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Spring 1993 · Vol. 22 No. 1 · pp. 95–96 

Book Review

Conference in Pilgrimage: The Story of the Southern District Mennonite Brethren Conference and Its Churches

Orlando Harms. Hillsboro, KS: Center for M.B. Studies, 1992. 305 pages.

Reviewed by Ken Reddig

Today, when church conferences are facing ever-increasing stress on budgets as well as eroding individual and congregational loyalty, it is instructive to review a conference’s past and ask: Was it a success? Whether Orlando Harms envisaged his task as one of providing a measurement for success is less important than the fact that the evidence he presents offers a beginning for monitoring “success.”

The author has an intimate knowledge of the Southern District Conference (Mennonite Brethren churches predominantly in Kansas and Oklahoma, with a few in Arkansas, Colorado, and Texas), partly because of his lengthy participation in it. The book, whose story spans five decades, reads very much like a personal history in which the author takes ownership of the story. As a result, one is tempted to debate, not just with his conclusions, but with his process of selecting data.

The book is composed of five major sections, the central core being Sections Two and Three. In Section Two, the story of the conference itself is discussed within the framework of six time periods. Section Three contains what should prove to be the major selling feature of the book, namely, a brief history of each congregation. {96}

Two major perceptions immediately strike the reader. The first is the absence of demographic information concerning the people who make up the conference. While in a few broad strokes we are presented with a conference composed of an immigrant Russian-Mennonite people with Anabaptist roots, we are given virtually no demographic data as to who these people became economically and socially in North America. The author is preoccupied with introducing each time period with a review of U.S. and world political events. It can be argued whether this is a useful exercise for a conference history, or whether one might be better assisted to understand the context by a review of membership concerns as expressed within Mennonite periodicals, or congregational concerns as expressed in church minutes. The question as to what major issues congregations were facing at the same time that the conference was struggling with its own agenda remains unanswered. Even hints of what congregational agendas were would have been helpful. As it is, one would need to read this book together with the several congregational histories to discover the crossover of concerns between congregations and conference within each historical time period.

A second perception is of a conference preoccupied with missions, evangelism, and church-planting. The overseas missions agenda of the early part of this century soon became the concern of the General Conference, so that for the district conferences, the evangelism and church-planting agenda dominated. This story, however, is depressingly sad. Failure follows failure. The author senses this and becomes so moved that he concludes the book, in Section Five, with a final chapter simply entitled, “Quo Vadis?” In it he attempts to analyze what went wrong. He concludes that it is the lack of congregational ownership of the conference vision and the failure to implement church-planting through the local congregation. As the Southern District Conference discovered, as have other district conferences as well, top-down, bureaucratic church-planting by conferences is the least efficient and often the least effective way of spawning new churches.

Orlando Harms has provided what should become a useful summary of this conference and its development. Though not as analytical as one could wish, the book nevertheless raises important questions and points to significant concerns which must become the agenda of the conference over the next decade if it is to attain any modicum of success.

Ken Reddig
Head, Textual Records and Public Service
Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg.

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