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Winkler assembly “holy ground”


October 5, 2004
-by Dan Dyck


Caley (5) show off her quilt square. The project was produced as part of the Friday Festival in the Park at Winkler 2005. Caley along with over 60 other contributors helped create the quilt. It is currently on display at the Mennonite Church Canada offices in Winnipeg.

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Winnipeg, Man.— Mennonite Church Canada folks like to meet in churches, and they like to celebrate. What’s more, they like to meet at round tables in Mennonite Church Canada churches.

That’s one message that came back from 175 assembly registrants who filled out their assembly evaluation forms – a 29% response rate. Seventy-one percent rated the assembly as very good – one of the highest assembly approval ratings in recent years. Only 2% said it was fair or disappointing.

There was a general sense of satisfaction at the Winkler Assembly, said Pam Peters-Pries, executive secretary of Support Services and staff planning leader for the event. Although detailed accounts aren’t in yet, it’s expected that higher than anticipated registration numbers will help push the Assembly into the black.

“Our goal was to try and help assembly goers experience unity instead of talking about it. Various aspects contributed to that positive feeling,” said Peters-Pries.

“People really liked meeting in a church, and moreover in an MC Canada church,” added Peters-Pries, commenting that she personally liked the feeling of being served by volunteers who were welcoming others to their home church, and seeing familiar items on bulletin boards, like pictures of students attending various Mennonite schools. “I think it helps people feel at home,” she said, versus meeting on a university campus or church from another denomination. There were virtually no complaints about the facility at Winkler Bergthaler MC.

Other positive aspects included the roundtable discernment times, which permitted more delegate interaction in small groups. One respondent wrote, “This was the best MC Canada Assembly I have attended by far. The morning format of round tables, worship and discernment is great because we are all rarin' to go at 8:30 am.” Another wrote, “This (roundtables) must be continued! It felt like I was on holy ground.” The evening worship times and sermons were also a highlight for many.

Eighty-three percent of respondents said MC Canada should again invite resolutions in advance of the assembly, but not to the exclusion of resolutions from the floor. Information on advance resolutions for Winkler was posted on the MC Canada web site as it became available.

The outdoor Festival in the Park was evaluated separately. This intergenerational event designed to engage assembly goers in interactive participation with various Mennonite Church Canada ministries also proved to be hit. Out of 203 respondents, 190 were in favour of holding a similar event again. Planners estimate that over 800 people attended the festival.

Anecdotally, the children’s assembly received rave reviews from kids and parents alike at the assembly site. Several parents reported that their youngsters resisted leaving the program for meal times, preferring instead to stay at their activity stations. Viola Woelk, lead organizer, achieved her goal of engaging the younger set in the Assembly theme, rather than simply offering “a babysitting service.”

One of the biggest challenges of the Assembly was the unprecedented number of walk-up participants – nearly 100 out of 596 guests who arrived without having pre-registered, including some families with unregistered children. “We always build in some room for walk-ups, both for meals and slots for children,” said Peters-Pries, “… but this year we had significantly higher numbers of walk-ups than ever before. Accurately anticipating walk-ups is an annual challenge.” She stressed that participants must pre-register to avoid disappointment.

Another planning challenge is to offer the right amount of choice of activities. Offering seminars concurrently with discernment sessions and tours presented assembly goers with a lot of choice. “A good portion of folks like that choice, especially if they do not have delegate responsibilities,” said Peters-Pries, noting that this year 401 of the total 596 people registered were on official delegate duty for their congregation. “But it also means that a good number feel conflicted. They would like to attend a concurrent seminar, but carry a commitment to their delegate duties. People also just need time to rest.”

While evaluations provide feedback useful to planning future assemblies, duplicating Winkler 2004 may be nearly impossible. One evaluation respondent survey wryly observed: “Excellent! Whoever does this next time has big shoes to fill.” Peters-Pries knows the truth in that statement all too well.

Meeting in another church in 2006 (a bi-national gathering with MC USA in Charlotte, N.C. is planned for 2005) or hosting another Festival in the Park will depend almost entirely on the location and available facilities. “There are virtually no other MC Canada congregations that have facilities like Winkler Bergthaler, where we would have room to host round table discussions for 600 or more people,” said Peters-Pries. And on alternate years when youth and adult assemblies are held jointly, registration can easily swell to over 1,000, requiring large worship and dining spaces and plenty of lodging. “For an adult assembly, Winkler has a great combination of space, volunteer base, community venues, and lodging,” she noted. “It will be challenging to find such an excellent combination in other locations.”

Summarizing the entire assembly, one respondent wrote, “The Assembly 2004 was a ‘mountain-top’ experience.” It seems Winkler 2004 has raised the bar for assemblies to come.