A Divided People: The Dissolution of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches (1990-2002)

LAURA NEUFELD*

     Abstract: In 1999, the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, which united the Canadian and U.S. Mennonite Brethren for over one hundred years, voted to dissolve and divest its ministries to two national conferences. This essay reconstructs the events leading up to the dissolution of the General Conference through an examination of periodicals, interviews and General Conference committee and conference proceedings during the 1990s. National, generational and theological differences among the North American Mennonite Brethren constituency all played a significant role in the decision to dissolve the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.

     Candles flickered within the darkened sanctuary of the Central Heights Mennonite Brethren Church in Abbotsford, British Columbia. On the evening of July 27, 2002, over 1500 members of the Mennonite Brethren Church gathered to witness the leadership of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches pass the light of its faith and ministry to the next generation. In this symbolic ceremony, former General Conference board and ministry members lit candles and then, amid prayers and hymns, passed their candles to current leaders and youth who filled the aisles.[1]  While hopeful, the mood of the service remained somber. The main purpose of the gathering was not only to affirm a new generation of leadership but also to close forever a chapter in the history of the Mennonite Brethren Church in North America. The service marked the formal end of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, an organizational structure that had facilitated a bi-national partnership of ministries between the U.S. and Canada for over 100 years.

     Perhaps no event in recent Mennonite Brethren history has generated as much controversial debate as the decision made in 1999 to dissolve the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches and divide responsibility for its ministries between the Canadian and U.S. national conferences. Some have proposed that the dissolution of the General Conference, or "divestiture" as it was later called, resulted from nationalistic feelings on both sides of the border. Biblical scholar and former secretary of the General Conference John E. Toews cited nationalism as the prime evidence of a growing fragmentation among North American Mennonite Brethren.[2]  Others argued that the divestiture grew out of a theological identity crisis. Still others, such as former Executive Secretary Marvin Hein, suggested that the dissolution of the General Conference arose out of the impatience of a younger generation of leaders frustrated by the multi-layered conference structure and the complex process of governance.[3] 

     Each of these perspectives, however, provides only a partial explanation for the demise of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. Both General Conference leadership and its constituency faced a swirl of diverse issues throughout the 1990s that complicated relationships between Mennonite Brethren in Canada and the U.S., between present and future generations of leadership, and between those divided by theology as well as age and nation. In the end, divestiture was the consequence of national, generational and theological divisions that permeated the constituency of the General Conference.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

     Mennonite Brethren history helps to illuminate the significance of the divestiture and the tensions that plagued the Mennonite Brethren Church throughout the 1990s. Since its inception in 1860 in Imperial Russia, the Mennonite Brethren church has had a long history of balancing multiple streams of religious thought, drawing especially on a blend of Anabaptist, Pietist and evangelical thought.[4]  As a branch of the larger Mennonite denomination in Russia, the Mennonite Brethren maintained many of the theological principles of their Anabaptist forbears, including believer's baptism, church discipline and nonresistance. However, they also drew heavily from Lutheran Pietism for themes such as "personal conversion, devotional piety" and "free religious expression."[5]  Ideas borrowed from German Baptists strongly influenced their congregational polity, commitment to foreign missions and the development of their first formal confession of faith.[6]  The Mennonite Brethren governance system that grew out of these influences combined congregational and presbyterian polity models. This meant that congregations had the freedom to select their own leadership, but in theological and ethical matters they were expected to follow the decisions made by the General Conference.[7]  This form of church polity supported a strong emphasis on the local congregation, but it made denominational unity more difficult to maintain as the Mennonite Brethren constituency grew in cultural and theological diversity.

     Another significant point of tension among Mennonite Brethren in North America originated in their history of immigration and acculturation. The first waves of Mennonite Brethren to immigrate to North America came in the 1870s and settled in the Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada. These migrants represented those among the Mennonite Brethren who were most concerned about exemption from compulsory military service.[8]  Despite the difficulties of organizing congregations on the expanding frontier,[9]  this fledgling group of immigrants managed to hold the first official meeting of the General Conference in 1879 in Henderson, Nebraska.[10]  The gathering included representatives from Kansas, Nebraska and Minnesota. Early subsequent conference meetings dealt primarily with the assignments of itinerant ministers and with concerns brought to them by local congregations.[11]  But as the Mennonite Brethren population in the U.S. and Canada grew, the conference also began to assume responsibility for such things as foreign missions, publication and higher education, as well as oversight for the four district conferences that had developed by 1912: the Central District, Southern District, Northern District (including Canada) and Pacific District conferences.[12] 

     These organizational dynamics shifted dramatically when a second major wave of Mennonite Brethren immigrants arrived from Russia in the 1920s and 1930s to settle in Canada.[13]  Between 1870 and 1920, the Russian Mennonite Brethren had emerged from their former cultural isolation to become deeply involved in public affairs, mission work and leadership in the cultural and economic life of the larger Mennonite community in Russia.[14]  When these immigrants arrived in Canada in the 1920s, they found their 1870 counterparts, in the words of historian Frank Epp, to be "too withdrawn, too simple-minded, too uncultured . . . too afraid of schools or education." Conversely, the Mennonite Brethren who had settled in Canada in the 1870s found the newcomers to be "too proud, too aggressive, too enthusiastic about higher education, too anxious to exercise leadership, too ready to move to the cities."[15] 

     By midcentury, the Northern district of the General Conference-later known as the Canadian conference-had a larger population than the three remaining U.S. districts combined and began seeking an identity of its own.[16]  While willing to participate in General Conference structures, the more recent immigrants in Canada did not feel the same sense of ownership for General Conference programs as did the U.S. Mennonite Brethren. The fact that all the General Conference offices and institutions-Tabor College, mission headquarters, Board of Trustees office and the Publishing House-were located in the U.S. served as an impetus for Canadians to develop their own programs.[17]  In short order, they set out to establish numerous Bible schools and their own publications.[18]  Eventually, these Canadian conference institutions became far stronger than those developed at the district conference level in the U.S.

     The U.S. conference had its origins in a U.S. Board of Education formed in 1954 when Canadian Mennonite Brethren refused to support a bi-national unified educational program.[19]  While Mennonite Brethren in the U.S. invested much energy into developing the educational programs for which they took responsibility, in other areas they continued to rely on the bi-national General Conference for structural support. The inequality in membership size and organizational scope of the two national conferences that emerged would remain a notable concern when discussions about the viability of the General Conference developed in the 1990s.

     Differences between Mennonite Brethren in the U.S. and Canada, however, went deeper than immigration patterns and conference structures. The two groups were also divided by varying levels of acculturation and diverse theological influences. By 1940, Mennonite Brethren in the U.S. had made the transition to the English language, whereas most Canadians-thanks to their more recent immigration and the Canadian government's more accommodating policy toward ethic minorities-continued to speak German until well into the 1960s.[20]  Historian Richard Kyle has also noted that the "strong emphasis" placed on Bible school education among Canadian Mennonite Brethren may have strengthened their ties to the Mennonite Brethren theological tradition.[21]  These characteristics have led some conference leaders such as Edmund Janzen to suggest that the Canadian Mennonite Brethren exhibit "a more resonant willingness to define themselves as Anabaptists."[22]  These broad cultural and theological characteristics further complicated the national divide.

