By Andrew Sharp
From the January 2013 Beacon
Does Rosedale Mennonite Missions still matter to the Conservative Mennonite Conference churches? Since RMM is the official missions agency of the conference, the obvious answer should be yes. But in recent years leaders in CMC and at RMM have noted what they feel is a growing disconnect between the churches of the conference and their long-time missions agency.
After years of working primarily in Latin America, RMM dramatically shifted focus around the turn of the millennium with a fresh vision to go to people in parts of the world where few if any are followers of Jesus. “Our shift was driven by what we understood to be a call from CMC,” RMM President Joe Showalter said. But there are indications of a lack of unity in that vision. The number of RMM missionaries has been slowly declining, while people from CMC churches continue to go into mission assignments all over the world, independently or through other mission agencies.
Paul Kurtz, who serves as director of RMM’s Rosedale Business Group, said he has noticed this phenomenon when he goes to speak at churches. He will talk about RMM’s work and invite the congregation to join it. Then in the lobby afterward, he will see information about all the missionaries the church is supporting. There is all kinds of good missions work going on, he said, it’s just not happening through RMM.
To try to bring the agency back into close partnership with its churches, RMM leadership has launched a new initiative they are calling Operation Birthright. It might sound like a new American military campaign in the Middle East, but the name actually comes from Psalm 2:8: “Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance [birthright], the ends of the earth your possession.” The idea, according to Showalter, is that missions is the birthright of the local church—that the churches have the right and the privilege to take the gospel to the nations, and that they may have outsourced that privilege to RMM as an agency. RMM board chair Mel Shetler, from Goshen, Indiana, noted that the different agencies of CMC had separately arrived at the belief that they need to focus on the local church.
So Operation Birthright aims to restore a faltering connection between the churches and their missions agency, partly by examining the fundamental way the relationship has been working and see if it can be changed to give churches a greater share in the responsibility. Doing that kind of overhaul with 110 churches all at once could be a daunting task, so the RMM board asked for approval from the CMC Executive Board and ministers for a plan to pursue Operation Birthright with a pilot group of churches. These churches would be made up of the churches attended by RMM board members. The CMC board and ministers approved this idea.
To start the process, the RMM board members brought pastors and others from their churches along to the November board meeting to help brainstorm what Operation Birthright could look like.
Church representatives, board membersand RMM staff talk over lunch during the board meetings.
Making stronger connections sounds like a great idea, but actually doing that is a little more complicated. Those in attendance at the board meeting had to wrestle with what the realignment should look like, and what it should accomplish.
Showalter said the goal is to try to avoid a situation where churches send money, but then pursue their own visions while RMM pursues another set of goals. “If missions is fueled by the local church, we as CMC’s missions agency…really need to reconnect with what that vision is.”
He said RMM wants to build trust with the churches and demonstrate value. “If RMM is of no value to you and your congregation, it is probably time to have a burial…if there is still a purpose for [RMM], we need to hear together with you about what God is saying that purpose is.”
Showalter said the process of working toward a common vision will not mean RMM simply will stay on the same course, and the churches will come on board, or vice versa. Instead, the idea is for both the conference and its agency to change course to come closer together. “It’s very difficult for a single agency to align itself with 110 different visions; in some respects the alignment does have to happen toward a common vision,” he said.
That was one of the concerns raised at the November meeting—how to avoid fragmenting RMM’s missions work and vision into many small ones. “I think we’re going to have to keep saying, we can’t do everything,” Showalter said. “It’s the old balancing act of staying…good at what we’re doing but broad enough that we are actually meaningful to the visions of the churches.”
“I think it’s important that we stress that the local churches are being heard,” board member Randy Sunderland said. Sunderland attends Allensville Mennonite Church in Allensville, Pennsylvania.
So if the local churches want RMM to broaden its vision beyond unreached people groups, will RMM do that? “What I would say is, let’s talk about it, let’s think together about how that could work,” Showalter said. “I have no illusions that…CMC now needs to come to our vision whether they like it or not.” He added that he thinks RMM needs to keep articulating why it is focusing on unreached people groups, and the churches need to articulate their vision to RMM.
“What I see about Operation Birthright that I’m excited about is that it feels like this is not just RMM getting up at a business meeting or conference or something and saying, ‘Well, let us tell you again, here’s why we are trying to reach the unreached’…we’re going to sit across the table from each other and say, ‘So what do you think about this?’” Showalter said. Then if the churches still disagree on the vision, they can explain why, “And we will have heard much better from them than if we assume they don’t care.”
