Bettingen, Switzerland—Swiss Mennonite historian Hanspeter Jecker stood on the bank of the Limmat River in Zurich, Switzerland, near the site where Anabaptist martyr Felix Manz was drowned. He was speaking passionately to a group of international church leaders about the 16th century drowning.
Suddenly from the group came an outburst from Joly Birakara Ilowa from the Democratic Republic of Congo: " I'm very happy to be here. If I were not already baptized, I would want to be baptized right here and now." In Congo, he had learned and taught about his Anabaptist "ancestors"—but now that he was on the same soil as they, it meant so much more to him.
Ilowa, vice president of the Communauté Mennonite au Congo, was on one of three busloads of delegates who took a day during this year's gathering of Mennonite World Conference's General Council to tour landmarks of Anabaptist beginnings in the 16th century.
A grounding in historical and theological roots was a strong undercurrent for the triennial gathering, held May 20-26, at the St. Chrischona Conference Centre in Bettingen, near Basel, a Swiss city on the borders of both Germany and France.
The symbolism of the venue loomed large. Basel was an important crossroads for persecuted and migrating early Anabaptists, and for a century and a half, Mennonites and other theological heirs of the Anabaptists have come here for training in ministry.
St. Chrischona was also the site of the first and the fifth MWC assemblies in 1925 and 1952—in eras where the faces were almost exclusively white. This year's General Council, by contrast, counted 105 delegates from 48 of the 54 countries of MWC membership. About 80% of these were from the Global South—along with 45 commission members and as many volunteers and guests.
Fittingly, "Revisiting our Vision," was the banner for three reflection papers presented by members of the Council's Faith and Life Commission and approved as resources for MWC member churches in exploring holistic ministry, the Anabaptist tradition, and the meaning of the biblical term koinonia (communion or fellowship).
Resourcing leadership and ministry
Far from nostalgic throw-backs to earlier patterns of church, the discussion papers and the decisions at this year's gathering were about new ways that global Anabaptists can be the church together in a rapidly changing world.
With the appointment last year of César García of Colombia has come energy to adjust staff structures and working styles to anticipate even more networking among churches, especially between the international Assemblies that occur every six years.
In his opening address to the delegates on Sunday evening, García lamented the prevalence of "caudillismo"—the authoritarian, above-the-law style of leadership that prevails in his country, often feeding Colombia's violent reputation.
"What kind of leadership does God want to see in society and in the church?" García asked. From the apocalyptic vision of the "lamb on the throne" in Revelation 7:9-17, García committed himself and called upon delegates to exercise leadership whose power is marked by vulnerability, love and hospitality. "Jesus invites the multitudes, creates space in his glory to receive them, focuses his attention on them, he suffers with them, and offers his wounds to heal them."
In the ensuing days, many of the points discussed in regional caucuses and passed in MWC's consensus style of decision-making, addressed structures to help its 101 member and associate member churches to work together at common issues and identity in an ongoing way.
García introduced a revised staffing structure appropriate to the shift of the head office from Strasbourg, France, to Bogotá, Colombia—a move to be completed in August. In order to develop administrative capacity, García said, there are plans to have a staff representative in each of the five continental regions. These will work with an Operations Team of "chief officers" that share the administrative load and multiply opportunities for MWC networking globally.
The Council's four commissions appointed three years ago in Paraguay were given new support and clearer mandates. In addition to the teaching papers of The Faith and Life Commission, the delegates heard reporting and took action on a wide range of commission work.
Perhaps most dramatically, the Mission Commission took under its oversight the newly formed Global Anabaptist Service Network—a group of indigenous service agencies from all of MWC's five continental regions—whose representatives had met a week earlier. The existing network already relating to the commission is the Global Mission Fellowship.
The Faith and Life Commission agreed to serve as a reference group for a "Global Anabaptist Profile" research project, to be headed up by the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism at Goshen College, in Goshen, Indiana. The institute is directed by John Roth, who is also the secretary for the MWC Faith and Life Commission.
The commission will also help facilitate and promote inter-church dialogue, such as recent conversations with the Seventh Day Adventists on common history; and dialogue with Lutherans and Catholics on baptism.