     If Mennonite Brethren in Canada seemed secure in their cultural and theological identity, their counterparts in the United States experienced much stronger forces of acculturation. Not only did U.S. Mennonite Brethren have fifty more years to adjust to North American culture than did many Canadians, but they also expressed amenable, even positive feelings toward American culture. According to Kyle, the Mennonite Brethren "liked America, and Americans generally accepted them. . . . They discovered that Americans did many things better than they, and thus adopted many of their ways."[23]  Thus, Mennonite Brethren in the U.S. found it easier than their Canadian brethren to let go of certain aspects of their identity and to borrow freely from American religious ideology. During the first half of the twentieth century, for example, Mennonite Brethren in the U.S. were much more influenced by the fundamentalism and dispensationalism of American evangelical culture than the Canadians, who were still insulated from these influences by cultural and linguistic barriers.[24]  While both groups have drawn heavily on North American evangelicalism over the course of the 20th century, conference leaders such as David Wiebe, John E. Toews, Ed Boschman and Marvin Hein all acknowledge that the influence has been stronger in the United States than in Canada.[25] 

      This "theological tripod" of Anabaptism, evangelicalism and pietism, combined with different immigration and acculturation trends, made for a diverse and somewhat unstable bi-national General Conference structure. Efforts to balance these different theological streams, along with the practical complications of navigating a bi-national and bi-cultural partnership, demanded constant attention from denomina-tional leadership when the story of the divestiture of the General Conference began in the 1990s. While some conference leaders, such as former Executive Secretary Marvin Hein, have asserted that the different cultural patterns of Canadian and U.S. Mennonite Brethren did not enter into the decision to dissolve the General Conference, many of these same leaders referred to the MB immigration story when reflecting on the historical and contemporary relationship between Mennonite Brethren in the U.S. and Canada.[26]  While not a direct causal link, the differences that arose from immigration patterns still frame the way U.S. and Canadian Mennonite Brethren think about each other, and this historical background likely played a part in the discussions surrounding the viability of the General Conference at the end of the twentieth century.

CONVENTION 1990: HOPES FOR A STRONGER IDENTITY

     By the time of its 1990 convention in Hillsboro, Kansas, the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches had evolved into a complex organism that facilitated cooperation between Mennonite Brethren in Canada and the United States in several bi-national ministries, such as the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary and Mennonite Brethren Missions and Services International. Separate national conferences-divided further into either district or provincial conferences-also operated under the umbrella of the General Conference. The Board of Reference and Counsel oversaw both the administrative functions and confessional issues of the General Conference. At their gathering in Hillsboro, conference leaders and delegates took actions that suggested an underlying uneasiness with theological and cultural trends among the General Conference constituency. In so doing, they set in motion a chain of events that, a decade later, would culminate in the decision to dissolve the General Conference.

     The Board of Reference's first item put forward for delegate affirmation-a new vision statement for the General Conference-responded directly to concerns about decreasing conference loyalty and the lack of a theological center among the General Conference constituency. Four years earlier, the Board had elaborated on numerous "dangers" it perceived to be threatening Mennonite Brethren cohesion and identity. These dangers included "increased fragmentation and autonomy," "erosion of conference loyalty," and the concern that "theological questions will be determined by expediency."[27]  The General Conference vision statement of 1990 cited these concerns and proceeded to address each one in the hope of slowing or reversing current trends.[28]  Thus, in response to the continuing evangelical acculturation evident in many Mennonite Brethren churches, the vision statement summarized Mennonite Brethren theology in the language of Anabaptist distinctives such as covenant community, discipleship and a history of "persecution, struggle, migration, missions and commitment."[29]  The statement also attempted to strengthen conference authority by making a strong call for "a new confessional integrity," insisting that "it is imperative that the leadership of the Church-the pastors, teachers, and conference officers-be in agreement with the Confession."[30]  The 1990 vision statement represented an effort by the General Conference leadership to unify its constituency around a theological center. Subsequent conventions, however, would expose that center as extremely tenuous.

     The 1990 convention agenda also attempted to build some denominational cohesion with a proposal to change the conference name from "General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches" to "Mennonite Brethren Church in North America." Long-time conference leader J. B. Toews joined other conference leaders in noting that the change from "Churches" to "Church" highlighted the Mennonite Brethren understanding of "interdependent churches."[31]  These leaders hoped to combat the growing tendency towards autonomy and fragmentation among local congregations which the Board of Reference and Counsel had noted in 1986. However, disagreement prevented delegates from settling the name change issue in Hillsboro. In fact, the issue became so contested that leaders eventually laid the proposal aside in 1995, but not until delegates and members of the constituency had further shaken the foundations of Mennonite Brethren identity by opening the discussion to include a debate over the inclusion of terms such as "Mennonite" and "Brethren" as well as the change from "Churches" to "Church."[32]  Instead of bringing clarity and cohesion to the General Conference, the name change proposal revealed the depth of the Mennonite Brethren identity crisis.

     The 1990 conference also engaged in a kind of reshuffling of internal structures and responsibilities. Citing concerns for "effectiveness, efficiency, and cost," conference boards separated the theological and administrative functions of the Board of Reference and Counsel and proposed that the position of executive secretary be established.[33]  This proposal meant that two new boards-the Executive Council and Board of Faith and Life-would replace the existing Board of Reference and Counsel.[34]  The Executive Council included "the conference executive, the chairs of all General Conference boards, the moderators of the Canadian and U.S. conferences, and the new office of executive secretary."[35]  Unremarkable in themselves, these adjustments to the General Conference structure came at a time when the denomination was already struggling with questions of cohesion and efficiency.

     For some conference leaders, the unrest that surrounded North American Mennonite Brethren identity and the structures of the General Conference at the 1990 convention made it clear that the vision statement and restructuring of 1990 would not bring the renewal they desired. David Wiebe, former member of the Board of Resource Ministries and current moderator of the Canadian Mennonite Brethren conference, said of these efforts: "The leadership couldn't find a path to help people understand the missional purpose of the General Conference."[36]  Despite the efforts of General Conference leadership to use a new vision statement to answer the question of what it means to be Mennonite Brethren, confusion persisted in subsequent years about the role of the General Conference in shaping Mennonite Brethren identity. Was the main purpose of the General Conference to facilitate bi-national fellowship? Manage Canadian and U.S. ministry programs? Enforce theological unity? Support the evangelism of local congregations? As future discussions and conventions would make clear, even conference leaders found it difficult to reach agreement on these questions.

CONVENTION 1993: UPSETTING THE THEOLOGICAL CENTER

     Although conference leaders in the early 1990s sensed increasing theological instability and a growing ineffectiveness within the political structures of the General Conference, they still agreed on the central value of the theological work done by the Board of Faith and Life (formerly the Board of Reference andCounsel). When asked to name strengths of the General Conference, the most common answer among conference leaders was the work done by the Board of Faith and Life. The main role of this board was to hold study conferences and make recommendations that concerned the Mennonite Brethren confession of faith and issues relating to its practical application. Former moderator, Edmund Janzen, felt that the Board of Faith and Life helped define "the nature of the Mennonite Brethren community of faith" and formulate a "theological center."[37]  He described the 1990 act to strengthen the peace statement (Article 15) in the Mennonite Brethren confession of faith as a major accomplishment of the Board. When numerous pastors and congregations protested this move, Janzen credited the Board with communicating a message that emphasized to the constituency the need for theological unity: "This is, after all, the glue that binds us together; and if that is dissolved, then what really holds us?"[38]  Marvin Hein echoed these positive feelings by affirming that some of his best experiences with the General Conference took place while working with the Board of Faith and Life.[39]  Even leaders such as David Wiebe and Ed Boschman (former GC moderator), who would eventually favor the 1999 divestiture, described the theological and confessional work of the Board of Faith and Life as a central part of the General Conference.[40]  At the 1993 convention in Winnipeg, however, the Board faced a difficult test of its unifying power.

