Lessons on leading learned and re-learned at the BIC General Conference.

I loved being with the Brethren in Christ at the recent, brief conference in Ontario, CA. We are full of creativity, wisdom and energy for mission! Stories from the congregations in the United States and Canada, as well as stories from around the world from Brethren in Christ World Missions and the Mennonite Central Committee were inspiring!

I am always inspired to go home and do the best I can to serve Jesus after the conference. That alone is worth the airfare. This time I also learned a lot about leading in two ways: 1) I got to meet many new, young leaders who are hungry to do well and to do well as the BIC. They are inventive and eager. Good traits. 2) The other way I learned about leading came from being led by my General Church Leaders and Board. They were having an instructive time of it, trying to navigate their way through the mess we are in as a denomination. I will have plenty more to think and say about the actual issues at hand. For now, I have a list of things I need to reaffirm for myself, and for others who are listening, about leading the church (or your cell, family, workgroup, community garden, etc.).

Respect people. — We are all members of one body and we all count. Leaders need to act like that. No, I take that back. Leaders need to believe that we are all members of one body and we all count and then act on that from their heart. The BIC, and most local church bodies, like Circle of Hope, have mutual respect built into their structures. We shouldn’t give that fact a high five and then do what we want. For instance, the BIC General Conference is made up of pastors and delegates. The people at the meeting were most of the best players on the bi-national team. A leader should assume that experienced players can run plays with even slight facilitation. We need to demonstrate respect, not just talk about it.

Share the process. — Like Ronald Reagan getting away with secret, illegal arms deals, it is easy to think that what is done in secret will not eventually be shouted from the rooftops. But what some people think is better kept under wraps is crucial to building the body — the process is also elemental to the goal. Bad means can come to worse ends. During our conference we found out that the Canadian regional conference of our bi-national church had effectively “seceded from the union” long ago and we were asked to affirm that. They even changed their structure and nomenclature long before they were not part of the whole. Interesting process: the no-contest, no-communication divorce.

Offer a complete proposal; don’t just say “trust us.” – Obviously, detailed proposals cannot be engineered in a group of 500 (or five, in the case of some of our cell groups!). That’s why a proposal is detailed-out and dialogued-over long before it gets to the final decision-making. We got a proposal for major restructuring that had so many holes in it that I wonder if we can get through the next two years alive. We approved it because “they worked hard on it” and we “want to trust them.” But we have lots of structures that are designed for dialogue and for building consensus. The leaders should be masters at using them. We should have a good idea of how the Spirit is moving in the church before we test our discernment at a group meeting.

Get along for Jesus’ sake. – We still don’t know, for sure why the BIC leadership fell apart last year and why the top leaders are being sent packing. The word from the lectern was, “We messed up.” They wouldn’t really define what “messing up” means, which has been characteristic of the whole “mess up.” At one point, our Moderator spent fifteen minutes trying to waive the bylaws so two leaders could be considered in an election. The two leaders stood up and declined to be considered. That was just one instance of apparent infighting, or at least scant communication. Poor relating happens; in leaders it is even costlier.

Never isolate people by how you talk about them. — In the BIC, the leadership regularly talks about “new” people and “Spanish speaking people” as if they were not fully BIC yet. It reminds me of moving to Waynesboro PA and being told by my neighbor that I would never be a part of the town because I wasn’t born there. I’ve got a feeling that I am still “new” to the BIC, twenty-eight years after arriving! I have spent nearly twenty of those years trying to get the leaders to accept the people from South Florida and elsewhere who are not-of-the-BIC-cradle as bonafide members of the denomination. They are still singled out like they don’t yet belong at every conference. They still aren’t “us.” Back to a previous point — it appears  that being a delegate makes little difference anymore in the practical BIC process; it appears from what is often said that being a Spanish-first delegate makes even less difference.

