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Six General Secretaries reflect on the church


Six General Secretaries, past and present, of Mennonite Church Canada and Conference of Mennonites in Canada, and their spouses, met to share their love for and wisdom about the church. l-r: Irene and Robert J. Suderman; Helmut and Irma Harder; Jake and Tina Letkemann; Henry and Susan Gerbrandt; Dan Nighswander and Yvonne Snider-Nighswander; Larry and Jessie Kehler.

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August 20, 2009
- Dan Dyck, with files from Bruce Hildebrand

“His (God’s) intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” - Ephesians 3:10

Winnipeg, Man. — On June 23, six past and present General Secretaries of Mennonite Church Canada and the Conference of Mennonites in Canada met at Bethel Mennonite Church in Wpg. to share about their love for the church – and their wealth of wisdom about the church.

Current General Secretary Robert J. Suderman called the group together, noting with amazement that all six continue to live in Winnipeg.

Jake Letkemann served from 1967-71. He said that the turbulence of the sixties shaped much of his term. One challenge was that Canadian Mennonite Bible College, a school of the church, came under much criticism. Another reality was that many dynamic and creative individuals were taking energetic initiatives and making things happen. While the energy of individual initiative was exciting, Letkemann came to appreciate the importance of the broader church structure, with its staying power and stability. Important challenges for the church were divorce, homosexuality and the transition from German to English. The Vietnam War and the question of harbouring draft dodgers was also on the agenda.

The eldest of the six is Henry Gerbrandt (1971-81). The hearing-challenged, 94 year-old year old, displayed wit and humour, commenting that the church scene today has become much quieter than thirty years ago: people today tend to talk in whispers, he said. With interpretive help from his wife Susan, he said that his delight was in visiting local churches. He also encouraged ecumenical connections, indicating that Mennonites do not need to fear being absorbed by other groups, and that Mennonites have a contribution to make. He encouraged fraternity and relationship with other church bodies.

Larry Kehler (1981-90) had to address the tensions between the so called “Evangelical” and “Anabaptist” camps in the denomination, citing the annual conference at Three Hills, Alberta as an example. Keynote speaker Jim Wallis of Sojouners magazine fame carried the “evangelical” label, to which many took exception. Kehler guided an increasing openness to the leadership and gifts of women in church life. Kehler also spoke to the witness and learning that comes from greater ecumenical involvement. “The unity of God’s people is a testimony to the world,” said Kehler.

Helmut Harder (1990-99), observed that his biggest challenge was managing the integration of the General Conference and Mennonite Church from a Canadian perspective – a lengthy process that took place on a North American stage. Related to this was the creation of Mennonite Church Canada and MC USA. His role in generating the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective was a satisfying project from his era. The document has since helped shape not only the churches in Canada and USA but also some new Mennonite churches in Cuba, Vietnam, and Chile.

Dan Nighswander said that during his tenure (1999-2005) many congregations were excited about being part of something larger – Mennonite Church Canada. Satisfying outcomes for him were the decisions for MC Canada to become a member of both the Christian Council of Churches and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Nighswander led the administrative and structural transition into Mennonite Church Canada at a time when financial viability was a challenge. A financial crisis became the defining issue, both internally and through a loan to the struggling publishing ministry partner, which later became Mennonite Publishing Network. A downsizing exercise in 2003 saw various levels of the church pitch in – an encouraging moment.

For his part, Suderman (2005 – present) expressed gratitude for the contributions of his predecessors. “It is not the easiest thing these days to be the church, especially in Canada,” he said. Letkemann’s 1960s challenge of understanding sexuality in the life of Christians and the church persists today. Suderman continues to receive many letters on the topic, and strives to respond to each one. He noted that the consolidation of the Canadian church has been gratifying, even though it hasn’t been easy given that denominational loyalties had been strongly shaped in north-south rather than east-west directions. He is encouraged by the growth of the church in the non-English/German language groups. Keeping accurate numerical church statistics is a newer challenge given the inconsistent counting methods across Canada and shifting definitions of church membership.

Still, Suderman painted a quick numerical sketch of the Mennonite Church Canada part of the Body of Christ today. It has approximately 33,000 baptized members in 225 congregations. These congregations gather annual revenues of about $44 million – generosity that is shared with a wide variety of local, regional, national, and international ministries and agencies. MC Canada receives about 8% of these revenues.

Suderman referred to an amazing statement in scripture: “so that through the churchthe manifold wisdom of God will be made known to powers and authorities (Eph. 3:10).  He said it is this vocation that has inspired the many efforts of the past and continues to inspire and motivate us today. “It is a privilege to be the church, and it is an honour to spend time with these servants of the church who have given so much,” he concluded.