Madrid, Spain—At their annual gathering, held here in November 2011, leaders of European Mennonite conferences decided to hire a coordinator to serve as their liaison to Mennonite World Conference (MWC) and to fulfill some coordination tasks for the European conferences. They also reflected on the challenges they face in the European context.
The decision to hire a coordinator grew out of the hope that MWC will still have a visible presence in Europe after the office in Strasbourg, France is closed in June 2012. European leaders formed a working group consisting of Henk Stenvers (Netherlands), Doris Hege (Germany) and Markus Rediger (Switzerland) to give direction to the work of the coordinator. They are asking congregations to give their blessing.
In his last sermon as general secretary of MWC, Larry Miller spoke on the theme of “The struggle to make the church a place of blessing.” Many churches and conferences in Europe face big challenges, with more people leaving the church than coming in. Meeting participants were reminded that no challenge is so big that God can’t make out of it a blessing.
The struggle to make the church a place of blessing is almost 500 years old for the Mennonites in Europe and never as relevant as it is today. A concluding statement in Miller’s sermon was an encouragement and a challenge: "Like Jacob’s life, our life together preparing the church as a place of blessing for one another and for the world is a long and winding road. But we are walking it together, hopefully in the way of Jesus Christ and hopefully to the glory of God.“
While the Mennonites in the Netherlands celebrated many milestones in 2011, their thoughts are also turned towards the future as half of their members are over 60 years old. Conference leader Otto Bleker is encouraging the Dutch churches to go into their communities after the jubilees of 2011 and not remain the silent ones of the land.
While church numbers are diminishing in general, certain churches are growing, mostly in France. There is now a Mennonite church in Lurs, in the southern region of Provence. Other French churches are looking for bigger meeting places because their numbers are growing.
However, many places in Europe don't have enough trained pastors and leaders and the Mennonite seminaries are lacking in students and finances. Many churches hire pastors from other denominations. The Spanish churches have started to offer theological courses through the Mennonite theological seminary in Bienenberg and those interested are mainly coming from evangelical churches.
From Portugal it was reported that the five Mennonite churches are feeling the effects of economic pressures that prevail in the country. Increasingly people are looking to the churches for help. Help for families under financial pressure are also offered by churches in Germany and Switzerland where meals for schools are offered inside churches and homeless children are taken in by families. In Germany the themes of peace work and church planting are also being worked on.
The Swiss Mennonites extended an invitation to Sumiswald, Switzerland for the European Mennonite Regional Conference (MERK) from May 17-20, 2012. Sumiswald lies in Emmental, in the basin of Langnau, home of the oldest Swiss Mennonite church. The theme is "Hands Reaching Across Borders." Excursions will be offered to give insight into the history and areas of the Swiss Anabaptists.
From May 13-27, 2012 the various committees of the MWC will meet in Sumiswald, including the Executive Committee, the General Council, the four commissions, the YABs (Young Anabaptists), continental caucus members, educators and other networks. Miller emphasized that these meetings will be very extensive, as was the world assembly in Asunción, Paraguay in 2009.
From a report by Markus Rediger, MWC executive committee member, chair of the Mennonite European Regional Conference MERK, Bern, Switzerland