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Fall 2009 · Vol. 38 No. 2 · pp. 223–232 

Leading from the Front: A Tribute to the Contribution of John E. Toews to Mennonite Higher Education

James Pankratz

John E. Toews was a leader in the colleges, university, and seminary that he served from 1961–2002. 1 His leadership roles, positions, and priorities differed markedly in each institution. Early in his career he was a key member of the working group at Fresno Pacific College that provided much of the impetus and substance for the “Fresno Pacific Idea.” Later he notably shaped the mission, faculty, program, and academic stature of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary as its academic dean. While president of Conrad Grebel University College he led a significant financial and administrative renewal that provided stability and re-established confidence for future momentum. This essay identifies some of the major accomplishments and patterns of leadership of this remarkable leader and colleague.

. . . he would ask a question or offer a thought, then lace his fingers back behind his head, and tip backwards on his chair. He would talk a little but mostly listen. Often he would laugh.


While John was on the faculty of Pacific College (now Fresno Pacific University) from 1961–68, one of the key challenges was defining the college’s role as an Anabaptist center of learning, and ensuring that Anabaptist beliefs and practices were taught, encouraged, and incorporated into the life of the institution. 2

The “Pacific College Idea,” a remarkable integrated series of concepts that in various iterations has guided the university for forty years, had its origins in a long-range master planning process established by the College in February 1966. John served on the executive of the planning committee with College president Arthur Wiebe and faculty member Dalton Reimer, and he and Dalton also comprised the sub-committee that addressed philosophy and objectives. This was John’s first involvement in long-term strategic planning. It meant reading a whole new body of literature on planning, attending conferences and board meetings, leading a planning process, and connecting with other Mennonite educators and leaders. He spent the rest of his career strengthening and employing the knowledge, skills, contacts, and wisdom that originated in this project.

John drafted the original “Idea” document while at a conference with Arthur in 1966. After conversations with Arthur and Dalton and further editing, the proposal was considered by the Master Planning Committee at the end of August and by a faculty workshop in early September. In the energetic discussions during the following weeks, there were diverse and divergent perspectives. His colleagues from that era commend John for the initiative he took in drafting various iterations of the “Idea,” and for incorporating insights from those discussions into the proposal that was finally approved.

The “Idea” became the foundation for further strategic planning. It described how Pacific was a distinctively Christian college, a community of learners with a prophetic mandate. It identified Pacific with other colleges and also distinguished it from them. The “Idea” has been durable and resilient. Generations of faculty, administrators, and board have affirmed and rearticulated the “Idea” to guide the College and University amid new challenges and opportunities.

There is one other notable contribution to the College that John’s colleagues recall. Pacific wanted to raise academic standards to a new level of respectability as it moved from the culture of a Bible institute to a junior college and then to a fully accredited senior college. At the same time, the College wanted Biblical Studies to be a flagship department. John provided leadership for the Biblical Studies division during his time. With the goal of increasing the rigor of biblical studies to match the rigor of other disciplines, John helped establish standards and set precedents that future generations of biblical scholars at Fresno Pacific maintained and built on.


John came to Conrad Grebel College while the College was in its earliest years, offering classes first in 1963, at the University of Waterloo, which was also very young, founded in 1957. There was no ready model of Mennonite education for the College to follow, given its distinctiveness as situated within and affiliated with a large public university. It provided a small residential community and offered selected courses in a limited number of liberal arts disciplines, and students received their degrees from the University of Waterloo.

In response to the seeming irrelevance of current statements on Mennonite higher education for Grebel’s particular situation, especially the 1971 publication of the Mennonite Church titled Mennonite Education—Why and How?, the College president, Winfield Fretz, asked John to write a paper for a faculty colloquium on the subject. That colloquium in spring 1971 was followed by faculty-board discussions and three consultations on education in 1971–72.

The paper and the discussions that followed focused on four main issues: first, the unique mission and identity of Grebel as a cluster college, a small educational community located on a large public university campus; second, the epistemological challenges in an intellectual environment that prioritized the scientific method, and in a culture concerned with personal meaning rather than truth; third, working out the implications of the “Anabaptist vision” for educational philosophy and pedagogy, the nature of the College community, and the character and structure of institutional governance; fourth, the relationship of the College to the church, specifically the Mennonite churches who had founded the College.

John proposed that the mission of such a college was 1) to help students understand the Anabaptist vision in the modern world at a public university; 2) to prepare students for the work of the church in the modern world of urbanism, secularism, and technology; 3) to transcend the ethnocentrism of Mennonites by serving non-Mennonite young people in the same way it served Mennonite young people; 4) to engage in dialogue with the disciplines of the university on the assumption that the confession “Jesus is Lord” was relevant to the world of ideas; 5) to be an educational pioneer, and to serve as an experimental counter-culture by building alternative higher education models.

