Trends within Franconia Mennonite Conference: observations, challenges and hope

Phil Bergey pbergey@franconiaconference.org

This is the second installment on trends from a presentation I made in my final State of the Conference report to the Conference Board in January. Unlike the broader macro trends in the first one (scroll down to see previous entry), these drill down more specifically into Franconia Mennonite Conference. Yet since Franconia Conference is in many ways a typical conference in Mennonite Church USA, much of what follows is not necessarily unique to us. Link to previous blog here

Trends within Franconia Mennonite Conference

 

  • Conference and congregational leaders are faced with significant challenges as we inevitably move from programmatic, master-plan, in-our-buildings mindsets to more organic, dynamic, missional and relational frameworks. This shift will continue, and along the way it will create excitement and adventure for some, and angst, pain and confusion for others within our congregations. Seminaries—while they are slowly preparing to address this—are not yet effectively preparing pastors to handle this shift. Perhaps skills and capacities for this shift can only be fully learned in the harness. Transparent, poised, flexible, high-EQ (emotional intelligence) leadership is essential.

 

 


I’m being very intentional with the above words that say: “as we inevitably move from….” Inevitable? Yep. The days of multiple commissions providing “program” for people has largely ended. Folks want to be personally engaged. Most people are open to transformation. Relationships are the best way for human transformation. As people are transformed, congregations and ministries are also. This creates a welcome environment in which Christ’s Gospel can thrive, even in our crazy culture. Let’s put our “church” energy into more than maintaining programs or serving on committees that are not central to a church’s unique calling.

Some of us greet necessary change with relief and open arms. Others of us resist and seek to avoid it. Change for the sake of change is silly at best and dangerous at worst. However, necessary change should be greeted with a humble confidence. Humble, so we are thoughtful about what we let go of and what we embrace. Confident, because God is already out ahead of us, calling us to help create a future following the footsteps of Jesus. We do not go alone; God’s Spirit will lead us into all truth (John 16:13).

  1. The shift from traditional bishop/overseer/conference minister roles among congregations is giving way to a yet-to-be-defined equipper/broker/connector/coach role that will take some of Franconia Conference’s best energy over the next several years. Honoring our polity and ecclesiology with integrity while risking new meaningful measurements will be held in tension as we carry out our missional calling of “equipping leaders to empower others to embrace God’s mission.”

This one probably sounds like a bunch of garbled church-speak. Well, unpacking it takes a few paragraphs, so read on: Much of Franconia Conference’s history included bishops. Most of these men (and they were only men) served faithfully and well. Along the way the times changed, and it was deemed that “overseers” would fit better. From outside the church the distinctions between bishop and overseer may have seemed slight, but within FMC during the 1960s and 1970s it was quite significant. If bishops were granted authority to make decisions on behalf of others, the 60s began a time of “power to the people.” So as the church embodied this spirit of the times, overseers were essentially men who embodied a level of leadership maturity and were placed in situations of providing oversight for one or several congregations by using an authority based more on relationship and facilitation than on position.

However as congregations became more robust in their level of organization and program activity, these 25 or so (volunteer) overseers became understandably compromised in their efforts to provide adequate oversight since most of them were also full-time pastors. Wives and children saw less and less of these overseers as they balanced their own congregation’s challenges and responsibilities with the additional load of helping another congregation with a leadership crisis and helping another congregation to find a new pastor. They did this for a small stipend plus gas money. There will always be a role for volunteer and stipended leaders, but only in ways that are sustainable.

Seven years ago in 2000, delegates overwhelmingly took action to replace the overseer model with a team of paid conference ministers. It made sense to address some of the growing problems of congregations that were dying or were faced with a limited future. Pastoral transitions were frequent then, and the number of congregational crises per year had grown steadily due in part to the trends listed in this blog. Led by a highly experienced Jim Lapp who functioned as conference pastor, the talented and diverse conference ministry team over the next six years provided some wonderful leadership. Pastoral departures slowed way down. Congregational crises deceased noticeably. Incoming pastors were creative, more open to risk and toward change and transformation.

But these positive trends occurred during another trend well under way that began making it impossible to keep in place a large, paid conference ministry team. Congregations began investing in themselves at unprecedented rates. I’m not whining. Much of it was understandable. They saw the need to invest in buildings, in more staff, in more programs. As members of Franconia Conference congregations continued to be generous to the church, the percentage being spent within the congregation began to outstrip the percentage sent beyond to the larger church.

As financial giving to the conference has been decreasing, Franconia Conference has been experimenting with new scenarios. One was to re-organize and/or re-allocate Conference properties so they could help underwrite administrative expenses and augment the decline from congregational dollars. Another experiment was to move some Franconia Conference staff to a fee-for-service format, creating Mennonite Resources Network (MRN). Another was to unite all Conference-related ministries into a relational network of Conference Related Organizations (CROs). Note: I’ll be blogging about each of these experiments in a future post as I wrap up my work for Franconia Conference by the end of August.

