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Spring 2001 · Vol. 30 No. 1 · pp. 33–44 

Searching for a Safe Landing

James N. Pankratz

Delegates to the sixty-second convention of the North American Mennonite Brethren General Conference, held in Wichita during July 1999, faced three apparently contradictory choices. First, they were asked to approve a revised Confession of Faith that would bind their churches together theologically. Second, they were asked to dissolve the very Conference that had been the framework for theological agreement and shared ministry for 120 years. Third, they were asked to divest themselves of all the ministries that they had done together through this conference, while affirming the importance of the ministries, and expressing the hope that the ministries would “land safely” within some other structures that would welcome and provide a home for them.

The delegates sensed the inherent tension in these choices but voted in favor of all three.

While Mennonite Brethren have been remarkably successful in creating schools, they have not been successful in developing structures and systems through which schools in different regions can work in partnership with each other.

After the votes, denominational leaders spoke with hope rather than with the tiredness and frustration that had characterized discussions of conference structures for the preceding four years. They predicted greater participation by national conferences, reduced bureaucratic structures, more local sense of ownership, and even the possibility of new {34} global partnerships in mission, theological identity, and education. There was, to be sure, also a widespread, wistful sadness, but it was mostly the kind of sadness that children have when they reach adulthood and leave their parents’ home.

There were a significant number of voices that predicted that “dissolution and divestiture” would lead to more divergence and less cooperation, and some even predicted the disappearance of the denomination as a distinct entity. They worried that the theological, educational, and global church planting ministries would either atrophy and die from lack of support, or that these ministries would become more and more like “parachurch” agencies, seeking voluntary support and direction from whatever groups or individuals would sustain them.

The implementation of the decisions made at Wichita is underway, and it is impossible to assess whether it will be the hopeful promises or the fearful predictions that will be fulfilled.

It is possible, however, to look at the Mennonite Brethren experience in North America to see if there are precedents or patterns to suggest what the future may hold. This study examines how Mennonite Brethren in North America have started schools and how they have attempted to coordinate these schools. It concludes that Mennonite Brethren have been remarkably successful in creating schools, yet they have not been successful in developing structures and systems through which schools in different regions can work in partnership with each other.


Mennonite Brethren schools have been started through local, regional, and national initiatives. During the 1880s in the midwestern United States, several local societies (Schulverein) or committees (Schulkommittee) established schools to ensure that the German language and Mennonite Brethren faith were taught. Tabor College began because H. W. Lohrenz and P. C. Hiebert agreed in September 1907 that a Mennonite Brethren college should be established, and because John K. Hiebert and more than a dozen other men joined the project soon after. And although they asked for and received the endorsement of the Mennonite Brethren General Conference one month later, the school continued to be governed by an independent corporation. 1

Winkler Bible Institute was started by A. H. Unruh and several other instructors. The faculty asked three other men in the community to join them as codirectors. But no conference, and not even a congregation, was formally involved in this initiative. 2

Sometimes a single congregation started a school. That was the {35} origin of the Bible school in Coaldale, Alberta, in 1929. 3 Occasionally several churches cooperated, as when Mennonite Brethren churches in Clearbrook, South Abbotsford, and Matsqui established a Bible institute in 1945 that became the basis for the present Columbia Bible College in British Columbia. 4 Similarly the evening and summer Bible schools in the Dinuba and Reedley churches in California later merged to become Immanuel Bible School, which today is Immanuel High School. 5

There were people who insisted that local initiative and ownership were preferable to wider conference ownership and governance. This was most strikingly clear in the story of the Bible institute established in Herbert, Saskatchewan, by Canadian Conference action in 1914. The first teacher-administrator, J. F. Harms, recommended in 1916 that although the school had been established at the initiative of the Canadian Conference’s “School Committee,” it would be better if the school was sponsored by a local society of benefactors. 6 The change was made in 1918.

Regional initiative and cooperation were sometimes very successful. Based on their experience with local short term Bible school programs, the Pacific District Conference (PDC) established a “Permanent School Committee” in 1941 to investigate the possibilities of a postsecondary school. By 1942 that committee brought recommendations to the annual convention of the PDC to set in motion a fund-raising campaign to establish a Pacific District Bible School in Fresno. The District had other more pressing priorities and so the convention asked that the committee “not be too hasty.” But the committee forged ahead, and at the next year’s convention it announced that it had raised $5,000, it proposed the name “Pacific Bible Institute,” it recommended opening the school no later than fall 1944, and it asked the convention to remove the previous year’s “do not be too hasty” resolution. The convention delegates were impressed by the committee’s initiative and passed all of the recommendations. The committee was restructured into a board, and the school opened on September 18, 1944, as a PDC school. 7

