When we left the first part in this series, I promised that the second part would look specifically at Mennonite educational organizations and the case of James Brenneman and J. Lawrence Burkholder. However, I’d like to start by giving some background on J. Lawrence Burkholder and his influence with another Mennonite institution: the institution formerly known as Mennonite Mutual Aid (MMA), now Everence.
I first became familiar with this story in Keith Graber Miller’s piece “Mennonite Mutual Aid: A Margin of Difference.” In it he tells the story of MMA adopting the practice of underwriting. The practice meant that healthier people would pay less for their insurance policies and sicker people would pay more or be denied coverage all together. It was seen by some in MMA’s leadership as necessary for the survival of the institution. Underwriting had become the norm among most insurance companies at the time. But in practice, it would have a painful impact on sick or at-risk people who would be denied coverage, and it was difficult for those in MMA who were responsible for denying them aid in their time of need. In 1988, an MMA task force went so far as to say that strict underwriting was “contrary to the mission of MMA.” The report also said, “We are caught between those conflicting needs of serving the church and being a sound business.”
Graber-Miller tells of the struggles MMA president Howard Brenneman felt in making this difficult decision to begin underwriting MMA insurance policies. Brenneman clearly struggled with his role in the decision to move to underwriting. He told Graber Miller that he “had heard Burkholder talk about ambiguity” and liked what he heard. Brenneman said, “When I really get to stumbling around, I visit with [Burkholder] at breakfast.” (Graber-Miller 287) Through the work of Brenneman and others in the MMA administration, the organization shifted farther along the path to becoming another insurance agency with a Mennonite constituency. He identifies this process of becoming like similar organizations as “institutional isomorphism” as described by sociologists Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell (Graber Miller, 266)
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