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October 1972 · Vol. 1 No. 4 · pp. 112–21 

Patterns of Leadership in the Mennonite Brethren Conference

Henry J. Regehr

The need for leadership is inherent in human nature. Man craves both to lead and to be led. Without the latter, life becomes confusing, aimless, meaningless, and frustrating. Without the former, his self-identity and individuality weaken and this eventually leads to a sense of powerlessness, meaninglessness, and frustration—consequences similar to those of the lack of being led. To guide and to be guided are essential ingredients of a full and meaningful life. This makes the question of leadership and participation crucial for all times, whether so perceived or not.

This essay focuses on the patterns of leadership in the structures of the Canadian M.B. Conference and the General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren (North American). Part A outlines a number of specific questions or concerns regarding these patterns and describes the approach used to find possible answers to them. Part B is a presentation of the actual findings. Part C offers an interpretation of the findings and suggests some implications thereof.


1. Questions of concern

Questions about the structures and administration of our conferences are not unique to our denomination. On the contrary they reflect general concern about the functions and structures of the ‘establishment.’ Invariably, an evaluation of any establishment will eventually focus on its leadership. Hence, the following specific concerns about our conference structures are in order:

  1. Concentration of leadership

    In short, we are asking whether or not the formal machinery of our conference is manned by the same small group of people year after year. If so, what then? It may suggest that our conferences are blessed with a small group of competent and dedicated leaders who enjoy the full confidence and support of the membership. It may also mean that the conferences deprive themselves of the contributions that others could make to their overall well-being. The corollary questions are of course without substance unless we know the approximate extent of leadership concentration.

  2. Areas of involvement or specialization

    Assuming that certain names crop up repeatedly in the lists of elected officers, do we find them involved by and large in one area of conference activity or do their offices and responsibilities vary substantially? We know that specialization leads to greater competence in that particular task, but it also brings increasing difficulties in coordinating and balancing the entire task of the conference.{113}

  3. Transferability of involvement to other conferences

    The Mennonite Brethren have at least three distinct levels of conference activity: Provincial or District conferences, nation-wide conferences, and the General Conference. Our query is: To what extent do the same group of individuals man the influential positions at different conference levels? A high degree of transferability would make for smooth coordination and inter-relationships between the different conference levels. It would also suggest a high concentration of leadership.

  4. Current trends

    Do certain trends suggest themselves to the careful observer regarding the patterns of leadership in our conferences? For example, are there indications of increasing or decreasing concentration, specialization, and transferability of leadership?

  5. Implications

    One frequently hears the expression nowadays “so what?” Answers to the above and other questions will suggest certain strengths and weaknesses of our conferences which need to be developed and/or remedied, as the case may be. Certain of these implications will be delineated in Part C. Unless these findings help our conferences to work more effectively, this study could at best only satisfy the curiosity of some and bore others.

2. Methodology

This essay is exploratory in nature for two reasons. Little, if any, systematic investigation has been done on this topic in our conference. In the second place, the length of this paper and the amount of time available for preparation dictates a simple methodology.

The raw data were obtained from the yearbooks of the Canadian and the General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren. In a somewhat arbitrary way it was decided to study the Canadian Conference during the period from 1956 to 1973 (when the current conference term expires), and the General Conference from 1945 to 1972. The lists of conference boards and committees were analyzed to ascertain who served on what board or committee, in what capacity, and how frequently.

For purposes of systematization and simplification the Conference structures were divided into three categories: (1) the conference executive, (2) the Board of Reference and Counsel, (3) all other committees and agencies. The number of individuals serving in these categories and the frequencies of their being elected are reported in the following part of this paper. Some cross-tabulations are also reported in Part B.

The exploratory nature of this study in combination with its crude methodology renders the findings and conclusions suggestive, not definitive (as if social science research is ever definitive).


1. Conference Executives

Members of the executive are deemed to be in a position of greatest possible influence in the conference and its activities. Logically they come first in a study of leadership. By and large, M.B. conference executives consist of three members: the moderator (chairman), the assistant moderator (vice-chairman), and the secretary. On a few occasions, the conference {114} treasurer is also listed as belonging to the executive. He will not be included in this analysis.

  1. The Canadian Conference

    During the seventeen-year period under study, the Canadian Conference went through fourteen conference terms. Since 1967 a conference term is two years. Prior to that, it was one year.

    Only seven individuals have held the position of moderator during the fourteen terms. Of these seven, one has held that position for six terms (eight of the seventeen years), one for three terms, and the other five for one term each.