Some institutions were established and then governed by national conferences. The Mennonite Brethren Bible College (MBBC) in Winnipeg was established through the initiative of the Canadian Conference. The 1943 convention appointed an Educational Committee and by October 14, 1944, classes began at the new campus in Winnipeg. When the board was organized in 1945 it was structured to have members representing each of the provinces in which Mennonite Brethren had conferences. 8

The origins of the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary can be traced back at least as far as the 1948 recommendation of the General Conference Board of Education to establish the School of Theology at {36} Tabor College as a seminary. After a study commission and considerable conference debate, and despite a decision by the Canadians not to join this venture, the seminary was established in Fresno in September 1955. 9

Finally, in 1976 the Canadian Conference established Institut Biblique Laval (now Ecole Théologique Evangélique de Montréal) in Montreal as a Bible school to serve the growing French church membership in Quebec. 10

Mennonite Brethren have established postsecondary schools through local, regional, and national initiative. The current seven Mennonite Brethren postsecondary schools in Canada and the U.S. illustrate that there is no single pattern of successful initiative: Tabor College, Bethany Bible Institute, and Columbia Bible College began locally; Fresno Pacific University began regionally; Concord College, Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, and Institute Biblique Laval were started through national initiatives.


As important as local initiative often was, the schools that survived more than one generation did so because the local vision began to be shared by a larger constituency that was willing to support the school. Several examples illustrate this.

A Bible school was established in Virgil, Ontario, in 1943, and a high school was started in 1944. A campus was purchased in 1947. But by 1948 the burden was too great for the small group of local sponsors, and the Ontario Conference assumed ownership and responsibility. 11 Columbia Bible College is the product of a series of consolidations of local schools, both MB and Conference of Mennonite. Mennonite Brethren ownership of the Bible Institute was transferred to the B.C. Conference in 1961. 12 When Winkler Bible Institute faced possible closure because of rapidly declining enrollment in 1944, the Manitoba Conference assumed ownership. 13

In 1927, after nearly twenty years of independent governance, Tabor College faced the financial and academic challenges of accreditation and asked the Mennonite Brethren and Krimmer Mennonite Brethren conferences to assume ownership. It took more than six years for the change of ownership to occur, and when it did only the Mennonite Brethren agreed; yet consequently the school survived. 14


Mennonite Brethren have been remarkably productive in starting local, regional, and national schools, and they have also been generous {37} in coming to the aid of local and regional schools to provide them with a broader base of support. They have not, however, been as successful in establishing long-term educational cooperation and coordination between schools in different regions.

When the Bible schools in Canada were facing enrollment losses in the 1950s, the Canadian Conference attempted to renew the Bible schools by increasing coordination among them. It even investigated whether a national MB association of Bible schools could be formed and obtain membership in the Association of Accredited Bible Institutes and Colleges of North America. In 1959 the Educational Committee reported that it had adopted a uniform curriculum and that uniform textbooks were being used in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Bible schools. 15 But this did not last long.

In the late 1980s Canadian Mennonite Brethren tried to establish a national coordinated system of education. First a Task Force, and then a Commission on Higher Education engaged in extensive consultations across the constituency. Eventually a system was proposed that linked the various local schools through shared governance and funding, and that created a means by which there could be some differentiation of schools to avoid overlap and competition. The proposal did not receive the support of all of the provincial conferences, and so, in 1989, it failed. 16

It was difficult to evaluate the proposal on its own merits because three factors undermined any efforts at national cooperation. First, there were significant regional tensions within the Canadian Conference. Second, there were serious unresolved differences between MBBC and some parts of the Canadian constituency. These made them unwilling to agree to a system that would continue to provide substantial support to the College, and that might grant MBBC a senior status among the various institutions. Third, throughout the consultations there were comments that Canadian Mennonite Brethren had “one school too many.” Each school, and its supporting constituency, was fearful that a national system would give others the right to decide to close their school.

