MBBS transfers U.S. seminary program to FPU


Transfer to be completed by June 1

By Connie Faber

Read letter about this transfer written by D. Merrill Ewert, president of Fresno Pacific University, and published in the CL. 

After an almost 15-month search for a ministry partner, MB Biblical Seminary (MBBS) is in the process of transferring the seminary’s Fresno programs to Fresno Pacific University (FPU). FPU is the Mennonite Brethren university owned by the Pacific District Conference and located in Fresno,Calif., on a campus adjacent to MBBS-Fresno. Approved by the seminary and university boards and announced Feb. 5, the transfer is to be completed by June1.

“We really believe we are better together,” says FPU President D. Merrill Ewert, adding that the ministry of both institutions will be empowered by the integration. “In some ways we're going back to the future. The seminary and university have always shared a mission of academic excellence and service to the church. We operated a national pastoral training program under one corporate structure from 1955 to 1966, and just as there were advantages to separation then, there are advantages to unification now,” he says.

Both the U.S. Conference Leadership Board and the Canadian Conference Executive Board approved the transfer during late January board meetings.

“The ministry, the core reason for being, is alive and well in the lives of our national leadership team and staff,” says Ed Boschman, U.S. Conference (USC) executive director. “We’re enthusiastic about the next chapter and working together with key stakeholders.”

Distance graduate theological education—including online classes and teleconferences—will expand into a major outreach. Seminary classes will be offered at FPU centers in North Fresno, Visalia and Bakersfield, in addition to the main campus.

“We are doing a good job of serving the MB churches within 50 miles of MBBS, where about 25 percent of our students come from,” says Lynn Jost, MBBS president. “We are having increasing difficulty serving Midwest and Canadian students in Fresno. These students prefer programs closer to them or online.

“Until now MBBS has lacked the infrastructure to mount an aggressive distance education program,”says Jost. “FPU will help us with that.”

The general consensus of those involved is that this new approach, with its emphasis on distance learning, will better carry out the mission of preparing leaders for North American MB churches, the MB church worldwide and the evangelical community in California’s Central Valley. To better reflect this intention, MBBS-Fresno expects to eventually adopt a new name.

Ten current MBBS faculty and staff members, including Jost who will continue to oversee the seminary’s work as part of the FPU administration, will move with the seminary to FPU. Jost says the presence of these individuals will help the seminary retain a “distinct identity within FPU.”

Jost says, “This program transfer will continue MBBS’s tradition of biblical theology with an evangelical Anabaptist perspective. I am pleased weare creating a very strong program that will serve both new and historical constituencies across the U.S.”

The university is forming an Advisory Council to promote the mission of the seminary. Former MBBS President Larry Martens will chair the council. Talks with the Association of Theological Schools are underway to ensure that the seminary’s programs remain accredited and that students will be able to complete their degrees.

FPU has purchased the seminary’s four-acre residential seminary campus at the corner of Butler and Chestnut, and it will become part of the neighboring 42-acre FPU main campus. Financial assets of the Fresno campus will be divided between the U.S. and Canada. The U.S.-based endowment assets of $2.4 million will support faculty chairs and student scholarships.

“FPU is committed to serving the MB church with the seminary’s endowments and the Fresno campus,” says Jost.
The program transfer reduces the cost of running a graduate theological institution, says Jost. “We are reducing costs by maximizing administration structures already in place at FPU and bringing over a strong reserve and endowment to apply to our mission.”

The “most painful part” of the transfer, says Jost, is that eight MBBS-Fresno staff positions in accounting, student aid, recruiting and maintenance have been eliminated. “This is a pastoral concern for the board,”says Jost. “All these people have served us well, with character and dedication—three have served the seminary for 15 years or more. When they heard the news, they were extremely gracious.”

Change has marked the development of MBBS over the past 55 years, as illustrated on the timeline below.  Declining enrollment and changes in the national landscape prompted this current transition. The Association of Theological Schools, of which MBBS is a member, reports that the average member school spends 60 to 70 percent of its budget on institutional support and only 30 to 40 percent on educational programs. Jost says these statistics fit MBBS.

This model is not sustainable, and “seminaries are going to have to rethink their economic model and focus on strategies that have greater sustainability,” Daniel Aleshire, ATS executive director, says in a February article in Christian Century. One solution, says ATS, is for small, denominational seminaries to join with universities and regional giants.

During 2009, MBBS actively pursued a partnership with Fuller Theological Seminary (FTS), an evangelical, multidenominational seminary located in Pasadena, Calif. When this possibility did not materialize, MBBS formed two task forces late last year—one to focus on Canadian concerns and the other on new U.S. partnerships.

The U.S. task force resumed earlier conversations with FPU and Tabor College, the denominational school owned by the Southern, Central, North Carolina and Latin America District Conferences and located in Hillsboro, Kan. These discussions led the seminary to conclude that FPU was the “logical and practical choice for more efficient administration and shared distance education technology,” says Jost.

