Glen Guyton is executive director of Mennonite Church USA.
As a child I was a geek, a nerd, and proud of it. In the 80s my step team and I rocked blue sweatshirts with embroidered letters. My line name was Professor Stomp. I fully embrace my geekdom in the same way I fully embrace who I am within MC USA. So, as I reflect on our denomination, I can’t help but draw upon images from one of my favorite childhood shows. I am a big Star Trek fan, so this isn’t the first time I have drawn parallels between the Star Trek Universe and Mennonite Church USA.
One episode that has been duplicated through every iteration of the series is Mirror, Mirror. In it the transporter (molecular transportation device) of the Star Trek Enterprise malfunctions throwing Captain Kirk and his team in a mirror (or parallel universe). The people and events on the other side are almost identical to the “normal” universe, but there are some very critical differences. Rather than a true mirror, this alternate universe is a dark reversal of the Star Trek universe we know and love. Spock is an evil dictator in the parallel universe. How messed up is that?
I wonder what Paul would think seeing this episode of Mirror, Mirror as he penned his letter to the Corinthians. “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely” (1 Corinthians 13:11-12 NLT).
There are days that I wake up thinking, “What Mennonite universe am I in?”
Most often as I travel the country meeting with various Mennonites in their home congregations, I meet people filled with hope. I meet people who love Christ and the church. I meet people who lead by faith, are engaging their communities and are being instruments of Jesus’ peace in creative and exciting ways.
Then the transporter malfunctions and I find myself embroiled in the parallel Menno-verse with bitter Jedediah, who forgets that he is a friend of God and places himself in the place of God, giving me the run down of all the sins and flaws of MC USA. Because of my transformation, I resist the urge to give him the Vulcan nerve pinch. I usually just respond by saying, “Aren’t you Mennonite Church USA?” The response is a mix of grunts and incoherent huffs that reinforces my belief, “Glen, you aren’t in Kansas anymore (well sometimes I am). You are in the parallel Menno-verse where people are kind of MC USA, but not quite.” They tell me they are leaving MC USA, but they still have funds in Everence, they will still work with Corinthian Plan and Mission Network. But they will have nothing to do with MC USA. So I ask again, “Aren’t you Mennonite Church USA?”
In the spirit of full disclosure, I am the lead staff person for the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA. I am a paid apologist for that specific portion of our denominational pie. But those of you reading this who are a part of MC USA, I ask you, “Aren’t you Mennonite Church USA?” According to our bylaws Mennonite Church USA is composed of area conferences that are made up of local congregations.
By design our conference and congregational leaders have great authority in our system and that authority is also greatly enhanced by the collective wisdom of the Delegate Assembly and the Constituency Leaders Council. I would have to think that there was some institutional wisdom in ensuring that we had strong conferences and congregations who would work collaboratively and in harmony rather than needing a Mennonite pope or a heavy-handed bishop.
Since July 2001, somewhere along the line, for some people, Mennonite Church USA became synonymous with the Executive Board and to a lesser degree the Executive Director. Maybe the Menno-verse has become so turned upside down that we have forgotten our place in this body.
We have forgotten that MC USA was created to allow its members to participate fully in God’s work of setting things right in a broken world, redeeming and restoring all things in Christ to God’s intended design — a design that involves three forever things: “faith, hope, and love — and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13 NLT).
As a denomination, I think the mirror we are peering through seems dark right now. The rhetoric in various circles has elevated the Executive Board to MAGA (Mennonites Against Going Anywhere). We are stuck in a cycle of blame while failing to move forward in mission in God’s power. As a longtime Executive Board staff member, I must share in some of the blame of operating under cultural paradigms rather than in designed purpose.
While the Executive Board has a leadership role regarding vision and advocacy for smaller conferences, one of the primary functions of the EB is to coordinate the activities of our agencies, partners and programs. The strength of the EB lies in its power to convene the body, not in its power to punish. Those that want the EB and Executive Director to wield the hammer of wrath are asking us to use a tool not granted to us, at least not in the Menno-verse.
Slowly, maybe too slowly for some, I have been working to build positive energy with many of our conference leaders, energy to help articulate more clearly how power and authority work in our system. Our system is complex. I would encourage you to look through the guiding documents of this denomination.
With the power and authority granted to me in this role as the primary administrative officer, I want to make sure that our policies, procedures and programs line up with who we say we are and where we say God is calling us. That is going to take some work, but it is not my work alone. We must accept the power and authority granted to us within this system. Whether we are a conference, committee, congregation, delegate, agency or individual, we are Mennonite Church USA and there are very specific things that we can, and do, control within our system.
There is a disconnect if we think we can either control the actions of others or that our actions don’t affect the whole. In community we must find ways to walk together. That means some of us will need to speed up our pace, others will have to slow down and all of us should be a little uncomfortable.
For some the Star Trek metaphor probably went a little too far. Some of you have no clue what any of the Star Trek references mean, but I hope you take the time to understand your importance in MC USA. While the characters on the TV show were a diverse, united federation of planets, seeking “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” we in MC USA are a diverse federation of Anabaptists committed to boldly following the Jesus way of peace.