Eastern Mennonite University

Special 90th anniversary issue

"Return on Investment"

Alumni 1950 and beyond

By J. Daniel Hess

This article is the second in a series on the "return on investment" of the Mennonite Church's considerable support of higher education in the 20th Century. In the first article I reviewed the vocational choices of the class of 1959 and from that study observed tendencies:

In this second article I wish to revisit the topic of leadership and in doing so, to broaden the sample to include EMU graduates in the second half of the 20th century. My selection of EMU for this project should not be interpreted as thinking this one institution is different from other Mennonite colleges and universities. I have worked at one time or another with all five (Bethel College, Bluffton University, EMU, Goshen College and Hesston College) which leads me to think that what I say about EMU could be said of any and all of the institutions.

Who's Who?

In the April 4, 1957 issue of The Weather Vane, student newspaper of Eastern Mennonite (then) College, a feature titled "Who's Who from E.M.C." asked readers to identify alumni who filled the following specified positions.

What was the Weather Vane staff thinking at that time? And more specifically, why did they select the nomenclature of Who's Who and why did their entries all pertain the Mennonite Church leaders? Perhaps when I return for our class' 50 th reunion, I can find definitive answers to my questions.

It's my guess, however, that the Weather Vane feature was just one evidence that the Eastern Mennonite College milieu had already crept into our consciousness – that service within the context of the Mennonite Church was important, and that a college education endowed us not with glory but rather a calling. Apparently the Weather Vane staff sensed a meaning of an EMC degree – an expectation that graduates would serve the church and the community and in many cases find themselves in positions of leadership.

The moving of EMC graduates into leadership prior to 1950 not only continued but increased. Permit me a quick survey of Mennonite Church leadership since 1950. The list is by no means complete; people I've included typically held more than one position of leadership; I limited their entry to one; and several on this list studied at but didn't graduate from EMU. I don't have room in this article to include more names.

Church Administration

Missions, MCC


Publications and Media

Miscellaneous Church Agencies

I believe I could make those kinds of lists for each of the Mennonite colleges and seminaries, all of which illustrate the crucial role of Mennonite colleges in the preparing of church leaders in the 20 th century.

Two years ago the Mennonite Education Agency made a study of staff members of all Mennonite Church USA agencies. I count more than 200 people, now in positions such as "executive leadership" "executive board," "convention leadership," and "agency staff" who attended one or more of the Mennonite colleges and seminaries.

What is not shown in the listing above nor in the MEA study are the hundreds, even thousands of missionaries, relief and service workers, church-related elementary school teachers, high school teachers, college professors, camp leaders, nurses, and congregational supporters who studied at our colleges and universities.

Not a lone agent

As amazing as these data are, it would be inaccurate and unfair to say that EMU and other Mennonite colleges and universities have been the lone agents in producing church leaders throughout the 20 th century. Closer to the truth: the institutions of higher education reinforced and further shaped what was begun in a variety of other places.

Mennonite congregations have provided Sunday school, Junior Youth Fellowship, Mennonite Youth Fellowship, and in many cases, congregational mentoring and group service projects for the development of character and skills. At the denominational level, the national or bi-national youth convention have sent youth back home with new commitments to Christian faith and to the church.

Church camps have shaped our youth profoundly as have service programs designed by our mission agencies. And Mennonite elementary and high schools have played roles that can't be overestimated.

And then we think of the homes from which the college students have come. As a professor at a Mennonite college, I often marveled at the strength of each new first-year class, and must have said a hundred times, "There is something very right about the homes from which these youth come!"

And thus, the account of the producing of leaders rightly includes many agencies beyond the college, not only those that shaped students prior to their four years on campus but also the graduate school studies and in many case, voluntary service experiences after college.

Recently John A. Lapp, former dean and provost at Goshen College and executive secretary of MCC, raised a provocative question. " What was it that inspired our parents, many of whom did not complete high school and were not church, community or business leaders, to encourage our generation to go to college?"

Probably the least satisfying and accurate answer is that families wanted to climb socially or economically. Nor did they think of their family members becoming leaders. Lapp suspects that a call to service and a commitment to mission were factors. He also believes that parents encouraged children to go to college because they saw the need for advanced training for the job market. One could not be a teacher, even a pastor or business person or other profession without a degree. I would add an interest in culture and the arts, and an awareness of vocational opportunities requiring a college degree all encouraged higher education.

Leadership training – an intention?