Never ignore things that might cause conflict. — I never heard so much gratitude for being “Anabaptist” at a BIC General Conference as I heard last week! It was as if people did not get the memo that certain elements of the denomination have been fighting the oldest parts of our distinctives for a long time, so we keep them as distinctives but downplay them in practice. I think our Anabaptist stream makes us ever-more perfect for meeting the challenges of post-Christian America. Thus, we should act like we are MCC, since we are MCC (get them to change their name!). And we should practice our theology of peacemaking even if we have to dialogue with veterans.

Learning lessons is not a passive aggressive way of saying, “I want to criticize the leaders in a clever way.” I hope my criticisms are straightforward enough. I imagine most of the GC Leaders already agree with most of what I have said, anyway. I really do want to learn. I think leading is hard. Barack, Mitt and the Congress are regularly horrible, but ever-present examples of what leading is like these days — disrespecful, secretive, singular. I want to do better. I want us, as the BIC, to do better. In the next decade, as all those new leaders get their full footing in the new era that is forming, we need to help one another represent Jesus well.

15 thoughts on “Lessons on leading learned and re-learned at the BIC General Conference.

  1. I’m reading through these comments posts and it sounds to me as if dialogue about the main decisions of the conference, including the separation, needs to continue after the fact. I appreciate that your blog, Rod, is being used as a forum for leaders to converse about this. Are there other forums available, too, and is there encouragement to use them?

  2. A follow-up to my earlier post (which is I assume still awaiting moderation). So far as the separation of the Canadian and American General Conferences is concerned: My own preference would be to keep them together as one general conference. I was addressing only what Rod’s comment sounded like to me, not the issue of whether or not I might agree.

    I also note that as I listened to the conference discussion online thorugh the web link, the statement that the Canadian Conference’s acceptance of the decision to separate did not sound to me like a seccession, but rather as the Canadian voice in a mutual decision, which the General Conference voice could agree with or disagree with. What would have happened if the GC had said no? I don’t know. Perhaps then the Canadian conference would have acted unilaterally. I did not hear that action in the conference discussion. Rod’s perception may be correct, and mine wrong. I have missed many things in my 62 years. Just noting what I heard.

  3. Rod,

    I appreciate your comments on your blog. There are indeed important lessons for us to learn and you have done a commendable job of listing them. I would suggest another lesson, in regard to the Canadian Conference issue, called “naïveté”. I have to admit feelings of which I can only, at this point, describe as naivete. My dictionary defines naivete as innocent simplicity . . . foolish lack of worldy wisdom due to lack of experience. I don’t think the BIC has ever experienced anything close to what seems to have happened in regard to the Canadian Church at our General Conference.

    I went back and checked the conference minuets for the report to the Atlantic Regional Conference from the General Conference Board representative. In a list of challenges #5 was: Covenant review – What does it look like for the BIC in the United States to related to the BIC in Canada with national laws? In addition there was a simple note that the General Conference Board had received the task force report from the study group on the Covenant between Canadian Conference and General Conference. To my knowledge, the task force report was never discussed or released. I would also note that the Leadership Council report to our regional conference made no mention of difficulties in the US – Canadian relationship.

    So that was our total process until the agenda arrived. The recommendation itself in the agenda was vague. Having been primed at regional conference by the question, “What does it look like for the BIC in the United States to related to the BIC in Canada with national laws?” I read the agenda recommendation from the General Conference Board, as if we were simply working out, as the recommendation states “the details of the ongoing relationship” which would be described in a memorandum of understanding and presented for approval by the General Conference.

    But then, through the sponsorship on the floor of General Conference, we are told that the Canadian Conference had already voted in May 2012 to leave the BIC General Conference. This was entirely new information to me and, to my knowledge, does not appear in any written document in the US nor was this communicated until the sponsorship from the Director of the Canadian Conference. The Recommendation itself only states that the Canadian Leadership Team had reviewed and approved the report of the task force which was always termed a review of the Covenant.