     In 1993 the Board of Faith and Life recommended that local churches be allowed to call women to serve as senior pastors, a topic that dominated the emotional attention of delegates at the convention. The discussions surrounding this issue illustrated well the theological diversity of the body. Not only did delegates bring vastly different perspectives to the questions of biblical interpretation that inevitably arose with issues of women in ministry, but a sizable number also opposed the recommendation simply on the ground that it was too divisive to be carried forward.[41]  According to the Canadian conference publication, Mennonite Brethren Herald, a few delegates mapped the division along the U.S. and Canadian border, while others complained of a disconnect between the leadership and grassroots. The definitive line between those who supported the recommendation and those who opposed it, however, remained elusive.[42]  The end result-a vote of 39 percent in favor and 61 percent opposed to allowing women to serve in the senior pastorate-was more than a defeated proposal. It marked the loss of confidence in the Board of Faith and Life as a cornerstone of the General Conference. Delegates in favor of the recommendation felt board leadership had not taken strong enough action to promote the recommendation, while those who opposed it thought the leadership had acted irresponsibly by even making the pastorate an option for women. Finally, numerous delegates on both sides of the issue "were uncomfortable with the recommendation's do-your-own-thing message to the churches."[43]  Conference leaders had hoped to create some theological unity in 1990; but instead of showing progress towards greater cohesion, the 1993 General Conference convention revealed the depth and complexity that surrounded its theological disagreements.

     Conference leaders looked back on the 1993 convention as an emotional low point for the General Conference. John E. Toews called the 1993 convention a "very divisive" time that, in general, "left a bad feeling."[44]  Edmund Janzen believed that, for certain leaders in the U.S., the women in ministry issue became a "lightning rod" for their discomfort with the "very strong Anabaptist tone that the Board of Faith and Life was setting."[45]  He attributed the frustration of these pastors with aspects of Mennonite Brethren theology to the tendency among U.S. congregations to import pastors from theological institutions other than Mennonite Brethren seminaries. Janzen described the situation as a "melting" and "broadening of theology in the U.S."[46]  Others, such as Don Ratzlaff, editor of the U.S. conference periodical Christian Leader, simply expressed sorrow for the emotional turmoil caused by the debate. He wrote, "Maybe the silence I will remember at Winnipeg was simply an awkward silence-the kind that lingers when you realize you have delivered a hard message that has caused profound pain that cannot be easily healed."[47] 

Many different concerns would arise between 1993 and the decision to dissolve the General Conference in 1999, but the issue of women in ministry emphatically underscored the challenges of theological diversity that the General Conference would continue to face as its role in the future of the Mennonite Brethren denomination came increasingly under question.

IDENTIFYING PROBLEMS AND BRAINSTORMING SOLUTIONS

     After the 1993 assembly in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the Executive Council took a step back to examine some of the larger theological and cultural trends that seemed to be causing difficulties for the Mennonite Brethren church. Much of this discussion centered on an essay by Canadian scholar John H. Redekop. In "Vision and Revision: Some Preliminary Notes on the Future of the Mennonite Brethren Church," Redekop listed the problems he saw in the North American Mennonite Brethren denomination, called the church to account, and proposed several ways of combating these problems. Early in his essay, Redekop openly challenged the Mennonite Brethren Church, stating that it had "neglected its mission, compromised its ethic and, in general, blurred the distinction between itself and its surrounding sub-Christian society."[48]  Becoming more specific, he named several Mennonite Brethren denominational problems such as "weak conference loyalty, insufficient member ownership of the mandate and vision, inadequate financial support . . . and anemic support for programs and missions."[49]  These problems, argued Redekop, could not simply be attributed to Mennonite Brethren acculturation to postmodern North American society. Instead, he pointed to an "immature Christianity in our congregations" and called the Mennonite Brethren Church in North America to spiritual renewal.[50]  For Redekop, the path to spiritual renewal required concrete strategies that would respond to four critical questions: "How should the Mennonite Brethren Churches be structured globally?" "How do we strengthen denominational loyalty and unity?" "How do we build strong, effective conference leadership?" and "How can we achieve congregational changes of attitudes concerning [these] questions?"[51]  Redekop's suggested solutions included the establishment of a fourth tier of Mennonite Brethren governance in the form of an International Mennonite Brethren Presidium; a means for ensuring that candidates for senior pastorate positions have a strong commitment to the Mennonite Brethren confession of faith;[52]  and the promotion of congregational education in Anabaptist principles such as the believer's church, discipleship, the peace witness, being a separated people, and lifestyle stewardship.[53]  While practical issues of conference structure and communication entered Redekop's essay, the symptoms of disunity and dysfunction suffered by the North American Mennonite Brethren Church in the early 1990s, he argued, stemmed from a spiritual and theological disease.

     In March of 1995, the Executive Council gathered for a prolonged discussion of Redekop's essay. Several council members were reluctant to interpret the loss of denominational loyalty and growing localism as a form of "immature Christianity." One member pointed out that the lack of delegates sent by churches to meetings and conventions was not a "signal of non-support or breaking faith," but instead "a statement that the topics expressed at whatever conference aren't relevant to them at that time."[54]  He continued by arguing that the changes the General Conference witnessed in its constituency were part of a "paradigm shift," in which the new generation of leaders were no less committed, but simply interested in engaging denominational commitment and communication on a more local level.[55]  Others echoed this thought by affirming that localism could be seen as either neutral or, more positively, as "theologically progressive."[56] 

     The discussion emphasized that the responsibility of conference leadership was to "win, not impose, loyalty."[57]  One council member raised this central question, "What will make our conferences attractive to win the loyalty of our people?"[58]  In the discussion, brainstorming for this question focused on the concept of theology as the glue by which the conference could be held together. Council members suggested that a task force might be set up to do some research and ask questions such as "Who are the Mennonite Brethren?" "What do they do?" "Why do we have a conference?" and "What is our overall objective?"

     The willingness of council members to consider localism as a potential source of theological progressivism suggests that they considered the younger generations' disinterest in conference ministries to be a mandate for proactive change rather than a sign of spiritual illness. Therefore, the Executive Council not only attempted to unify the diverse Mennonite Brethren constituency around common theological themes, but also to enlist new leadership tactics that would help the General Conference adjust to the changing values of a new generation. The approach placed the leadership in a reactionary position, one trying to minimize the effects of Mennonite Brethren fragmentation taking place on multiple fronts. Redekop cited not only generational divisions, but also those between:

     Canadian-American; pro and con MCC [Mennonite Central Committee]; CEO versus non CEO leadership styles; traditional versus contemporary music and worship styles; pro and con women in senior leadership; pro and con dispensationalism; pro and con liberal arts colleges; pro and con denominational emphasis; and pro and con placing primary emphasis on church growth.[59] 

These numerous divisions would make it increasingly difficult for the General Conference leadership to respond to the needs of the Mennonite Brethren constituency.

CONVENTION 1995: A NEW GENERATION CALLS FOR CHANGE

     The 60th convention of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches held in Fresno, California, in 1995 highlighted the frustration felt by a new generation of leaders concerning the direction being set by the General Conference. The intensity of the 1993 gathering brought an increased awareness of the disparities that existed between local congregations and the issues and values promoted by the General Conference. While reporters characterized many aspects of the 1995 convention as successful-citing especially the fellowship, workshops, moderation and sermons-brewing frustrations erupted in a forum of young leaders. Later dubbed "angry young male clergy," church leaders from among the post-World War II generations expressed their grievances with the organization of General Conference conventions and even questioned the purpose and existence of the General Conference.[60] 

     In many ways, the young leaders' forum reflected the changing cultural paradigms that conference leaders had discussed earlier in the year. Speakers at the forum called especially for more worship time at conventions and "more focus on people and relationships and less on institutions and structures."[61]  They also wished for convention delegates to be more representative of the Mennonite Brethren constituency. Despite meeting in an area that held some of the richest ethnic diversity in the North American Mennonite Brethren denomination-approximately one third of the churches in the Pacific District Conference were Hispanic[62] -the Fresno convention remained almost exclusively "'white-haired,'" middle-class, and professional (i.e., pastors and agency staff).[63]  The forum's wish list culminated with the question, "Why do we have conference anyway?"[64]  Marvin Hein, summing up these questions and calls for change, remarked, "[Young leaders] were impatient with the structure and the process of governance. They wanted things to move faster."[65]  The Executive Council's March discussion had focused on how its leadership could inspire Mennonite Brethren theology, identity and loyalty within the new generational paradigm. Now delegates at the 1995 convention were pushing the Executive Council a step further by questioning the very ability of current leadership structures to fulfill the changing needs and desires of the General Conference constituency.

