The Bible begins and closes with a global perspective. The God of mission has always directed His people to be mindful of the nations, and the experiences of revival, persecution, and migration have also challenged the Church to remain global. The Mennonite Brethren story reflects these commitments and experiences.
The vision to establish the International Community of Mennonite Brethren came from a concern to translate the global character of Christ’s church into a dynamic, biblical, and edifying life experience. ICOMB was a concrete step to translate biblical principles into strategic realities, and it became an instrument that enables the Mennonite Brethren church to live out its commitment to internationalism and multiculturalism.
The MB church has always had an international character. Many of the early MBs emigrated from Prussia to Russia, where they lived as an ethnic minority in isolated colonies. The evangelistic zeal of the renewal movement in the 1860s and 70s led the early MB Church to face the challenges of their ethnic separatism; persecution and migration created awareness and understanding of international matters.
The vision of internationalization is related to the concept of partnership. Discussion began in the 1950s and at the North American General Conference (USA and Canada) in 1963, leaders called for “Obedience in Partnership,” in which the older churches would stand together with the younger ones in a worldwide fellowship.
In 1988 the first International Consultation on Mennonite Brethren Mission was held in Curitiba, Brazil. Some 805 delegates from 15 Mennonite Brethren conferences (MB national church associations) were present. The Brazilian hosts, led by Jacob August Wall and son Hartmut August, saw an opportunity to mobilize the churches for a spiritual awakening. They named the gathering Despertar ’88 (Awakening ’88), based on Ephesians 5:14. This dual emphasis of renewal and mission, core values of the MB Church since 1860, were also strategic in the eventual formation of ICOMB. Recognizing the need for direct conference-to-conference dialogue, and with Herb Brandt of Canada facilitating discussions, it was agreed that national conference leaders would meet again in connection with the Mennonite World Conference Assembly in Winnipeg (Canada) in 1990. There they would discuss the creation of a global MB fellowship.
The 50 participants at the Winnipeg meeting agreed to provide a forum for ongoing dialogue between the MB conferences, and the International Committee of Mennonite Brethren was formed. This step signified a new level of relationship; from then on, MB conferences have related fraternally to each other.
Edmund Janzen, the Moderator of the North American General Conference, assumed the responsibility of being ICOMB’s first Chairman. The fourfold purpose of ICOMB is as follows: 1) To articulate and promote a vision for internationalization of the mission and ministries of the Mennonite Brethren Church on a global basis; 2) To facilitate inter-conference communication and information flow; 3) To provide a framework for the exploration of mutual conference concerns; 4) To develop a forum for mutual encouragement.
The first regional consultation was held in Paraguay in 1992. There, ICOMB developed policies including the decision to meet annually and to seek representation from all member conferences at these meetings. During the ICOMB meeting in India in 1997, all the conferences voted in favor of following a financial funding formula that expected a 1% contribution of the annual budget of each conference, and to promote and manage a world relief fund for the use of member conferences.
The creation of an international ICOMB Confession of Faith was discussed at a regional consultation in Curitiba in 2001. After the event, ICOMB nominated an international commission to work on the subject, led by Heinrich Klassen of Germany. All members reviewed and unanimously accepted the proposed Confession of Faith in Paraguay in 2004. Subsequently, a booklet of commentary and discussion points was developed by Elmer A. Martens and Peter J. Klassen and published in 2008: Knowing and Living Your Faith has been translated into approximately twenty languages.
The international Confession of Faith further established ICOMB’s identity apart from the mission agency of Canada and USA MB churches, and simultaneously established ICOMB as the emerging international authority for its national church members. The ICOMB Confession is compatible and complementary to all national churches’ Confessions. It reflects both the narrative communication style characteristic of the Global South and the point-form approach of the Global North. The ICOMB Confession is adopted by all new member conferences as their Confession, and as a template for those who wish to add their own.
In 2004, the growing number of initiatives demanded courageous steps to meet the financial demands, and each member conference was asked to contribute 2% of its annual budget to ICOMB and prepare to search for its first Executive Director. In 2005 Victor Wall was commissioned to serve on a half time basis. At that time delegates changed ICOMB’s name to International Community of Mennonite Brethren.
Education and leadership development also became a significant part of ICOMB’s vision. In 2005, ICOMB decided to build up post-secondary education as a tool to strengthen conferences. Plans were made to organize a consultation on higher education, which was held in the USA in 2007. Participant educators put forward a report that reflected the vision of the global MB academic community, which was accepted.
Two more education consultations occurred. One took place in DR Congo in 2009 to address the multiple challenges of the 325 schools operated by the three Mennonite conferences. A second higher education consultation was held in Canada in 2011 to follow up the 2007 event, designed to bring schools and the church closer together as “Compañeros” (partners) in the Gospel.