    Similarly, the position of assistant moderator has been held by seven persons, though with slightly more spread among them than in the case of the moderator. One has been assistant moderator for five terms. He has also been the moderator three times. Three have been assistant moderator twice each, one of whom has also been the moderator six times; one other, once. The other three have been assistant moderator for one term each. One of these has also been the moderator for one term. These two positions have been shared by only ten people in seventeen years.

    Five people have been conference secretary during this period with a lopsided frequency distribution among them. One held that position for nine consecutive terms, another for two terms, and the other three for one term each. None of their names appear either under moderator or assistant moderator.

  2. The General Conference

    The period from 1945 to 1972 covers nine conference terms. During this period there have been six moderators, three of whom have served two terms each, and the other three one term each. (An explanatory note is in order. The one elected in 1945 was not re-elected in 1948. The writer did not, however, check whether or not he had held that position prior to 1945.) The present moderator is in his first term and eligible for re-election this year. Of interest to this writer was the fact that four out of the five moderators (the first one of the period not being counted) came to that position via the position of the assistant moderator. Only one by-passed the position of second-in-command, and he served as moderator for two terms. This means that the last five moderators have each been on the executive for a minimum of two terms or six years; two of them have actually been there for nine years; and the present one is eligible for another three-year term.

    The assistant moderator position has been held by a different person in each term. Worthy of reiteration here is the fact that four of the assistant moderators stepped up from here into the position of moderator.

    Five individuals have served as secretary during this period, one having served three consecutive terms, two for two consecutive terms and two for one term each. The present secretary is now completing his second term.

  3. Participation in both conferences

    To what extent has there been participation in both conference executives by the same individuals? An answer to this question applies only to the period from 1956 to the present.

    The two moderators of the General Conference who were from Canada have both been moderator of the Canadian Conference once each. One of these has also been the assistant moderator of the Canadian Conference twice and of the General Conference once. All three of the {115} assistant moderators of the General Conference who were from Canada have been both moderator as well as assistant moderator in the Canadian Conference. In short, from the Canadian side at least, the moderators and assistant moderators of the General Conference have held the same position (s) in the Canadian Conference. This involves only four people. They have served a total number of six terms (18 years) on the General Conference executive and fourteen terms (14 years) on the Canadian Conference executive. None of these have been on either executive for the last three years.

    There has been no crossing over from one conference level to the other among secretaries.

  4. Summary

    The top two positions in the Canadian Conference have been shared among only ten people. Two of these stand out for having served eight terms each in these two positions combined. One of these has never been on the Executive of the General Conference, the other one has been the assistant moderator once.

    The Canada-supplied manpower on the General Conference executive has come entirely from this group of ten. One of these stands out because he has been on the General Conference executive for three terms (nine years). Few individuals would accept positions on the executive of both conferences for concurrent terms. Hence those who have served on both executives have had only a few terms on one of them or a moderate number of terms on both.

2. Boards of Reference and Counsel

The Board (or Committee) of Reference and Counsel has been regarded as the conference-in-interim. Issues that required decisions during the interim were, and to a large extent still are, handled by this board. Most matters of polity, policy, doctrine, and ethics were dealt with first by this board before presented to the conference as a whole. Membership in the board, therefore, bespeaks significant influence in the conference and would further indicate that these members enjoy the confidence of the constituency. For that reason it is relevant to this essay.

A note of explanation is called for at this point. A new structure came into effect in the Canadian Conference in 1967. This new set-up does away with the Board of Reference and Counsel and assigns the work of the conference-in-interim to six boards and the executive. One of these is the Board of Spiritual and Social Concerns that now handles matters of doctrine, ethics, and basic policy. However, administratively it is just like any of the other five boards. It seems that in the expectations of the membership this board’s functions parallel closely those of the former Board of Reference and Counsel. Many of those formerly on Reference and Counsel are now on Spiritual and Social Concerns. Even administratively it was difficult to get away from the idea that this board should handle all issues that are not clearly the domain of any other board. The conference executive in this structure does not have membership in any of these boards. Formerly, and still in the General Conference, the executive was automatically a part of Reference and Counsel.