     In September, a little over a month after the Fresno convention, the Executive Council tried to harmonize the structural concerns brought up by the "angry young clergy" with the leadership's desire to strengthen Mennonite Brethren theological identity. This September meeting produced a list of 15 goals that leadership hoped would guide the future direction of the General Conference. Some goals seemed to echo concerns of the 1995 convention, such as "efficiency," "serv[ing] the churches," "intentional communication," and "selling the conference." Other goals returned to issues of identity development similar to those discussed earlier in the conversation inspired by John Redekop: developing "a core theology," "growing sense of discipleship; to be counter-cultural," and "increasing focus on the theological basis of faith versus the pragmatics."[66]  However, harmonizing these different goals would prove problematic for the General Conference leadership. While not directly contradictory, the combination of goals such as "efficiency" and "focus on the theological basis of faith versus the pragmatics" created an inherent tension that might cause one goal to be favored at the expense of another.

NATIONAL DIVISIONS AND LOCALISM

     While the 1995 convention highlighted generational divides in the General Conference, conference leaders could not ignore the continuing presence of national differences, as well as the broader North American religious movement towards localism that had come to characterize much of the General Conference constituency. These issues further complicated the tensions experienced by the General Conference, making it increasingly difficult for the Executive Council to maintain a balanced approach to its 1995 goals. Rather, these issues diverted the leadership's attention from theological divisions among the Mennonite Brethren toward those divisions that might be solved by pragmatic adjustments in conference structures.

     While differences between Canadian and U.S. Mennonite Brethren in acculturation, language and education diminished over the twentieth century, subtle differences continued to affect how the two groups approached their General Conference partnership in the 1990s. American John E. Toews, for example, emphasized the continuing problem of having all the General Conference offices and institutions located in the U.S. He also observed that Mennonite Brethren in the U.S. had adopted an "American imperialist kind of outlook" that made it difficult for them to understand Canadian frustrations with this structural arrangement.[67]  Toews identified the location of the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno as a key issue that illustrated this problem. "Every people, ultimately, wants to be symbolized by their institutions, and Canada didn't have the symbol," he observed. Toews also suggested that the seminary's funding formula further complicated national feelings surrounding its location. The formula asked for a 60 percent subsidy from Canada, while only 40 percent from the U.S., and it required Canada to pay in U.S. dollars. Thus, according to Toews, "the Seminary became a point of division rather than a point of unity."[68] 

     In a similar vein, other conference leaders noted that the Canadian conference operated stronger boards and programs than did the U.S. conference. Because of the strength of the Canadian conference, Canadians found it more difficult to understand the purpose of the General Conference than did Americans. For example, David Wiebe noted that, while the U.S. Mennonite Brethren may have been happy with the attempt to build a unifying vision statement in 1990, the Canadians did not find it as helpful.[69]  Wiebe continued by highlighting the contrasting ways the national conferences operated: "The U.S. functioned basically as districts, because it had the General Conference for its structure," but the Canadian conference possessed a more independent national identity.[70]  Whereas the Mennonite Brethren in the United States still depended heavily upon the General Conference for their cohesion and direction, Canadian Mennonite Brethren enjoyed a very strong national conference with its own Board of Faith and Life, Christian Education Ministries, and Board of Communications.

     Yet, despite the weakness of the U.S. conference, General Conference moderator Ed Boschman noted a growing interest in strengthening U.S. national identity as well as a desire among American leaders to "take responsibility for our own house."[71]  Why leaders in the United States wished to strike out independently from the structural support of the General Conference is difficult to explain. However, the cultural pull of localism may shed some light on the issue.

     For some time, General Conference leaders, especially those from the U.S., had been noting the growing impact of localism within the Mennonite Brethren church. Former moderator, Edmund Janzen, for example, found that members of many of the U.S. Mennonite Brethren churches he visited knew little or nothing about the General Conference and its ministries. For the general constituency, local missions and activities had become the central focus of their energies, while conference ministries such as the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary and international missions were increasingly lost on the periphery. "Localism," Janzen commented, "was the hallmark wave of the future."[72]  Hein also noted the phenomenon. "Lay people in general were not involved, or even interested [in the General Conference]," he said. Hein saw localism resulting, at least in part, from the strong push for church growth that was prevalent among both U.S. and Canadian Mennonite Brethren. He illustrated his point by explaining how his niece had not received information from her congregation about a national gathering, to be held in Hillsboro, for Mennonite Brethren aged 55 and older. "My niece wrote," he observed, "and said that if it had something to do with the bicycle race, that would make the bulletin. But a 55 Plus conference where people came from other places-no, that didn't rate." Hein attributed the incident to "a concentration on growing to the point when it's only the local church that matters."[73] 

      Localism influenced Mennonite Brethren in both Canada and the U.S., but different religious climates in the two nations determined whether localism became a form of discouragement or an impetus for growth. In his essay, Redekop noted that the larger context of evangelicalism in the United States possessed a sense of "alienation, frustration, and pessimism" because of the loss of "traditional civic-religious values" in postmodern American society.[74]  In contrast, the larger evangelical church in Canada was growing and "generally optimistic." The Canadian Mennonite Brethren conference seemed to align with this trend, since its growth was "much more rapid than in the United States."[75]  Perhaps this optimism had to do with the Executive Council's observation that, despite localism, "there tends to be more interest on the Canadian side to be involved in the conference."[76]  Thus, even though the Canadian conference did not depend as heavily upon the General Conference as did the U.S. for structure and direction, it would be leaders of the U.S. conference who would critique future recommendations for structural change as "not radical enough" in the divestiture of responsibilities to national conferences.[77] 

Within this context of structural inequalities and attitudinal differences between Mennonite Brethren in the U.S. and Canada, the Executive Council's goals of "efficiency" and "serv[ing] the churches" superseded goals of theological unity in discussions regarding the future of the General Conference.

THE ECCO RETREAT: DEVELOPING STRATEGIES FOR THE FUTURE

     In an effort to address the diverse questions and concerns related to the viability of the General Conference, the Executive Council called together a group of Americans and Canadians for a strategic evaluation meeting held at the Episcopal Conference Center in Oakhurst (ECCO) on September 24-26, 1996.[78]  The Executive Council had hoped to gather a group of thirty-five members that represented the age, gender, ethnicity and geographic spread of the Mennonite Brethren. However, the council achieved diversity only in the categories of age and geography.[79] 

     David Wiebe described the ECCO meeting as a "make or break time"; and indeed, the direction set for handling the General Conference's national, theological and generational divisions at this retreat would lead the way to divestiture. Prior to the meeting, attendees conducted informal interviews that asked members of the Mennonite Brethren constituency to name the purposes, benefits and problems they associated with the General Conference and invited them to offer suggestions for improving its functions. These interviews evoked a wide diversity of responses; but several general messages could be discerned. The most common benefits informants attributed to the General Conference included "theological centeredness," "work[ing] together on joint ministries," building unifying relationships, and promoting the "bigger picture."[80]  The most commonly noted problems were "slow process . . . and clumsy structure," "gaps in culture . . . generation . . . internationalization," and an "overload of conventions and costs."[81]  These responses suggested that the problems the constituency saw with the General Conference were mostly pragmatic issues, which might be resolved with practical action-whether that meant taking a different approach to conventions, consolidating ministries and agencies, or dissolving the structure of the General Conference.[82] 

     The group made no final decisions concerning the future of the General Conference, but after sifting through the information from the interviews and developing visions for the future of the Mennonite Brethren Church, the group reached consensus on several points. They agreed that, in order to address the concerns raised at the 1995 convention, the ECCO retreat, and elsewhere, the bi-national conference structure needed significant reforms.[83]  Furthermore, they agreed upon three possible models for adjusting the conference structure, none of which retained a bi-national conference.[84]  The first model placed provinces and districts at the core of the conference structure. The second and third models placed nations at the core with either a partial or complete separation of ministries.[85]  Any structural changes would need to bear in mind five central considerations: "connecting local churches to ministries; factoring in internationalization; factoring in missions; priority and need for theological education; and meeting together for inspiration and networking."[86]  The decision of the members of the ECCO retreat to recommend that the struggles of the General Conference be addressed with structural adjustments meant that, at least temporarily, pragmatic goals had taken priority over the ideal of unity in vision and theology.

