Looking through the mirror at the Menno-verse

Glen Guyton is executive director of Mennonite Church USA.

As a child I was a geek, a nerd, and proud of it. In the 80s my step team and I rocked blue sweatshirts with embroidered letters. My line name was Professor Stomp. I fully embrace my geekdom in the same way I fully embrace who I am within MC USA. So, as I reflect on our denomination, I can’t help but draw upon images from one of my favorite childhood shows. I am a big Star Trek fan, so this isn’t the first time I have drawn parallels between the Star Trek Universe and Mennonite Church USA.

One episode that has been duplicated through every iteration of the series is Mirror, Mirror. In it the transporter (molecular transportation device) of the Star Trek Enterprise malfunctions throwing Captain Kirk and his team in a mirror (or parallel universe). The people and events on the other side are almost identical to the “normal” universe, but there are some very critical differences. Rather than a true mirror, this alternate universe is a dark reversal of the Star Trek universe we know and love. Spock is an evil dictator in the parallel universe. How messed up is that?

I wonder what Paul would think seeing this episode of Mirror, Mirror as he penned his letter to the Corinthians. “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely” (1 Corinthians 13:11-12 NLT).

There are days that I wake up thinking, “What Mennonite universe am I in?”

Most often as I travel the country meeting with various Mennonites in their home congregations, I meet people filled with hope. I meet people who love Christ and the church. I meet people who lead by faith, are engaging their communities and are being instruments of Jesus’ peace in creative and exciting ways.

Then the transporter malfunctions and I find myself embroiled in the parallel Menno-verse with bitter Jedediah, who forgets that he is a friend of God and places himself in the place of God, giving me the run down of all the sins and flaws of MC USA. Because of my transformation, I resist the urge to give him the Vulcan nerve pinch. I usually just respond by saying, “Aren’t you Mennonite Church USA?” The response is a mix of grunts and incoherent huffs that reinforces my belief, “Glen, you aren’t in Kansas anymore (well sometimes I am). You are in the parallel Menno-verse where people are kind of MC USA, but not quite.” They tell me they are leaving MC USA, but they still have funds in Everence, they will still work with Corinthian Plan and Mission Network. But they will have nothing to do with MC USA. So I ask again, “Aren’t you Mennonite Church USA?”

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am the lead staff person for the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA. I am a paid apologist for that specific portion of our denominational pie. But those of you reading this who are a part of MC USA, I ask you, “Aren’t you Mennonite Church USA?” According to our bylaws Mennonite Church USA is composed of area conferences that are made up of local congregations.

By design our conference and congregational leaders have great authority in our system and that authority is also greatly enhanced by the collective wisdom of the Delegate Assembly and the Constituency Leaders Council. I would have to think that there was some institutional wisdom in ensuring that we had strong conferences and congregations who would work collaboratively and in harmony rather than needing a Mennonite pope or a heavy-handed bishop.

Since July 2001, somewhere along the line, for some people, Mennonite Church USA became synonymous with the Executive Board and to a lesser degree the Executive Director. Maybe the Menno-verse has become so turned upside down that we have forgotten our place in this body.

We have forgotten that MC USA was created to allow its members to participate fully in God’s work of setting things right in a broken world, redeeming and restoring all things in Christ to God’s intended design — a design that involves three forever things: “faith, hope, and love — and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13 NLT).

As a denomination, I think the mirror we are peering through seems dark right now. The rhetoric in various circles has elevated the Executive Board to MAGA (Mennonites Against Going Anywhere). We are stuck in a cycle of blame while failing to move forward in mission in God’s power. As a longtime Executive Board staff member, I must share in some of the blame of operating under cultural paradigms rather than in designed purpose.

While the Executive Board has a leadership role regarding vision and advocacy for smaller conferences, one of the primary functions of the EB is to coordinate the activities of our agencies, partners and programs. The strength of the EB lies in its power to convene the body, not in its power to punish. Those that want the EB and Executive Director to wield the hammer of wrath are asking us to use a tool not granted to us, at least not in the Menno-verse.

Slowly, maybe too slowly for some, I have been working to build positive energy with many of our conference leaders, energy to help articulate more clearly how power and authority work in our system. Our system is complex. I would encourage you to look through the guiding documents of this denomination.

With the power and authority granted to me in this role as the primary administrative officer, I want to make sure that our policies, procedures and programs line up with who we say we are and where we say God is calling us. That is going to take some work, but it is not my work alone. We must accept the power and authority granted to us within this system. Whether we are a conference, committee, congregation, delegate, agency or individual, we are Mennonite Church USA and there are very specific things that we can, and do, control within our system.

There is a disconnect if we think we can either control the actions of others or that our actions don’t affect the whole. In community we must find ways to walk together. That means some of us will need to speed up our pace, others will have to slow down and all of us should be a little uncomfortable.

For some the Star Trek metaphor probably went a little too far. Some of you have no clue what any of the Star Trek references mean, but I hope you take the time to understand your importance in MC USA. While the characters on the TV show were a diverse, united federation of planets, seeking “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” we in MC USA are a diverse federation of Anabaptists committed to boldly following the Jesus way of peace.

Official comments policy for users of Mennonite Church USA’s websites and other social networking tools. We reserve the right to remove any comment that violates this policy.

