Bureaucracy and Buildings in the Mennonite Church

Exhibition of Jean-Michel Folon. Photo by by Marco Bellucci CC BY 2.0

crossposted from As of Yet Untittled

A few weeks ago I sat down with a group of Mennonite Mission Network staff who have been managing the $10 million capital campaign for the new Mennonite Church USA building on the campus of Associated Mennonite Biblical seminaries in Elkhart, Ind. The staff members were meeting with a number of people inside and outside of the institution who have had significant concerns and questions about the direction this project is taking the church.

In listening to the the responses from Mission Network staff to theological and missiological questions raised by the dissenters, I was struck by how much they focused on institutional values such as finances, efficiency and professionalism. The conversation made real for me the way the institutions of the Mennonite church are centered on values of professionalism and institutional interests in their decision making process. I heard them asking: What would a professional do? before asking, “What would Jesus do?”

For those talking with us, it was clear that they saw their institution at the center of the future of the church. You can see this clearly in the the language of the bulletin insert for the campaign. It invites donors to “Help strengthen the future of Mennonite Church USA” and “build the future” and talks about “investing in hope.” Is this building really the future of the church? Is this institution?

The metaphor that came to mind for me in thinking about church institutions was is that of a vehicle. In building the vehicle, the church hoped to better live out Jesus’ call. They looked to others building similar vehicles in both the secular and religious world. They valued stability, continuity and efficiency. They saw the necessity of the vehicle in moving things forward. Over time, the perspective of those who work within the vehicle is shaped by the necessiities of vehicle maintenance and fuel.

Here’s how Kathy E. Ferguson puts it in The Feminist Case Against Bureacracy.

The norms and rules dominant in bureaucracy, as in any social system, are generally those that support the requirements of bureaucratic self-maintenance. Motivations and behavior that are consistent with the needs of self-maintenance are encouraged and rewarded; those inconsistent with it are penalized. Thus the real goals of the organization become those that keep the machinery of the institution running.

At the same time, the instinct to institution build is understandable. Institutions promise to preserve a vision for a future generation: to make a part of ourselves immortal. Those who work for them can derive a sense of meaning and belonging, not to mention a job. My parents both work at Mennonite instititions and I spent a wonderful two and half years volunteering with the Mission Network in London. At their best, instiutions can provide community for their workers and constituents.

But how do we know when we’re off balance? How do we know when the values of institutional maintenance have become too central in our thinking about church? I look forward to looking more at these questions in part two of this article.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Jesus Matters, edited by James Krabill and David W. Shenk:

Does church mean an institutionalized, bureaucratic organization, irrelevant, slow to respond and limiting our potential? Obviously, this was not at all what Jesus had in mind. The church is meant to be an alternative community, subverting the values of our dominant society with kingdom of God priorities. It is to be radical, countercultural, and prophetic. It is to be a mobile and portable reservoir of kingdom-living that can be present and contextualized everywhere. Because the agenda of the ekklesia is the agenda of God’s kingdom, its interests are not narrow but broadly inclusive of all things that impact the welfare of society as well as creation. – Jack Suderman with Andrew Suderman and Irene, Bryan, Derek, Julie, Rebecca and Karen Suderman in the “Jesus and the Church” chapter

Photo by by Marco Bellucci. Licensed under Creative Commons by attribution 2.0

Comments (11)

  1. AlanS

    I think I share your concerns about becoming mired in institutionalism for it’s own sake. But I’d also like to offer a bit of a different perspective.

    One of the things that needs to be asked is what are we comparing our bureaucracy to. Are we assessing current MCUSA plans in relation to what we’ve known in the Mennonite church prior to this? Are we assessing it in relationship to the bureaucracy of house churches? Are we assessing it in relation to the Catholic bureaucracy? The U.S. bureaucracy? Our own ideal bureaucracy? In terms of a denominational bureaucracy compared to other denominations, the reality is that MCUSA isn’t really that big. There are some really top heavy denominations out there but we’re not it.

    The other thing of concern that I would raise is that it sounds like you are working from a perspective that institutions are fundamentally a bad thing, they are a liability to the work of God. I would question that assumption. Yes, I think we need to continually re-asses any given institutions usefulness, but I’m very glad that bureaucracies like Mennonite Voluntary Service, Mennonite Central Committee, all of the Church Colleges, are Church Conferences and even the bureaucracy of the local church that now employs me as a pastor exist. I don’t see these institutions/organizations/bureaucracies as liabilities but rather as assets to the mission of God. It is through these larger organizations that we can come together to live out, as you quote Suderman, the Kingdom of God whose “interests are not narrow but broadly inclusive of all things that impact the welfare of society as well as creation”.

