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Mennonite Church Canada leadership discern a smaller system


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March 22, 2011
- Dan Dyck

Winnipeg, Man. — Mennonite Church Canada leaders spent much of their Spring Leadership Assembly in Winnipeg, Mar. 2-5, preparing for a smaller national church structure in the near future.

Willard Metzger, General Secretary, said “We have done all the tweaking we can do to provide sustainable programming within our current income level. The signs are clear.”

He was referring to a seven-year downward trend in donation revenue that shows “no clear signs of positive change” in the near future, citing economic realities of the last three years as one contributor to the downward trend.

The discussions focused on program and staffing reductions for the fiscal year 2012-2013, with an eye to focusing on the essential work of a national church, added Metzger. Specific programs or personnel have not yet been identified for reduction, he said.

“What we do know is that to remain viable, we have to reduce our budget by approximately $500,000 from present levels for 2012-2013.” This means that reductions and the associated costs of severance will occur within the current fiscal year with the goal of beginning Feb. 1, 2012 with the smaller system, he added.

Leadership and Executive Staff have scheduled several meetings in the coming weeks to strategically discern and determine what a new future might look like. The General Board will review a draft plan for reductions at its mid-April meeting.

It’s a composite, complex situation to communicate, acknowledged Andrew Reesor-McDowell, Moderator. Mennonite Church Canada staff has always done its budgeting and spending carefully, and even more so in recent years, cautiously under-expending near year-end in preparation for potential income shortfalls, he said.

“Staff have delayed filling vacant positions, they are increasingly working with part-time support staff, and have kept a close watch on hard costs,” said Reesor-McDowell. “But we have reached a point where further tweaking will not support all our current ministries well. We have reached a threshold, a critical point, in our economies of scale.”

A General Board decision, recommended by the Finance Policy and Audit Committee in 2003, dictates that budgets must be designed using the actual donation income from the previous year. This cautious measure has been prudent in light of the long pattern in declining giving, said Reesor-McDowell, but a tipping point has been reached. Unaudited figures showed a $193,000 income shortfall for the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 2011. The shortfall will be covered by a draw on reserves as has been past practice, but this is an unsustainable pattern for the future, said Reesor-McDowell.

Is the situation reversible? Yes, says Metzger, but only if there is an ongoing commitment to increased giving. “For example, if 1,000 people would pledge $1,000 per year for ten years in additional giving to Mennonite Church Canada, starting this year, we could shortcut this process, begin replenishing reserves, and even begin to imagine growth.”

Matters became further complicated when a General Board staff salary scale review revealed that Mennonite Church Canada salaries were dropping considerably behind salaries of comparable organizations, making it increasingly difficult to fill vacant positions. This led to a board decision in the fall of 2009 to develop a plan that would gradually bring salaries up into an equitable range - a $340,000 cost over three years, beginning in 2010.

This salary decision has been thoroughly critiqued and discussed, said Reesor-McDowell.

“It’s not easy to decide to improve salary scales when income continues to decline year over year,” he said. “There is never a good time to make this correction to compensation, but it needs to be done. The General Board is responsible for looking after the overall long term health of the national church. Continually underpaying staff over the long-term gradually undervalues the important contribution staff make to the overall life of the church, leads to increased staff turnover, and contributes to the ongoing instability and declining confidence and trust in the national church. We can’t go there. Comparable salary scales are necessary to fill vacancies promptly, and reflects healthy stewardship on behalf of those who serve the church.”

“I deeply believe Mennonite Church Canada is a generous church. We celebrate increased giving to the congregations and church related ministries. At this time it looks as though we must create a smaller national structure,” said Reesor-McDowell.

Metzger also noted that there are things to celebrate. “About ten years ago Mennonite Church Canada was one of the first national churches to intentionally restructure itself around a missional paradigm. Area churches and congregations embraced this missional pilgrimage and have grown a stronger capacity for mission in the pews. But I hope that we can also return Mennonite Church Canada to a position of missional strength so that the church at all levels can be empowered and strengthened.”

Supplement: “Without goats to sell or wells to dig, it’s hard to explain what we do.”

Winnipeg, Man. — A Mennonite Church Canada staff person recently commented that, “Without goats to sell or wells to dig, it’s hard to explain what we do.”

Willard Metzger, General Secretary of Mennonite Church Canada and past Director of Church Relations at World Vision says much good has come from organizations that provide goats and dig wells.

“That is good work. But it is important to say that the people committed to compassionate aid ministries have grown out of a strong church, one that shapes and forms and disciple’s lives for service to God’s work in the world,” said Metzger, hinting at Mennonite Church Canada’s priorities of Growing Leaders for the Church, Becoming a Global Church, and Forming a People of God.

What impact does Mennonite Church Canada have? Beatriz Barrios, a pastor and participant in International Mennonite Pastors Coming Together enthusiastically exclaimed, “This is such a wonderful event! I had no idea our struggles were so similar to churches in other countries!” Bock Ki Kim, Pastor at Vision Mennonite Church in London, Ont., refers Mennonite Church Canada’s online Resource Centre web site to pastors and friends in Korea who want to know more about Anabaptists and Mennonites. And Mennonite Church Canada, its Area Churches and its congregations are strong partners of Mennonite World Conference, exceeding their fair share target contributions.

“Our role,” said Metzger, “is to change lives for a lifetime. That work is not confined to geographical boundaries. We do it in Canada and beyond. In exceptional circumstances, that can include facilitating relief aid if none of our partners have an on-the-ground presence where our workers are.

“It takes time, patience, and persistence in ministry to plant a new church abroad or at home, to translate Mennonite resources into languages for the over 15 language groups in Mennonite congregations here in Canada, to realize a growing, self-sustaining congregation, or to build up a highly specialized Resource Centre and promote its value as an international ministry to the grass roots,” he added.

There are also things the national church does that are largely hidden from view. “We maintain a Ministry Leadership Information database that helps congregations find pastors, and oversee a national pension plan for over 200 congregations and other church bodies that include people like our own pastors and area church staff,” Metzger added.

Metzger reiterates that the national church’s focus is on forming a people of God, becoming a global church, and growing leaders for the church - all activities that change lives for a lifetime, The national church seeks to invite people to test and exercise their gifts, develop pathways for national churches to relate to one another and benefit from shared inspiration and information, and engage in international ministry because that is part of our vocation.

“The church development ministry we do is not work that is quickly measurable in numbers or annual reports. The impact sometimes takes a long time to be realized. Our work is valuable, but does not provide the same quick turn around on impact or immediately measurable goals,” said Metzger, adding that the church is the soil that sprouts and nurtures many outgrowth ministries that do offer goats to impoverished farmers and dig wells. “We are mandated to fertilize the soil, to multiply the roots, and to nurture the seedlings,” he added.

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