Since I have primary oversight of the Mennonite Church USA finances and the planning of our national convention, it is hard for me to totally unplug from my work. Technically I am supposed to be on sabbatical, but people in Mennonite Church USA keep emailing me and texting, asking me what I am going to do. Here is a sampling of what they have been asking since the “big announcement” :
“Are you nervous about convention?”
“How challenging is your job right now?”
“What is going on with the staff?”
To be totally honest, all the people inquiring are really asking the same question;
“Is Mennonite Church USA going to fall apart now that Lancaster is leaving?”
Well here is my answer: I doubt it. I say that for a number of reasons, none of which are meant to be tongue-in-cheek or unrealistic, religious speak.
First of all Mennonite Church USA is a complex and layered federation that cannot just fall apart.
Mennonite Church USA is made up of agencies, colleges, institutions, conferences, congregations, peoples and culture. Mennonite Church USA is greater than just the members of the Executive Board or its administrative staff. Mennonite Church USA is as much Ervin Stutzman as it is a 13 year old girl that sits in MYF meetings each Wednesday night in Kalona, Iowa. I don’t think either of them are ready to pull the plug just yet. Each of them, in their own way, is getting life from the denomination.
Secondly, Mennonite Church USA has a global presence and is doing work that is supported by generous donors who still believe in missions, social justice and healing a war-torn world.
True passion and generosity does not just stop because of disagreements or divorce. In fact, adversity and necessity often strengthen people to give more and be more supportive of the ministry and programs they believe in. People still believe in Mennonite Church USA.
Thirdly, I believe that as long as we, the motley Mennonite crew, do what God has called us to do that we will exist. Our vision coupled with God’s grace will allow us to weather this tempest of transition.
Fourth, I find it a hard to believe all my Swiss-German friends are just going to disband and stop hanging out with each other. Who would they play the name game with? For good or bad, cultural relationships and familial bonds have dominated our denomination for a long time. Will those relationships simply end over polity and theological disputes? I just cannot see it, but maybe I am wrong.
Finally I acknowledge, things are going to change in Mennonite Church USA. Is that a bad thing? Why would that make me nervous?
Change is the only constant in the universe.
Mennonite Church USA has been changing. Since I was hired in September 2009 we have been dealing with change. We have faced a number of challenges during my tenure:
- The economic downturn greatly changed giving patterns for all non-profits, not just Mennonite Church USA.
- opposition to building of the Elkhart building and lower than expected donor gifts for the completion of it
- opposition to Phoenix as the 2013 location for convention
- Mennonite World Conference Assembly 2015 and Kansas City 2015 being held in the same country
- John Howard Yoder
- Hopi Mission school
I could add a number of items to this list. As a member of the Executive Board staff and project manager for our national convention, probably 90 percent of my job is dealing with challenging issues. I have even had to negotiate disputes over land deals signed by Calvin Coolidge and congregational matters involving Kubota tractors.
Yes the pending transition of Lancaster Mennonite Conference has caused us to examine our budget and future staffing patterns, but we have been planning for this possibility for the past five years. As the chief steward for the Executive Board staff it has been my goal to create a lean and flexible organization that would be able to handle crisis and uncertainty. So while the departure of several Mennonite Church USA conferences and congregations is disappointing, these transitions were not unexpected.
Our staff has planned and prepared for a number of scenarios, God has provided for our immediate needs, and we are constantly looking at innovative ways to keep this denomination moving forward.
Yes our budget, staffing, and structures will need to adapt, but isn’t that just life?
Recently my wife transitioned from a job that she held for over 17 years, causing a significant drop in my family income. So my family has adjusted. We have had to pull a little money from savings, scale back our lifestyle a bit, and make changes to adapt to this new reality. While the transition is not ideal, we are prepared and we still believe that God loves us.
That is how I look at the transition of the various conference and congregations out of Mennonite Church USA. The loss of the revenue and partnership is unfortunate, but we are prepared. God still loves us and I still love all the people in North Central and Lancaster that I loved before. Our national convention is open to anyone who wants to come, just like it has always been. Many Mennonites and non-Mennonites from across the globe have joined our odd crew every odd year that I can remember. So I encourage everyone to register, bring a friend and come fellowship with us in Orlando, July 4-8, 2017.
I believe that the stories of the demise of Mennonite Church USA have been exaggerated.
I look forward to seeing what the future holds for us.
I am hopeful for a leaner and more relevant institution that truly embodies healing and hope. Things will be different and that’s okay, as long as we are faithful to who God has called us to be.