Some of these issues were mentioned in the report that the Executive Committee of the B.C. Conference made to the provincial convention in 1989 in which it stated its reasons for recommending that the delegates reject the national, coordinated educational plan. 17 But the report and the convention discussion repeatedly gave one dominant rationale for rejecting a national coordinated system: regional and local ownership and accountability are more effective in providing the direction and support that a school needs to successfully meet the needs of its constituency. {38}

To some extent that perspective was reinforced by the subsequent Concord College experience. During the 1990s, Canadian Mennonite Brethren east of British Columbia created an interprovincial governance structure for Concord College as it emerged from MBBC, but that structure soon gave way to a decision that made Concord College a school of the Manitoba conference. 18 Yet even shared regional governance was not enough to guarantee cooperation between schools. In 1997, Manitoba tried to create an educational program that would combine Winkler Bible Institute (WBI) and Concord College. That attempt failed. Within a few weeks WBI closed. 19

In the United States, national coordination of education was in place from 1954 to 1979. During most of that time the U.S. Conference Board of Education governed Tabor College, Fresno Pacific College, and the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (established in 1955). In fact, when the U.S. Conference established this coordinated governance, they also made the decision to move the “seminary department” from Tabor College in Hillsboro and establish it in Fresno.

But while this national system did provide coordination, it did not seem capable of providing the attention and impetus needed to expand and strengthen the schools. After extensive constituency consultation and the publication of the “Report of the Study Commission,” a special U.S. Conference Convention on Education was held in Denver in February 1979. The conclusion of that conference was that the ownership and governance of the two colleges should be regionalized. 20 By the fall of 1979 that had been implemented. Tabor became the school of the Central, Latin American, North Carolina, and Southern Districts. Fresno Pacific became the school of the Pacific District. In 1980 the U.S. Conference Board of Education ceased to exist for operational purposes.

The Board left behind a “Statement of Understanding between Tabor College and Fresno Pacific College” outlining the implications of regionalization in recruitment and fund-raising. It also suggested that a national Board of Educational Concerns should be established to determine a direction for Mennonite Brethren education in the U.S., to implement a program of “church accreditation” for the colleges, and to conduct a pastoral ministry for students in non-Mennonite Brethren institutions. 21 That board had a short and ineffective life.

This ideal of a shared national educational vision and interinstitutional cooperation has often been expressed in Canada as well, and it is symbolic of one vision of denominational education. It was part of the terms of reference of the Educational Committee of the Canadian Conference in 1961. 22 It was later embodied in the “Inter-Institutional {39} Committee” of the Board of Higher Education. This committee helped to organize annual (or nearly annual) meetings of senior administrators of the Bible schools and colleges to discuss matters of mutual interest. There were several attempts at cooperative projects. There was one joint faculty retreat, two or three attempts to produce joint publicity materials promoting Mennonite Brethren post-secondary education, and there was a consensus about consulting with other schools before doing deputation in their region. But no sustained cooperation resulted. In fact, despite the collegiality of these annual meetings of administrators, they usually concluded with an unfocused and frantic search for an agenda (reason to meet) for the next meeting, and with no action resulting from the meeting just concluded. There was camaraderie without authority.


Mennonite Brethren experience with interdenominational cooperation is mixed. On the one hand, Mennonite Brethren have a reputation among other Mennonites of being reluctant to work in partnerships that they have not initiated or which they cannot control. On the other hand, Mennonite Brethren are active in numerous evangelical agencies and institutions. They give generous support to a multitude of evangelical causes. Mennonite Brethren students attend other Christian colleges in higher numbers than they attend their own; and Mennonite Brethren schools have a high proportion of students from other denominations.

In the United States Mennonite Brethren faced the option of inter-Mennonite cooperation twice. In the early 1930s Tabor College faced financial and academic problems that were so great that the College closed for one year in 1934-35. During that time there were overtures from nearby Bethel College suggesting that the two colleges could combine. This option was rejected. In the 1950s when the U.S. Mennonite Brethren Conference was planning to open its own seminary, H. S. Bender of Goshen Seminary invited Mennonite Brethren to cooperate with other Mennonites in the schools already established in the Goshen-Elkhart (Indiana) area. Mennonite Brethren were not open to that possibility. 23

In Canada, Mennonite Brethren were asked in 1945 by leaders of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada (CMC) if they would be willing to share governance and leadership of MBBC. They said no, and so the CMC established the Canadian Mennonite Bible College (CMBC). 24 Mennonite Brethren were invited to be partners in establishing Conrad Grebel College at the University of Waterloo in the 1960s. They declined. In the late 1970s and early 1980s a study by Frank Epp, {40} sponsored by a group of “Friends of Higher Education,” laid out the rationale and design of an inter-Mennonite college in Winnipeg that would combine MBBC and CMBC. That attempt at cooperation did not succeed. However in the late 1990s a lengthy consultation and negotiation process led to the establishment of the Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) in 2000, combining CMBC, Concord College, and Menno Simons College. In British Columbia, Columbia Bible College has been an example of successful inter-Mennonite cooperation for three decades.

