Editors Blog

Patterns of this world, part 2: Breakfast with Burkholder

March 7th, 2011 – by Tim Nafziger

When we left the first part in this series, I promised that the second part would look specifically at Mennonite educational organizations and the case of James Brenneman and J. Lawrence Burkholder. However, I’d like to start by giving some background on J. Lawrence Burkholder and his influence with another Mennonite institution: the institution formerly known as Mennonite Mutual Aid (MMA), now Everence.

I first became familiar with this story in Keith Graber Miller’s piece “Mennonite Mutual Aid: A Margin of Difference.” In it he tells the story of MMA adopting the practice of underwriting. The practice meant that healthier people would pay less for their insurance policies and sicker people would pay more or be denied coverage all together. It was seen by some in MMA’s leadership as necessary for the survival of the institution. Underwriting had become the norm among most insurance companies at the time. But in practice, it would have a painful impact on sick or at-risk people who would be denied coverage, and it was difficult for those in MMA who were responsible for denying them aid in their time of need.  In 1988, an MMA task force went so far as to say that strict underwriting was “contrary to the mission of MMA.” The report also said, “We are caught between those conflicting needs of serving the church and being a sound business.”

Graber-Miller tells of the struggles MMA president Howard Brenneman felt in making this difficult decision to begin underwriting MMA insurance policies. Brenneman clearly struggled with his role in the decision to move to underwriting. He told Graber Miller that he “had heard Burkholder talk about ambiguity” and liked what he heard. Brenneman said, “When I really get to stumbling around, I visit with [Burkholder] at breakfast.” (Graber-Miller 287) Through the work of Brenneman and others in the MMA administration, the organization shifted farther along the path to becoming another insurance agency with a Mennonite constituency. He identifies this process of becoming like similar organizations as “institutional isomorphism” as described by sociologists Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell (Graber Miller, 266)

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Patterns of this World: Institutions and Bureaucracy among the Mennonites

February 28th, 2011 – by Tim Nafziger

“In the world, but not of it.” It is a concept long embraced by Mennonites in style of dress and rejection of other “worldy” trappings. But in the last 50 years, the stance of mainstream Mennonites has changed  dramatically. Embracing radio, television and lipstick, we’ve come to see our Christian distinctiveness through our dissenting view on war, our commitment to simple living and our Christian service. Unfortunately, in our rush to engage the world on these issues, we have uncritically embraced a piece of this  aion (Gk., spirit of this world) far more dangerous then lipstick and ties. That is: institutional structures and  bureaucracy.

Tim, you might say, aren’t you being a bit over-dramatic? Can institutional structures really hurt anyone? Aren’t they just neutral tools that can be used for good or ill?

In this first part of my series on bureaucracy and  institutionalism, I’ll draw on three writers to make my case. The first is Kathy Ferguson in her book, The Feminist Case Against Bureaucracy. In this quote she clearly names the way institutions co-opt our attempts to form an alternative polis grounded in community:

The [bureaucratic] structures that isolate us undermine politics itself in that they undermine our sociality; they harm our capacity to take the perspective of others unto ourselves and our situation, to imagine alternatives that come from shared experience, to project different futures and redefine past experiences on the basis of other possibilities for individual and collective life. There is a “Catch 22″ involved in in this dependency/isolation dialectic: to act socially one must share a common world with others and contribute to the field of meaning that constitutes the world. Any originality of thought or action requires that we be rooted in shared existence; but the more firmly rooted one is in bureaucracy, the less likely one is to think differently, to act differently, or in any way to make a new beginning (14).

In other words, bureaucracy draws us in with its promises of community and shared action, but ultimately co-opts this impulse to the overall goal of keeping the institutional machinery running (9).

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MC USA: The Immigrant Church

February 1st, 2011 – by Alicia Horst

What if we saw all of the church as an immigrant church?

In September of 2009 I began working with NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center.  NewBridges was started and is partially funded by the Harrisonburg District of Virginia Mennonite Conference and some of its churches.  As an agency of the church, it seeks “to address the spiritual, social and economic needs of immigrants in the Shenandoah Valley, and to connect people and congregations in building a resilient community that values our diverse cultural groups.”

I have learned a lot about Mennonite identity by moving between the nonprofit context and the church context. Specifically I’ve learned some of the ways the church sees and describes itself. We often shift our language when speaking of immigration issues. We use “us” and “them,” sometimes regardless of our cultural or ethnic heritage. Empathy and compassion are not always the first responses for those of us who haven’t had to immigrate because of crisis.

