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Fall 1994 · Vol. 23 No. 2 · pp. 117–20 

Tribute to a Colleague: Clarence R. Hiebert

Katie Funk Wiebe

I first met Clarence Hiebert when he and my husband Walter were studying at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg about forty years ago. Clarence and Ferne struck me as free Yankee spirits. We Canadians were much too stodgy to keep up with their breeziness. But I found out many years later their lightheartedness was not an affected Americanism but something with deeper roots.

“Hiebert comes close to being a Mennonite Brethren Renaissance man.”

I learned to know Clarence better when he chaired the Humanities Division and Bible Department at Tabor College and directed the worship sessions. I learned to know him best when he occupied the office next to mine for about a decade. Each morning I heard him walk down the hall at a fast clip. Life for Clarence was good and he had things to do.


Clarence loves the truth of the Scriptures and passed that love on to his students. He planned his courses with care, always incorporating creative elements to make them more interesting. He lectured with enthusiasm. He aimed to bring out the best in his students, encouraging, advising, prodding, occasionally becoming disgusted with those who planned to enter the ministry and yet turned in sloppy or marginal work. God’s work required the best, {118} not what was done ten minutes before class.

His most visible courses incorporated international travel. He reiterated often that the only way to help students break out of narrow molds was to introduce them to other cultures. Hundreds of students have traveled with Clarence. He and Jonah Kliewer, head of the music department, led choir tours to Europe and Russia. Late planes, trains, and buses always caused others anxiety but never seemed to touch him if no one’s life was danger--except once when students were caught in the midst of a protest against Communist domination in Wenceslaus Square in Prague. Anyone traveling with Clarence was made aware of the importance of fitting into the culture. If in Russia, act like a Russian. Learn to say the appropriate greetings. Try all foods. Dress in a way that shows respect for local customs. He was disappointed in students who had only one goal on reaching a new country: find a McDonald's.


For many years Clarence was in charge of worship chapels at the college. Students and faculty knew they could expect a fresh, creative approach to worship. It was rarely “the same old thing.” Sometimes the center of the auditorium was occupied by a large rough wooden cross to serve as the communion table. His approach to worship was liturgical, with numerous litanies and readings, which meant the service sometimes ran too long, to the chagrin of faculty members planning a test for the next period.

Clarence was recognized as the unofficial Tabor chaplain/pastor. I was aware of the student traffic into his office, ostensibly for academic reasons, but more often for counseling. He had a deep compassion for human needs. He listened and advised. If he was compassionate, he was also passionate about certain matters like displaying flags and singing patriotic songs about war and violence.


At the General Conference Convention of Mennonite Brethren in Winnipeg in 1993, when the motion regarding publication of a new hymnal was brought up, Clarence said, “I’m not really a musician”; yet one of his most prominent contributions to the church is in music. In My Father Was C. N. Hiebert by Esther Horch, he gives credit to his musicologist brother-in-law, Ben Horch of Winnipeg, for expanding his world of ideas. His experience singing with the Robert Shaw Chorale in New York provided him with a remarkable repertoire of music and fascinating anecdotes. {119}

Clarence worked hard over a period of years to ensure the publication of the new hymnal. He is convinced that singing hymns, not just choruses, is important to the identity and theology of the Mennonite Brethren Church. For many years the Tabor College community has sung the college hymn, “Redeemed of God, come let us sing,” for which he wrote the words.

Esther Horch, Clarence’s sister, writes that he came closest to his father’s expectations in “the field of spiritual endeavor.” C. N. Hiebert was proud of the “caboose,” the youngest of eleven children. Esther describes Clarence as having a great deal of energy, always full of pranks and mischief as a young boy. He loved people and enjoyed an uninhibited approach to life. That is the way I learned to know him.

Yet I value Clarence’s contribution as a fixer of broken things and lives. He believed God’s will was beauty and wholeness in relationships and in God’s creation. He had a personal concern for the individual and for keeping relationships whole. He wanted to pass on to students the God-givenness of life.

He enjoyed seeing the campus and buildings repaired, painted, and neat. He was as handy with a hammer and saw as with a recorder. He was a beauty-gatherer, not a wealth-gatherer, apparent in his and Ferne’s home in the refined display of works of art brought back from overseas. The Hiebert home is the frequent scene of gatherings of people, both planned and spontaneous.


Students and faculty remember him as an idea man, a visionary. He spoke of his vision for the college, the humanities division, the religion and Bible department, and wrote long memos. For a long time he resisted learning to use a computer. Instead, he wrote his long memos on his Selectric typewriter, using the font he loved mos--script. I recall him advising me when I was having difficulty getting action from others to send copies of correspondence to anyone who might have some responsibility for the issue. It was his way of keeping people accountable.

All his students and friends will attest to his delightful sense of humor, especially his puns, which he drops unexpectedly. His humor often was the catalyst that kept the tour group going with enthusiasm, says Jonah Kliewer. And it is Clarence who provides the comic relief at choir rehearsals at the Hillsboro M. B. Church.

His little peculiarities endeared him to students and friends. He always carried a clip-on tie in his pocket. When he was worshiping with his Holdeman friends, he took it off. In a more formal situation, he clipped it on. He covered his growing bald spot by combing his hair over it. When {120} he first stepped behind the pulpit, he did a funny little jig in his brown sandals and black socks to find a comfortable spot. He was unwilling to push titles of any kind, especially “doctor” and “reverend.” He didn’t like committee meetings, too often places where people didn’t meet. When he was bored in church, he wrote sermon outlines. He quietly withdrew when others wanted the responsibility he was carrying out.


He loves the church, yet recognizes its failures and weaknesses as well as its strengths and successes. He is a strong proponent of Anabaptist theology and inter-Mennonite relations. He is not a conference person in the usual sense of someone who aspires to ecclesiastical power, yet he has served several terms on the Board of Missions and also the Board of Reference and Counsel.

I cherish his friendship for other reasons, the main one being his openness to women’s ministry when other church leaders were hesitant to move ahead. He gave many women students and faculty their first opportunity to preach in worship services, serve communion and teach Bible courses. Chapel services included not just those whose talents were well-known and in demand but also those whose gifts lay hidden. He never felt threatened by opening doors to others.

He preached often and in many places, but he will probably not be known best for his preaching or writing, except where he pioneered, as with his study of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite (Holdeman). Friends in Need, Friends in Deed has become a valuable resource to people looking for shiplists of immigrants who came to America during the 1870s.

At his father’s memorial service he said, “After the death of Abraham, God blessed Isaac his son. I, C. N. Hiebert’s youngest son, seek the blessing of God for my life . . . (I) seek what Father sought to be significant for this era in response to the same God who called him and calls us to bear fruit that will remain.” Clarence’s varied ministry is not yet finished but will continue to bear fruit. He comes close to being a Mennonite Brethren Renaissance man—historian, musician, pastor, teacher, theologian, missions promoter, and world traveler.

Katie Funk Wiebe, published author now living in Wichita, is Professor Emeritus of English Literature, Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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