CONVENTION 1997: ADOPTING A PROACTIVE APPROACH

TO DISSOLUTION

     The 1997 General Conference convention in Waterloo, Ontario provided space for leaders and delegates to process the proposal for restructuring in light of the way it did or did not address theological and pragmatic concerns. In response to the findings of the ECCO retreat, the Executive Council recommended that a Council of Boards (an interim board of General Conference ministries) begin restructuring the management of bi-national ministries to eliminate the need for a bi-national conference.[87]  The Executive Council outlined the main issues they intended this recommendation to address: the movement towards both nationalization and internationalization; the excessive number and cost of conventions, along with the decline in interest and attendance; the desire to strengthen leadership training and world evangelism ministries; and guarding the commitment of the Mennonite Brethren to biblical theology.[88]  Convention delegates, however, withheld their full support for the proposal because of concerns that the structural changes it suggested would not sufficiently resolve the issues laid out by the Executive Council.

     These concerns found support from two different perspectives. The first emphasized the theological implications of structural change, while the second questioned mainly the functional implications of the proposal. Shortly before the convention, historian Paul Toews published an opinion piece in Christian Leader, which later appeared in the MB Herald. In his article, Toews argued that the proposal to dissolve the General Conference not only failed to account for the strengths and weaknesses of the national and district conference levels, but it also failed to consider the extent to which dismantling the General Conference might "erode the core values of our Anabaptist-Mennonite Brethren identity."[89]  Toews feared that dividing into national conferences would lead Mennonite Brethren to find fellowship with other evangelicals, which, he argued, "is not all bad, but it will corrode the distinctive core values of our identity."[90] 

     Delegates at the 1997 convention questioned the restructuring proposal for more pragmatic reasons. Convention participants remained committed to "significant structural changes," but questioned whether dissolving the General Conference would be the best form of action for protecting the current ministries of the conference and ensuring "a more intentional development of an international organization and fellowship."[91]  One delegate summed up these concerns as follows: "We should not tear down our existing house until we know that the new house will take care of our needs."[92]  In the end, the pragmatic voices dominated at the Waterloo convention.

     At the same time, the 1997 convention went beyond simply considering the removal of a dysfunctional conference structure by expressing hope for the international future of the Mennonite Brethren denomination. "The shift in mood from downsizing and dismantling to restructuring and internationalization was very evident," wrote Redekop in his reflection on the convention.[93]  This shift was likely enabled by the absence of other controversial issues on the convention agenda, as well as by a general consensus that "the General Conference finally got it right" in terms of convention planning.[94]  For example, the convention schedule opened with a time for prayer and worship and provided opportunities throughout to pray before making significant decisions.[95]  Christian Leader headlines for the event reported that "attendance was down but the spirit was up" and recorded one long-time attendee as saying, "This is the best convention we've had for some time."[96]  These good feelings contributed to the hesitancy surrounding the proposed dissolution of the General Conference as well as to the new-found excitement surrounding possibilities for strengthening fraternal relationships between North American Mennonite Brethren and the fifteen other national Mennonite Brethren conferences around the world.[97] 

     For several years conference leaders had expressed an interest in the idea of "internationalization." In March of 1995, Redekop noted a concern among Mennonite Brethren outside North America that the functions and structural arrangements of the General Conference were "internalistic rather than international."[98]  Executive Council members responded to this concern by expressing interest in promoting "national involvement in international settings" and suggested the International Committee of Mennonite Brethren, established in 1990, as a possible tool for accomplishing this.[99]  At the 1997 convention, internationalization received the limelight as leaders and delegates began to see the impending General Conference structural change as an opportunity to establish more equity within the fledgling workings of the International Committee. Many felt that relationships in the committee were unbalanced because the two most financially powerful countries-the U.S. and Canada-were represented as a single, disproportionately large conference. In an editorial appearing in Christian Leader, Don Ratzlaff asked, "Should we perpetuate an outmoded and occasionally paternalistic bi-national structure that doesn't accommodate the new realities of our world-wide church?"[100]  David Wiebe articulated the concern that representing both the United States and Canada on the committee with one person created power issues that were increasingly uncomfortable.[101]  Ed Boschman agreed, claiming that "the right way to be colleagues with other countries would be to do it as equal conferences for both Canada and the U.S."[102]  In this way, leaders and delegates who supported the dissolution of the General Conference could promote the proposal not simply as a reaction to internal Mennonite Brethren problems, but also as a proactive gesture toward a more globally aware future.

     Despite diverse perspectives on the desirability of divestiture, attendees at the 1997 convention agreed that more information was needed on the strengths and weaknesses of all the conference levels before moving ahead with the recommendation brought by the Executive Council to dissolve the General Conference. Delegates and leaders established a task force that would

     facilitate a no-holds-barred review in consultation with existing ministries, all levels of conference and local churches, prepare an appropriate realignment/restructuring of the management of our ministries, and provide opportunity for strengthening our relationships with the other national Mennonite Brethren conferences.[103] 

     Although some delegates feared that more deliberation might delay an "urgent" process, the majority agreed that the task force should complete its review and present a recommendation within the next biennium.[104]  The interplay of theological and pragmatic reservations at the 1997 convention purchased at least two more years of research and reflection on the future of the General Conference.

TASK FORCE 1998: EVALUATING THE DIVISIONS

     In December 1998, after a year and a half of gathering information and evaluating the different levels of Mennonite Brethren conference structures, the task force reported its findings to the Executive Council, highlighting especially the effects of generational and theological rifts among North American Mennonite Brethren. Generational differences received particular scrutiny as the task force discovered numerous signs that younger generations had far less loyalty to Mennonite Brethren theology and programs.[105]  In particular, the task force noted the significant number of churches not fulfilling the conference levy, low sales of Mennonite Brethren resources, and a decreasing enrollment in some Mennonite Brethren schools.[106]  Perhaps most telling was the response rate to a survey published in the MB Herald and Christian Leader on the proposal to divest the General Conference. The survey returned only a 0.1 percent response rate; approximately 50 percent of those who did respond were in church leadership or had served on conference boards, and over 54 percent were above the age of 60.[107]  The low response rate to the task force's survey did not give a strong mandate for dissolving the General Conference, but neither did the apathy of younger generations encourage the Conference's continuance.

