not even imagined. We have some ideas about how to intertwine electronic and print communication but we want our approach to reflect the way you use media. Do you want to follow the denomination on Twitter or see us on FaceBook or MySpace? In what new directions should the U.S. Conference Web site be developed? Would you appreciate receiving an electronic newsletter? Do online discussion groups sound interesting?

My extended family relationships grow stronger the more we communicate with each other. So when it comes to a family of churches, what advice do you have for us about frequency?

Many readers value the CL because it connects them with the wider Mennonite Brethren community—individuals, other churches and denominational ministries, events and leaders. How many times a year should we connect with one another via the magazine? Is CL Online updated frequently enough? How about other sections of the Web site?

As we prepare to make changes to the CL and gather feedback on broader communication questions, we will be surveying readers, particularly those under the age of 40. If you are among the readers selected to participate in a written survey or focus group, please take advantage of this opportunity to influence the way in which U.S. Mennonite Brethren communicate in the future.

We will also periodically post brief surveys at www.usmb.org/christian-leader to gather feedback from anyone interested in discussion broader communication questions with us.

Where will all of these changes take us? I’m not certain—Myra and I have a lot of lemons yet to squeeze. But the lemonade will be refreshing and sweet if we work together to discover a vision for connectedness that best serves U.S. Mennonite Brethren.—Connie Faber

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