ICOMB has established a Global Scholarship Fund. A partnership with Multiply assigns direction and administration of the Fund to ICOMB, while funds are received and distributed by Multiply. An international Global Scholarship Fund committee meets annually to process applications and assign grants. ICOMB’s vision and commitment to leadership training builds the strength of member conferences.
The 150th anniversary of the Mennonite Brethren Church was reached in 2010. To commemorate this milestone, a book on MB global history was published, entitled “Celebrating 150 Years: The Mennonite Brethren Church Around the World.” Abe Dueck, Director of the Centre for MB Studies in Canada, edited the material. Each national church member of ICOMB at the time was given an opportunity to write their history from their perspective. While missionary effort was gratefully acknowledged, it also afforded an opportunity to reflect on that effort with some critique. MB Mission leaders added to the volume with stories about emerging conferences, some of which have since become ICOMB members. During 2010, all member national conferences were encouraged to create their own celebratory events and most did. ICOMB itself created an event in Lemgo, Germany, attended by hundreds of locals, missionaries, and guests of national churches. People also chose tours of historical sites in Germany or Ukraine.
From 2011-2018 David Wiebe of Canada was appointed to serve as full time Executive Director. During his tenure he worked to unite the conferences by personally visiting each one and working to make the annual Summit a priority. Under his leadership, in 2017 ICOMB initiated another mission consultation, with MB Mission (today Multiply) as co-host. About 250 representatives from 36 countries assembled at Chonburi, Thailand under the theme “The Church On Mission.” Delegates came from ICOMB member churches and 17 emerging conferences where national church leaders were accompanied by MB Mission workers who assisted them.
The face of mission has been changing toward finding national workers with apostolic and pastoral gifts, supported by ex-patriot mission workers. In addition to ICOMB publishing in theology (2008) and history (2010), in partnership with MB Mission a new missiology text was published (2015) under the leadership of editor Victor Wiens, entitled “The Church in Mission: Perspectives of Global Mennonite Brethren on Mission in the 21st Century.” Forty-five chapters written by Mennonite Brethren authors from every continent make this a truly unique and international resource.
Since 2018, Rudi Plett of Paraguay leads ICOMB as Executive Director, appointed at the annual ICOMB Summit in Austria. Plett’s first initiatives included hosting a regional consultation for Latin America with the Paraguay MB Conferences to generate strong identity and vision for mission – as a follow up to Thailand 2017. Since then ICOMB has worked to develop new structures and strategies to serve the growing ICOMB membership.
The authority of ICOMB continues to develop. Several national churches have required intervention due to major leadership problems. All cases require significant consultation to balance the power of the Executive Director, the Executive Committee, the ICOMB assembly of leaders, and the autonomy of the national church in question.
The renewal movement in 1860 that gave birth to the Mennonite Brethren Church was local but always had an international and transcultural orientation. ICOMB’s spiritual mandate is to remain faithful to God as it seeks to serve its many conferences and churches. By focusing on Jesus and with enabling by God’s Spirit, ICOMB plays a vital part in leading the international MB community into the twenty-first century.
- Contributors: Victor Wall, David Wiebe, Victor Wiens.
ICOMB Annual Gatherings Record
YEAR CITY, COUNTRY OCCASION/NOTE
1990 Winnipeg, Canada MWC Assembly
1992 Asuncion, Paraguay Regional consultation
1993 Winnipeg, Canada Regular meeting
1997 Calcutta, India MWC Assembly
1998 Kinshasa, “Zaire” Regular meeting
1999 Wichita, USA General Conference of N. America Convention
2000 Guatemala City, Guatemala MWC General Council
2001 Curitiba, Brazil Regional Consultation in South America
2002 Abbotsford, Canada Final General Conference of N. America Convention
2003 Bulawayo, Zimbabwe MWC Assembly
2004 Asuncion, Paraguay 50th Anniversary German: Portugal AIMP accepted
2005 Osaka, Japan 55th Anniversary JMBC
2006 Bogota, Colombia 60th Anniversary of Colombia Conference
2007 Kinshasa, Congo Regular Meeting
2008 Hyderabad, India Regular meeting
2009 Asuncion, Paraguay MWC Assembly
2010 Lemgo, Germany 150th Anniversary of Mennonite Brethren
2011 Winnipeg, Canada Joined to Higher Education Consultation
2012 Basel, Switzerland MWC General Council
2013 Trujillo, Peru Regular meeting
2014 Luanda, Angola Regular meeting: Lithuania LLKB accepted
2015 Mechanicsburg, USA MWC Assembly
2016 Panama City, Panama Regular meeting
2017 Bangkok, Thailand Joined to Mission/Prayer Consultation
2018 Vienna, Austria Regular meeting
2019 Guadalajara, Mexico Regular meeting
*2020 Online Covid-19 Regulated: Malawi MBCM accepted
*2021 Online Covid-19 Regulated
2022 Curitiba, Brazil Regular meeting; Despertar (Awaken) conference