Schmidt remembered by colleagues, friends
By Connie Faber
Henry J. Schmidt, President Emeritus of MB Biblical Seminary (MBBS), is a Mennonite Brethren leader who stood head and shoulders above the rest—both literally and figuratively.
“Henry often said if we can see further than others, it is because we are standing on the shoulder of giants,” says Lynn Jost, current seminary president. “Henry was one of those giants. He was full of life and larger than life.”
Jost and others are among Schmidt’s friends and colleagues who reflected on Schmidt’s ministry and influence in e-mails and online comments posted at usmb.org following Schmidt’s death Feb. 8, 2011, at the age of 70.
“A giant has been in our midst and we may not see another like him in our movement,” says Ron Penner, president of Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, BC, and a former MBBS faculty member.
Schmidt’s longtime friend Melvin Wiens says Schmidt blazed a new trail for pastors and church planters to follow. “Henry was instrumental in fanning the flame of early MB missionary fervor,” says Wiens. “Many now follow in his footsteps.”
Schmidt’s faith had much to do with his character and his accomplishments. Elmer A. Martens, MBBS President Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, recalls Schmidt’s “can do” spirit. “That confidence,” says Martens, “was born out of a strong spiritual connection with his God.”
Schmidt spent 27 years at MBBS, as professor of evangelism and mission from 1976-2003 and as the seminary’s longest-serving president from 1993-2003. He is remembered for innovative courses that included a focus on cross-cultural experiences and service work in local community agencies, a keen intelligence, his pastoral nature and his love for the mission of the seminary.
“He taught with vision, energy, creativity and brilliance,” says Delores Friesen, MBBS professor of pastoral counseling. “He always insisted that learning be connected to real life, to mission, to outreach. His combination of secular and sacred education made him uniquely suited to really live out the vision of empowering men and women to work in the church and the world.”
Schmidt often said that this demanding work could not have been possible without the support of his wife Elvera. Rebekah Basinger, a consultant to the seminary’s fundraising program while Schmidt was president, affirms the role Elvera played.
“A highlight of those consulting years was to be invited when Henry and Elvera would host the MBBS board at their home for the most delicious and beautifully presented meals,” writes Basinger. “Elvera bustling around the kitchen — Henry calling out greetings, jokes, and words of encouragement from his post at the grill — those were precious events. The seminary was so blessed by this magnificent presidential couple and I am blessed to have been included within their circle of ministry for at least a few years.”
David Bruce Rose, seminary associate professor, describes Schmidt as a “pastor to the seminary.” Rose says, “(Schmidt) never walked past staff or faculty without stopping to talk, shake hands and ask how things were going. He listened in an open, non-defensive way as he did this—very much as a pastor making pastoral calls.”
Friesen credits Schmidt with breaking down hierarchy in the classroom and among seminary employees. “(Schmidt) wanted us to all be a team that worked together, valuing…every member no matter whether they were part time or full time, staff or faculty, educated or less educated,” says Friesen.
Many people speak of Schmidt’s commitment to mentoring others. Chuck Todd, currently chair of the Central District Conference, recalls Schmidt’s influence on his life when Schmidt pastured the Mennonite Brethren church in Onida, SD, when Todd was a teenager. “I was in junior high and high school and very impressionable, and Henry became a excellent mentor to me,” says Todd.
“I spent hours shoveling grain, pounding nails, playing softball and skating with Henry, and he spent a few hours riding on my windrower to convince me that I should be baptized now,” says Todd. “I don't remember a single sermon that Henry preached in my church but I do remember that Henry showed me that work, fun and all of life is ministry.”
Trevor Stearns, currently senior pastor of Discovery Church of Ridge Meadows in Maple Ridge, BC, attended MBBS Fresno from 2000-03 and was in a mentoring relationship with Schmidt for almost 13 years. “Henry always seemed to know when to call and his example to me and my family is an ever lasting legacy,” says Stearns, whose family had a unique relationship with the Schmidts because Barb Stearn was Schmidt’s executive assistant for the final two years of his presidency. “It was a great privilege during that time to be present at his special party that celebrated his role at the seminary,” says Stearn. “That was an event I will personally never forget.”
J Edward Epp, currently senior pastor at Henderson (Neb) MB Church, recalls Schmidt’s ongoing interest in MBBS graduates. “Henry called me eight years after I left seminary to see how I was doing as a pastor,” Epp says. “He let me know that I could always call him.”
Many recall Schmidt’s commitment to living life with everything he had. “He played water polo, hockey, and volleyball in the only style and speed he knew—which made volleyball a contact sport,” says Lynn Jost.
“If you went to seminary at MBBS, you will likely have that image in your mind of Henry flying out of the parking lot on his motorcycle with his mane of white hair flowing behind him,” says Don Morris, MBBS graduate and currently director of Mission USA, the USMB church planting and renewal ministry. “That's the way he lived life, to the fullest.”
Ed Boschman, U.S. Conference exectuve director, says, “In service to his Lord and the church, Henry gave it all he had.”
Schmidt was born into a farming family on July 2, 1940, in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada. He graduated with a Bachelor of Theology from MB Bible College in Winnipeg, Man., a second bachelor's degree in psychology from Fresno Pacific College, and a Master of Divinity from MB Biblical Seminary (MBBS) in Fresno, California. In 1981, Schmidt earned a doctorate from the Religion and Social Ethics Department of the University of Southern California.
In addition to serving at MBBS, Schmidt served the U.S. Mennonite Brethren Church as pastor, conference evangelist and moderator and leader of the Church Mission Institute for cross-cultural missionaries. His life was marked by a love of family and friends, a witty sense of humor, enthusiasm for life and a deep commitment to Christian service.
“Our father taught us many things, but three in particular: be of service, maximize your opportunities and have fun,” write his children in the life sketch included in the memorial service folder. “This frequently led to Dad bringing home friends, international visitors, students (and the occasional hitchhiker) for dinner or overnight stays. He modeled the principle that church and community service projects are an essential part of life. The care and generosity he shared with people of so many different life experiences was a great model of the Christ-like life.”
Schmidt is survived by his wife, Elvera; two daughters, Debra Brady and husband Martin of Sacramento, Calif., Laura Roberts and husband Mark of Fresno; James Lee and wife, Gaylene, who became like a son; one sister and one brother and their spouses, two brothers-in-law and five grandchildren.
His memorial service was held Feb. 16 at Reedley (Calif.) MB Church and was attended by family, friends and colleagues from far and wide. Dan Unrau, pastor of Fraserview MB Church, Richmond, BC, and Ron Toews, currently Leadership Development director for the British Columbia MB Conference and former MBBS faculty member, led the service. Toews preached on Joshua 24:15 and Unrau, Harold Penner and Tim Geddert reflected on Schmidt’s life. A choir directed by Bob Plett sang and Dennis Fast, Reedley MB Church pastor, gave the closing prayer.