Serving the church community

Strengthening and serving the global church community

A lifetime of leadership experiences in the context of church-wide organizations has prepared Bluffton’s presidential couple for their current role of working behind the scenes as volunteer consultants in helping strengthen the organizational capacity of the growing Mennonite World Conference (MWC).

President Jim Harder with Karen Harder

“We see our role in this work as responding to requests, and being helpful where we can be,” says Bluffton’s president, Dr. James M. Harder.

He notes that the MWC community—102 national church groups with 2.1 million members in 87 countries on six continents—has large ambitions as it works to expand and deepen its network of international relationships and joint projects. By intention, it operates with a small, dispersed staff and limited budget. And it does so with all the richness—and occasional organizational challenges—that derive from its cross-cultural makeup.

For the past four years, Bluffton’s president and his wife, Dr. Karen Klassen Harder, a professor of business at Bluffton, have been helping to support the continuing growth and development of MWC in response to some of those challenges.

“Our work is intended to help the global Mennonite church become stronger as global churches engage with each other,” Karen Harder says. “Our role is to support the MWC leaders as they think creatively about how they can work together to build a stronger organization.”

MWC is more than 90 years old. For most of its early history, membership was primarily held by European and North American churches related to the various Mennonite and Brethren in Christ denominations. But with the rise of mission efforts in other parts of the world, groups of Mennonite congregations have formed globally. Today, more Mennonites live in Global South countries than in the Global North, and in 2012, for the first time, the executive director of MWC resided in a country of the Global South— César García, from Colombia.

The Harders have worked closely with García. On several occasions in the U.S. and in Bogotá, Colombia, they have also met with the MWC’s elected board officers. In addition to helping develop needed policy and procedure documents to facilitate the conference’s organizational structure and growth, they have been asked to provide board governance orientation sessions for its 14-member executive committee.

This past July, at the MWC Assembly in Harrisburg, Pa., they led an orientation session for the conference’s 130-person general council, comprised of delegates from all member church bodies. They also facilitated a meeting of 40 educational leaders from nearly a dozen countries who met for a day to discern whether and how to best form a global network of Anabaptist educators.

“We appreciate the opportunity to help where we can to support the work of MWC’s leaders,” President Harder says. “We give of our time and share from our experience in this way because we believe in the importance and potential of global Christian fellowship.”

“But also,” he adds, “it presents some very interesting organizational questions and needs that Karen and I enjoy being able to think about, and hopefully, help resolve. We probably have learned as much or more through our interaction with this global organization than the organizational wisdom that we might have been able to lend.”

Karen Harder, whose primary teaching responsibilities at Bluffton are in organizational management for MBA as well as undergraduate students, agrees.

“Organizational and human resources management issues become really challenging when culture and geography come into play,” she notes. Questions such as what constitutes a fair pay scale and who should implement it when an organization has staff in four parts of the world—all with different standards of living—don’t have easy answers and have significant implications.

MWC leaders first asked the Harders for their input on organizational structures and policies because of their professional training and leadership and administrative experience in multiple global settings and within the church.

President Harder has had long experience in various church leadership, financial management and organizational design capacities at the denominational level. He served on the leadership board of Mennonite Church USA and its predecessor for 17 years, from 1990-2007. He also recently completed 12 years of service on the board of Mennonite World Review, a newspaper which, more than any other publication, features news and analysis of the global Mennonite movement. His Ph.D., from Notre Dame University, is in development economics.

The Harders’ international experience began as volunteer teachers in the East African country of Kenya, and later as project consultants in Bangladesh. They went to Tanzania during graduate school for work on their dissertations and to assist with a Mennonite Economic Development Associates project in Mbeya, Tanzania. More recently, Karen has continued her international involvement as board chair of Ten Thousand Villages, a nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for artisans in developing countries to earn income by bringing their products to retail stores in the U.S.

From 1994-2006, she served on the board of Mennonite Central Committee, a church-related global relief and development agency that operates in many countries with MWC connections. For seven of those years, she served as board chair, requiring significant international travel and meetings with global church leaders. In 2009 she was asked to be the North American member of the search committee that selected García as MWC executive secretary.

“Their respectful and relational approach has been a blessing for me,” says García of the Harders’ contributions to the conference. “They have always been open to discussing management issues, showing implications and suggesting possible solutions instead of just giving ‘right’ answers.”

“Their cultural sensitivity, knowledge about management and nonprofit organizations, and teaching gifts have made them a great resource,” he says.