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Justina Heese retires


January 13, 2004
-by Dan Dyck


Winnipeg, Man.-Thoughtful, reflective, gentle, encouraging, and enabling are just a few characteristics that describe Justina Heese's mark on her role as executive secretary of Mennonite Church Canada's Christian Formation area.

"I see my role really as not needing to manage all of the Formation areas, but to be the encourager and the person who enables others to do this."

Heese has announced that she will retire in September, 2004. In the last five years, she has helped provide insight and direction to the transformation from the Conference of Mennonites in Canada (CMC) to Mennonite Church Canada, and the subsequent shift from the former Resources Commission (under CMC) to the new Christian Formation. She has been an active volunteer in the church at congregational and conference levels for some 35 years.

Her time of leadership has been full of opportunities and challenges. One high point she notes is the emerging collaboration with Christian Witness. There is greater emphasis on Formation staff working collaboratively to set mutually beneficial program goals, and then working together to achieve them. "We still miss an opportunity now and again, but we are more consciously striving for a seamless system of ministry," she said.

The appointment of Samson Lo to the office of Multi-cultural ministry is another highlight for Heese. "He is the catalyst for a whole bunch of things that are happening," in the diverse ethnic groups in MC Canada. "It isn't a fluke that we came across the (missional) leadership training for multicultural people taught by Maurice Martin, using a course from AMBS and initiated by an area conference," said Heese.

Eighty-five people in Mennonite Church Eastern Canada and 40 in Mennonite Church Manitoba have taken the training. "If you can get that many multi-cultural people together to learn Anabaptist history to know what we're about... this is where we have been weak. We have attracted and started congregations, but it has taken a while to discover something that they can embrace, that takes them to the next step... this is the genius of this cooperative venture. They are now taking (what they have learned) and translating the study materials into Lao and Korean, and they're doing it (virtually) on their own... the enthusiasm for this is brewing." Samson Lo's encouragement and sensitive listening and Maurice Martin's teaching continue to be the way that Mennonite Church Canada's can serve multi-cultural leaders.

An ongoing source of satisfaction for Heese is seeing various people optimize their unique gifts - a personal fulfillment that is perhaps indicative of her background as a teacher and her interests in education. She says there is an abundance of creativity, innovation and giftedness in the church. "To put people into a job where they can blossom is one of the most satisfying things that happens here."

There have also been disappointments. Having to release staff due to budget restraints was one of the toughest things she has experienced in her role. But she acknowledges that such unpleasant tasks come with a job that has a $874,000 budget responsibility.

Heese hopes that one task she has been coordinating for all of her five years will be finished before she leaves: the translation of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective into Chinese. There has been a lot of input from various groups over the years, and almost as many versions. Trying to translate a complex theological document into a complex language like Chinese, while maintaining consensus on the essence of the content, has been a challenge.

"I would really like to celebrate my going out of the office with that book in my hand... because the Chinese churches have been asking for it," she said, noting that Samson Lo has found someone to put the finishing touches on the translation. "Cross cultural stuff is tricky business," she adds, since excellent skill in two languages, theological training, and knowledge of Anabaptist/Mennonite interpretations and history are all key pieces of the puzzle."

An ongoing challenge, and one that her successor will inherit, may well shape up to be a key issue in the future of the church. Adult Christian education at the congregational level is something that has suffered as a result of ever busier lifestyles.

"We have (traditionally) left adult Christian education to the schools," she said. "But that is only one slice of our congregational (need)," observing that participation in adult Christian education at church on Sunday mornings is highly voluntary. In some congregations, she has seen adult education on Sunday mornings dwindle from full participation to only a handful of participants.

"We have to be more creative about what we do, and how we do it. You can't participate in Biblical discernment without knowing the Bible... our whole model about the missional church is, 'How do we discern what God is doing in the world, and how do we align ourselves with that work?' If we don't know anything about the Bible, and are Biblically illiterate, how do we see where God is working? There is a big disconnect."

"Somehow you have to connect (with) what the Biblical record is. I think that is the challenge for the Western church. I don't think that is the challenge for the church in the (global) South... the people (there) are excited about learning, and that enthusiasm will influence the rest of us. They will say, 'How can you do it (not be Biblical informed)? We are coming to evangelize you!'

Heese admits the solution for adult Christian education at the congregational level is elusive. "The denomination has the opportunity and the responsibility to alert congregations to what exciting things exist, and for the ways they could be taught, but the actual decision to learn is a congregational decision."

Although polls and surveys suggest growing societal disillusion with institutions, Heese is confident about the future of MC Canada. "One of the interesting things to me is how many gifted people there are who are willing to give their time and energy to working for the church," a clear indication, she says, that the story of the institutional church is far from over.