Resurrection hope for new Mennonite Church USA executive director

I was originally writing this as a comment responding to the Search for next Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA post by ST, but it got quite long and so I posted it on As of Yet Untitled too.

Over on Young Anabaptist Radicals, we recently had a post asking for opinions and thoughts regarding the search for a new Mennonite Church Executive director. I asked to hear more about the job of the current executive director and Dave S responded with an overview of the work Jim Schrag does. One of the things that struck me about his response was the amount of time Jim spends focused on structures. Dave mentions "agencies, conferences, schools… many groups, convention planning, several boards, committees and leadership groups, and so on".

Reading Dave’s comment led me to a clearer sense of my hopes for the new executive director: that he or she can facilitate the de-bureaucratization of Mennonite Church USA and its agencies.

The other week I had supper with Stuart Murray Williams, a British Anabaptist who has pioneered a non-institutional approach to church planting in the UK (see my 2007 interview with him for more). He was also my supervisor when I worked at the Anabaptist Network, a group that has consciously avoided becoming a traditional organization over its 20 year life together.

Stuart had just finished a three week tour visiting US Mennonite communities in the Northeast and Midwest. I asked him what his impressions where. He said, ‘top heavy’. In an email he elaborated, "I was more aware than before of how institutional and bureaucratic Mennonite church life is, with multiple committees and acronyms, a plurality of meetings and structures, all for a relatively small denomination."

In the last 40 years, Mennonites have wholeheartedly embraced the modern trend toward institutionalization. Our mission boards became agencies. And our committees have proliferated and congealed. Ah yes, committees. They promised a veneer of mainstream respectability to community gathering around a shared call. But they betrayed us and became symbols of stultifying bureaucracy; the punch-line in our jokes.

Our alphabet soups of agencies have too often become a barrier rather then agents as their name implies. This is especially true for young adults. I’ve watched many in my generation grow cynical and drift away from church life too focused on committees, buildings and boards to the neglect of letting God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world. We have grown up surrounded by institutions, for profit or not, focused on self-preservation ahead of all else. We have no interest in a church that gives us more of the same.

The proposal by the Mennonite Church USA Executive board in March 2008 was an attempt to respond to this issue. But even the process that got us there is indicative of a unwieldy structure desperately trying to be democratic:

Waltner and Diller said the denomination’s six year review, delegate table group responses from San José 2007, feedback from the Constituency Leaders Council, a 2006 CLC task force report, a 2005 funding study and the Church Member Profile 2006 all indicate a need for improving the ability of church-wide ministries to function effectively, to relate to each other and to support area conferences and congregations as they seek to join God’s work in the world.

That’s right, five different reports, studies and surveys. And that is the irony of it all. Each new committee and each new channel promises more capacity, more communication and more community. And we are drawn farther inward and away from living out the call of Jesus in the world.

The response of the executive board was to propose further centralization of leadership. If your only paradigm is modern bureaucracy, that makes sense. However, the executive director’s proposals drew strongly negative reactions (see CLC responds to Executive Board action for example). Perhaps their is a different way.

We are living in a world that is increasingly moving away from organizations and institutions as the main way of getting things done. Recently I reviewed Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, a brilliant book about the increasing irrelevance of traditional institutional methods of getting things done. Author Clay Shirky blows the bureaucratic paradigm out of the water with a vision of people coming together to do "big things for love" without institutions. Here’s an excerpt from my review (published in the Common Review) that summarizes some of his insights:

Organizations had previously operated on the "universal and unspoken supposition that people couldn’t simply self-assemble" because, Shirky explains, groups facing complex tasks traditionally become overburdened without a correspondingly complex hierarchy and structure such as management…

So what are the implications? It’s not that big institutions will disappear overnight (Shirky is no Utopian). Rather, the relative advantage of big management structures will disappear. The extensive overhead to pay managers and directors becomes an inefficiency to complete the same tasks.

What does this mean for Mennonite Church USA? It calls us to to come together to live as disciples of Christ outside of our alphabet soup of agencies. Anabaptist minded movements around us are already doing this. So far our main way of relating to them seems to be to try to assimilate them into our structures. What if the reverse happened?

Sometimes organizations will be useful. For example, Mennonite Mission Network has increasingly focused on facilitating relationships between congregations in the US and mission projects elsewhere. What other ways can we imagine Mennonite agencies stepping out of the way?

Whenever there is a move away from institutionalism, it is painful. It means giving up familiar structures and often the jobs that go with them. Just talk to former employees of Herald Press. Institutions build up massive momentum. They can go away in a chaotic, desperate decline, fighting it all the way. Or they can embrace their own transformation: gracefully dying to be resurrected in the life together of Mennonite communities across the US.

P.S. I would be remiss if I did not point that I too work at a church related organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams. And yet still I imagine a future where we are not needed.

Comments (3)

  1. Skylark

    What does this mean for those who aren’t part of the institutionalized parts of the church? How do we help nudge/push/prod/ram the bureaucracy into something less cumbersome?

    Maybe it’s because the Canadian Mennonite Church is the overseer of the Stansberry Children’s Home in Bolivia, but I had very little red tape when I went down there on my own dime. I know the people state-side who screen applicants, and they helped me get things in line for the political bureaucracies I’d encounter. But, it might have been much more complicated if I’d been going through SALT, as many of Stansberry’s volunteers do.

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