    As for the charge of professionalism. You are right that there is something to be said for the adaptability of any institution to follow God’s will, especially the church. However, professionalism is also important. If we’re planning on going the separatist route (which is theologically legitimate and I do support that) then rejecting any semblance of worldly professionalism is a fine way to go. However, if we are interested, at a denominational level, in having a presence on the national and world stage in a way in which people will take us seriously, then at least the appearance of professionalism is a key. Make no mistake that our seriousness and professionalism had a hand in helping to get MVS be the first recognized Christian alternative service organization in 25 years (link below). Professionalism is not inherently evil, or antithetical to the Gospel. Yes, it should be kept in check by the Gospel, but they are not opposites.

    Now, to be fair, I wasn’t at the meeting that you were. Had I been, I’m sure I would have a different take on it. I do trust your observations and thank you for raising this question. I’m not saying your wrong, I’m just saying there are some other ways to look at bureaucracy.


  2. mennomom

    Excellent Tim N – I’m looking forward to Part 2. And an equally excellent response, Alan S. Having been involved in the local church as a lay person for many years, I often ponder this tension. It happened again at our last congregational meeting – the church building, about 90 years of age, needs reroofing. We are a traditional rural church with a steadily declining number of regular participants. So how much do we spend? Do we go with metal at a high cost but increased longevity? Or asphalt shingles. While it’s true that institutions by their very nature can accomplish what small groups of like-minded individuals cannot – I have noticed that more and more of the resources of time, energy and money go toward maintaining the institution and “selling” the projects to the constituents. So I too am a little disturbed by the slogans “building the future” and “investing in hope”. Like so much sales jargon, it sounds inspiring, but somewhat disengenuous. So let’s at least be honest – MCUSA is building a much needed administrative office complex to support the various programs of our denomination. And asking for money to make it happen.

    It’s a bit of a puzzle to me that when it comes to a building/remodelling project, most people in a congregation have no qualms about getting involved and supporting. Those congregational meetings are generally well attended. And questions are not encouraged! On the other hand, a meeting called to discuss how the congregation can be more welcoming to our neighbours in the community, or how we can better reflect our mission, draws very few persons, so few that we don’t even have those kinds of meetings any more. It’s all about keeping the vehicle running – great analogy, TimN – and less and less about where the driver and occupants are going or what they are going to do once they arrive.

    Yet once an institution is established, it does need maintenance to keep doing the work for which it came into being in the first place. I’m frequently torn in my mind. So it’s good to keep asking “What would Jesus do? Even if the answers don’t come easy.

  3. Phil Wood

    Hi Tim, long time no see. I agree with much of what you say though I would like to reflect a little on how the UK differs from the US. Institutionalization in general and buildings in particular present us with puzzling dilemmas. Human beings are tool using animals and social organization is our greatest invention. It is also our greatest trap. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve come across organizations that have lost sight of whey they’re there or worse become totalizing institutions, wounding and damaging their human contributors.

    As regards buildings much the same could be said – they are both an asset and a threat. Broadly, the church is most vigorous where we have fewest buildings. In the UK the Anabaptist constituency owns virtually nothing because we’re so small. However, at the moment I work for churches of other Traditions helping them with ‘mission development’. In the Methodist Circuit where I’m currently based there are three extensive building projects under way. I have to say that it’s like wading through treacle to get out from under all that property talk. So many times I’ve started a conversation talking mission and my hearers somehow get around to the ‘project’. It’s addictive and infuriating. Perhaps we need rehab for property junkies.

  4. leeann

    “So it’s good to keep asking “What would Jesus do? Even if the answers don’t come easy.”
    $10M. Radical change is screaming to happen. No building with this purpose (if built with the right materials and volunteers) needs to cost millions. An irrational, statement? Look: healthy (for the building and the people) strong, large constructions are made from steel frames and straw bales. This is not a radical idea. Just a radical change in plans.


    Please comment.

  5. leeann

    Correction: volunteers help to defray cost, but would not be necessary.

    Does this building need to happen? If so, how can it happen so that the money to 1. build it, and 2. maintain it are minimal: *not* 90% of tithe money going to a *building*.

    I do not want to be present when Jesus asks what percentage of tithe money went to poor and outcast and needy people. I’ll give to a church where money goes to peoples’ life and death needs, vs. a building. More and more people have this conviction and are gravitating to home churches or meeting in rented spaces.

  6. Tim B

    This is the second post recently questioning the increase in the size of institutions. I questioned this several years ago, but not the church, advocacy groups (For which I was much maligned).

