The church and its colleges


How does a small denomination support 3 educational institutions

By Richard Kriegbaum

The creation of two colleges and a seminary by U.S. Mennonite Brethren is part of a long and consistent pattern across American higher education: Church groups create institutions of higher education to help the denomination train its leaders and to inculcate their distinctive beliefs and behaviors. The denominations usually also hope their schools will strengthen their stature, identity and credibility in the larger culture. What is unusual is such a tiny denomination creating three institutions with over 4,000 combined total student enrollment. Why? How? Now what?

When I arrived at Fresno Pacific College in the summer of 1984, President Edmund Janzen had begun a process called “broadening the base.” With undergraduate enrollment stuck at about 400 students, the college had accumulated a significant operating deficit and was struggling to attract enough qualified students, faculty, staff, administrators and board members from a MB constituency that was too small to provide even half the people and gift income that was needed, while also supporting Tabor College, located in Hillsboro, Kan., and MB Biblical Seminary, also in Fresno. In order to survive, Fresno Pacific actively recruited students, staff and supporters who were not Mennonite Brethren.  


Growing by broadening the base


In 1984 the Special Events Center, our gymnasium, had just been completed, but a major economic downturn had prevented fulfillment of many pledged gifts and created a large capital debt on top of operating deficits. The Pacific District Conference (PDC) rescued its college with a special giving campaign. Since then, Fresno Pacific has had a 30-year development while maintaining its evangelical and Anabaptist core beliefs, values and relationships, including being controlled by the PDC. It now has 3,500 students from a score of different denominations studying on five campuses, plus 10,000 enrollments a year in professional development courses and online programs. Fresno Pacific is about eight to 12 times bigger than it was in 1984, depending on what you measure.


During the same 30 years, Tabor College grew both in Hillsboro and at its regional campus in Wichita, Kan., with graduate and online programs. Tabor also welcomed more non-MB students, faculty and staff.

The third MB institution of higher education, its seminary, has now grown to 170 students and is launching its first hybrid online master’s degree in ministry which is capable of doubling that enrollment. It too is evangelical, Anabaptist and multi-denominational, with a mostly MB faculty, a minority of MB students and guidance from an intentionally diverse Seminary Committee.

MB schools must compete with dozens of other Christian colleges and seminaries for MB students and MB supporters. During the past three decades, the net growth of USMB has been modest, achieved mostly by adding people without the capacity or the custom of significant financial generosity to education.

New conditions require adaptations. Faith-based organizations, including churches and denominations, that do not change fast enough or that make the wrong changes usually fail in their finances or in their faith and sometimes both.


Schools have outgrown their denomination

Presently, USMB schools have outgrown their conferences and their denomination. Thirty years ago the schools were viewed by many as a restraint on the health of the denomination. Now the denomination often feels like a restraint on the health of its schools. The percentage of operating and capital budgets that comes directly from church or denominational sources has become relatively small, though contributions from MB households are still very significant. Mennonite Brethren cannot provide the faculty and professional staff needed. Even more critically, Mennonite Brethren cannot provide the needed board members. This pattern has occurred in most—but not all—denominations. But the small membership of U.S. Mennonite Brethren and the combined size and needs of our three schools is an extreme case.

We know why and how we got here, but now what? To serve each other well, what should the next steps be for USMB and our schools? What mutual covenant, if any, should bind and guide the various relationships? What does each need or want from the other? Is regionalization officially or de facto ended? What does being Anabaptist mean in practice to USMB churches and their schools?

In an anti-Christian legal, moral and societal context of same-sex marriage, gender dysphoria, polygamy, individualism, greed and polarized politics, what roles does the denomination and its churches need each other to play? Would joining with other similar church bodies help or hinder our service for Christ and his kingdom? Does an independent and separate U.S. Mennonite Brethren denomination still matter in the work of God’s kingdom? And if so, does it still want to control and/or try to support any or all of its three schools? Here we are. We have lots of options. What now?  

Richard Kriegbaum is president of Fresno Pacific University, the Mennonite Brethren university in Fresno, Calif.



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