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How Mennonites Repositioned a Traditional Mission.

The largest denomination of Mennonites, with the longest history in North America, is known as the Mennonite Church. Around the turn of the century the denomination established a sending agency, the Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM). Today approximately 80 career missionaries of this board and more than 30 tentmaker missionaries are serving in 27 countries around the world. The denomination has seminaries in Elkhart, Indiana, and Harrisonburg, Virginia, each with a strong missions program. U.S. address: Mennonite Board of Missions, Box 3 70, Elkhart, IN 46515.

During the administration of my predecessor as director of the Mennonite Board of Missions, a number of areas were identified that suggested a need for change. Included were the desire to bring together, for missiological reasons, the home ministries and overseas ministries divisions; and to redesign, for reasons of organizational effectiveness, a divisional committee structure that functioned alongside the board of directors. The members of the board often felt that they had no choice but to function as a rubber stamp for committee recommendations, since the board members' knowledge of the agency's programs was limited by the structures that were in place. My predecessor's announcement of his resignation came in close proximity to the identification of these needs, prompting the board to defer making any changes until a new administration was in place.

When I arrived at MBM in 1993, I was awed by our mission legacy. At the turn of the century, except for a limited mission initiative in Indonesia led primarily from the Netherlands, Mennonites were essentially a North Atlantic people of European ancestry and cultural identity. One hundred years ago, in response to a famine, the first mission workers were sent by North American Mennonites to India. Soon others followed, going to Argentina, then Brazil, and ultimately to all six continents. From this worldwide web of witness, the Mennonite community was profoundly transformed. There are now more Mennonites of color than otherwise. What a remarkable legacy!

But would it be continued in a new century? That question exercised the new administration. Previous generations, in particular the World War II generation, were unquestioning and generous in their support and commitment to mission. The baby-boomer generation that followed, however, was ambivalent toward mission. The aftermath of two world wars, the era of Vietnam, and the social dislocation of the 1960s and early 1970s impacted Mennonite youth just as it did their counterparts in many mainstream denominations. The failure of nerve in regard to evangelistic mission that plagued other church groups was reflected among Mennonites as an enthusiasm for relief and service. This emphasis resulted in a trajectory that involved a slow but steady decline of traditional church-planting mission, with a countervailing dramatic growth of relief and service as represented in the programs of the Mennonite Central Committee. As the end of the twentieth century approached, few people in the MBM administrative offices could remember a year that had not registered a decline in contributions. Something had to change.

The Change Process

As the administration and the board began the task of discerning what changes were necessary, we saw that acting on the options that had already been identified would possibly make us more efficient, but we were not persuaded that these changes would address the fundamental challenge of connecting new generations of Mennonites with a renewed vision and commitment to mission. We began to glimpse the possibility of a more profound change that would in fact help us to accomplish our primary objective of bridging a mission vision across the generations. We recognized that we would have to bring about a major reorientation, a systemwide change that would yield new assumptions and impact every facet of the organization.

In October 1993 I brought to the MBM board of directors a proposal recommending a consultancy that would help us design a process of change. By the end of that year, the board had appointed the Task Management Group (TMG) to manage the exploration of the change that was needed. This group consisted of persons from every level in the organization: support staff, program managers, department directors, divisional vice presidents, as well as a member of the board and representation from MBM's constituency.

In early January 1994 outside consultants Norman Shawchuck and Gustave Rath met with the TMG for two days and dealt with two general areas: (1) an orientation to the environment in which all mission agencies presently do their work, and (2) how MBM might design and carry out its study. Some of the dynamics of the global environment that we noted were:

1. A national trend toward localness.

2. A distrust of institutions and bureaucracies.

3. Declining interest and support for denominations and denomination-centered programs - programs created "up there" and carried on somewhere "out there."

Following this work, the TMG developed a proposal incorporating the design for the research project and a plan for acting on its findings. By late February 1994 I was prepared to bring a recommendation to the board of directors that MBM be authorized to conduct a broad-scale study of its mission, relationships, and work. Authorization, including a budget of $68,000, was granted and the project begun.

The study was named Cana Venture, and its participants came to be known as the Cana Venture Management Group (CVMG). The name, drawn from the account of Jesus' presence at the wedding in Cana and his miraculous turning of water into wine (John 2:1-11), was chosen to signify the bringing of new life and joy to the future ministries and organizational system of MBM. We wanted to hold on to the promise that the best days in mission vitality and impact were not behind but ahead of us. The CVMG defined its vision for its work as follows: "To enable MBM to effectively respond to the mission vision of the Mennonite Church, and to bring new life and joy to our mission outreach." We also developed a covenant that, along with commitments to listen sensitively and take seriously the feedback from our constituency, declared that we were willing to "let go of the past if needed . . . to create a new future with new images and metaphors . . . to allow for the transformation of ourselves personally and of the organization . . . to make adequate time and space for discernment in our group . . . to be persons who listen." J. Robert Charles was recruited to serve in a half-time capacity as the Cana Venture project manager.