    So, my obvious naivete was to somehow believe that we were simply working out legal issues related to a review of the covenant and that this ongoing relationship, defined by a covenant, was being reworked. The simple truth, which has taken awhile to sink in, seems to be that the Canadian Conference voted to leave, and the General Conference, whatever that now means, has no relationship now nor any documentation in place of a relationship with what was the Canadian BIC Conference. Very honestly I didn’t see this coming and I am in a state of disbelief that a church, which prides itself in reconciliation could have a relational church split without most of us – at least me – even knowing it was splitting until after it was a done deal.

    1. Just a note about never having happened before. In 1964, when the BIC missionary conference in what are now Zambia and Zimbabwe became a national church — and were divided into two national general conferences in the process — we went through a remarkably similar experience as today in North America.

      So far as Rod’s initial comment goes — “During our conference we found out that the Canadian regional conference of our bi-national church had effectively ‘seceded from the union’ long ago and we were asked to affirm that. They even changed their structure and nomenclature long before they were not part of the whole. Interesting process: the no-contest, no-communication divorce.” As a Canadian from the BIC but not outside (living eight hours from tyhe nearest congregation, so we con’t attend any more), this sounds like: How dare you Canadians do something we Americans did not approve? I know you don’t mean that, Rod; but it sounds like it.

      The border between us is real, and we must recognize that reality in our governance. The International Brethren in Christ Association (IBICA) provides a place to demonstrate our real and essential unity. AS people observed, we don’t yet know what that means; and there are a variety of ways that we can work together as two general conferences with a historic connection. But calling the separation a seccession feels remarkably ethnocentric to this Canadian (who holds both American and Canadian citizenship).

      1. I think the separation is a cave in to national boundaries and so less radical and less countercultural enough to be a good exampple that would aid in my church planting. Practically — whatever; I’m fine. But my citizenship is in heaven.

        As far as process goes, (which is more important to me, and as Ray has elucidated in an interesting way), we had a union, they seceded, as far as I could tell from the experience. And I do think it is much like finding out that your husband hired a lawyer and had the plans for custody worked out before he let the family know what he was planning (metaphorically speaking). The leaders were already calling Darrell “director” before I figured out we had a polity change.

        1. Rod, you noted that Spanish-speaking members may feel as though they are not fully accepted because of language used by people who may in fact accept them fully. Can you hear what your language might sound like to people who are not in the geographic centre of the church (Pennsylvania), and not even in the same country?

          As I note in my follow-up below, the Canadian Conference may have been working on their part of the discussion and then waiting for the GC part before moving further. I don’t know. I do know that it is better to assume good motives on the part of the person with whom I conversing rather than bad, unless clear evidence shows me otherwise.

          So far as “caving to national boundaries” — we have two organizations registered in two different countries already. IBICA needs to become the real answer to your concern. I happen to agree with you: I prefer one General Conference regardless of the political situation. But I hear you imputing motives to the GC and to the Canadian Conference. Perhaps I came in to the conversation too late, and in fact you were responding to clear statements. (“We’re leaving, whatever you do.” “We don’t care what you say.” “Our government told us to do this, so we will.”) If so, let me know, and I will join you in lamenting the independency and caving they represent.

  4. Thanks, Rod, for articulating these things. Like you, I was encouraged by the young, new leaders that were coming into their own on the floor at General Conference. Also, like you, I was taken back by the abruptness of the seperation of our Canadian brothers and sisters. It felt like a break up when the instigator says, “it’s not you, it’s me;” but you just know better. That there wasn’t more disclosure about the “mess up” is still confusing; kind of like Mitt Romney witholding his tax returns. You want to say, “just get it out there and we won’t have to waste time fabricating the scenerio.” Reflecting on 25 years of ministry, I can honestly say that my biggest mistakes had to do with not disclosing what was going on–and the majority of those timesI felt that being open would equal losing power. Instead, I lost power because I lost trust.
    All that being said, I have hope. The heart of some of these young leaders was encouraging. May their tribe increase, and may they keep the dialogue going.

