Bureaucracy, professionalism and dissent in Mennonite Church USA institutions

Jumping over the Sunset

This is the second article in a series on Mennonite Church USA and its institutions. Part 1 is here and part 3 is here.

In the first article of this series, I critiqued “professionalism” in Mennonite institutions without defining it clearly. In the comments responding to the article, a number of people rightly pointed out that professionalism plays a very important role in allowing us to work in consistent, safe and effective ways. As Alan Stucky said in his comment:

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. 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.

Roses shared in their comment about their experience of seeing God move through values of professionalism. Paco, on the other hand, over at Young Anabaptist Radicals speculated on how well Jesus would have done at project proposals and budgets.

I’d like to take the opportunity to define my concern with professionalism more specifically: I am concerned by the way it views internal dissent. During my meeting with Mennonite Mission Network staff that I referred to in the first article, two staff involved with the capital campaign defined professionalism as prohibiting them from publicly dissenting from their institutions public position. As they saw it, their only public option for public dissent was to resign from their organization.

If this were just the personal opinions of two capital campaign staff members, that would be one thing. However, I have heard first and second hand stories from people who were pressured by MMN staff because of their public dissent from the building plan. I have heard how internally, there has been extensive listening by MMN leadership to staff concerns, but dissenters have had little sense that their objections might lead to real change.

Seeing internal (and external) dissent as something to be overcome rather then an opportunity for change and growth is part of the way we can expect institutions to operate . Here’s How Kathy Furgeson puts it in The Feminist Case Against Bureaucracy:

Part of the perniciousness of bureaucracy is that, when passed through the filters of personality, it seeks to “tie up our loose ends” and reduce us to a reflection of the organization…

Since bureaucracy rests on the assumptions of scientific rationality–namely, that there is “a single best solution” (or at least a managerially defined resolution) to organizational problems–and since it cloaks itself in the myth of administrative neutrality, the very effort to deal with conflict must be disguised even as it goes on. Bureaucracy is anti-political because it cannot recognize the legitimacy of conflict, seeing it as a temporary aberration to be dealt with through elaborated administrative technique.

How does an institution respond to a “temporary aberration”? In talking about the building, I heard staff members come back again and again to talking points centered around the financial savings this building promises for the church. It is critical in building and maintaining institutional momentum, that staff members stick to a given set of talking points. For a list of these talking points, see “Joining Together, Investing in Hope” Frequently Asked Questions).

I should say at this point that, in my work as part of Christian Peacemaker Teams support team, I have experienced internal dissent to decisions I was part of making. It’s not fun, it’s messy and it’s often quite emotionally draining. I have no illusions that we’ve got anything “right”. However, I can say that the times when I have felt that dissent enriched us in the long term were times when we talked with each other as members of a community first and professionals second.

I need to be absolutely clear at this point: I have very little hope that any significant change in the building on the AMBS campus. Rather, my hope is that we can examine the processes around this capital campaign and take the opportunity to re-evaluate the role of bureaucracy in Mennonite Church USA. How can we imagine together ways of being that see dissent as an opportunity rather then an obstacle?

In talking with people about this process, I haven’t just heard negative stories. I have heard hopeful stories of affirmation and support for dissenting staff members. This is an important reminder for me that Mennonite Church USA is not monolithic and every staff member of every Mennonite instiution is a child of God. As Walter Wink says, the powers are good, the powers are fallen and the powers are being redeemed.

Comments (11)

  1. mountainguy

    Alan Stucky? …. The pastor of a mennonite church in Bogotá, Colombia, is Pedro Stucky. Are they related?

    good topic BTW

  2. AlanS

    Mountainguy – I’m not sure if I’m related. I’m sure I could do the geaneology, but I’m content to say we’re brothers in Christ.

    Tim – Good posting. I’m with you on these concerns. I think you’re right that you and I were talking about two different things, both with the name professionalism. I would agree with you wholeheartedly that the process needs to remain open and that dissent should be taken seriously and openly.

    I have a question for clarification. You said:

    During my meeting with Mennonite Mission Network staff that I referred to in the first article, two staff involved with the capital campaign defined professionalism as prohibiting them from publicly dissenting from their institutions public position. As they saw it, their only public option for public dissent was to resign from their organization.

    What was being defined as the ‘public’ in these situations? Are we talking about dissent among the MCUSA constituency or are we talking about going to the New York Times (or other media)?

    Here’s where I’m coming from with that question. It seems like one thing if a disgruntled employee (and I have no real knowledge of the situation here) is simply wanting to make their organization look bad, especially for people from the outside looking into the Mennonite Church. It’s another thing if that employee is raising concern and real issues to the people who ultimately support and sanction the existence of MMN or MCUSA, or any other organization.

    Any church organization exists to build up the church, not to see the church as a threat to the organizations continued existence.