I spent my childhood in Italy, and as a result, I enjoy multicultural contexts. I feel wholeness and a sense of peace when I am surrounded by many languages and people groups. I celebrate that I have been able to find meaningful work. But as I do that, I am becoming very aware of my background of privilege.  I don’t really know what it means to have to move through several countries out of desperation for financial, physical or religious security.  I haven’t experienced that level of vulnerability.  I have never relied on a guide to take me through a desert or been packed in a shipping container and become an indentured servant for the fee of my passage.  I do not understand what it means to be separated indefinitely from family.

Most persons born in the U.S. have no idea what it is like to work with the U.S. immigration system. Our current system is based on a patchwork of legislation from different phases of our country’s development and is often irrelevant to the current needs of our society.  Because of the current political rhetoric, the possibility of creating a logical immigration process sometimes seems like an impossible dream.

Here is an example: I met with a man from Sierra Leone who married a U.S. citizen.  By all rights, he can become a U.S. citizen too.  However, his process with immigration has been stalled for years and no amount of trying to communicate with the “powers that be” has helped.  He is simply told that his file is in order but for no articulated reason he must wait for the next step in the process.  If he were wealthy, he could hire a lawyer who may be able to help advocate on his behalf.  As it is, he must continue to wait indefinitely.

Sometimes I wonder if projects abroad are easier to support because “we” are helping “them” and not having to deal with who “us” is.  If we saw all of the church as an immigrant church then perhaps our sense of calling or urgency would shift.  We are not all recent immigrants, but our identity is to be empathetically connected to the entire body of Christ, so sometimes we might need to imagine that someone else’s experience is our own. Otherwise, we tend toward selfishness, ignorance, or avoiding discomfort.

As the church, in the midst of complex systems and allegiances, how we engage in hospitality and listen to stories deeply matters.  The church is rooted in an identity that transcends nationality.  The realm of God beckons our ultimate allegiance.

Alicia Horst is a 2006 graduate of Eastern Mennonite Seminary. She spent the first 13 years of her life in Italy as the child of missionary parents. She identifies herself as an Italian-American and a “third-culture kid,” among other things.

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When the Enemy is Within

January 11th, 2011 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz

In the last 48 hours a number of blog responses to the decision for MC USA to go to Phoenix in 2013 have disturbed me.  First, of all, let me say right up front, I’m extremely disappointed in the decision to continue to hold the convention in a place with such unfriendly immigration laws. I can’t pretend to understand everything that went into the decision but I am disappointed that it appears as though finances won over truly caring about people. If this is not actually what happened, I hope very soon that someone will set the record straight.

However, I am also disappointed in reactions to this decision. I have read two blogs, the one linked above and this one, where the writers suggests that it’s time to abandon the Mennonite church and form something else.  I hope and pray that these writers are speaking out of (justifiable) anger and disappointment and are not ready to act on their expressed anger. Here’s why: Mennonites in particular have a long history of separation and abandonment of those who are “wrong.” Our righteous anger seems to almost exclusively translate into separation, exclusion, shunning, and abandonment.

We have a very spotty history of separating over things that a generation or two later become non-issues. Past examples include Sunday School and instruments in church. These things seem trivial to us. So trivial, in fact, that I even hesitate to compare them to important issues like homosexuality and immigration. However, I think it’s wrong to assume that our ancestors had any less passion about Sunday School than we have about present issues.

I would weep if these minority (or even majority) voices left the denomination. I would weep if the young Mennonites and Anabaptists who are frustrated with the situation just threw up their hands and abandoned the denomination. We need all the voices of the church and we need to learn to talk to those who disagree. We need to learn to how to stay in fellowship with each other, even when we feel like enemies.

I believe this is part of our non-violent calling. What does it say to the world, when we, who claim to have the corner on the peace market, can’t figure out how to talk to each other? Are we called to have less compassion and love when the enemy is within the church? Jesus harshly criticized religious leaders, yet still met with them, talked to them, and stayed in fellowship.

The United States political climate is such that people no longer listen to those who disagree with them. Please let’s not let that reality turn into our reality. A giant institutional government is probably not the future of the church. It certainly seems unwieldy, frustrating, and authoritarian sometimes. I dream of a future church that is a centered set, rather than a bounded set. One who pays more attention to the core vision, mission, and theology than the boundaried edges.  I dream of a denomination that looks more like a network and less like an institution. I dream of a church that can hold in tension more ideas, opinions, and theology, not less.

We will never achieve that dream if those who disagree just abandon us (or are kicked out). Please, stay. Talk. Listen. For only then does the church have a chance at a future.

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Spam, Spam, Spam

December 22nd, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

We’ve been having some problems with our spam filter and recently discovered that our filter was preventing legitimate comments from posting. We’re very sorry about this and are working to fix this. If you do post a comment and it is not approved by the moderators in a reasonable amount of time, please feel free to email the editors at workandhope@emu.edu. It’s possible that your response is being blocked by a spam filter.