    I’d like for the Mennonite Church to increase the size of the church, not through buildings, but through church planting. If we do need offices or whatever, why on the campus of a current mennonite facility? Why not outside of our normal social structures where the Gospel and the mission of the denomination can move outside of its current borders? Mennonites are notoriously reclusive, and this new expenditure seems to re-enforce that well deserved stereotype.

    Once again, Anabaptists prove that being proactive, missional members of Christiandom is probably not on their short list of things to become. We’d rather hang out in familiar territory, with familiar people, with familiar last names.

    No wonder we remain such a very tiny denomination with little impact on the world at large.

  7. AlanS

    Thought for discussion and clarification.

    It seems like the discussion here is over whether or not we need a building. That seems to be something of a false choice. We have an organization (MCUSA, MMN etc..) that is not going away any time soon.

    Is the question not so much ‘do we need another building’ but rather ‘where do we put the organization?’

    My take: To do away with a building, somewhere, means that we would do away with the organization as well. That’s a much bigger question. It’s not as simple as saying that we’d like to see the church invest in church planting (which takes an organized structure like a denomination to support that practice, btw)or other non-building heavy initiatives instead of a building.

    Currently the organization is housed in a building that is not efficient, is costly, and long term will not return our investment in it.

    The question (as I see it) is not so much whether or not we need a building. The question is what kind of building do we need. From that perspective, a new building seems to be a much better option than our current one.

    As a final thought: if the idea of a building is still objectionable, offer an alternative. Where would you locate the organization?

  8. Paco

    I don’t post here much (or ever) but I do occasionally swing by. I apologize in advance for my terse tone and probably the hit and run nature of this comment, but oh well.

    I read this post and the original post at the mennonite, and while the post is right on the money (thanks tim!) the events it describes and most of the responses given just make me feel sad and tired.

    and this is why those coming to Anabaptism from the outside, inspired by the radical christian witness, come away de-inspired and disappointed. We have enough to deal with and wade through in parsing what it really is to be a radical christian. We don’t want to jump into the middle of a huge dinosaur, capitulating to world standards so that its voice can “be heard.” Wow, just what the world needs, another expensive, lumbering, professional institution that can give official sounding quotes, be fake consulted on “important” policy matters, have a good social media presence, and really just general turn loving your neighbor into a well oiled machine. Then we can red tape, advocate, policyificate (yeah I made that word up, booyah!) our way to salvation.

    Yes that’s the radical kingdom that Jesus envisioned.

    Speaking of Jesus? Yeah, I mean come on, first of all he was like some backwoods carpenter that probably never held a real job, and second of all he died like a billion years ago. I bet he wouldn’t even know how to make a project proposal or even handle a budget. Talk about useless. Where’s that guy’s resume?

    I’m so glad that we’ve evolved and institutionalized and professionalized the boundless radical love of Christ. So now we can have world leaders pretend to hear “our” bland voices, before they keep robbing and killing anyway. There’s nothing the poor and oppressed want or need more than to become an institution project that donors can feel good about.

    My alternative location for MCUSA? How about in a refugee camp? In a string of row houses in the inner city? Near an indian reservation? On the Mexico/U.S Boarder? Next to one of the main fine prison establishments? Next to an army base? next to the school of americas (or whatever its called now)?

  9. TimN (Post author)

    Thanks for stopping by Paco.

    You’re one of those coming-to-Anabaptism-from-the-outside who I have in mind when ever I sit down to write one of these jumping-into-the-dinosaur posts about the Mennonite church.

    It’s folks like you and Suha and Hee Eun who I know will keep on living out Anabaptism regardless of where its institutions are headed. I see you dancing in and around and through the their legs, drawing on what is life giving from a particular institution or another, but with no need to wait for their legitimation.

    May your outside-the-dinosaur-dance continue and build and grow. And may the rest of us begin to learn the steps too…

  10. Sam

    Just to be fair, the building doesn’t cost 10million dollars-the campaign is designed to raise well more than the cost of the building to support other missions of the church, which I think is cool.

    Also, the building is more expensive than it might be because it is being built in an environmentally friendly manner-that is a pretty important witness.

    Now, whether this building is really radical…yeah, I don’t know. But living in a congregation of not radical people, who constantly make non-radical decisions in their own lives, and in their own church building, I wonder why we expect the ‘head’ of the Mennonite church to function in a more Christian manner than the body.

  11. Pingback: Bureaucracy, professionalism and dissent in Mennonite Church USA institutions » Young Anabaptist Radicals

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