Recent seminary partnerships are indicative of new possibilities in cooperation. In 1999 MBBS joined four other seminaries (two Baptist, one Evangelical Free, and one Alliance) in the Associated Canadian Theological Schools (ACTS) consortium in British Columbia. This partnership was strongly endorsed by leaders of the B.C. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches and was negotiated in less than one year. In Manitoba MBBS is working with Mennonite Brethren conference leaders, with CMU, and with leaders of several Mennonite denominations to establish a broader cooperative base for theological education. Such partnerships require a great deal of give and take on matters of theology, governance, pedagogy, administrative policies, faculty selection, and church relations; they can only be sustained if there is mutual respect and trust.


This brings us to one of the fundamental purposes of denominational schools. Mennonite Brethren have nearly always articulated their rationale for establishing schools in terms of their religious identity—their sense of being a distinct community of faith. Statements in the founding documents of these institutions make this clear. Sometimes this was expressed through concern that Mennonite Brethren students attending other schools were being overly influenced by other theological systems and then bringing these back to their churches. 25 At other times this concern was expressed more in terms of denominational unity. For example, as H. W. Lohrenz put it, “If we do not achieve unity of spirit among our leadership, how will we have unity in our churches? And if this unity is not attained in the formative years of training, how shall it ever be attained?” 26 Even when the B.C. Conference Executive Committee recommended rejection of the national educational plan for Canada in 1989, it identified theological unity as one positive feature of the plan.

Maintaining denominational theological identity and training leaders are the most frequent reasons for establishing and sustaining schools. But these reasons, which were primarily separatist and sectarian for {41} many years, have been undermined by the Mennonite Brethren cultural experience in North America. Mennonite Brethren now drink from many theological streams, and most members and leaders are unlikely to have much concern about the theology of another college or seminary at which their children or their pastor has studied, as long as they are confident that the institution is evangelical. In fact, many Mennonite Brethren are reluctant to even suggest that the Mennonite Brethren denomination has a distinctive theological voice that needs to be preserved and nurtured.

This does not mean that they are unwilling to support denominational schools or that they do not value their graduates. They often support them generously. But while some support them because they value Anabaptist-Mennonite Brethren theology and identity, many support them for more pragmatic reasons: the schools are projects of their church or conference, and the graduates serve their churches effectively.


We return to the questions with which we began. Is the General Conference ministry of theological education likely to find a welcome home in which to “land safely,” or is it likely to find itself disenfranchised and homeless? Will “dissolution and divestiture” lead to more divergence and less cooperation, or could it be the stimulus for new creativity and collaboration?

It is likely that Mennonite Brethren theological education will find a home and “land safely.” It is also probable that the safe landing place will be temporary.

From 1933 to 1954 all of the districts of the General Conference were joint owners of Tabor College. From 1954 to 1979 all of the districts of the U.S. Conference jointly supported Tabor, Fresno Pacific, and MBBS. From 1944 until 1992 the Canadian Conference owned and supported MBBC, even though individual provinces also owned and supported their own Bible Institutes. That is a substantial history of cooperation in theological education. But each of those cooperative ventures ended, and in each case, a preference for more local and regional authority was among the chief reasons.

From 1975 until the present, both Canadian and U.S. Mennonite Brethren have owned and supported MBBS through the General Conference. That shared structure is being replaced by something that does not yet exist. Since its founding in 1955, the Seminary has been based in Fresno. As of 2000 it has added a degree-granting center in B.C. and a growing presence in Winnipeg. Is this an innovative one-seminary {42} system with multiple locations and delivery systems, or is MBBS being transformed into three seminaries, each of which will inevitably develop its own local character and become more independent of the others?

The record suggests that a multi-centered, integrated educational system among Mennonite Brethren will either fail at the outset (the Canadian proposal in the 1980s), or will have a life span of about 25 years (the U.S. experience from 1954-79). That is a huge range of difference; or as pollsters would say, an immense “margin of error.”

If past experience has become an inevitable habit, then several separate Mennonite Brethren seminaries will emerge as soon as each of them is strong enough to stand alone. But in fact, they will not be able to sustain themselves alone, and so while they may divest themselves of their other Mennonite Brethren seminary partners, they will become part of other local interdenominational partnerships.