  • The purpose of comments is to engage in constructive dialogue.
  • Please provide your own full name.
  • Be respectful. If you’re offering criticism, focus on others’ ideas — not their motives, person, character or faith. Consider the log in your own eye before pressing ‘Enter.’

Comments are moderated. Comments with any content that is deemed obscene, libelous, defamatory or hateful toward an individual or group will not be approved. Comments will remain open for 10 days.

3 thoughts on “Looking through the mirror at the Menno-verse

  1. Right on, Glen. Thank you for articulating how our MC USA system works. WE are the body of Christ known as MC USA; it’s not some group “out there” but each of us contrubuting to the wholeness of MC USA.

  2. Thank you so much for this part of your inaugural address. It is very inspiring and gives hope for the future. I see that you are soon to be installed formally in College Mennonite Church in Goshen, which is perhaps as close as we have to a Mennonite National Cathedral.

    I can’t help but reflecting on my own father’s life in the institutional Mennonite church as I read your words. He came from a small Amish Mennonite farm in Ontario, took our family (unwillingly on my part) to Goshen, and spent his life tinkering with the church. He was the first joint Dean of AMBS when the General Conference and the Old Mennonites agreed to have a seminary together.

    Part of the reason they settled in Elkhart was that some of the GC’s were ferociously opposed to the Mennonite Pope of the time, Harold S. Bender, who held court in Goshen and wanted the seminary to be located there.

    My father took over from H.S. Bender as Dean, and, things being incestuously Mennonite as they were then, many assumed that he was the son of H.S. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dad was from a line of humble Canadian Amish Mennonites who traced their history back to an Amish settlement in Ontario in the 1820s. Harold S. was from a posh line of more sophisticated Pennsylvania Mennos.

    As Dad became, among other things, the Moderator of the (Old) Mennonite Church and later President of Mennonite World Conference, I used to tell him that he was the “Mennonite Machiavelli”, in that he knew all the ins- and outs of Mennonite institutions and power structures and how to manipulate them, for good ends of course.

    He responded to me that he was merely a simple Mennonite churchman, and that when he was in positions of leadership some very cranky folks expected him to fix everything that was wrong with the church, to somehow transform all the “sins and flaws” that the Jedediahs have run down for you. He said things didn’t work that way.

    His message to me reminded me of what you have just said about the nature of leadership in MC USA, that institutional leaders don’t wield some sort of hammer of wrath. This is hard for folks to truly understand.

    One thing immediately struck me when you were selected as Executive Director. You were given this position, which, while not all-powerful, does certainly involve the use of certain kinds of power, at a time when MC USA has undergone the types of fragmentation you talk about. In plain words, you have had the mess dumped in your lap.

    This reminds me of the phenomenon of white flight in the history of urban America. I live in Philadelphia near the corner of two cathedral-like church buildings constructed by wealthy white congregations around the turn of the 20th century. These congregations left the city for the suburbs, and turned the expensive citadels over to poor African-American congregations who did not have the means to maintain them. This in fact happened to the First Mennonite Church of Philadelphia, whose building remains but long ago ceased to be part of the denomination.

    So, you find yourself with the responsibility of literally helping to try to pick up the pieces after the ferocious “cycles of blame” and contentiousness of the last decades. As you well know from your own long experience with Mennonites, this is no easy task, to put it very mildly.

    My personal hope for MC USA comes from my experience of the last thirty-three years in Philadelphia, where I have spent half my life. The urban church is clearly where things are happening. The Kingdom Builders Anabaptist Network Pentecost service this year was held at the new Centro de Alabanza, a Mexican church part of Franconia Conference. The Philly Vietnamese congregation (Lancaster Conference) sang at the service, as did Solidarity and Harmony, the Haitian congregation (Eastern District). There was lively music from the several Indonesian Mennonite churches.

    These annual events are a foretaste of heaven, and they get better ever year. MCC East Coast is now headquartered in Philadelphia, as is the new editor of the Mennonite Magazine.

    Although First Mennonite did not survive the era of white flight, its daughter church, Second Mennonite, did.
    This congregation nurtured a fiery young pastor, Juan Marrero, a fourth-generation Puerto Rican Menno, who helped plant Christ Centered Church in North Philly, and is now Chairman of the Kingdom Builders Anabaptist Network.

    What is beginning slowly to happen is that the power and (very slowly) the financial riches of the rural and suburban Mennonites are being transferred into the cities.

    As John M. Perkins reminded us at a Pentecost Service here some years ago, what is needed for effective change are the “Three R’s” — relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. As Mennonites have moved from the farms to urban areas over the last century, these three R’s are more important than ever. And the greatest of these now, to my mind, is economic redistribution.

    So as you are installed in Goshen, which had been a sundown town and former center of the Klan, may God grant you all the power of King David and the Wisdom of Solomon. And may you receive the blessing of Nathan the prophet and be a true friend of God.

    Ross Lynn Bender
    West Philadelphia

  3. I am deeply moved by the way you challenge us as individuals to realize each of us “is the Mennonite Church USA”. We are slow learners. Thank you for your willingness to be our leader. Continue to call/remiind us to listen to our own lives, challenging us to desire an awareness of God’s Presence, who is Love, in our own lives as we live daily in our families, and our church families, and our communities.

Comments are closed.