There were two key theological ideas in John’s proposals that shaped not only Conrad Grebel College but also John’s future leadership at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (MBBS). John suggested that the “integrative identity” of the College should be defined theologically by the concepts of the “Kingdom of God” and “People of God.”


While at Grebel John had been thinking through a vision for Mennonite Brethren (MB) education, and in February 1972 he discussed his ideas with Marvin Hein, chairman of the U.S. MB Board of Higher Education. Marvin asked John for a paper that he could share with the Board. John sent him a paper two weeks later.

John identified three major problems in MB education and proposed a response to each one. First, the schools were not focusing attention on Anabaptist-MB identity. He recommended invigorated biblical and theological scholarship infused with a passion to recover the Anabaptist vision. Second, the schools were not consciously discerning and nurturing church leadership. He urged the schools to see the congregations of the MB constituency as their primary focus. Third, the schools were abetting the generational divide by saying different things to young adults than they said to their parents and to church leaders. A potential solution was to establish short seminars or courses through which the schools could become “learning centers” to renew the church.

The president and dean of Tabor College invited him to join their faculty to test and advocate these ideas. When he arrived he was appointed to the Institutional Research Committee. Tabor was preparing for its periodic re-accreditation, and this committee was at the center of this process. By late November John had produced another one of his “think pieces,” a three-page statement of institutional objectives. After vigorous discussion in the committee, John revised the paper, now titled “The Tabor College Vision.” There were more energetic debates and more revisions. By mid-March, after further discussions by the faculty and Board, the paper was treated as the statement of institutional objectives, even though it was not formally approved as such.

That “Tabor College Vision” was never fully realized. The paper assumed a constituency that valued its Anabaptist-MB heritage and identity, that wished to embody and strengthen that identity in its interactions with the dominant contemporary culture, and that expected its schools to nurture and promote that identity. John recognized that this was, as he called it, the “Achilles heel” of the proposal.


John left Tabor College for the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in 1977 with a strong sense that if he was to be successful in addressing his core concerns and convictions about the MB church and its educational institutions, he should be in an institution that directly shaped the future pastoral leaders of the denomination. He recognized that his convictions and proposals could only thrive in an institution in which its leaders supported the vision he was advocating.

John joined MBBS as a faculty member two years after the Seminary had become the theological school of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches in Canada and the United States. The Seminary was entering a period of growing student enrolment and was adding faculty. The Seminary had already shifted substantially from older theological paradigms that had been greatly shaped by dispensational fundamentalism.

Two years later, in fall 1979, as the newly elected Dean of Academic Affairs, one of John’s primary responsibilities was to lead the self-study process for the “Application for Reaffirmation of Accreditation” to the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Ten years later he led the same process again at MBBS. He used these institutional reviews as singular opportunities to clarify institutional identity and direction, to maximize participation and consensus building among faculty and administrators, and to foster a culture of rigorous analysis.

John utilized his experience in institutional planning from Pacific, Conrad Grebel, and Tabor colleges. He was now in a position to guide the seminary in the theological reflection that should be the foundation for its mission, identity, and program. His colleagues and many future generations of students know how important the 1991 process was in this respect, especially the summer 1990 faculty retreat. Out of that retreat and the larger review and planning process came an explicit “Reign of God” theological focus for the Seminary identity and curriculum. That theological focus was a reformulation of the “Kingdom of God” and “People of God” theology he had articulated at Conrad Grebel and that he had already introduced at MBBS in the self-study process ten years earlier.

That theological focus continued to guide and animate the seminary’s mission and programs after John and most of the key faculty from that earlier era had left MBBS. During the 2001 re-accreditation process, that theological concept was rearticulated as the “mission of God,” a cognate concept. 3 The Seminary statements of mission and identity have regularly been updated over the past three decades, but the core theological concepts on which they are based and which they intentionally reflect in their language, have remained remarkably constant. Furthermore, the institutional culture of the Seminary assumes that educational objectives and program design arise out of theological identity and purpose. It would be unthinkable to simply tinker with program design or pedagogy without reference to a guiding theological framework. This is one of John’s enduring legacies.

John, and the presidents with whom he worked, presided over a dramatic transition of the faculty within a relatively short period of time. Eight of the thirteen faculty who participated in the 1991 institutional review had not been members of faculty in 1981. John placed great importance on faculty with academic and churchly credibility. He did not simply advertise available faculty positions; he recruited and nurtured faculty. He added women to the faculty at a time when this was a contentious issue, and he strongly supported them. Many faculty have commented on his regular visits to their offices and his keen interest in their academic work and in their opinions about issues facing MBBS.

