Where will the next generation of Mennonite leaders come from?

After finishing Donald Kraybill’s fine new history book about Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, I’m left wondering where the next generation of Mennonite church leaders will come from. Kraybill’s centennial book was a fun read for me, but in the midst of his sociological analysis and human-interest stories, it became clear to me that Mennonite leaders in the twenty-first century may not come from Mennonite colleges like they did in the twentieth century.

A question from a returning Goshen (Indiana) College student cut to the heart of the question I had been pondering. On Christmas break from college, we discussed the Mennonite church and his hopes and dreams for the future. I had taught him during all four years of high school, and he finally exclaimed, “Where are the charismatic Mennonite leaders for my generation?”

By charismatic, he meant visionary leaders who can inspire people to join and flow into the Anabaptist-Mennonite theological stream of belief and thought. Kraybill writes about this Goshen freshman’s great-grandfather, minister J. Early Suter, who served on the first faculty at Eastern Mennonite School when the doors opened in 1917. His grandfather was the highly respected Dr. Daniel Suter, also chronicled in the book, who had to make a difficult choice between serving as pastor at Weavers Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg or teaching science at EMC. He chose teaching, and though he was an outstanding science professor, at heart Daniel Suter was a churchman.

As I read Kraybill’s book, it dawned on me that in the coming years, our key Mennonite church leaders may no longer be presidents and administrators in Mennonite colleges.

Kraybill’s book reveals that Mennonite church leaders in the twentieth century were often called into teaching or administrative roles at church colleges. When I attended EMC in the late 1970s, President Myron Augsburger was one of the premier Mennonite Church leaders, and also the academic leader of EMC. I remember his rapid rate of speaking during chapel addresses and his fast-paced gait while walking across campus—Augsburger had both a church and a school to serve, and little time to waste. Augsburger spoke in hundreds of settings across the country and the world during his 15 years of presidency at EMC. My wife and I were EMC students when Augsburger was shown a rope hanging from the ceiling, as Kraybill writes, during his last chapel address as president. In front of a full chapel auditorium, he pulled the rope, which launched a fun prank. We laughed and clapped, relishing our healthy community spirit, and then we sang Augsburger’s favorite hymn. Those were the heady days of the school, as Kraybill writes, when undergraduate enrollment in my freshman year was at 1,100 and required chapels were a valued community event. When I graduated from EMC in 1981, another trusted churchman, Richard Detweiler, was drawn out of church work to lead the college.

Today, as Kraybill writes near the end of his book, presidents and administrators of EMU are hired because of their professional skills and academic credentials. Their involvement in the Mennonite Church, he observes, is a secondary consideration and only tangentially relevant to their position. And so one of my best recent history and Bible graduates from EMHS stood in the library and asked me where the next generation of vibrant and articulate leaders of the Mennonite Church will come from. It’s the right question for the twenty-first century.

As I reflect on the answer, it seems to me that leaders will come from congregations and conferences, which is where they came from before the twentieth century Mennonite college era began.

Kraybill details the way in which EMS had been a “holy experiment” in the early twentieth century, as described by one of its founders. Today that “experiment” has changed and is being acutely tested, as Kraybill details in the last chapter. I studied in the Bible and Religion Department at Eastern Mennonite College as part of my degree program. Since Kraybill finished his book last year, the University has eliminated the philosophy and theology major (although the overall department still exists). That leaves me wondering where our future Mennonite leaders will get their undergraduate theological training in Anabaptist thought. I can quickly list several outstanding Christian universities in the United States, beyond the Mennonite realm, where some of my best EMHS graduates attend.

Nevertheless, I remain guardedly optimistic about the future of Mennonite higher education in terms of its symbiotic relationship to the Mennonite denomination. During days when the EMU Board was large and included representatives from many Conferences in the ‘70s and ‘80s, both my father and my mother-in-law served on the EMU Board of Directors, and I well remember those days of heady optimism for Mennonite higher education. My wife and I and all five of our children are EMU graduates. It was fun to participate in the recent EMU and Eastern Mennonite School Centennial events, celebrated this past fall on the same weekend. While reading Kraybill’s history book I noticed an offer from our local credit union to invest in the lives of children by purchasing savings certificates that mature at age 18. My wife and I bought certificates for our recently born grandchildren, and put them in their Christmas stockings, with the intention to help put a dent in their first semester college costs.

But the question from a Goshen College freshman, one of my outstanding history students, at the library desk I was staffing during semester exams at EMHS, persists: “Where will the next generation of Mennonite leaders come from?”

It is incumbent upon those of us who believe in Mennonite higher education to support our colleges, but also to work in and nurture our local congregations and area conferences, out of which, it seems to me, will come those future Mennonite leaders.