     The task force report also devoted significant space to Mennonite Brethren concerns for theological unity. The report acknowledged the difficulty of maintaining denominational unity among a diverse Mennonite Brethren membership across North America.[108]  Although the report did not clarify the nature of the diversity, it is not hard to infer the conflicts suggested in Redekop's earlier list: Canadian-American; pro and con women in senior leadership; pro and con dispensationalism; pro and con liberal arts colleges; pro and con denominational emphasis; and so on.[109]  The task force discovered agreement among the constituency "on theological distinctives and the uniqueness of the Mennonite Brethren sense of evangelism through church planting and global missions," but this agreement fell apart when attempting to discern how best to carry out the implications of this theological core.[110]  This conundrum left the task force with the impression that the local church was largely uninterested in resolving these theological issues.[111] 

     The evidence of generational disinterest, theological disunity and numerous other rifts among Mennonite Brethren in the U.S. and Canada served to confirm the widely discussed hunch among some conference leaders that the multilayered structure of the bi-national, national and district conferences simply aggravated the sense of remoteness of the structure's bottom layer, the local church.[112]  Thus, the task force did not regard allowing the conference structure to operate as it had in the past as a viable option. However, the task force also ruled out the "total" dissolution of either the General Conference or the national conferences because the ministries attached to these conferences received much affirmation from both the grassroots and leadership.[113] 

     Therefore, the task force's recommendations attempted to maintain a sense of unity among Mennonite Brethren in the U.S. and Canada, while doing away with what seemed to be an inefficient administrative tier. This compromise meant a "cessation of the General Conference as a legal entity" and the "formation of partnership ministries between the U.S. and Canadian Conferences" in the ministries of Faith and Life, global missions, theological training, communications and Christian resources, and the Historical Commission.[114]  In a February meeting in 1999, the Executive Council reviewed the task force recommendations, approved them and established a schedule for transferring General Conference ministries to national conferences by 2002.[115]  The task force process reflected, in a compressed and succinct way, how issues of theological disunity and generational apathy within the Mennonite Brethren came to be linked with the structure of the General Conference.

CONVENTION 1999: THE FINAL DEBATE

     When the Executive Council put the proposed divestiture of the General Conference to a vote at the 1999 convention in Wichita, Kansas, several strong voices questioned whether these deeper issues would be adequately addressed by simply dissolving the General Conference and divesting its ministries. Two delegates representing churches in Central California presented prepared arguments against the divestiture on behalf of their congregations. Elmer Martens, of North Fresno Mennonite Brethren Church, reminded conference delegates of the vision statement laid out in 1990 and encouraged a reexamination of how the General Conference had progressed with the vision statement's goals-not everyone had forgotten the hopes and goals with which the General Conference began the 1990s. He also expressed concern that the "divorce" of the bi-national conference presented a poor model to other Mennonite Brethren conferences around the world.[116] 

     Mary Anne Isaak, speaking on behalf of College Community Church in Clovis, presented a much more detailed critique of the recommendation to divest along with an alternative proposal for restructuring. Voicing a concern that would come up repeatedly throughout the convention, Isaak questioned the lack of clarity in the recommendation regarding how General Conference ministries would function as bi-national partnerships. The written proposal drawn up and submitted by Isaak's congregation stated that the recommendation "seems to leave these GCMBC ministries with a governance structure much like a para-church agency, with accountability almost completely vested in a relatively free-standing board."[117]  The proposal affirmed the General Conference's role in promoting theological unity, fostering church community instead of individualism or nationalism, enabling internationalization through regional cooperation, and providing theological training in Mennonite Brethren faith distinctives.[118]  It continued by suggesting that the General Conference remain as a functional entity and that efficiency might be improved by designing a delegate body of 100 or fewer to oversee management and governance tasks, hiring a full time Executive Director, and reducing the frequency of full-scale bi-national gatherings to once every four years.[119]  The proposal from College Community Church was one of the few serious attempts to reconfigure the Mennonite Brethren conference structure while maintaining the unifying benefits of the General Conference. The proposal, however, arrived too late to have much effect on the momentum toward divestiture.

     No other delegates or congregations presented detailed arguments against divestiture to match those from North Fresno or College Community Church. But other questions did arise. Several delegates did not think the recommendation addressed "the overriding concern for globalization" that emerged in Waterloo.[120]  The delegates' reservations on this point likely reflected the fact that the summary of the task force's recommendations included no mention of global relationships with Mennonite Brethren brother and sister conferences.[121]  On a pragmatic level, others declared their discomfort with supporting the dissolution of the General Conference while arrangements for continuing its ministries were yet to be accomplished. As stated in the MB Herald, "There was no guarantee the national conferences would agree to accept and maintain the General Conference ministries." Boschman admitted that '"this was an area where the delegates would have to just trust the good intentions of the national conferences."'[122] 

     Despite numerous reservations, most delegates, nevertheless, found reasons to support the recommendation. Following the lead of moderator Herb Kopp, they agreed that divestiture would simplify conference structures and connect ministries more closely with local congregations.[123]  Board members of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary thought reporting directly to national conferences could give the seminary "greater visibility and ownership."[124]  The very absence of delegates at the gathering also spoke in favor of divestiture as convention attendance continued its steady decline. 331 persons represented 103 congregations-only a third of the total number of Mennonite Brethren churches in the U.S. and Canada.[125]  As Redekop reflected in an editorial, the message from the churches who sent no delegate was "that they don't care much about the denomination."[126] 

     In the end, these concerns, as well as the momentum for change which had been building since Fresno 1995, produced a 76 percent approval vote among delegates for the dissolution of the General Conference, well beyond the two-thirds approval margin required to pass the resolution.[127]  Leaders expressed relief that the approval vote did not hover just at or below 66 percent since this would have provided "neither a mandate to change nor a mandate to continue the General Conference."[128] 

     For some, the vote symbolized the decline of the Mennonite Brethren denomination. John E. Toews felt that 1999 signaled the "disintegration of the Anabaptist Mennonite [Brethren] body of churches," and its "accommodation to American culture."[129]  Edmund Janzen expressed uneasiness with the decision because it seemed to neglect a long-term perspective. He questioned what the Mennonite Brethren denomination might look like in fifty years and mused that the faith of the denomination's sons and daughters "may come out gloriously wonderful, but I wonder whether they will come out Mennonite Brethren."[130]  Others, like Ed Boschman, felt the impending divestiture opened an exciting and hopeful future for the Mennonite Brethren and gave "an opportunity to retool and provide support for our ministries."[131] 

DIVESTITURE: ENTERING A NEW ERA

     Regardless of the reaction of some conference leaders concerning the outcome of the 1999 convention, the momentous vote placed the Mennonite Brethren denomination on a path that diverged from the intentions and goals of the leadership at the March 1995 Executive Council meeting to "manufacture a little glue." Between 1999 and 2002, a group of fifteen people met with each General Conference ministry to situate it within the new national framework. The group included three representatives from the U.S. conference, three from the Canadian conference, three from the ministry in question, five from the General Conference Executive Council, and historian Paul Toews.[132]  Anticipating challenges and some stressful emotions, leaders agreed that the records taken of these meetings would remain unavailable to the public for at least five years after the conclusion of the divestiture process in order to provide a safe and honest deliberation environment.[133]  Instead of applying glue to cracking structures, leaders of the General Conference now faced the difficult task of disassembling the beams that had long supported General Conference ministries without injuring those ministries in the process.