John understood the importance of active dialogue between the Dean and the President. He knew how to protect presidents from some criticisms and also how to ensure that they were not so protected that they would not hear the criticisms or opposing voices that could help them in their leadership. He was a crucial leader in three leadership transitions at the Seminary: the planned transition from Elmer Martens to Larry Martens, the sudden transition from Larry Martens to John’s interim presidency, and the sometimes uncertain transition from his interim presidency to the presidency of Henry Schmidt. Those who were on faculty at the time praise the competence with which he managed these changes, the confidence in the future of the Seminary that he helped them to sustain, and his admirable willingness to do whatever needed to be done to strengthen MBBS in each of those transitions. When this meant fundraising in 1992–93, he put in place a systematic and effective fundraising program that required his relentless attention, and he was successful.

Throughout his years of leadership at MBBS John stimulated ongoing discussions about theological and cultural trends that were shaping the MB denomination and the future of the Seminary. He had deep concerns about denominational responses to cultural trends in the 1980s and 90s. John was determined to help the Seminary and the denomination think about these matters clearly. He had a high view of the potential and responsibility of MBBS in theological leadership within the MB constituency. He led the faculty and the Seminary in addressing many issues, three of which stand out in most people’s minds. John had a central role in shaping the denominational debate about the leadership role of women in the church and in the publication of Your Daughters Shall Prophesy. He had a similar role in the publication of The Power of the Lamb, a theological and pastoral exploration of non-violence and its implications for the church. Finally, he and some of his colleagues challenged the “church growth” ideology that was dominant among MB denominational leaders. When he and the Seminary engaged in vigorous advocacy on these issues, they were affirming that MBBS was inextricably involved in the dominant issues of the MB constituency, and that the Seminary could help the denomination by engaging in rigorous biblical and theological scholarship and public debate.


When John returned to Conrad Grebel as president in 1996, the College was in turmoil as a result of the departure of the previous president, Rod Sawatsky, on short notice to become president of Messiah College, and especially the drastic reduction in educational funding from the Government of Ontario. John had joined most other institutions when the dominant issues were theological identity, mission, program development and faculty development—his passions and strengths. The presidency of Conrad Grebel in the mid-1990s seemed to require primarily the management of further faculty, staff, and budget reductions, and the mediation of internal suspicions and grievances. Furthermore, a nervous constituency needed to be convinced that this college, which had not seemed very interested in them in recent years, was genuinely interested in a long term mutually beneficial relationship. John accepted the challenge. His move to Grebel was delayed for some time because of Arlene’s health, but they moved to Waterloo and to Grebel, arriving on a cold winter day.

John immediately took some quick early actions to further reduce staff and expenditures. In his typical way, he acknowledged the College’s situation openly, directly, and honestly. He consulted widely internally and externally. He expressed confidence in the long range future of the College, initiated a plan to move forward, and soon demonstrated that he was not easily sidetracked from the main issues. He also identified some key issues that would have immense symbolic value and would build morale and confidence. One of these issues was faculty and staff salaries. With his leadership, staff and faculty salaries were increased to parity with the University of Waterloo, resulting in both substantial salary increases and greater security for faculty and many staff.

He also dealt with the organizational and structural problems that had allowed the College to slide into its financial difficulties. The authority and responsibilities of the faculty, administration, and board were clarified to provide an appropriate balance of initiative and accountability. Once this was accomplished it was much easier to recruit strong board members. Some of the leading board members that he recruited report that they joined the board because they believed that they could make a difference in Grebel’s future within the new culture that John created.

During John’s seven-year presidency the financial situation of the College changed dramatically. This was partly the impact of the cost reductions at the College and also the result of increases in public funding to universities. But the most dramatic change came through the voluntary gifts of College supporters. Annual fundraising for operating costs, scholarships, endowments, and capital projects increased by between 300 and 400 percent under his leadership. New donors were drawn into College support through John, and they continue to be strong advocates and supporters of the College. By the time John’s presidency ended the operating deficit had been eliminated, there was a robust scholarship and bursary program, endowments for faculty positions and special projects were established, and a new building project involving residential and academic facilities was being completed. The beautiful atrium that links the academic and residential buildings on campus is named in his honor. John had insisted, when he accepted the presidency, that there would be no building projects during his tenure. His friends at Grebel are grateful that on this issue John did not keep his word.

John also strengthened the relationship between the College and its Mennonite constituency. He did this by building close relationships with denominational leaders, by visiting churches and denominational events, and by encouraging his faculty to engage in the issues of their congregations and of the Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC). He was a strong supporter of the College’s Master of Theological Studies program as well as the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre at the Toronto School of Theology. These programs are the major resource for graduate theological education for Mennonite pastors and lay people in southern Ontario, and for students moving to further doctoral studies.