On August 5, 1994, Shawchuck and Associates (S&A) was retained to consult with MBM in the construction, implementation, and analysis of an information gathering process to include focus groups, a questionnaire survey, and a final written report of the research results. After training of staff and volunteers, thirty-two focus groups were conducted with a strong attempt to include primarily people in the age-range 18-45. The central question in the focus groups was, "What programs and activities must MBM be involved in, in North America and overseas?" In addition, survey questionnaires were sent to 3,500 persons (four questionnaires to each of MBM's 850 supporting congregations). The questionnaires contained several modules covering general impressions of MBM, ideas for new programs, current programs that should be discontinued, how MBM should spend a defined contribution, whether MBM should spend less money overseas, and so forth. Much of the research was conducted during the fall of 1994. At the February 1995 board meeting of MBM, S&A delivered a report on the findings and a compilation of the feedback.

Emerging Themes

Four major themes emerged from the listening process.

A call for partnership. We heard a desire for more direct involvement in mission by congregations; an interest for MBM to be a partner to do mission with, rather than for, Mennonite congregations and conferences.

A hunger for spirituality. We heard a call to seek creative and faithful ways for spiritual vitality and disciplines to inform our work as a mission instrument of the Mennonite Church.

A need for communication. We heard the desire for clearer, more frequent, and more personal communication with the Mennonite Church, along with a call for more mission education.

A call for short-term and youth opportunities. We heard a call to create opportunities for short-term mission engagement and exchange, gearing many of these opportunities to youth and young adults in Mennonite congregations.

Implications for MBM

Feedback from the Cana Venture process made it clear that the stakeholders in MBM's future are different from their predecessors. Their environment has been impacted by a growing sense of alienation born of rapid technological advances, a loss of transcendence that has its corollary in the secularizing effects of materialism, individualism, localism, pluralism, and a distrust or suspicion of big and seemingly remote institutions. These environmental forces have their counterpoint in a growing spiritual hunger, a yearning for community, and a quest for significance.

We understood from the feedback that MBM must:

* Anticipate a radical transformation of the organizational system and its image. We needed to be willing to adapt our self-identity from that of a centralized bureaucracy that "owned" the mission (we designed the initiatives, recruited the workers, deployed the personnel, and then courted and cajoled congregations to support our program) to a more decentralized, networking entity focused on developing synergistic partnerships with regional Mennonite conferences, congregations, and international partners.

* Lead in developing a compelling theological articulation of the church's call in mission and design an effective mission education initiative for building awareness and response in churches.

* Develop effective and imaginative ways of communicating the stories and challenges in mission.

* Increase the number of short-term options available, particularly for youth and young adults.

* Recover a holistic vision for mission that enthusiastically embraces ministries in evangelism and church planting while retaining a sincere commitment to ministries of justice and compassion as integral components of a biblical mission vision.

Given these findings, we discerned a threefold mandate from our constituency:

Mission vision development and communication. MBM is uniquely positioned in our constituency to provide initiative and coordination for the development of an overarching, undergirding mission vision. Our positioning also fits us for providing the instruments (strategy, contacts, expertise, and personnel) for communicating that vision in order to stimulate interest and commitment.

Program design and implementation. MBM's rootedness in history led us to identify those segments of current program and mandate that would need to be continued. MBM would need, in a transitional phase, to continue to carry responsibility for program design and implementation, since congregations and conferences would not have developed the instrumentalities or the competencies to host the level of programming necessary.

Mission in a partnership modality - linking, connecting, facilitating. As MBM moved from the current reality toward the future that the Cana Venture feedback required, the organization would increasingly function to develop linkages and networks, connecting vision and resources in a partnership modality.

The report was formally received at a meeting comprising two broadly representative groups of board members and staff from all levels of the organization. An organizational design and program task group was constituted to design a new organizational architecture based on the implications of the feedback as well as to review program fit. A second group received a mandate to develop a new vision and strategic intent for the organization as well as to define new policies consistent with the new reality.

Changes Take Hold

The first group led in the development of a new organizational vision statement as well as a new statement of organizational values. The new vision statement reflected the need to provide leadership in fostering a global mission focus in congregational life, in planting mission interest, commitment, and initiative in the heart of every congregation. It reads: "By the power of the Holy Spirit, MBM will shape a vision for global mission, and partner to implement programs of evangelism and service, mobilizing church members to share God's healing and hope through Jesus Christ."

