Update: MCC's 'new wine' initiative

With revised vision and structure, agency seeks closer partnerships with churches around the world
By Paul Schrag

HILLSBORO, Kans. (June 10, 2009)—During Mennonite Central Committee’s most extensive review in 30 years, leaders asked big questions, such as “Who is the keeper of the MCC soul?”

To find the answers, they convened 60 meetings, involving more than 2,000 people from 50 countries over 18 months.

The result was a plan for change in an agency that elder historian and former MCC worker Robert Kreider on June 6 called “one of the most beloved of all programs that our people have.”

The changes — approved by the MCC binational board, which met June 5-6 at Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church — aim to clarify MCC’s vision, simplify its structure and make it a closer partner with Anabaptist churches around the world.

The meeting brought near to an end a process MCC called “New Wine, New Wineskins.” The review sought to prescribe a structure (“wineskin”) and define a vision (“wine”) for a future of emerging global equality rather than North American domination.

The plan calls for restructuring MCC into a system of interdependent national or multinational agencies.

It redefines MCC as “a worldwide ministry of Anabaptist churches.” This expands upon MCC’s longtime definition as a ministry of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches in Canada and the United States.

“We have worldwide program, but we don’t have worldwide ownership,” said John Stoesz, executive director of MCC Central States. “This opens up those possibilities.”

Participants used words such as “momentous” and “historic” to describe the board’s approval of the “New Wine, New Wineskins” document. It had been finalized the day before at a summit of 96 people representing MCC boards and supporting denominations.

‘There is no center’
The plan calls for ending MCC binational, the part of MCC that administers a $36.7 million budget for ministries in 65 countries. International programs would be transferred to MCC U.S., MCC Canada and Anabaptist service agencies in other countries.

Replacing MCC binational would be a new central office that would lead the entire system of MCC organizations — which currently include the U.S. and Canadian national MCCs, plus four U.S. regions and five Canadian provinces.

“There is no center right now in the MCC system,” said executive director Arli Klassen. “We have a cumbersome decision-making process between 12 boards that has become almost paralyzing.”

Klassen estimated a new central office, probably not in the United States, could be established in three to five years. She said summit participants did not discuss possible locations. MCC binational is in Akron, Pa., where MCC U.S. also is based.

One of the few expressions of dissent came from board member Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, who disagreed with the plan to transfer international program to the U.S. and Canada.

International program “requires a structure and entity of its own,” she said. “It should be kept apart, not placed with any [country].”

The long-term goal is for national or multinational entities to manage programs within their own region.

This also could ease dissatisfaction Canadians feel about the centralization of international programs at the binational office in Akron.

“Canadian constituents in particular have felt that international program has been run from a U.S. perspective,” Klassen said.

A global entity
The vision for making MCC a more global entity includes building a closer relationship with Mennonite World Conference. This has been evolving for several years. In 2006, MWC and MCC representatives called for a global service “forum.” The “Wineskins” document affirms a forum to coordinate global Anabaptist service programs.

MCC also aims to solidify its relationship with the global church by endorsing a statement of “shared convictions” adopted by the MWC General Council in 2006. That statement lists seven beliefs that unite Anabaptist churches around the world.

“I’m delighted that we adopted the MWC shared convictions,” said Wayne Bremner, executive director of MCC British Columbia. “I think that will be encouraging and unifying for a lot of the people who support us.”

MCC wants a closer relationship with all of its supporting churches, leaders said.

“The churches feel they don’t have enough say in what MCC is doing,” Klassen said. “That’s churches all over the world, not just North America. We needed to find a way to be more responsive.”

Said Ron Flaming, director of international program: “The conversations have led us to a clearer sense of the church being front and center. We want to be a part of the worldwide community. What form that will take is still a question.”

The “Wineskins” document identifies MCC’s priorities as justice and peace-building, disaster relief and sustainable community development.

And the soul of MCC? It’s “the people who are making quilts, canning meat, volunteering at thrift shops,” said Phil Rush, resource generation director. “It’s inspiring to know that we have that level of grassroots support.”

A task force will meet in September to work out details of the “Wineskins” plan and then submit it to the 12 MCC boards for approval.

“This is not signed, sealed and done in every detail,” said Herman Bontrager, binational board chair.

Paul Schrag is editor of Mennonite Weekly Review, an independent Mennonite newspaper based in Newton, Kans. He wrote this report for Meetinghouse, an association of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ publications.