Canadian Mennonite
Volume 13, No. 23
Nov. 30, 2009


The (un)friendliness factor

Dick Benner


Dick Benner

The caller’s voice was full of sadness. Yes, he was making a generous credit card contribution to Canadian Mennonite, but his heart was heavy about something else.

After spending a lifetime as a member of the Mennonite church, he and his wife were going to have to find another place to worship. It wasn’t about theology. He was a staunch, practising Anabaptist. It wasn’t primarily about the leadership. The pastor had paid them more than one visit since they moved into the community more than a year ago.

It was about the unwelcoming congregation, especially, he felt, because he had reached his “three score and ten.” “I definitely felt sidelined from the beginning,” he said with some emotion. “I like to fish, but no one has taken the time to get to know me well enough to discover that.”

His wife was going for surgery and no one particularly knew, or cared, he thought.

We talked on for a while. It was a painful conversation. From my own experience, I could empathize.

Social networks are hard to crack. Favourite, long-standing families who form the power structure of a congregation are often unaware of their clannishness, their tendency to feel the most comfortable with their own, their body language too-often telling you that you are the “other” and it just might take some time to prove yourself worthy of gaining access to the inner circle.

It is such a paradox. Look at all the witness and mission efforts we pour our hearts and souls into around the world. Our relief and service agency, Mennonite Central Committee, is the envy of other communions and of many non-governmental organizations for the skillful ways in which we partner with nationals to address injustice, poverty and racism. These same nationals come to our assemblies with dramatic stories of how we have showed compassion compared to no other.

My saddened friend suggests we take another look at the First Commandment, as given by Jesus: “to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” He suggests the English word is inadequate; the Spanish word proxima—the one nearest to you—conveys it much better.

“Visitors (or newcomers) often possess a special kind of ‘radar,’?” writes Joan Hershey in her little book, The First Thirty Seconds. “They have the uncanny ability to detect phoniness and indifference if that is at all reflected in the people they encounter. Those first few seconds shape their continuing impression of the congregation.”

Take some time this week to single out the newcomers in your congregation and invite them out for coffee or tea sometime during the week. Get to know them as friends. Ask them to tell their life story, the joys and sorrows of their journey. Invite them into your book club. Tell them where to find a good mechanic, a hairdresser or favourite restaurant.

Pastors, take some time to spend one intentional hour with that newcomer with an eye towards taking inventory of his/her special gifts for the “building up of the body.”

Fred Bernhard, a contributor to The First Thirty Seconds, built his congregation from 50 to 600 over an 18-year pe-riod by doing just that. He spent an hour with each newcomer with the precise purpose of entering that person’s gift into a congregational database, information that was used to “equip the saints” on an ongoing basis.

Dick Benner

Meet your board member

Joanna Reesor-McDowell of Stouffville, Ont., represents Canadian Mennonite Publishing Service on our 12-member board. Mother of two adult sons, Martin and Allan, she and her husband Andrew are members of Hagerman Mennonite Church in Markham. Her current focus is on volunteer work, which gives her flexibility and time to travel with Andrew in his role as moderator of Mennonite Church Canada. This past summer they were enriched by attending together the Mennonite Church Canada assembly in Saskatoon, Sask., MC USA meetings in Columbus, Ohio, and Mennonite World Conference in Paraguay. You can e-mail her at or call 905-642-0211.

Back to Canadian Mennonite home page