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Church and Church School: Committed partners or a company of strangers?

   
 


Kevin Peters Unrau spoke about his personal journey through Mennonite education at the Mennonite Church Canada assembly in Charlotte this past July. “If it were not for our Mennonite Schools I would not be here today,” he quipped in his opening remark. His address to delegates can be found at www.mennonitechurch.ca/events/charlotte/

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Sept 14, 2005
-by Dan Dyck

Winnipeg, Man. — Kevin Peters Unrau half-jokingly says he wouldn’t be around today if it were not for Mennonite schools.

Unrau is referring to the fact that his parents met at Rosthern Junior College. The soft spoken, articulate teacher and pastor (he maintains two half-time positions) planned to study engineering, but was diverted to Canadian Mennonite Bible College (now Canadian Mennonite University) when representatives from the school visited his church to address prospective theology and music students – on the evening that the bombing of Iraq began in the first Gulf War.

As the leaders of the event altered the evening to accommodate the news, Unrau began wondering what God was calling him to be. Soon he found himself enrolling at CMBC instead of engineering school, stretching an original plan to study there only one year into a longer term of graduate theology studies.

Subsequent summer camp work, Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies at Conrad Grebel University College, a term teaching in Egypt, and then seminary studies have all shaped Unrau’s spiritual life – and illustrate the value of Mennonite education. Unrau now teaches at Rockway Mennonite Collegiate and pastors at Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario.

It is estimated that the average Canadian Mennonite church has only eight people with one year or more of Bible College education, and only three of those are Bible College graduates.

While Unrau’s story is cause for celebration, the statistics cause concern for Dave Bergen, executive secretary of Mennonite Church Canada’s Christian Formation ministry.

Part of Bergen’s job is to bring together all the Mennonite Church Canada learning institutions from kindergarten on up to begin exploring what a more formally organized Mennonite education network might look like, and how it might function. As a starting point, Bergen is creating the Canadian Mennonite Education Leader’s Gathering (November 18-20, 2005) on the Canadian Mennonite University campus in Winnipeg. Mennonite education leaders, area conference representatives, and stakeholders from across the country will gather to look toward a stronger future of Christian education in the Mennonite tradition under the theme “Church and Church School: Committed partners or a company of strangers?”

Leaders will begin with the basics, says Bergen, by building a common understanding of the unique and important ministry of Mennonite church schools, and the contribution of Anabaptist beliefs and values to the wider world. The sharing forum will also explore how the ministry of Mennonite church schools strengthens the witness of the church in the world., Ultimately, Bergen says, it’s about creating a space where the church and its schools can meet to explore shared vision and goals.

“I’m encouraged by the strong interest and support being shown for this event. I look forward to a productive time of strengthening relationships and exploring a shared vision for our church schools that reflects their strategic role as partners in shaping and enacting the mission of the church,” said Bergen.


Sidebar: Q&A

A conversation about Christian Mennonite education with Dave Bergen, executive secretary of Mennonite Church Canada’s Christian Formation ministry.

What makes Mennonite education unique?

Frequently we are told by Christians from other denominations, and by people from beyond the Christian tradition, that we Mennonites bring a unique gift to the rest of the church and the world. Our strong emphasis on nurturing disciples of Jesus Christ to live the gospel message of peace in the world is welcomed and needed.

I believe it is time to become much more intentional about nurturing the church-school-home equation. Like families, our church schools offer a unique context to form the character and moral values of students from within and beyond the Mennonite church. For some time there have been numbers of students attending our institutions from outside Mennonite Church circles. We need to strengthen our view of church schools as an outreach and ministry in themselves.

What should the church be concerned about enrollment in church schools?

In my experience as a pastor for 17 ½ years, I’ve observed that some in the church view Mennonite church schools as a costly appendage, as organizations that compete for much needed funds. They reason that since Canadians have a strong public education system, we should let public the system do its job and rather invest our energy and resources in other ‘real’ work of the church. Ironically, some of these people at the same time express deep appreciation for the inspired, visionary leadership given to the church and society by graduates of our church schools. Christians across the Mennonite church should be concerned when support for schools decreases. This is an early indicator that the very identity and mission of the Mennonite church is at risk.

Where are our Mennonite educated leaders coming from now?

A quick un-scientific scan of the people giving key leadership in MC Canada churches and related institutions today reveals that a high percentage are graduates of one or more of our Mennonite schools. Their identity as Christians in the world has been deeply influenced by our church schools. Their world-view and life choices are guided by their Anabaptist theological identity, shaped in no small part by their education.

Will this network address the much talked about pastor shortage in the Mennonite Church?

Although this challenge is a big one, my hope is that by working together we can more intentionally address this issue. But it is also important to understand that our schools help to nurture pastoral qualities in students who may be called to other vocations. I believe that everyone influences someone. A graduate from one of our church schools has just as much potential to impact the world for Christ in non-church workplaces as a graduate who responds to a pastoral invitation. And we’ve all heard stories of graduates who have been drawn to direct church work after experiencing other vocational opportunities. More church school students increase the possibility of more ‘God-work’ in the world. This is a part of what the whole missional church concept is about.

Mennonite Church USA has the Mennonite Education Agency that serves as an umbrella organization for Mennonite Church schools. Is this there where Canada is heading?

I don’t think anyone is making assumptions that this is where things will end up. The current need is to create avenues for more intentional communication and sharing of goals so that both the schools and wider church are strengthened. Whatever form the educational conversation takes, it will be organized in a way that meets the needs of the schools and the church in Canada.

How will a Mennonite Church education network benefit the wider church?

The church’s and church school’s efforts to offer learning and education for life within a Christian/Anabaptist framework has suffered from regionalism, fragile support, and insufficient communication among educational partners. By more intentionally working together, sharing goals, celebrations, and challenges the church and the schools are strengthened. But most importantly, God’s mission in the world benefits from lives that are formed and nurtured in the faith.

Through networking my hope is that we can better combine academic learning with formation in Christian character, and that our schools will form a partnership with the home and the church to call, equip, and send students to fulfill their vocation within the mission of God in the world.