  1. The Canadian Conference

    Apart from the executive, membership in Reference and Counsel has been shared among forty-two men. If none had been elected more than {116} once to it there would have been 133 persons. This means that each of the forty-two men have served an average of approximately three terms. Averages, however, hide significant variations. Seventeen of the forty-two served for only one term each; six, for two terms; six, for three; one, for four; two, for five; three, for six; three, for seven; three, for eight; and one, for nine terms. Twelve men have been on this board for five or more terms each for a combined total of eighty-two terms. If to this number are added the number of terms that any of these twelve were on the board by virtue of being in the executive (sixteen in all), the number is ninety-eight. In addition to these twelve, two individuals have served many years (nineteen years, seventeen terms) on the board, mostly by virtue of being on the executive. These fourteen then have served a total of 115 terms of the Board of Reference and Counsel. This averages out to 8.2 terms each. Clearly, the mainstay of this board has been these fourteen men.

    The lists of other conference committees and agencies were surveyed and the frequency with which these fourteen names cropped up was ascertained. Two of these did not appear at all; eight of them appeared from one to five times; and four of them between ten to twelve times for a combined total of sixty-five. Three of these also served a total of five terms on the General Conference executive; four of them for a total of fourteen terms on the General Conference Board of Reference and Counsel; and four others, for fourteen terms on other General Conference committees.

    Of these fourteen, eight are still active in conference activity. One of them is the conference moderator and five others are on the Board of Spiritual and Social Concerns. One of these has been on the former Board of Reference and Counsel and the present Board of Spiritual and Social Concerns without interruption from 1956 to the present either as moderator, assistant moderator or member at large. He has also been on the General Conference executive once and the Board of Reference and Counsel twice.

  2. The General Conference

    The period studied covers nine conference terms. The board consists of nine members including the three members of the executive. This makes for a total of eighty-one man-terms on this board. In actuality, only twenty-eight men have served on it during this period, an average of about three terms each. More specifically, nine have been on it for one term each; seven, for two terms each; three, for three terms each; four, for four terms each; three, for five terms each; one, for six terms; and one, for seven terms.

  3. Summary and Conclusion

    There is then a strong tendency in both conferences to “re-elect” rather than elect new members to the Board of Reference and Counsel. To be sure, seventeen out of forty-two in the Canadian Conference and nine out of twenty-eight in the General Conference were elected only once. This does suggest a certain openness on the part of the conference to harness untried personnel. However, this amounts to only 30-35% when viewed from the angle of the number of positions filled by election. The Canadian Conference filled positions on the Board of Reference and Counsel 133 times through elections, and elected a new member to a position only forty-two times; ninety-one times they “re-elected” someone to that position. Similarly, the General Conference transacted eighty-one elections {117} regarding the Board of Reference and Counsel. Out of these, twenty-eight were new elections and fifty-three were “re-elections.”

3. Other Conference Committees

After examining the composition of executives and Boards of Reference and Counsel to the extent reported above, time permitted only a cursory survey of other conference committees and its participants. And then only the Canadian Conference was analyzed in this way, with a partial survey of the General Conference. After preliminary investigation, a list of twelve names was compiled of participants in Canadian Conference committees. None of these twelve are among the fourteen who have dominated the Board of Reference and Counsel. The lists of conference committees (both conferences) were surveyed for the frequencies with which each name appeared and in what type of activity his committee functioned. For purposes of simplification the areas of participation were divided into five categories, even though the conference sometimes had several committees active in one general realm. These five categories are: (1) Christian education such as Sunday School, youth work, music, (2) Higher education and publication, (3) Evangelism and Missions, (4) Social concerns, such as MCC, MDS, Bethesda, peace witness, and (5) Financial and constitutional matters.

During the seventeen-year period these twelve men held 214 office terms. The lowest number of office-terms for any one person was nine; the highest, forty-three. Three men stand out in particular. The one, already referred to, had forty-three office-terms; a second one had thirty-five and the third, twenty-five. The average number of office-terms for the twelve is eighteen, suggesting again that the probability of being elected is enhanced considerably after having been elected once. It is also noteworthy that nine of these twelve, in addition to their participation in Canadian Conference committees, held thirty-three office terms in General Conference committees between 1956 and 1972.

A strong tendency toward specialization is in evidence among this group. Most of these men have been involved basically in one or two areas of conference activity. Some definitely have specialized in social and then of necessity in financial matters, others in educational concerns (both Christian education and higher education) and some primarily in missions/ evangelism. The expertise is clearly transferable across conference lines. That is, Christian educators serve in that capacity in both conferences, mission-minded individuals serve on missions committees in both conferences, etc. There is very little transferability from one category to another, but there is a significant amount of it from one conference to the other in the same category of participation.