The second group developed a new design that gave MBM three new divisions (in place of the former Home Ministries, Overseas Ministries, and Administration/Resources): Partnership Services, Global Ministries, and Mission Advocacy and Communication.

On June 7, 1995, the CVMG formally disbanded. The divisional committees also ceased meeting as of the June 1995 board meeting. At that meeting, the board established a Reorganization Working Group to implement the recommendations for organizational redesign, in line with a proposed implementation schedule. Each new division was charged with developing a new divisional mission statement, divisional strategies, and departmental objectives to fit the new organizational design and priorities.

With the revisioning of the work of each of the divisions, focus was given to finding ways to effectively respond to the priority issues that emerged from the Cana Venture process. Listed below are some of the ways that we addressed those issues in the new organizational form:

Partnership. We provided training for key staff in partnership development and resourcing. We developed workshops for training congregations in the partnership modality. A major think-piece was developed for organizational and extra-organizational reflection. All staff were oriented and trained in the implications for partnership for our work processes. We dedicated an issue of our mission magazine to popularize and inform our constituency about this new direction. Currently, there are sixteen partnerships formed or in active formation, with a number of others in the conversation stage. We recruited and identified a variety of partners for the projects we became involved with: congregations, clusters of congregations in geographic proximity, conferences (juridical/administrative units), ecumenical entities (other denominational or inter-Mennonite groups), parachurch agencies; likewise, we identified overseas congregational, conference, denominational, and ecumenical groups (e.g., we are working with more than two dozen African-initiated groups in Benin).

In the conceptualization and design of these partnerships, we were informed by the Mennonite International Study Project report written by Nancy Heisey and Paul Longacre. This two-year project, of which MBM was one of the sponsors, involved nonadministrative dialogue and discernment with leadership from representatives of the global church family in forty-five countries. It included face-to-face interviews with 1,450 overseas Mennonites, who were invited to offer what they "would want to say to North Americans committed to mission at the end of the twentieth century." The report culminates with a response by the sponsoring agencies, recognizing that "the energetic spirit and the gifts of Christians in new and historic Christian communities around the world bring fresh dimensions to the task of mission. They are asking North Americans to join with them and to offer to them our resources as together we are renewed and empowered for the work of the kingdom in the decades ahead. The challenge is to see the global church focus its resources on the mission task worldwide."

Spirituality. As we engaged our constituency in deciphering what all this meant, it was clear that there was a perception that MBM was less than enthusiastic about calling people to personal transformation through faith in Jesus Christ. This insight prompted us to dedicate the first issue of a new mission magazine to the articulation and exploration of a holistic mission vision. We developed a slogan - "the whole Gospel for a broken world" - which we incorporated in our speaking, in our letterhead design, and on mugs and t-shirts (distributed at the biannual convention, attended by 7,000 people). And we sought partnerships specifically focused on church planting and evangelism (Dagestan, Senegal).

Communication. Much of the feedback we heard made it clear that at least 50 percent of our constituency had little or no information about MBM and that they preferred a personalization of communication. We totally revamped our communication with the constituency. We introduced a new mission magazine, Missions NOW. The magazine's mission focus was popularized, and the graphics were designed to appeal to young adults. We also entered cyberspace at, and we substantially increased news items submitted to church publications and increased people contacts with the constituency.

Short-term and youth participation. In the last two years, we have doubled some of our short-term opportunities. We developed a partnership with others to launch a Great Lakes Discipleship Center to train youth for short-term assignments.

Through the Cana Venture process we heard many things from the church, and by the grace of God and the permission of our board, we undertook the above-detailed transformation of the organization. For two years we were in the wilderness. The year we spent preparing for the transformation, there was hope among some, cynicism among others (who said, "We'll experience some tinkering but little real change"), and resignation among yet others. In the year that we designed a different organizational reality and began to fully implement the changes, there was great anxiety and stress. Those were difficult days, wilderness times. We had left behind the familiar, and we were not yet where we wanted to be. Our only currency was vision. The changes did not come easily. In 1996, we still saw a decline in contributions, but the gradient had moved toward a more level pitch. In 1997 and again in 1998 we received $100,000 more than in 1996. We are encouraged by the fresh energy with which staff members are embracing their tasks and the interest in the constituency in our communications and possibilities for partnership. Instead of looking back to the golden days, many in the staff, constituency, and board are looking forward with great hope and vision for the possibilities before us.

Stanley W. Green, a native of South Africa and former missionary to Jamaica, is President of the Mennonite Board of Missions.
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Author:Green, Stanley W.
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 1999
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