While FPU had previously been hesitant to accept the seminary program,“they knew the denomination needed this, and they’re keen to serve the national MB church,” says Jost.

MBBS board chair Jack Falk says MB students in both the U.S. and Canada will benefit from this new U.S. arrangement. “Moving the Fresno campus of our seminary to (FPU) will go along way in protecting our mission and will add a significant dimension to the region. I look forward to future collaboration between FPU, Canada and the Midwest U.S. in the delivery of distance education,” says Falk.

While the details of exactly how this North American collaboration will play out are unclear, those involved say they are committed to working together. Initially, cooperating across national lines will be aided by the ongoing presence of MBBS, Inc., the corporate structure of the seminary.

For the time being, MBBS, Inc. will have representation on the FPU Board of Trustees and will continue to coordinate the Canadian programs. It will be “business as usual” on the Abbotsford, B.C., and Winnipeg, Man., seminary campuses, although MBBS-Canada will continue to look at delivery and program needs as well as issues growing out of the change in Fresno.

Cooperation among U.S. partners to provide a national seminary program is a priority. “We are committed to using the MBBS assets for the U.S. Mennonite Brethren church,” says Jost. “The USC Leadership Board, the MBBS Board and the FPU Board have all committed to work with other institutions, especially with Tabor College, to deliver a single program to U.S. MB churches.”

Steve Schroeder, chair of the USMB Conference Leadership Board, is enthusiastic about this new approach. “I am delighted the seminary is joining forces with FPU and open to working closely with Tabor College to develop a national pastoral training program,” he says. “I fully anticipate that this kind of partnership will better serve the entire U.S. MB family of churches.”

Boschman agrees, adding that flexibility and collaboration is important.“My dream is that we will work from the Fresno-based campus…and strategically partner with Tabor College to deliver the renovated pastoral training that we anticipate,” he says. Boschman describes a decentralized, hybrid approach that provides both formal and informal training, one that “effectively hooks to our national vision of transformation.”

MBBS Timeline

For 55 years, MB Biblical Seminary has served Mennonite Brethren from Canada, the United States and around the world. It offers training in pastoral leadership, preaching, Bible, missions and church planting and a degree in marriage, family and child counseling. In the last decade, MBBS has offered classes in three locations—on the main campus in Fresno, Calif.,and in Abbotsford, BC and Winnipeg, Man.

The shift among Mennonite Brethren churches in the 1930sand 40s from unpaid lay ministers to professional clergy precipitated the need for denominational pastoral training. In the words of former MBBS President J.B. Toews, “the seminary was born… because of the vision of the church for trained leadership that could lead wisely, theologically, and above all, biblically in a society that was rushing madly after the gods of learning and mammon.”

In February 2010, MBBS announced that the Fresno campus—along with its assets and programs—would be transferred back to Fresno Pacific University. The following timeline of significant events in MBBS history celebrates more than half a century of theological training.

1955 – U.S. Board of Education establishes a U.S. Conference seminary in Fresno, Calif. MBBS opens in September with six faculty members,merging staff from Tabor College and Pacific Bible Institute (PBI). B. J. Braun serves as the first president, and the curriculum has a theologically dispensational bent.

1958 – A 53-acre cotton field at the corner of Butler and Chestnut avenues is gifted to the seminary and PBI (now Fresno Pacific University) to build their campuses. A vintage 1916 mansion on the site becomes the seminary’s administrative offices.

1960s – Under the leadership of J.B. Toews, MBBS establishes itself as an Anabaptist learning center, emphasizing biblical theology and practical congregational ministry.

1966 – MBBS gains its own charter, separating corporately from FPU.

1975 – During H. H. Dick’s tenure as president, the Canadian MB Conference becomes a partner and joint owner of the seminary, as the larger North American General Conference assumes responsibility for MBBS. By this time, the seminary boasts of international reach, with several students coming from India and Europe.

1980 – A library addition is completed. John E. Toews, the seminary’s longest-serving dean, urges faculty to publish.

1982 – A classroom addition is completed.

1985 – The Center for Training in Mission and Evangelism is established, training a strong North American missionary force.

1990 – The MB student loan fund begins.

1999 – MBBS-BC becomes part of the Associated Canadian Theological Schools (ACTS) consortium located at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., under President Henry Schmidt’s leadership.

1999 – Divestiture of the North American General Conference takes place. Canadian and U.S. Conferences assume joint ownership of MBBS.

2001 – MBBS-Winnipeg begins cooperation with Canadian Mennonite University and the Winnipeg Centre for Ministry Studies.

2009 – MBBS-Fresno explores partnership opportunities with several higher education institutions.

2010 – Under the leadership of President Lynn Jost, MBBS-Fresno separates organizationally from MBBS-BC and MBBS-Winnipeg and is transferred back to Fresno Pacific University. Along with classes offered on the FPU campus, plans are made to expand distance education, including online classes and teleconferences. The three MB seminary sites discuss how to continue working fraternally together.


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