  5. From my (Canadian) perspective, the relationship between Canada and the US within the NA General Conference was always one of two nations that reflected various differences and nuances and reflecting these did not mean the whole was being negatively affected. In the early 1970s, for example, Canada adopted a funding model (Cooperative Ministries) that was significantly different than that used in the US church at the time. This was not done in secret nor was it a decision made by the General Conference body per se. In the 1980s and early 1990s, again, Canada established further financial and governance patterns that were necessary in order to function legally and missionally. Distinctly Canadian, “Article of Goverment”, were put in place to reflect this new reality. The Covenant between the Canadian and General (US) churches was crafted and affirmed in an attempt to speak to this continually evolving relationship. In 2010 the Canadian church established a new organizational structure with new titles and concluded the role and title to bishop. Again, this was done in a very open process within the Canadian church and the General Church leaders were quite aware of this, though perhaps, at least at points, were less enthusiastic. What General Conference leaders chose to share more broadly within the US church, in order to let the broader community know of these changes, was a decision they needed to make. My sense was, there was a desire to minimize more general awareness of such changes lest this begin a domino effect. I could be wrong. When it came time to review the Covenant between the General (US) church and the Canadian church we recognized that the relationship called the “General Conference” no longer accurately reflected the relationship that now exists. The recommendation that we processed several days ago was presented across the Canadian church in a series of Town Hall meetings in the winter and then formally presented at our Annual Meeting in May. No secrecy. I understand that the recommendation was also mentioned at all US regional conference meetings a few months ago and the bishops I heard from indicated that there was very little response, in most cases none, from the American church as it heard about this in those settings. Again, no secrecy.
    On the issue of the whole, I really believe the whole is the global church and, in the case of the BIC church, the International BIC Association. With this in mind, the whole is not getting smaller, but has become larger, more diverse, and global in scale! A cause for celebration.
    I look forward to continued ways of relating warmly with the US church, as well as other national churches. We want discover new ways of being sisters and brothers and encouraging each other to be a part of God’s redemptive purposes in our generation. What you are doing in Philly inspires and informs us.

    1. Thanks Darrell. There is a lot to learn here. I won’t try to parse it all on a blog. I appreciate the elucidation. I don’t recall any mention of the changes in my regional conference — but then we haven’t had substantive dialogue in a decade. Most things that happen are as good as a secret to most of us. It is no surprise that no one felt a need to engage in any dialogue about the process (process is my main issue, not necessarily the results of the separation of Canada); my bishop, and I think the GCLs, have not been devoted to developing a process of meaningful dialogue and regularly blame nonparticipation on the people, saying things like, “It was mentioned at regional conference,” to justify why they don’t catalyze connection. I think such leading is causing the increased dissolution of which the separation of Canada is emblematic.

  6. Rod, as per usual you provide much food for thought and helpful insights. I am confused by your comments, however, regarding the BIC in Canada. As a person quite close to this issue, from my seat on the bus, your description of the process is less than accurate and does not reflect the true governance relationship that existed in the BIC Church in North America even before the recent GC action several days ago. When one national entity within a bi-national structure makes changes to better place it to pursue mission, it does not mean that body is not part of the whole. To be honest, my brother, your comments reflect a person coming from a dominant US vantage (“before they were not part of the whole”) point rather than striving to truly understand how this other culture/community group (Canada/Canadians) is viewing the issue. I am so thankful for your leadership and ministry, Rod. Peace and grace to you and the great team at Circle!

    1. One of my big interests in making the statement is process. As per usual, questions about process have been met by “you don’t understand it.” That’s usually true, since we don’t have much, as a whole (or former whole). I would be glad to understand if you would elucidate. Shine some light on my part of the bus.

  7. Thank you, Rod. Great lessons here, some of which I have been learning over the past few years and some I need to move from my head to my body so that I start living them out. Thanks.

  8. Thanks for sharing these lessons, Rod. Leading is hard work. It seems we all need to learn and re-learn, over and over, and mercifully, over again. Good reminders for this non-BIC, ABC-USA, BWA lurker 🙂

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