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Pastors Week raises surprising topics of wealth and capitalism

Mary E. Klassen

February 7, 2013

The Pastors Week theme of Jubilee raised topics that are surprising for the annual Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary event: wealth creation, business enterprise and capitalism.

Kim Tan, Ph.D., a venture capitalist and Bible teacher, explored biblical teachings about Jubilee, while workshops explored aspects of money and the church. The planning committee and Everence in Goshen, Ind., which cosponsored the week, hoped to foster conversations that are not always easy to have in congregations, so they encouraged business leaders to attend along with pastors.

The January 28–31 event began with a sermon from David B. Miller, AMBS associate professor of missional leadership development, in which he used a large “reset” button. He questioned how willing we are to push that button—to follow Jubilee teachings of giving to the needy, canceling debts and returning property to original owners.

In his presentations, Tan recounted how he became convinced that living out biblical Jubilee principles is at the heart of Christian faith. Originally from Malaysia, he was a graduate student in England when he and several other students tested the practice of sharing possessions, which they read about in Acts. Over time, they purchased several homes in one neighborhood, sharing belongings and providing hospitality to others.

Tan, whose profession is in biochemistry, now works around the world with the goal of “creating environments for human flourishing.” In an evening session, cosponsored with the Mennonite Economic Development Associates and the Michiana chapter of MEDA, Tan emphasized the need for financial capital to solve problems of poverty. As examples, he described the work of Transformational Business Network in several parts of the world:
•    in Cambodia, creating jobs that help eliminate human slavery,
•    in South Africa to restore land so it can again support native animals, and
•    in other areas of Africa to introduce solar cook stoves and solar chargers for communication devices that help family members stay in touch with each other.

“Without capital, you cannot create wealth,” he said. “Put in a plant that employs people over a sustainable time, and you will see transformation take place.” While he encouraged businesses to become involved, he also said, “We need every solution. We need every resource God has given you.”

Tan’s mission grows out of his understanding of the Bible’s teachings. Israelites were told that every three years they should give one-tenth of their possessions to the poor. Then every seven years they were to cancel debts; release slaves; and let the land, animals and servants rest. In the fiftieth year, the year of Jubilee, they were to return to original owners all property they had bought in the previous 49 years.

“God’s intention is to have people who would live very differently than their neighbors,” Tan said. “We have a God who loves justice; we have a God of righteousness who wants a people that can reflect that justice.”

As he made the transition to the New Testament in his presentations, Tan said, “If you thought Jubilee was tough, it’s going to get tougher.” Jesus reinterpreted Old Testament principles to mean “Jubilee is every day.”

This is possible only with the help of the God’s Spirit. “The true sign of a Spirit-filled church is the expression of generosity. This is not charity. This is not philanthropy. This is not tithing. This is the radical lifestyle of koinonia, of real sharing.

“In business there are whole loads of opportunities for us as we create wealth. If we have the Jubilee spirit in us we will think of creative and imaginative ways to share that wealth and lift people out of poverty.”

Leonard Dow, senior pastor of Oxford Circle Mennonite Church, Philadelphia, also pointed to the Spirit’s role as he preached on Thursday: “We are being called; we are being equipped to declare in communities such as Vancouver or Philadelphia or Newton, Kansas, that the kingdom of God has come near. We can do that not because of who we are, but because of the Spirit that dwells in us. Jubilee has come—every day.”

At the end Pastors Week, Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, AMBS associate dean for leadership education, sent the 180 participants home with a challenge: “This has sparked a very important conversation. I encourage you to engage that conversation not only with people who think like you do. If phrases like ‘compassionate capitalism’ make you crazy or angry, I hope you will find people to talk to for whom that is not the case. If you are just chomping at the bit to get on with creating wealth so you can distribute it, I hope you will pause to pay attention some of the potential dangers of creating wealth. But let’s talk to each other.”

Workshops during the event included a session led by Vyron Schmidt and Beryl Jantzi of Everence and Terry Shue of Mennonite Church USA on how congregations can use planned giving tools, and a session led by Dori Zerbe Cornelson of Mennonite Church Canada on revitalizing the offering in worship services. Three sessions focused on groups who have a vision for vibrant multicultural ministry: Oxford Circle Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, south-central Elkhart and Mennonite Church Canada. John D. Roth of Goshen College traced economic sharing in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition; representatives of MEDA described their focus on integrating faith and work in their initiatives; and Allan Rudy-Froese, AMBS professor, led participants in testing how to talk about money in sermons.

Cyneatha Millsaps, pastor of Community Mennonite Church, Markham, also preached during the week, and worship was led by Mark Diller Harder of Saint Jacobs (Ont.) Mennonite Church,  Marilyn Rudy-Froese of Berkey Avenue Mennonite Church in Goshen and a group of musicians.