It may be, however, that Mennonite Brethren will create an integrated theological education system that will be both coordinated and diverse, as other denominations and seminaries have done successfully. The schools and programs will be complementary. Students will have access to the distinctive strengths of each campus and program. Faculty from each campus will serve all parts of the constituency. Resources will flow between regions and across borders. Board members, conference leaders, and local church members from across Canada and the United States will share a common vision to inspire and equip men and women for kingdom mission and ministry, and they will creatively implement that vision locally.

That would be a safe landing.


  1. The story of the founding of Tabor College is told in many places. A popular, commemorative account is Wesley J. Prieb and Don Ratz-laff, To a Higher Plane of Vision: Tabor College—The First Seventy-Five Years (Hillsboro, KS: Tabor College, 1983). For an account relevant to the themes of this essay, see Jack B. Braun, “A Study of the Critical Milestones within the Historical Development of the Tabor College Governing Board Structure and Their Effect on Board Decision Making” (Ph.D. diss., College of Education, Kansas State University, 1983). See also, Frank C. Peters, “The Coming of the Mennonite Brethren to the United States and Their Efforts in Education” (Diss., Central Baptist Seminary, 1957). Pages 126-46 deal particularly with the founding and early years of Tabor College. {43}
  2. Peter G. Klassen, “A History of Mennonite Education in Canada” (Ph.D. diss., University of Toronto, 1970), 266. Also, John George Doerksen, “History of Education of the Mennonite Brethren of Canada” (Master of Arts Thesis, University of Manitoba, 1963), 48.
  3. Doerksen, 66.
  4. Ibid., 78.
  5. Joel A. Wiebe, Remembering . . . Reaching: A Vision for Service (Fresno, CA: Fresno Pacific College, 1994), 26.
  6. Doerksen, 41.
  7. Wiebe, 26-30. Also, Paul Toews, “ ‘A Shelter in the Time of Storm’: The Establishment of Schools in the Pacific District,” in Seventy-Five Years of Fellowship: Pacific District Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1912-1987 (Fresno, CA: Pacific District Conference, 1987), 66. For an account of the educational vision of Fresno Pacific University, see, Paul Toews, ed., Mennonite Idealism and Higher Education: The Story of the Fresno Pacific College Idea (Fresno, CA: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1995).
  8. Doerksen, 140-48.
  9. Peters, 218-27. Also, A. J. Klassen, ed., The Seminary Story: Twenty Years of Education in Ministry, 1955-1975 (Fresno, CA: Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, 1975), 8-9.
  10. Yearbook, 65th Convention. The Canadian Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Churches of North America, 1976, 86-87, 90-91. In the 1976 Yearbook, the name of the school was Quebec Bible Institute. At the next year’s convention the name Institut Biblique Laval was announced. See Yearbook, 66th Convention. The Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches of North America, 1977, 72.
  11. Doerksen, 74.
  12. Ibid., 79.
  13. Ibid., 53.
  14. Meanwhile there had been an attempt to strengthen the college through a subsidy of $3.15 per conference member, but only twenty percent of that was raised. See, Braun, 71-76, and Peters, 134-44.
  15. Doerksen, 94-95.
  16. This story is recorded in news reports in the Mennonite Brethren Herald from 1987 to 1989. For the last stages of this story see Mennonite Brethren Herald, 23 June 1989, 17-19, and 4 August 1989, 8-9.
  17. Minutes of the Annual Convention of the B.C. Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1989, 26-28. {44}
  18. There was also participation by the Ontario and Alberta Conferences after this date, but ownership was clearly with the Manitoba Conference.
  19. See, Mennonite Brethren Herald, 4 April 1997, 7-11, and 2 May 1997, 14.
  20. “Report of the Study Commission,” Board of Education, U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, Fourth Draft, November 1978. Also, Minutes and Reports of the Special Convention on Education of Mennonite Brethren Churches in the United States, Denver, Colorado, February 16-17, 1979, 4-39.
  21. Minutes and Reports of the 13th Convention of Mennonite Brethren Churches of the United States, 1980, 80-92.
  22. The 1961 terms of reference are included in Doerksen, 186-87.
  23. The reference to Bethel is in Peters, 140. The exchange with Bender is in Peters, 223-24.
  24. Canadian Mennonite University Calendar, 2000-2001, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 7.
  25. J. B. Toews, “Mennonite Brethren Higher Education: Reflections and Observations,” in Direction 8:4 (1978): 3-4. Also, Wiebe, 25.
  26. Peters, 133.
James N. Pankratz is Academic Dean of the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California. Previously he was President of Concord College, Winnipeg, Manitoba (1988-97), and Academic Dean of its predecessor institution, Mennonite Brethren Bible College (1978-82). He lives in Fresno and is a member of the College Community Church.

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