The Mennonite college, university and seminary role of producing leaders is much more deliberately recognized today than it was 40 or 50 years ago. Although EMU does not use the word leader or leadership in its vision, mission and values statements, some of its sister institutions do. Bethel College (KS) is committed to provide "intellectual, cultural and spiritual leaders for the church and society." Goshen College's mission statement says, "We view education as a moral activity that produces servant-leaders for the church and the world." Nelson Kraybill, president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, says, " A strong church requires well-equipped and Spirit-filled leaders. AMBS plays a vital role in nurturing those who are called."

But in the first three quarters of the 20 th century, the production of leaders was not a publicly proclaimed intention of our colleges. Ministers were ordained to be ministers, not leaders. Even bishops, as I recall, did not wear the lexicon of leadership even though they were charged "to care for their flocks." A generation ago, Mennonite youth didn't aspire to be leaders nor to express such an interest. How did it then happen that ordinary students ended up ten or twenty years later in major leadership positions? "It wasn't the academic program so much as the campus ambience," says Roy Hartzler, 1959 graduate.

The ambience survives, but there is also a growing awareness of the campus' role in deliberate leadership development. Lori H. Lehman, a '88 EMU graduate who served for 11 years in Nairobi, Kenya at Rosslyn Academy and is now assistant professor in the education department, elaborates. "I believe that the form of leadership that we ‘grow' at EMU is ‘unintentional' because our students do not enter most majors determined to enter leadership. But upon coming to Mennonite campuses students find models in their professors who want to impact and change lives. While students may have seen such models before, the profs' spheres of influence pertain to a different arena -- the professions and to the situations where students will one day work."

According to Lori, what students encounter in their profs are agents of change, committed to "the creation of something beautiful out of the mundane and problematic." Students sense the meaning of integrity, that is, "of making a yes mean yes and a no mean no, and of doing what we say we want others to do." They catch the unusual value of steadfastness, or constancy, in carrying out responsibilities. They learn the preference for working with existing systems rather than as adversaries. They come to a new appreciation "of the power in silence or if in voice, then in harmony." They notice on campus the absence of the ladder typically used for selfish ambition and come to eschew competition as a way of working. And most important of all, they see "that vocation is a call to work where God plants them."

But studying the model of profs doesn't automatically transform a Menno child into a leader. I heard a strange story from EMU's chair of the education department, Donovan Steiner. A school superintendent supposedly told Dr. Steiner that EMU teacher education students didn't always do well in job interviews. They were modest bordering on quiet, self-effacing to the point of seeming passive. But the superintendent knew what EMU candidates brought to the job. His challenge was to get these student candidates past the interview process, because once they were hired, they became the best teachers.

Lori agrees. After EMU graduates are on the job, others take note of their integrity, respect, reliability and workmanship. The EMU grads soon discover that they are being "tapped on the shoulder" for leadership positions they never sought.

Implication for the church and school

Mennonite church leadership in the 20 th century has been bolstered by Mennonite institutions of higher education. This outcome of higher education leads me to believe that the church's investment has been greatly rewarded. As a classmate said to me, "The church received the leadership it needed as a result of its investment." I trust that the church is convinced enough to continue its investment in its colleges, universities and seminaries. By investment I mean not only contributing funds but also encouraging students to attend Mennonite schools.

I am inclined to underscore the importance of campus ambiance in the shaping of students without intending at the same time to devalue the curriculum and academic rigor. A classmate recently wrote me of the strong force of "the community of classmates, faculty and thought-shapers" in nudging him toward his vocation. "Except for [one job change], each time I've changed jobs has meant a reduction in salary.  Each of those was a church-related job. That ability to see value in work other than the financial reward was certainly in the EMC ethos. "

Lori H. Lehman places high responsibility on the role of profs as incarnational models. The institutions of higher learning will continue to find good professors but we who are outside of the institutions can be of help in calling their attention to potential staff members.

And finally, while I respect the humbleness of the religious tradition from which I come, a tradition that did not encourage hubris, I believe that our Mennonite institutions of higher learning may, without being faulted, should make explicit their calling to produce leaders for the church. And we, in continuing our support of Mennonite schools, can rightly expect to find future leaders among their alumni.

In the third article in this series, I wish to explore another possible return on investment in higher education – the producing of a world view and a conscience that prompted many alumni to move "to the edges" to live and work outside the so-called compound, quite a distance from the closed community of like-minded people, rather far from the jobs that dealt with the tested and the knowns, out beyond where fences had once separated the traditional Mennonite community from the world beyond. I want to examine why they went to the edges and what happened there.

Back to table of contents