 

  • An increasing percentage of resources are being spent within and around the congregation—at this point largely regardless of ROI (return on investment)—as congregations wrestle with new questions and possibilities due to keeping more of their money at home where members’ individual expectations are growing. Also, the growing interest in relating directly to/with the global church will continue to increase, further impacting funds that congregations have historically had available for the conference and broader church.

 

 

Somewhere it should be written that advocating for a missional church vision may be hazardous to the fiscal health of an organization. At least this seems to apply to denominations and conferences that have been using the previous paradigm for funding program. I’m noticing it applies to congregations as well.

Giving people permission (as if they needed it) to focus their attention on where God is active in their life means folks’ money will follow their heart. Does this mean organizations will need to transition to structures and strategies that allow people to connect to their passion rather than a prescribed list of programmatic things? I’m afraid so. But it seems so inefficient, doesn’t it? Maybe. Have you ever noticed from reading the New Testament that the Gospel never was very tidy?

Same can be said for the global trekking people prefer to do rather than just sending their money via a mission board. Couldn’t that money be used more effectively if not everyone was traveling? Well, it depends. It depends if that money is a catalyst that helps people re-prioritize their lives—and their earthly possessions.

 

  • CRO (conference related organization) ministries will continue to grow as major employers and shapers of what the public understands as the identity of being Mennonite. Schools, camps, retirement communities and other ministries frequently have deeper impact and wider reach than their affiliating congregations. Making these ministries full partners in Franconia Conference’s shared vision will continue to be a critical part of overall strategy to impact our communities.

 

 

To some readers this fourth point is refreshing. For others, it’s offensive. But the truth seems to be that more kids make public commitments to follow Jesus at camp than they do in many congregations. And Mennonite schools have turned ordinary kids into leaders for the church for decades. Of course lots of examples exist to refute all this, so the point is not whether CRO ministries are more effective than congregations. That is completely NOT the point. Rather both are needed: congregations and the ministries that supplement the congregations. Each needs the other. Thus the call to even more intentional collaboration.

 

  • Wealth and acculturation continue to mute traditional understandings of Anabaptism—not the least in many Franconia Conference contexts. Unlearning, reinventing, risking and focusing what it means to be Anabaptists in our context will continue to grow in importance as shaping a healthy and winsome identity and purpose will become a central theme for faithful-minded individuals and organizations alike. As we know from our research trip in 2005 to the Netherlands, having our own (Mennonite) schools and other influential ways of shaping our youth seem to be key to investing in our children and young adults and their ongoing valuing of God’s mission from an Anabaptist perspective.

 

 

It’s possible that un-learning things we already know/believe/do is the hardest work we face as Anabaptists. I for one believe there may never have been a time when the world could embrace—and persecute—more what it means to be a follower of Jesus from an Anabaptist perspective. Maybe you’re talking about non-violence during a time when modern warfare seems not only immoral but also ineffective, outrageously expensive, and counter-productive. Or maybe you’re talking about Jesus loving the whole world during this time of global awareness and interdependence for our future. Or maybe you’re talking about the sacredness of all life, or the equal value of all people, or the importance of living with integrity. Seems like Anabaptists have a few worthwhile things to say to these and every other critical matter. More than a few non-Mennonites have wondered why they are meeting so many sons and daughters of Menno going the wrong direction at this critical juncture in our—and the world’s—history.

phil2.jpgRegarding “our” schools, there are reasons why some have chosen not to send their kids to Mennonite schools. From my perspective I wish all kids could attend Mennonite schools. My three sons have had life-changing experiences within the contexts of Mennonite education. My focus here is not to cajole, persuade or harass everyone into sending their kids to Mennonite schools, but rather to encourage our schools to take their strengths to the whole constituency. Home-schoolers could use a variety of services that Mennonite schools could provide very well. Public schoolers also could benefit from some of the services. Obviously all of this would require collaboration on everyone’s part, better use of technology than we have done to date, and openness of heart and spirit all the way around. But I believe the creativity and relationships could be good for everyone involved.

For those who read this far on such a long blog post, God bless you. And for those who didn’t, blessings to you too. The next installments of my final reflections will follow in the upcoming weeks.

One thought on “Trends within Franconia Mennonite Conference: observations, challenges and hope

  1. Thanks, Phil. Good blog; I found it very readable. Thanks especially for your call for our Mennonite schools to “take their strengths to the whole constituency.” I’ve often struggled with the idea that our local Mennonite schools provide some kind of elite education accessible to only a few who can afford it. I hope that the constituency can grow to include anyone who desires an Anabaptist education. Maybe that’s an unrealistic dream, but perhaps we can ask for miracles….

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