     When "negotiating teams" completed the divestiture process in 2002, the major bi-national ministries-the Board of Faith and Life, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Mennonite Missions and Services International, Board of Resource Ministries, and the Historical Commission-found themselves with increased independence from political church structures and with varying degrees of cooperation between the U.S. and Canada. The seminary and Missions and Services operated under a bi-national board, with the U.S. and Canada acting as full and equal partners.[134]  The Board of Faith and Life and Board of Resources Ministries, however, would not be bi-nationally governed as the task force originally hoped. While the national conferences agreed to share the Board of Faith and Life's new confession of faith released in 1999, they decided to deal with issues of theological interpretation on a national basis.[135]  The negotiating team for the Board of Resource Ministries placed this ministry entirely in the care of the Canadian conference after representatives of the U.S. conference expressed little desire to invest in the management of denominational publishing.[136]  The Historical Commission, on the other hand, continued to operate with grants from both Canada and the U.S. with little change.[137]  While these meetings negotiated "safe landings" for each ministry, the inclusion of terms such as "considerable consternation" and "uneasy compromise" in the final executive report on the divestiture suggested that the eventual solutions did not embody everything that divestiture hoped to achieve.[138] 

     Mixed feelings continued through the final gathering of the bi-national conference on July 25-27, 2002. Approximately 1500 people, over three times the number who attended the General Conference convention in 1999, gathered in Abbotsford, British Columbia, for a weekend of worship services celebrating the life of the General Conference.[139]  With the theme of "Passing on the Fire" to the next generation of Mennonite Brethren leaders, the services attempted to evoke hope and inspiration for the future, while also honoring the past. The Thursday night service celebrated the "spiritual heritage" of the Mennonite Brethren.[140]  Mennonite Brethren diversity took center stage Friday evening as four church leaders from different ethnic backgrounds shared inspirational stories of their experiences in the Mennonite Brethren family of faith.[141]  Saturday's service concluded the series by hearing from those on the "cutting edge" of Mennonite Brethren ministry and culminated with the passing of candles between former and future Mennonite Brethren leaders.[142] 

     Still, for some, the final celebration of the General Conference felt, in many ways, like a funeral. Executive Secretary Marvin Hein reported a couple of "brothers" approaching him simply to say, "We're sad."[143]  Hein said that at the celebration, as at a funeral, "We both hold on, remembering, and we let go."[144]  Sadness and hope coexisted as former, present and future leaders laid the General Conference to rest.

CONCLUSION

     The final General Conference celebration in 2002 found the bi-national organization in a very different situation than its leaders might have hoped in 1990. John E. Toews reflected on some scenarios he constructed with the Board of Reference and Counsel at the beginning of the decade. If trends of fragmentation continued, "the worst case scenario," recalled Toews, "was that there would be no General Conference."[145]  While leaders averse to ending the bi-national collaboration of the General Conference accepted the divestiture gracefully, they found it difficult not to view the demise of this central structure as a failure. For Edmund Janzen, the divestiture "was largely a practically driven issue, which . . . could have . . . been surmounted."[146]  For others, however, the divestiture was a necessary step toward shaping a healthy future for the Mennonite Brethren. David Wiebe saw the divestiture as an opportunity for the International Committee of Mennonite Brethren to "flourish," as well as to "contextualize" the U.S. and Canada within the global Mennonite Brethren family.[147]  Boschman believed that disposing of the third structural tier "connected constituencies more directly to the agencies they support" and allowed the seminary's multiple-delivery system to better serve the Canadian constituency.[148]  Thus, while many mourned the loss of bi-national fellowship and unity under the General Conference, many also expressed excitement for the opening of a new era in Mennonite Brethren history.

     A convergence of forces among the Mennonite Brethren constituency necessitated this new beginning in Mennonite Brethren history. As more and more voices of discontent arose against the General Conference throughout the 1990s, Mennonite Brethren leadership found it difficult to balance the practical and theological concerns these voices raised. A new generation strongly oriented to local ministry made it more difficult for the General Conference to communicate its relevance. The divergent development strategies within the Canadian and U.S. conferences made joint management of bi-national ministries increasingly difficult. The divisions within the Mennonite Brethren constituency along numerous theological lines presented a disheartening obstacle for leaders intent on shaping a theological center that might unify this diverse denomination. Efforts of the General Conference leadership to generate a cohesive theological center did not adequately inspire a new generation of leaders to surmount the practical difficulties of maintaining a bi-national conference structure with a divided constituency. The decision to dissolve the General Conference, while not ideal, would allow for new national and international opportunities that might better serve the needs of the diverse Mennonite Brethren constituency. As Hein said at the final celebration of the General Conference, "Just as we release loved ones to depart from this life, so we need to let go of what was once a very vibrant part of the kingdom work and now will be replaced by the new."[149] 


[*] Laura Neufeld recently graduated from Goshen College with a B.A. in history and a minor in Anabaptist studies. She plans to begin a graduate program in library science in 2008. 1. Carmen Andres, ed., "Passing on the Fire," Christian Leader (Sept. 2002). Return to Text

[2] . John E. Toews, interview by the author, August 22, 2006. Return to Text

[3] . Marvin Hein, interview by the author, August 22, 2006. Return to Text

[4] . Paul Toews and Kevin Enns-Rempel, eds., For Everything a Season: Mennonite Brethren in North America, 1874-2002, An Informal History, (Hillsboro, Kan.: Kindred Productions, 2002), 53. Return to Text

[5] . Ibid., 44. Return to Text

[6] . Ibid., 45. Return to Text

[7] . Ibid., 56. Return to Text

[8] . John A. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church: Pilgrims and Pioneers (Hillsboro, Kan.: Mennonite Brethren Publishing House, 1975), 131. Return to Text

[9] . Ibid., 142. Return to Text

[10] . P. Toews, Season, 55. Return to Text

[11] . Ibid., 57. Return to Text

[12] . Ibid., 59. Return to Text

[13] . J. B. Toews, A Pilgrimage of Faith: The Mennonite Brethren Church, 1860-1990 (Hillsboro, Kan.: Kindred Press, 1993), 158. Return to Text

[14] . J. A. Toews, A History, 86. Return to Text

[15] . Frank Epp, Mennonites in Canada 1920-1940: A People's Struggle for Survival (Scottdale, Pa.; Herald Press, 1982) quoted in P. Toews, Season, 32. Return to Text

[16] . P. Toews, Season, 63. Return to Text

[17] . Ibid. Return to Text

[18] . Ibid., 32-33. Return to Text

[19] . J. A. Toews, A History, 210. Return to Text

[20] . Richard G. Kyle, From Sect to Denomination: Church Types and their Implications for Mennonite Brethren History (Hillsboro, Kan.: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1985), 94. Return to Text

[21] . Ibid., 94-95. Return to Text

[22] . Edmund Janzen, interview by the author, August 18, 2006. Return to Text

[23] . Kyle, Sect to Denomination, 104. Return to Text

[24] . P. Toews, Season, 49. Return to Text

[25] . David Wiebe, interview by the author, February 28, 2007; J. E. Toews, interview; Ed Boschman, interview by the author, January 16, 2007; Hein, interview. Return to Text

[26] . Ibid. Return to Text

[27] . J. B. Toews, Pilgrimage, 213-214. Return to Text

[28] . Minutes of the Executive Council of the General Conference, Sept. 26-27, 1995, Attachment D, "General Conference Vision Statement," Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, Fresno (C.M.B.S.). Return to Text

[29] . Ibid. Return to Text

[30] . Ibid. Return to Text

[31] . Don Ratzlaff, "On With the Old, In With the New," Christian Leader (Oct. 23, 1990), 10. Return to Text

[32] . Jim Coggins, "Who are we?" Mennonite Brethren Herald (Aug. 11, 1995), 6. Return to Text

[33] . "A Biblical Agenda for a Faithful Church," General Conference Yearbook (Sept. 28-Oct. 2, 1990), 26. Return to Text

[34] . Ibid., 28. Return to Text

[35] . Ratzlaff, "On With the Old," 8. Return to Text

[36] . Wiebe, interview. Return to Text

[37] . Janzen, interview. Return to Text

[38] . Ibid. Return to Text

[39] . Hein, interview. Return to Text

[40] . Wiebe, interview and Boschman, interview. Return to Text

[41] . Don Ratzlaff, "Smorgasbord of Issues Gets Mixed Reviews," MB Herald (Aug. 6, 1993), 9. Return to Text