    To play the other side of that card, I also understand that in no organization will everyone be completely happy with every decision that’s made and, sometimes, you have to move ahead anyway. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be ample time for concerns to be addressed. Openness should be the rule not the exception. Nevertheless, someone will always be unhappy.

    Overall, I think I’m with you on the concerns for openness. At least as a general principle.

    -alan stucky

  3. TimN (Post author)


    Thanks for your comments. I’m glad my clarification was helpful and that we can agree on the need for openness.

    You ask:

    What was being defined as the ‘public’ in these situations? Are we talking about dissent among the MCUSA constituency or are we talking about going to the New York Times (or other media)?

    I can’t speak precisely to how they meant to define public, but they used it a way that seemed to include our meeting under their definition of “public”. So that suggests they define public dissent as disagreement with the institutional position expressed in any meetings or gatherings that people who are not staff members of MMN. I’m sure they would include internet or paper publishing in that category as well.

  4. Phil Wood

    Tim, I’ve no knowledge of the particular example you cite but professionalism is surely an issue worth exploring. John Howard Yoder’s ‘The Fullness of Christ’ raises serious concerns around the linkage between professionalism and clericalism. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about the Anabaptist Tradition is our instinctive congregationalism. I wonder what survives of that ethos in an increasingly professionalized church?

  5. Sam

    I also think this question of professionalism is a fascinating one-it seems fair to me that an employee can be obligated to subsume their personal opinion for the good of the company (or quit-always a perfectly logical option when we are faced with this kind of dilemma). Imagine a sales representative hinting in a meeting with potential customers that they think the company is making a core business mistake.

    Equally obviously, a church that stifles dissent and punishes minority views can quickly drive out the fresh breath of the Holy Spirit.

    Its a bit of a conundrum, but I think the core challenge is that people are making money working for the church. Mennonite Mission Network Board agreed that MMN would serve as the fund raising arm for the capital campaign for Mennonite Church USA executive board. These decisions were made by people who are not getting paid, and putatively represent Mennonite Church USA as a whole (the delegate body did approve the building campaign). These decision makers are free to air their dissent. I’m curious as to how we (as a church) think about the proper role of those we pay to serve us and to serve God.

  6. AlanS

    The way one of my Seminary professors described the ‘appropriate’ approach to paid ministry is that all members of a church are supposed to be engaged in discipleship and Biblical study. In the interest of gaining more in depth insight and knowledge a church agrees to take on the financial responsibilities of one person so that they can spend their time, energy, schooling, etc. in pursuit of a deeper understanding of scripture that is to then be shared with the congregation in order to help build up all of it’s members.

    As a paid pastor, I’m surely guilty of distorting that understanding and often simply being an employee. But it’s still a helpful place to start from. I’d tend to see the paid positions at a denominational level, or even overseas missionaries, in the same light…..at least I hope that’s the perspective that I try to keep.

  7. Sam

    I totally agree Alan, but it is interesting to ask how far this extends-we all have to decide how far to oppose the will of our congregations, and fund raising experts have to decide how much they are willing to disagree with the mission of the organization that they work for. We are not simply employees, but along with being called out to more deeply engage in the study of scripture, we are also called out to serve as the public representative of the church.

  8. Phil Wood

    It might come as a surprise but amongst all the conversations I recall from 2010 this discussion stood out as one of the most memorable. Tim’s piece focuses on professionalism rather that clericalism per se, but many of issues overlap. Here’s are my reflections:

  9. TimN (Post author)


    Glad to hear you found this conversation useful. Your use of the term anti-clericalism is new to me, but I can understand where you’re coming from. Mennonites in the US aren’t seriously examining the drawbacks our embrace of institutional (and clerical?) culture carries with it.

    I like your image of drawing an Anabaptist line in the Mennonite sand.

  10. Phil Wood

    Thanks Tim, some people have concluded that this has become a hobby horse for me. I think of it more as an ongoing active reflection. Anticlericalism (or anti-clericalism) has carried a variety of definitions including opposition to Christian engagement in public life. In general it’s been used in a Roman Catholic context to describe opposition to priestly authority. I have blogged a lot on this over the past few years (http://radref.blogspot.com/search/label/clericalism).

    In other circumstances I think I might use the word ‘congregationalism’ but I don’t think the term is strong enough in expressing opposition to ordained leadership. The Anabaptist Tradition has a potent memory of multi-voiced community. In my view ordination disfigures this by creating a two-tier church. Now that the Christendom ice cap is breaking up we have an unprecedented opportunity to question and challenge assumptions and practices that have been locked into the Constantinian permafrost for centuries. Anti-clericalism is a stern concept but I believe it’s a key Post-Christendom discipline.

  11. Pingback: Patterns of this World: Institutions and Bureaucracy among the Mennonites, Part 1 » Young Anabaptist Radicals

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