The Editors

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Surrendering the “War on Christmas”

December 15th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

It’s become a Christmas tradition — each year the cultural warriors spread good cheer and the love of Christ by bitterly complaining about the secularization of the Christmas. Leading the charge in past years have been the elves at Fox News, who argue that the use of the phrase “Happy Holidays” and the removal of traditional seasonal symbols like the Christmas tree represent the liberal onslaught against religion in the public sphere. And while it’s easy to make fun, pundits like Bill O’Reilly or Gretchen Carlson bring voice to the old anxiety that Christianity is losing its prominent cultural place in American society.

American Atheists Anti-Christmas Billboard

American Atheists Anti-Christmas Billboard. Source: www.atheists.org

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On Being a Young Adult Voice

November 18th, 2010 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz

I’m not sure how it happens exactly, but I keep being asked to “represent young adults” or “give the young adult perspective” at church gatherings. This makes me uncomfortable.

First, because I can hardly conceive of the idea that I would speak for all young adults everywhere, or even a tiny percentage of young adults at any one time.  I have a very particular perspective based on my particular upbringing, socialization and personality.

Second because by adding me to a committee as the “young adult representative” church leaders then assume that they have done their duty in ushering young adults into the workings of the church.

Third, because while I am a young adult, not everything I have to offer the church is defined by that label. For example, I could also offer the perspective of seminary employee, or congregational leader working at new models of leadership, or of a woman, or of a seminary graduate.

This representation of the young adult voice is a double-sided coin for me. On the one hand I’m glad there are young adults being asked to participate in important church-wide events. I’m glad there are young adults present and active in these conversations and I’m even glad when those young adults are asked to give the “young adult perspective.” In particular I feel honored and respected when I’m asked my opinion about church matters.

On the other hand, I think it might be wise for churches as a whole to ask themselves, “Why do we need a ‘representative,’ why aren’t young adults involved in our institution naturally? Or even more pertinent, why aren’t our congregational and denominational bodies multi-generational?” We don’t ask for an elderly representative, or a Generation X representative.  As I look around many gatherings of church leaders the dominant perspective is baby-boomers.

Why is this? Is it because the church formed into these particular structures during the boomer era and so the boomers have a vested interest in keeping these structures going? Is it because boomers have not paid attention to mentoring younger generations into leadership? Is it because younger generations don’t care about the church or its structures?

Maybe all of these things are partly true for some people, in some places, at some times. However, I also wonder if part of what is missing is trust. Does the church trust us to lead? If we are labeled “young adult representative” then our opinions only need to be taken seriously as young adult opinions, not as a leader’s opinions. It seems that if you really trusted us you would invite us in for ourselves, and not as a young adult. If you really trusted us our opinions would be sought because we are leaders not because we are young. If you really trusted us, you would not need a “young adult perspective” because we would already be involved, present, and active in your congregations, agencies and organizations, leading them and moving them forward.

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We Come in Peace: A Response to Mark Tooley

November 18th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder

What if Mennonites ran the world? According to Mark Tooley, we are about to. In October, the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) ominously warned on the website of the American Spectator that the rise of neo-Anabaptism among academics and hipster Christians threatened to become a politically dominant force for the ‘Great Satan’ that is American liberalism. For Tooley, the popularity of Stanley Hauerwas and Greg Boyd signals the rise of a militant pacifism that undermines historic Mennonite sectarianism and seeks to force pacifism onto the world by expanding the power of government. In other words, the great sin of the neo-Anabaptists is that they are liberals.

It’s difficult to take Tooley’s critique seriously. The IRD has long had a history of attacks against perceived liberalism within the church and has often been a provocateur in the current battles over sexuality among the mainline denominations. While IRD’s mission statement claims that it seeks to “reaffirm the church’s biblical and historical teachings” the positions the think tank considers to be “historic” often seem to have more to do with the so-called culture war and a particular type of Christian conservatism that conflates the worship of God with nationalism. For example, in a 2007 IRD press release, Tooley called a Washington, D.C. anti-war march a “pacifist and an anti-U.S. rally” since the promotional literature advocated “the principles of pacifism upon which Jesus based his life and ministry.” As atheist commentator Austin Cline noted, Tooley pretty much condemned a pacifism “that is based on teachings attributed to what he regards as his Lord and Savior.”

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Authenticity, Transformed Shadows, and Betty D. King

October 21st, 2010 – by Michael A. King, vice president and dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary

I’ve reached that stage each generation finally reaches of beginning to lose the preceding generation. Increasingly I attend funerals of my friends’ loved ones. Last month the service was for my own mother. After several funerals of  my friends’ loved ones I learned how traumatized my friends had been by the gap between the glowing eulogies and the real-life shadows of the departed ones. This has me wrestling again with a reality that has troubled me since boyhood: The way we talk about the Christian walk is often fiction.