We have found that the bulk of conference offices have been held by a relatively small group of individuals. They have repeatedly served in the same capacity one conference term after another. This group can quite easily be divided into those who have been predominantly in positions of influence over the entire realm of conference activity, i.e., the executive and the Board of Reference and Counsel, and those have repeatedly held positions in one of the more specialized areas of conference work, such as missions, MCC, etc. Specialization in one or two tasks is certainly in evidence in the latter group, and to the extent that leadership requires {118} specialized skills, the former group can also be viewed as specializing in a given task. It is noteworthy that both of these groups tended to transfer their expertise across conference lines.

In this part of the essay we want to place these observations under the scrutiny of established generalizations about organizational leadership. Why is there a general tendency toward concentration of leadership? Or is this unique to our conference structure? What role does the constituency have in this phenomenon? What can be done to utilize these tendencies and turn them into the greatest possible effectiveness in doing Kingdom work through the structures of our conferences?

1. Leaders and Followers

A simple but all too often overlooked truth is that the role of the leader and the role of the followers are functionally interdependent. That is, there is no leader without followers. And by the same token, no one can be a good leader unless he has good followers and vice versa. The observations of this study therefore reflect certain characteristics of both our conference leadership and our conference membership.

The above assertion implies that leadership qualities are not so much bestowed on anyone through inherited personality traits, but rather are developed through experience in actual situations. Many a leader has emerged when a situation was thrust upon him in which he had to exhibit leadership qualities which neither he nor his potential followers had previously detected in him. The Bible is full of such examples. Moses thought himself incapable of leading the children of Israel, apparently because he was not a public speaker. The Pentateuch certainly does not support the view that Moses lacked either leadership or oratorical gifts. David was the last of Jesse’s sons to be brought before Samuel with a view to anointing him king. Timothy became a leader despite his being young and timid. In short, when given the opportunity, supported by appropriate expectations from the constituency, most normal individuals can develop a certain competence to lead and to participate in organizational structures such as are our conferences.

Given these facts, it is understandable why a relatively small group of leaders emerge. No doubt, they have developed some competence and demonstrated dedication to the work of the Kingdom prior to being elected to a conference position. Then, once elected, they are called upon to further develop their competence in leadership, a situation which is further enhanced by the expectations of the conference. Only a few others have the real opportunity to develop this competence and demonstrate it to the membership. For that reason, only a small group of individuals actually possesses the capability to lead competently, and the conference is thus impressed with this fact. This mechanism or pattern is found in any large organization. The few in leadership positions develop their skills for those positions, while the others’ skills remain latent. Then those leaders become conspicuously differentiated from the rest of the constituency along the dimension of leadership competence. And this differential competence is objectively true.

It appears then entirely logical for the conference to elect (or “reelect”) someone to a position in which he has proven some competence. The one re-elected further increases his knowledge of the inside ropes and patterns, thereby making it even more difficult for the uninitiated to gain the opportunity to learn them. Out of these very natural processes emerges {119} the well-known tendency toward ‘elitism.’ The elite then gradually gain a virtual monopoly of the techniques and leverage of leadership. Both the membership and the leaders tend to accept this differentiation in competence as an established fact and act in accordance with it. As a result, a large reservoir of potential leaders and contributors remains untapped.

2. Responsibility of Constituency

Currently, the tide is going heavily against ‘established’ leaders who, it is generally assumed, have usurped power by somewhat less than wholesome ways and often against the wishes of the followers. Only a very naive individual would deny the ubiquitous human propensity for ‘lording’ it over others. There is, however, another side to the story, namely that of the role of the members. Concentration of leadership or power does not happen unless it is at least tacitly condoned by the followers. And this happens in brotherhoods, in democracies, and even in bureaucracies. The leadership elite emerges by default or by the passiveness of the membership.

The responsibility of the constituency then is to conduct their elections for conference positions in a serious and thoughtful manner. In my judgment there is a rather strong tendency on the part of the conference to take the easy way out, to re-elect those who have been in that position before. I have previously been arguing that there is some logic to this. I have also suggested that this impoverishes the conference’s manpower resources by not allowing the large reservoir of potential to develop. The tendency to take the easy way out was conspicuously demonstrated by the nominating committee at the last conference of the Canadian M.B.s. For example, they had asked all incumbents, who were eligible, to stand for re-election. In most cases in which the incumbent consented, the nominating committee had contented itself with one nominee per position, including the executive positions. Furthermore, they excused, and even hailed, their not meeting as a committee in preparation for the conference by referring to the budget squeeze. They had only talked to each other on the telephone and had assigned each member to get nominees for certain positions. Most of their nominations were confirmed by the conference. I found it difficult to judge whether the conference applauded this lighthearted approach to elections or not. I suspect that to a large extent they did. On the other hand there was some dissatisfaction with it. And this for two reasons: nominations from the floor are difficult to make, because they have to be thought up at short notice, and furthermore, the individual so nominated must decide on a moment’s notice whether or not he can accept it and do justice to it during the next conference term. Perhaps we should change the constitution to require the nominating committee to do a more thorough piece of work. But I doubt if that would remedy the situation, especially if the committee’s approach in fact reflects the mentality (or apathy) of the constituency.

