Features

Larry Miller reflects on 22 years at the helm of Mennonite World Conference

At the 2011 Executive Committee meetings in Taiwan, Cisca Mawangu Ibanda of Congo (DRC) presented carved animals to César García (r) and Larry Miller. More than curios, said Ibanda, the animals represent qualities important for their service to MWC. Miller holds his elephant with its trunk down “in a peaceful position.” García, she explained, holds a giraffe with its neck fully extended so that he can see “the landscape of the future.” The transition between the two general secretaries occurred between August and December as Garcia moved his family home to Bogotá, Colombia (the site of the new MWC head office) after studies in the US and traveled with Miller in Europe and North America. Photo: Merle Good
Release date: 
Wednesday, 7 December 2011

 

 

“As long as the wind is in its sails. . .”

Strasbourg, France--Larry Miller remembers one moment clearly when, as a 38-year-old, he was weighing whether or not to accept the nomination to lead Mennonite World Conference. The year was 1988, 23 years ago, and he was sitting in a university library in Strasbourg, France, where he lived.

“I was working on my dissertation, and I looked up and noticed a book by one of my professors on a shelf. I pulled it down. It was dusty, and no one had ever checked it out. I suddenly realized that I was poised to write those kinds of books!”

Miller was finishing his doctorate in New Testament and was under consideration for a graduate-level teaching position in that field in the Protestant faculty at the University of Strasbourg. But something unexpected had come his way. The European Mennonite churches had together nominated him to be Executive Secretary of Mennonite World Conference.

Larry and his wife, Eleanor, had worked with international students in Paris (for European Mennonites and Mennonite Board of Missions of North America) and in peace activities and inter-church relations (for Mennonite Central Committee). “I was working internationally and ecumenically, and my interest and experience in those areas was growing. But did Mennonite World Conference—which most people understood to be those spectacular, once-every-six-year assemblies—fit my gifts and personality?

“My growing interest in MWC surprised people who knew me, including Eleanor! I sensed, however, that this might be a call to receive life through the global church.”

Miller became Executive Secretary during the closing event of the Winnipeg MWC assembly in 1990. The setting, the music, the ceremony had a touch of the spectacular, but Miller and the organization faced a frightening deficit as the week-long meeting ended.

Today, Miller reflects, “while MWC needed to deal with that reality, and we were able to, I never felt pressure to ‘succeed’ by building a large institution. Instead, the focus was on helping this little boat—MWC—to catch the wind in its sails. The wind was clearly blowing, so the task was to adjust the sails to catch the wind.”

Miller senses that he has served Anabaptists around the world during a time of fundamental change. “My primary calling has been to amplify the voice of the Global South and its rising. That voice, that capacity, needs more room and opportunity. I’ve often felt like John the Baptist, that something greater is coming.”

A big risk

In January 1997, the first Mennonite World Conference assembly under Larry Miller’s leadership took place in central Kolkata, inside tents on a sprawling school campus. The daring move stood in stark contrast to the just-prior assembly which had been held in a well-appointed convention center in Winnipeg.

“We had potential disasters everywhere,” Miller reflects about the Kokata event. “Before I joined MWC, groundwork had been laid for the assembly to go the diplomatic, aristocratic quarter of New Delhi. That location didn’t seem right to me.

“There was no model for holding a global assembly in Kolkata. It was counter-cultural. No other world communion had ever gone to Kolkata for its world gathering. So we had to create ours from scratch.

“Would people come? Could we pull off such a complex event there? Would it work financially? Would attendees be overwhelmed by the city itself?”

The national Indian churches who are members of MWC, along with national MWC staff, worked diligently and with extraordinary perseverance to host a world gathering of some 4,500 Mennonites and Brethren in Christ.

The bold decision and the stark contrast to past gatherings cleared a path for new aspects to be born as part of the assembly program. For the first time there was a Global Church Village, a venue where delegates learned about the life of churches in each continental region through food and cultural displays, and Assembly Gathered/Assembly Scattered. In fact, these elements worked so well that they have continued in subsequent MWC assemblies.

“My surprise,” says Miller now, “is that no part of the Kolkata gathering ended in disaster. And because we had a good, positive experience, the event allowed Mennonite World Conference to turn a corner. It permitted the reorientation of MWC. I view it as a watershed, make-or-break moment.”

The second assembly that Miller and his team shepherded was held in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Despite the country’s tremulously uncertain political, economic, and food situations, the Brethren in Christ churches provided extraordinary hospitality.

“Zimbabwe raised many of the same questions as Kolkata did. Was it courageous or stupid to bring thousands of people there? But we had survived Kolkata, so even a modest failure in Zimbabwe wouldn’t have wrecked MWC.”

The church is both local and global”

Perhaps one of Larry Miller’s greatest gifts to Mennonites and Brethren in Christ around the world has been his belief, and consequent actions, that the church is never just the local congregation, or the denomination, or the world body.