[42] . Ibid., 9. Return to Text

[43] . Ibid., 8. Return to Text

[44] . John E. Toews, interview. Return to Text

[45] . Janzen, interview. Return to Text

[46] . Ibid. Return to Text

[47] . Don Ratzlaff, "Words for the Silence," Christian Leader (July 27, 1993), 32. Return to Text

[48] . John H. Redekop, "Vision and Revision: Some Preliminary Notes on the Future of the Mennonite Brethren Church," Minutes of the Executive Council of the General Conference, March 17-18, 1995, C.M.B.S., 3. Return to Text

[49] . Ibid., 5-6. Return to Text

[50] . Ibid., 6. Return to Text

[51] . Ibid., 7, 9, 18, 21. Return to Text

[52] . Ibid., 13. Return to Text

[53] . Ibid., 22. Return to Text

[54] . Minutes of the Executive Council of the General Conference, March 17-18, 1995, C.M.B.S., 8. Return to Text

[55] . Ibid. Return to Text

[56] . Ibid., 9. Return to Text

[57] . Ibid. Return to Text

[58] . Ibid. Return to Text

[59] . Redekop, "Vision and Revision," 19. Return to Text

[60] . Jim Coggins, "What is the Future of the General MB Conference?" MB Herald (Aug. 11, 1995), 3. Return to Text

[61] . Ibid., 4. Return to Text

[62] . Don Ratzlaff, "Letting in and Letting Go," Christian Leader (Jan. 26, 1993), 24. Return to Text

[63] . Jim Coggins, "Affirming the Foundation, Testing the Structures," Christian Leader (Aug. 16, 1995). Return to Text

[64] . Ibid., 18. Return to Text

[65] . Hein, interview. Return to Text

[66] . Minutes of the Executive Council of the GC (September 26-27, 1995), Attachment C, "Goals for the General Conference," C.M.B.S. Return to Text

[67] . John E. Toews, interview. Return to Text

[68] . Ibid. Return to Text

[69] . Wiebe, interview. Return to Text

[70] . Ibid. Return to Text

[71] . Boschman, interview. Return to Text

[72] . Janzen, interview. Return to Text

[73] . Hein, interview. Return to Text

[74] . Redekop, "Vision and Revision," 2. Return to Text

[75] . Ibid., 4. Return to Text

[76] . Minutes, March 10, 1995. Return to Text

[77] . Minutes of the Executive Council of the GC, February 4-6, 1999, C.M.B.S., 4. Return to Text

[78] . "Like a Fire . . . Burning in My Bones," General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches Executive Report: The Final Chapter (2002), 3. Return to Text

[79] . General Conference Yearbook, "Straight Paths For a Twisting World," (July 10-12, 1997), 86. Return to Text

[80] . Executive Council of the GC, "Strategic Evaluation Meeting," Camp ECCO (September 10-12, 1996), C.M.B.S., 2-3. Return to Text

[81] . Ibid., 3. Return to Text

[82] . Ibid., 3-4. Return to Text

[83] . Yearbook, 1997, 87. Return to Text

[84] . General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches Executive Report: The Final Chapter (2002), 4. Return to Text

[85] . Yearbook, 1997, 87. Return to Text

[86] . "Strategic Evaluation," 7. Return to Text

[87] . Yearbook, 1997, 8. Return to Text

[88] . Ibid., 5. Return to Text

[89] . Paul Toews, "Revisiting MB Conference Structures," MB Herald, (June 13, 1997), 16-17. Return to Text

[90] . Ibid., 17. Return to Text

[91] . Jim Coggins, "Dissolution Issue Takes Center Stage," Christian Leader (Aug. 19, 1997). Return to Text

[92] . Don Ratzlaff, "Waterloo '97: Not Yet the End," Christian Leader (Aug. 17, 1997). Return to Text

[93] . John H. Redekop, "Personal Opinion: Waterloo '97," MB Herald (Aug. 8, 1997), 29. Return to Text

[94] . Jim Coggins, "Reflections on Renewal and Restructuring," MB Herald (Aug. 8, 1997), 2. Return to Text

[95] . Ratzlaff, "Waterloo," 18. Return to Text

[96] . Ibid., 17, 19. Return to Text

[97] . Ratzlaff, "Waterloo," 17. Return to Text

[98] . Minutes (March, 1995), 7. Return to Text

[99] . Ibid., 6-7. Return to Text

[100] . Don Ratzlaff, "Something's Got to Change," Christian Leader (Aug. 1995), 40. Return to Text

[101] . Wiebe, interview. Return to Text

[102] . Boschman, interview. Return to Text

[103] . Coggins, "Dissolution," 20. Return to Text

[104] . Ibid. Return to Text

[105] . Executive Council of the General Conference, "Restructuring for Enhanced Ministry: Report of the Organizational Review Task Force to Executive Council," Dec. 9, 1998. Return to Text

[106] . Ibid., 12. Return to Text

[107] . Ibid., 9. Return to Text

[108] . Ibid., 7. Return to Text

[109] . Redekop, "Vision and Revision," 19. Return to Text

[110] . Council, "Restructuring," 11. Return to Text

[111] . Ibid. Return to Text

[112] . Ibid., 13. Return to Text

[113] . Ibid., 14-15. Return to Text

[114] . General Conference Yearbook, "A Distinct Presence," (July 8-10, 1999), 105. Return to Text

[115] . Minutes (Feb. 1999). Return to Text

[116] . Yearbook, 1999, 12. Return to Text

[117] . College Community Mennonite Brethren Church, Clovis, Ca. "An Alternative Proposal on Conference Structures," submitted to the General Conference convention in Wichita, Kan. (July 8-10, 1999), 1, document received on loan from Paul Toews's personal files. Return to Text

[118] . Ibid., 2. Return to Text

[119] . Ibid., 3. Return to Text

[120] . Yearbook, 1999, 13. Return to Text

[121] . Ibid., 105. Return to Text

[122] . Ed Boschman, as quoted in "Stepping into the Unknown," Jim Coggins, MB Herald (Aug. 6, 1999), 6. Return to Text

[123] . Jim Coggins, "Stepping into the Unknown," MB Herald (Aug. 6, 1999), 6, Return to Text

[124] . Ibid., 7. Return to Text

[125] . Jim Coggins, "The Last Hurrah," MB Herald (Aug. 6, 1999), 4. Return to Text

[126] . John H. Redekop, "The Wichita Convention," MB Herald (Aug. 6, 1999), 36. Return to Text

[127] . General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches Executive Report: The Final Chapter (2002), 7. Return to Text

[128] . Coggins, "Stepping," 7. Return to Text

[129] . John E. Toews, interview. Return to Text

[130] . Janzen, interview. Return to Text

[131] . Carmen Andres, "Resolution to Dissolve GC is Top on Agenda," Christian Leader (June, 1999), 22. Return to Text

[132] . General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches Executive Report: The Final Chapter (2002), 9. Return to Text

[133] . Information obtained through inquiry to C.M.B.S. Return to Text

[134] . General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches Executive Report: The Final Chapter (2002), 9, 12. Return to Text

[135] . Ibid., 9. Return to Text

[136] . Ibid., 10. Return to Text

[137] . Ibid. Return to Text

[138] . Ibid., 10, 12. Return to Text

[139] . Andres, "Passing," 5. Return to Text

[140] . Ibid., 3. Return to Text

[141] . Ibid., 10. Return to Text

[142] . Ibid., 12. Return to Text

[143] . Ibid., 5. Return to Text

[144] . Ibid. Return to Text

[145] . John E. Toews, interview. Return to Text

[146] . Janzen, interview. Return to Text

[147] . Wiebe, interview. Return to Text

[148] . Boschman, interview. Return to Text

[149] . Andres, "Passing," 5. 516 The Mennonite Quarterly Review 523 The Dissolution of the General Conference of MB Churches 485 MQR 81 (Oct. 2007)