There are some faint indications in this study that the conference leadership is weakening in its ability to unite the conference. One frequently hears people lament that our conference simply doesn’t have the leaders it used to have. We found that among the top fourteen who have dominated the executive and the Board of Reference and Counsel, only eight are still active and five of these are on the Board of Spiritual and Social Concerns. This board clearly does not exercise the overall leadership that the former Reference and Counsel did. We are apparently approaching the closing of an era in which one group of leaders has run the major {120} part of their course. So far we don’t have any acknowledged substitutes for them. We can fasten the harness on the existing group of leaders for some time, but eventually we will have to venture out and “train” new leaders by electing them to leading positions in the conference. This process can be disruptive and frustrating unless it is begun well in advance.

3. Challenge of the Future

The future is not really bleak unless we make it that. If those who have formerly led the conference(s) in impressive and dynamic fashion are gradually fading away from influential positions and few, if any, are presently following in their footsteps, does that mean we are in for real trouble? Perhaps, but not necessarily. We can take up the challenge by God’s grace and turn these conditions into abundant blessings. I see in particular three challenges facing us presently in this regard.

One is the need to recognize the changing style of leadership both in our society and in our denomination. There is clearly a reaction against the professional or positional leader. This suggests that even Dr. A.H. Unruh would not be able to rally the present generation of M.B.’s behind a certain cause the way he reportedly did some thirty years ago. Rebelliousness of the young is hardly a sufficient explanation. There is a higher level of sophistication and specialization today than there was thirty years ago. And specialization clearly means expertise in one area and a definite lack of competence in other areas of interest and concern. So I have a high regard for a medical doctor’s competence with respect to my health, but I don’t accept the orientation of the medical profession toward economic issues. In short, leadership nowadays is limited more to one’s field of competence or expertise. Leadership functions are therefore distributed among a larger group of people, with the result that there is less concentration of influence vested in any one individual and less visibility of the larger scattered group who actively participate in various areas of conference activity. The demand for old-style leaders contains a sizeable ingredient of unrealism. If it can be recognized that the leadership style is changing, there will be more appreciation of, greater involvement with, and less criticism for, those involved in conference work.

A second challenge is the need to take the risk of involving untried personnel in positions of responsibility so that they can be trained in the role of leadership. It is highly likely that the constituency will sometimes make mistakes and elect someone to such a position who doesn’t acquire that necessary competence. More often, however, it seems that any uninitiated person will blunder occasionally in his new responsibilities. At that point the temptation is strong to abandon both the approach and the individual who blundered and to rely on those who have performed more competently in the past. And then we are back to first base, or rather, still at home plate. The constituency can sit back and relax if the work of the conference is in experienced hands. However, she has to be on her toes if apprentices are trying to find their way in unfamiliar territory. This vigilance is often perceived as a burden, but should not a Christian brotherhood be willing to stick with the apprentice and guide him through the fumbling attempts to greater maturity? Yes, this would require encouraging, admonishing, reprimanding and correcting him. To be sure, there is always some willingness in this regard, but it seems to me this virtue is in particular demand at a time when there is apparently a change in both the style and personnel of leadership. Can the constituency rise {121} to this challenge and meet the need, or will she prefer to sit on the bleachers and confine herself to criticising the sometimes inept leadership of those who are used to a different style of leadership and those who are new in responsible positions?

A third challenge concerns potential leaders getting involved in the work of the conference and risk misunderstanding, criticism, correction, and guidance from the constituency. If the present-day constituency is quick to criticise, the young potential leaders are quick to “opt out” and, like the constituency, take the easy way out. He who risks little, gains and contributes little. I am well aware that there is an in-built resistance within the establishment to the rise of new stars. It is common, if not natural, for both leaders and followers to respond to the emergence of young leaders with suspicion and defensiveness. A major challenge facing the potential leader is to turn that suspicion and defensiveness into confidence and support. Again, that challenge is accentuated for our denomination at this time as a result of what I consider a change in style of leadership and the fading of a certain group of leaders.

The challenge is there. Will our conferences respond to it wholesomely or selfishly?

Mr. Regehr is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mennonite Brethren Bible College.

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