“The church is both local and ‘global.’ It always has been and will always be. The special foundational task for MWC during these years has been to recover this New Testament view of the church. MWC needs to continue to make the global church real, to have it be seen, felt, touched, experienced.”

Gradually but persistently, Miller has created ways to make this daily reality apparent. He helped to conceive of, and then create, the Global Church Sharing Fund. (MWC member churches in the South apply for and receive funds for their ministries, as an expression of Jubilee redistribution.) He guided the development of MWC’s statement of “Shared Convictions,” brief paragraphs documenting the core beliefs that the scattered Anabaptist churches and fellowships claim. He has overseen the establishment of four commissions under the General Council of MWC, each composed of members from the five continental regions, each pledged to fostering greater faithfulness by MWC member churches and their support of each other. (The four are the Deacons, Faith and Life, Mission, and Peace Commissions.)

“At the same time,” he states emphatically, “the global church without the local church is not fully the church either. One without the other is heresy.”

Miller quickly moves to another theme which has characterized his leadership of MWC. “Even as we’ve begun to grasp the wonder of what it means to belong to our particular global family of faith, we are still a fragment by ourselves. What is emerging is our increasing connectedness to other Christian world communions. We must see other global Christian churches as part of the whole church universal to which we also belong. We must live within this whole church, or we won’t live.

“While the giftedness of our Anabaptist community is being acknowledged by other world communions, the limitedness of it is also. The same is true of these other churches. Together, we’re recognizing our need of each other,” says Miller.

The struggles and the gifts

What difficulties did Larry experience as MWC General Secretary?

“I’ve lived a constant series of good-byes,” he says. “And while I’ve had so many points of contact, they are almost all distant.” The MWC office in Strasbourg, where Miller is based, includes an average of only four administrative staff. All other staff and executive leadership are scattered around the world.

“The work is sometimes heavy and lonely,” he reflects. “But it is always invigorating! This has been a place of life for me, a gift of life.”

What anxieties does Miller have for Mennonite World Conference, which he acknowledges is an organization with uncertainty, heaviness, and fragility?

“We are in a historic transition moment,” offers Miller. “There is decline in the churches of the North. But when you belong to a global body of faith, there’s always a part that’s experiencing new life and a vision that can draw all of us forward. The center of gravity of the global church has shifted South. We must continue to adjust our sails accordingly to catch this new wind of the Spirit.

“With gratitude and joy, I imagine César García (MWC’s new General Secretary-elect), and those with him, picking up the vision for the future. I look forward to seeing how they incarnate it. My experience of working with César has been among my top joys, among my very best MWC experiences. He and his team will live into the future from their own worlds and contexts, going forward with the Spirit. It is for them to imagine.”

On August 1, 2011, the officers of Mennonite World Conference, plus a few staff and representatives of the four North American MWC member churches, gathered around a big table in Grantham, Pennsylvania. It was the kick-off for organizing the planning of the Assembly 16 to be held in 2015 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Danisa Ndlovu, president of MWC, opened the meeting with a devotional, acknowledging two reasons for anxiety that day: the start of planning for a new assembly, and César García’s first official day as General Secretary-Elect.

When it was Larry Miller’s turn to address the group, he said, “I can attest, after 22 years with Mennonite World Conference, that it is not a place of anxiety, but a place that gives life!”

- Phyllis Pellman Good, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is a communications consultant with Mennonite World Conference.

PHOTOS AND SIDEBARS

Photos:

Larry Miller’s tenure as General Secretary was marked by his gift of encouragement among other global leaders. Here, in 1991, he stands behind his “big brothers”— Mesach Krisetya (l) of Indonesia, who was to become MWC President in 1997, and Reg Toews of Canada, then serving as Treasurer. Photo: Eleanor Miller

Ecumenical dialogue was a passion of Miller’s. Here, Msgr. John A.of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity leads a meeting of the Mennonite-Catholic Dialogue (1998–2003), of which he was co-secretary with Miller. To his left are Bishop Joseph Martino and Larry Miller. Photo credit not available

The Millers and their children (now married) in Kolkata in 1997, with the parents-in-law of Indian church leader Menno Joel (r). Left to right: Anne-Marie Miller Blaise; Elisabeth Miller Sommers; Menno’s parents-in-law, Larry, Alexandre Miller, Eleanor, and Menno. Photo courtesy of Eleanor Miller

Miller speaks at the 2009 Executive Committee meetings in Paraguay. To his left are Danisa Ndlovu, incoming MWC president that year, and Nancy Heisey, who was completing her term as president. Photo: Merle Good

SIDEBAR ONE

Calendar of MWC leadership transition

When a scattered global faith community experiences a leadership transition, how does one say good bye to the old and welcome the new? For Mennonite World Conference’s current change of general secretaries, the passing of the torch on January 1 is part of a months-long series of transition events.