As he was strengthening the relationship between the College and its local Mennonite constituency, John engaged larger trends and possibilities. When the new Mennonite Church Canada organization developed in the late 1990s John began to strongly argue that the new structure required a new relationship between the denomination and its schools. Whereas Conrad Grebel was generally understood as the regional school of MCEC and Columbia Bible College as the regional school of the Mennonite Church British Columbia (in partnership with Mennonite Brethren), Canadian Mennonite Bible College (later Canadian Mennonite University) was regarded as the national school of the Mennonite Church Canada. John argued that all these schools should now be regarded as equally regional and national, and that an appropriate governance and funding formula should be designed to reflect this. In recent years variations of John’s proposals have been promoted by national Mennonite Church leaders, and affirmed by these post-secondary institutions.


This review of John’s leadership roles and accomplishments has occasionally alluded to what is often referred to as leadership “style.” What follows is a summary of how his former colleagues assess him as a person and leader.

They regard John as a man of his word. As one of his colleagues put it, “What John said he would do, he did.” Others noted his reputation for telling the truth and expecting others to do the same. The first step to institutional vitality was an honest recognition of reality.

This relates closely to his confidence in the potential of open dialogue and debate. He tried to ensure that ideas that were being talked about in small groups in corridors or behind closed doors became part of the formal conversation of the whole group. He had no respect and patience for those who spoke one way in private and then took a different position in public, or for those who deliberately held their opinions close and then used them like trump cards to undermine an emerging consensus.

John was oriented to solving problems, not letting problems fester. A former board member said that he learned from John the importance of “walking toward the conflict,” not away from it. A faculty colleague said that John’s approach was consistent with the biblical advice about dealing directly with a brother or sister who has something against you. “John,” said this colleague, “made a point of heading straight at whatever unhappiness or conflict he thought might exist or be brewing, and ‘went for lunch’.”

John developed a reputation as a clear and analytical thinker and strategist. He understood the relationship between the big picture and the details. He knew when data could help to illuminate the principal issues and when data were an evasion. He usually had a clear vision and sense of direction as well as a keen sense of the strategies that could be most helpful to achieve his overall objectives. He asked probing questions to address the “big picture” or rethink assumptions. He was not bound to conventional approaches either in academic research or in administrative matters.

His preparation and research are legendary. Faculty who were his colleagues at MBBS during the 1990–91 self-study process often talked about the “Binder” of notes, data, articles, proposals, and reports that provided the working materials for the summer 1990 planning retreat. People knew that John’s proposals came well prepared and that he expected the same of other people.

He also prepared carefully by testing ideas with others. John was known for doing the rounds, visiting people in their offices, talking to them about ideas, getting their input, trying to understand what their objections or concerns might be about upcoming initiatives. He often commented, “I want no surprises.” When an issue came to a committee or board he wanted to “have his ducks in a row.” It was not that he wanted no disagreement or discussion. He wanted to know what issues needed to be addressed so that he and others could be prepared to deal with them. Some of his co-workers recall that John also shared information with them and thus helped them to prepare for what lay ahead so that they did not face unpleasant surprises.

John combined a formal leadership demeanor with the informal collegiality that built deep friendships with many of his colleagues. He dressed and carried himself formally. He could be decisive and commanding. Yet, when he visited colleagues in their offices, dressed in his white shirt, institutional tie, and blue or black suit, he would ask a question or offer a thought, then lace his fingers back behind his head, and tip backwards on his chair. He would talk a little but mostly listen. Often he would laugh. Many colleagues mentioned John’s laugh. It was uproarious and infectious. It brought joy and humor to people near him and those down the hall.


John led in many ways, not always from the top. He often accepted the responsibility to draft and redraft proposals on behalf of working groups. He sometimes took initiative testing ideas. He chaired committees and projects. He had senior leadership positions in schools, church, and conference. His responsibility and authority differed in each role. But John understood that all of these roles involved “leading from the front”—moving ahead, showing the way. He also understood that the support and contribution of others was essential to success. His most lasting contributions at Fresno Pacific University, MBBS, and Conrad Grebel University College were to help strengthen those institutions in ways that were essential at that time. It is a great tribute to John that those key contributions are now so embedded in the identity and culture of those schools that they are being sustained and further developed by others who never had the privilege of working with him.


  1. This essay is based on the public record, the recollections and assessments of some of John’s colleagues, and information provided by John. I am grateful to John and his colleagues for their generous assistance.
  2. John’s former colleagues, Arthur Wiebe, Dalton Reimer, Peter Klassen and John Redekop acknowledge the important contributions that John made in meeting this challenge.
  3. For those interested in the development of these core foundational ideas, see “Appendix VIII” in the 1981 MBBS self-study report, “Appendix I” in the 1991 report, and “Appendix 4” in the 2001 report.
James Pankratz has been Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Conrad Grebel University College (Waterloo, Ontario) since 2006. From the years 1998–2005 he served as academic dean at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary. Prior to that, he spent twenty years at Concord College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, four of these as academic dean and nine as president.

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