Maybe my family and I are just messier than the norm. Maybe everyone else is bewilderedly whispering, “Say what?” to my strange take on public affirmations of how wonderfully the Lord guides and blesses. Maybe your family doesn’t have hidden shadows. I do suspect there are those for whom the rift is narrower, and I don’t want to minimize or undercut for them their blessings.

But when my mother died I felt again the importance of this issue. How would we celebrate my mom without crafting a fantasy instead of telling the truth about her?

My mother was in her way a giant. She gave me many of my life’s resources and gifts. I can’t imagine having become writer, pastor, dean, ever fascinated with God, theology, and the meaning of life had it not been for the endless hours I spent as a teenager hanging as over the counter while she cooked.

I was always full of questions about everything, including whether there was really a God and whether the Bible was really true. So on and on I’d go, pushing my skeptic’s agenda while she defended (often amazingly well) the faith. And sometimes hinted that she found my questions a tad intriguing herself. To her final days, when introducing me to people she’d report one of her favorite things about us: We were really good arguers! When she was dying I told her I couldn’t have been a dean without her sharpening my mind. She couldn’t talk any more. But she smiled.

In her final months, precisely the wild spirit that made her a wonderful intellectual sparring partner turned things difficult for her and many, including the staff at her retirement community. Parkinson’s stole her peace of mind and mobility. After she died I looked for ways to thank staff for hanging in—and was blessed by Valda Weider Garber, head nurse overseeing the staff. She phoned to offer words of healing. She told me those final weeks had reminded her of “Better than a Hallelujah?” a song by Sara Hart and Chapin Hartford recently made popular by Amy Grant’s cover. Particularly she was reminded of the line, “Beautiful the mess we are.” The line went straight into my bruised heart. When I e-mailed Valda to thank her, she sent me back this paragraph:

I sang that song in church. . . . Faces were somber, some relieved. I mentioned prior to singing the song that we, as Brethren by denomination and Christian by belief, have long suffered in silence when life happens, not wanting to question God’s almighty will or ability to know what is best for us. Questioning “why” somehow is equated with non-belief, or at minimum, questioning the will of God. However, in my own life experience, I have learned that God wants me to question, to cry, to ask why, and through that process, receive his grace and ultimately his blessing. The Bible is full of individuals who were messes (David, Saul who became Paul, the woman at the well); individuals whom God used in spite of their messy lives. We are all messes in some way. We fail miserably. But God still sees us as beautiful.

In the midst of that interchange, I was getting ready to give a committee meeting devotional and a summary of my vision as new dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary. One thing I’d been doing as dean was developing a few areas of emphasis for me to keep in view for EMS. It hit me that there was an area I hadn’t thought to add to my EMS themes but have long been passionate about; I’ve called it “transforming the shadows” and describe it as—

fostering through the content of studies, and the spirit within which seminary life unfolds, a fierce love for the church that is able to celebrate that the church is the real body of Christ and also is ever shadowed by failures and fallibilities; shadows named rather than suppressed can become, through the saving grace of God in Christ, sources of transformation grounded in authenticity rather than unacknowledged subversion of stated values and commitments (Luke 7:36-50).

When at the end of the week we held the memorial service for my mother, this guided my thinking about what to say in my tribute to her. And though I hadn’t shared it with other family members, they too seemed to be operating from their version of it. Together we found ways to tell the truth about my mom, about how her wild self could be both a challenge and a wonder, about how she helped us grasp that though none of us are saints, through the grace of God in Christ the messes we are can be made beautiful.

So I dedicate my “transforming the shadows” theme to my mother, Betty Detweiler King, who helped me both to see the shadows and to trust that God can transform them into gifts of beauty.

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Could We?

October 7th, 2010 – by Laura Lehman Amstutz

Could we, as Anabaptist, Mennonite, MC USA (insert your denomination here) churches relate to each other as family?

Could we take the risky and difficult stance that we don’t all have to agree on everything, but that we will continue to talk about it, forever, if necessary?

Could we decide that we love each other, even if one of us feels like the taken-for-granted older sister who never gets the glory, and another feels like the youngest brother everyone is always picking on?

Could we accept those who come and go in our family of churches with love, grace and dignity?

Could we be that open to one another?

Our culture is becoming increasingly dichotomized. With us or against us. Right or left. Inside or outside. The cultural climate in the United States is threatening to pull the church apart. Television shows, political rallies and news programs are teaching us that the only way to relate is to shout loudly at those who believe differently. And if they persist in believing something different, then you should defame and vilify them.

Could we have a radical, truly Anabaptist peace witness in the world by doing one simple, but difficult thing, learning to listen and agreeing to love each other despite differences?

Well, could we?

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