  • Last May in Taiwan, the MWC Executive Committee named César García of Colombia as General Secretary-elect, to replace Larry Miller of France, who will have served in the position for almost 22 years.  García joined MWC staff on August 1 for a time of overlap with Miller.
  • On October 23, local MWC supporters gathered in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada—the North American office location—for an evening celebration. García, unable to be present because of travel complications, joined the meeting via Internet video connection. The evening included words of greeting and vision from García, a heartfelt thank you from Miller to the many key supporters, staff, and former MWC staff and leaders  in the Kitchener area, and prayers and commendations from the group for both García and for Miller and his spouse, Eleanor.
  • On December 29, while MWC officers and several staff meet in Bogotá, Colombia, to formalize the transition to new MWC headquarters in that city, congregations of the three MWC member churches in Colombia will host a farewell event for the Millers. On January 1 they will officially welcome García.
  • On January 22, Mennonite World Conference and the Mennonite congregation in Strasbourg, France, where the Millers are members, will commission Miller for his new role as Secretary of the Global Christian Forum, an initiative that seeks to bring leaders of all Christian churches in the world together to foster mutual respect and to address common challenges.
  • In May, at the triennial gathering of MWC’s General Council, between two and three hundred delegates are expected to be present to thank Miller for his years of MWC leadership and to bless César as he settles into the role.
  •  

SIDEBAR TWO

Words of appreciation for Miller

Blessings, prayers, and well-wishes for Larry Miller have flowed freely at transition events and in publications during recent months. The following is only a selection:

I remember the difficult days in early 1996 when you had no visa to India. It was your attitude and faith in the possibilities, your spirit and vision, that kept things moving.  —Margaret Devadason, coordinator for the 1997 assembly

After Marlin [Miller] passed away, Larry nominated me as his big brother. Thanks for helping MWC administration in a way that made MWC flourish in the world. God bless you.  —Mesach Krisetya, MWC President, 1997–2003

One of Larry’s greatest accomplishments was taking the assemblies into the global South in ways that really energized the host churches. Larry, may the spark you gave the global church light César’s torch as he leads us into the future.  —Ray Brubacher, organizer for Zimbabwe (2003) and Paraguay (2009) assemblies

“Keep the Faith” have been the words that you, Larry, have frequently shared with me during the last months. You have taught the meaning of finishing a race in a good way.  —César García, incoming MWC General Secretary

 [Under Larry’s leadership] no corner was left on the planet where Anabaptist-oriented communities were not welcomed to explore joining MWC as equals. —Milka Rindzinski, MWC editor, translator 1992–2008

One of the things I admire about Larry is his discernment in his contacts with the Mennonite church all around the world.  —Raúl García, MWC President 1990–1997

I remember the reconciliation worship with the Protestant/Reformed church in Zurich in 2004 when Larry preached in Zwingli’s pulpit that we belong to one body, despite all of what had happened in history.  —Markus Rediger, Executive Committee member

[Larry] understood very early on that in the church we live by virtue of the gifts we exchange, that giftedness has nothing to do with geography or wealth and everything to do with exchanging gifts, with mutual generosity.  —Bert Lobe, MWC North American Representative

Larry, you are the most diligent and dedicated person I have ever seen in the Mennonite World Conference. You work hard and fast. Nothing escapes you in remembering details.  —Bedru Hussein, MWC Vice President, 1997–2000

Among general secretaries of Christian world communions, Larry has been a great colleague and source of inspiration.  —Rev. Dr. Setri Nyomi, General Secretary, World Communion of Reformed Churches

For Lutherans, the reconciliation with Mennonites was a moving moment at our 2010 international Assembly. My own favourite interpretation [of its significance] was Larry Miller’s Courier article, “What Happened in Heaven on July 22” As characterizes Larry himself, theological depth combined there with generous vision.  —Kathryn L. Johnson, Assistant General Secretary for Ecumenical Affairs, the Lutheran World Federation

Larry, it has been a privilege to work with you in the Mennonite-Catholic dialogue. I appreciate your deep ecumenical commitment and friendship in that work.  —Msgr. John A. Radano, former staff member, Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Catholic Church.

I am grateful for Larry’s friendly, no-nonsense, insightful presence [at Conference of Secretaries of Christian World Communions]. As the two representatives of the historic peace churches, we share many values and approaches.  —Nancy Irving, General Secretary, Friends World Committee for Consultation

Larry’s grace-filled approach in engaging with others has led to the building of relationships that are honoring to Christ and the gospel.  — Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, Secretary General, World Evangelical Alliance

You have shown deep ecumenical commitment, the capacity to communicate and to build new relationships, theological competence and wisdom as General Secretary of the Mennonite World Conference. You have always been an important and very constructive partner for the WCC. —Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary, World Council of Churches