RMM’s emphasis on spreading the kingdom among unreached people did get a lot of affirmation at the board meetings. The group watched a video presentation by author and speaker David Platt, who made a strong case for the needs of people who have no access to the gospel. A major discussion question among the group gathered at the November board meeting was how to promote that vision for the unreached in their churches and in the other churches in CMC.
Board members share ideas during the meetingsMore Responsibility for the Churches?
Another major question addressed the “birthright” part of the equation—the importance of church investment in missions, and what that investment on the part of the churches would mean in practical terms. Should churches play a greater role in sending missionaries? What parts of missions work are best handled by an agency, and what parts by individual churches?
Between the time missionaries commit to missions and the time they fly back years later as retired church planters, there are a few details that need to be taken care of. The board, church participants, and RMM staff went over a long list of responsibilities that need to be taken care of to send and support missionaries, from recruiting to training, accountability, funding, and so on. For each item, they gave feedback on whether they thought the responsibility would be best handled by an agency like RMM or an individual church. They affirmed some as best done by an agency—cross-cultural training, language training, receiving donations, making decisions about salary and retirement benefits, or taking care of visa details. They saw others as being possibilities for more shared responsibility between the churches and RMM—recruiting missionaries, watching out for missionaries’ emotional needs, raising funds, screening candidates, strategic planning, and visits to missionaries in the field.
Whatever shape increased involvement takes in the future, board members and church leaders affirmed the idea of getting the churches more involved in missions. Titus Mast, pastor of Naumburg Conservative Mennonite Church in Castorland, New York, who also attended the board meeting, said he thinks that idea was one of the most important things that came out of the Operation Birthright meetings. “It’s going to bring more involvement from local congregations…they’re going to get more excited about what they see God doing as they realize that this is our mission…it’s something we are directly involved with.”
John David Swartzentruber, head pastor at Greenwood Mennonite Church in Greenwood, Delaware, attended the meetings with new RMM board member Mark Yoder, also from Greenwood. Swartzentruber also said the churches could use a greater sense of ownership of RMM. “We as churches are RMM; it’s not us and them.” For churches to take greater ownership and make Operation Birthright successful, he said people will need passion for missions. “Do I really care that the message is going out to all the world? Or am I satisfied just where I’m at?” he asked. “Maybe there needs to be greater passion for this…if we don’t have a passion to do it it’s probably not going to do much good to talk about vision and goal setting because it’s not really going to be that important to me.”
Jonas Yoder, a board member from Bethel Mennonite Church in Sarasota, Florida, said he also would like to see people connect better with the work RMM is doing, maybe through some kind of partnership between the church and RMM on a project. “If we can get people excited about missions, all our budget problems…getting people to go, and all that stuff, that’s all going to go away,” he said.
Swartzentruber said better communication between congregations in CMC could also motivate people, as they hear about what other churches are doing. “In some ways it kind of spurs us each on as we talk about it.”
More involvement from the churches also ties into the question of where RMM should be working, Swartzentruber noted. Because RMM has limited staff, he said, if people want the agency to get involved in more locations, “the churches are going to have to take some of the responsibility.”
So when the meetings ended, what had Operation Birthright become? The group brainstormed on many different topics—should RMM help churches reach out to their communities? Would focusing on these local projects sacrifice a larger conference vision? How can RMM communicate better? Could each CMC church be paired with a missionary?
“I don’t think we have a handle yet completely on what all Operation Birthright will look like,” Sunderland said. “There’s a lot of…trial and error, a lot of tailoring it to what the needs are.”
Development of the details will take place at future board meetings and in visits to the churches from RMM staff, Showalter said. For the time being, the board members have taken a statement of intent to participate in the pilot program back to their churches to get any necessary approval. As this article went to press some of the churches had signed up and others are still reviewing the idea.
In the long term, the idea is that once the participating churches and RMM develop better ways of working together, they won’t become just a privileged RMM board club—the agency will start to work with all the churches in the same way. But RMM had to start somewhere, Showalter said. “We can’t just flip a switch and start connecting well to 110 churches.”
Showalter pointed out, however, that the seven churches currently represented on the board make up almost 20% of CMC’s membership. So if they all participate in Operation Birthright, RMM will already be working with a significant portion of the conference (located in both urban and rural settings). Showalter also estimated that these churches, scattered as they are in different CMC communities, are geographically close to most of the rest of the conference membership. At some point down the road, he said, the pilot churches might be able to help connect RMM with these other churches.
“I think it’s going to be an adventure that is going to be really exciting.”
Let us know what you think: how should the relationship between RMM and the churches of CMC work? Do the churches of the conference need a missions agency? What about RMM’s focus on unreached people groups? Leave a comment or send your feedback to President Joe Showalter at email@example.com.