The Deacons Commission received approval of a protocol that will guide its engagement with member churches and their agencies facing critical needs. The purpose of the protocol is to ensure prompt communication and effective cooperation in addressing those needs.
The Peace Commission has been doing a "peace audit" to ascertain member churches' involvements and desire in promoting the peace position. Also, the General Council supported a protocol developed by the Peace Commission to guide its possible involvement in internal conflicts of member churches.
It's all about communication
To do all this work requires a growing investment in communication. That topic came up at many points—from pleas on the floor to make sure all documents are available well in advance in all three of MWC's official languages (English, Spanish, and French), to calls for more storytelling.
Ron Rempel, Chief Communications Officer, presented a strategic communication proposal that included the updating of electronic communication for faster and nimbler dissemination that majors on stories. The MWC web site is currently being updated so that it can not only share information and stories, but also link with social media and serve as an interactive work station for the four commissions.
But the plan also acknowledges that large swaths of the MWC constituency—particularly in rural Africa, Asia, and Latin America—do not yet have easy access to the Internet, or are not connected at all. Key print resources such as the quarterly Courier-Courrier-Correo magazine, will continue to be needed.
Assembly 16 and beyond in view, President-elect named
Face-to-face gatherings will continue to be a mainstay of MWC life. General Council also heard endorsed plans for Assembly 16 in 2015. Dick Thomas, chair of the Assembly 16 National Advisory Council, and Assembly 16 National Coordinator Howard Good presented slides and plans for the assembly slated for July 21-26, 2015 at the Pennsylvania State Farm Show complex in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
The delegates pledged support for the plan, but urged the five US host churches to do all they can to facilitate the obtaining of visas, especially for youth delegates. Liesa Unger, MWC Chief International Events Officer, confirmed that a special committee will be devoted to help with visas, but also emphasized that each national church must work diligently and in advance to provide authorizations for their members to attend.
Subject to a feasibility study, the Council also accepted an invitation from the three Mennonite synods of Indonesia to host the 17th Assembly in 2021.
Finances in a global economy
Chief Operations Officer, Len Rempel, reported that MWC finances are in relatively strong shape, given the challenges of the global economy and the extra expenses of MWC's leadership transition in the last triennium.
And yet, especially as expenses rise sharply in the two years before Assembly 16, delegates from almost all regions also acknowledged that the "fair share" formula for supporting MWC is a struggle. The formula, based on World Bank figures of average incomes, gives each member church a dollar amount that it is expected to contribute.
Even delegates from affluent countries expressed the challenge. The European economy has been in flux, and North American churches vary in their level of commitment to MWC as they deal with declining support for their own programs.
According to MWC Treasurer, Ernst Bergen of Paraguay, "Mennonites have a great gift in making money; there are many in our family who are very rich. The news that is not so good is that the money that is in their account is not making its way into our account. I would like you to help us in collaborating and talking to people who could be donating money for the work of the Lord."
Len Rempel added: "If MWC is ours, let's make it happen. If we can't meet the challenge, let's negotiate."
In other significant actions, the General Council:
Ratified the Executive Council decision to accept into MWC membership the Mennonite Church of Chile, and into associate membership the International Brethren in Christ Association.
Celebrated the progress of the Global History Project, which has published four of five books on the continental regions, with the fifth to be completed this year. Among the titles, nine translations have already been completed, with more in process.
Recognized Pakisa Tshimika of DR Congo, for his longstanding service with MWC in several responsibilities—recently for his vision for the Global Anabaptist Service Network and his involvement in forming it.
Applauded the work of the Young Anabaptists (YABs) whose six-member committee had met the previous week to carry forward efforts at international networking and to plan the next Global Youth Summit, to be held in conjunction with Assembly 16 in the U.S. in 2015.
Gave permission to the Asia caucus to merge with the Asia Mennonite Conference, which has met for more than 20 years and has shared overlapping mandates with the caucus.
Conferred on Larry Miller the title of MWC General Secretary Emeritus in recognition of his 22 years of service before César García assumed the role in January 2012. Miller, who is now General Secretary for the Global Christian Forum, was feted in a special dinner and program Wednesday evening, along with his wife, Eleanor.
MWC News Service