Has the Peak of Mennonite Institutions Passed?

Bethesda Home, with addition

The original Bethesda Home in Vineland, with an addition. One of the early Mennonite Brethren institutions in Ontario. Photo courtesy of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies.

In the mid-20th century there was an explosion of institutions created by assimilated Mennonites in Ontario and elsewhere—retirement homes, secondary schools, post-secondary schools, homes for persons with special needs, camps for young people, financial institutions, and Mennonite Central Committee Ontario. These institutions allowed Mennonites to conduct many of their life’s activities within the canopy of the larger church.

But by 2015, this denominational institutional activity seems to have changed—at least for assimilated denominational and district conferences. There are multiple reasons for this:

  1. The close government regulation of seniors’ and special care homes has pulled these institutions further from the congregations and conferences that founded them. Although existing “Mennonite” homes may upgrade and expand, it is hard to foresee new church-related homes being created. Government regulations mean seniors can no longer assume they can easily get a space in the nursing home of their choice. And homes cannot turn away potential non-Mennonite residents.
  2. The demand for greater size in order to achieve economies of scale has changed Mennonite financial institutions. The Niagara Credit Union, once led by Mennonites in the Niagara Peninsula, has disappeared into a series of mergers. The Mennonite Savings and Credit Union has loosened its requirements for membership to encourage increased growth, and appears to be considering a name change in order to maintain its viability in a highly competitive market. This need for size is true for any institution highly regulated by government.
  3. Denominations and area conferences are having financial problems. Revenues from congregations for denominational and area conference ministries continue to trend downward. The ability to dream expensive new dreams for denominational brick-and-mortar initiatives is not possible as present church programs have to rationalize program and staff.
  4. The primary allegiance for average church members has shifted further from the denomination and area conference and increasingly to the local congregation and the separate institutions that provide services to the individual. The denomination is seen as distant and increasingly less relevant. The church member will give money directly to an educational institution or senior’s facility that serves his or her child or parent.

Mennonite secondary schools have needed to attract more and more non-Mennonite students and international students in order to survive. Eden Christian College in the Niagara Peninsula was forced to shift into the public educational system.

Interestingly, the more conservative groups, like the Old Colony Mennonites or the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario still create educational institutions that include the secondary school level education, but I wonder how long the government will grant continued flexibility to secondary schools that cannot provide educational resources similar to the public system.

Conrad Grebel University College

Conrad Grebel University College in 2009. Courtesy Conrad Grebel University College

We also see the challenge for Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo. Conrad Grebel has always in an unusual position because most of its operating income has come through tuition, government grants and residence fees. The Mennonite constituency has paid for the buildings with modest additional sums to help with operating expenses for things like the chaplain or the Mennonite Archives of Ontario. The percentage of Conrad Grebel’s income from its “owning” conference is less than 3% of its operating budget.

Conrad Grebel, and almost all the other Mennonite institutions, now solicit funding directly from their users, Mennonite and non-Mennonite alike, and have much less accountability to the conference structures that brought them into being.

Are these changes simply a reflection of what is happening in the larger Canadian society? Do these trends reflect changes in the way assimilated Mennonites relate to society today that differs from the mid-20th century? Is this an opportunity for the church to relate to Canadian society differently today? Or do these changes symbolize a more ominous trend?

Mennonite Central Committee, a different kind of Mennonite institution, will be the subject of a later blog.

To learn more about Ontario Mennonite institutions read In Search of Promised Lands.

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5 thoughts on “Has the Peak of Mennonite Institutions Passed?

  1. Pingback: Eden Christian College: from Mennonite School to Alternative School | In Search of Promised Lands

  2. Pingback: Ontario Mennonites in the U.S. Context | In Search of Promised Lands

  3. It seems the facts do speak for themselves. But let’s expand the question. Has the golden age of North American Mennonites passed? The first three quarters of the twentieth century were an epoch of transformation. Mennonites not only energetically transformed themselves, but engaged with a widening and complex world confident that they could retain distinctive Mennonite faith, roots and heritage, while adopting the best that modern society could offer, and simultaneously proclaiming a Mennonite better way to the world (Mennonite Central Committee, peace, More With Less, Politics of Jesus). Now, Mennnonite energy, institutional and otherwise, seems dedicated to justifying our own existence, often by clinging to these past accomplishments, or by seeking common ground with non-Mennonite denominational and cultural traditions (eg the increasing number of “high church” Mennonite practices, spiritual and liturgical; the assimilation into Canadian institutions, as outlined by Sam Steiner, above; integration of Mennonite academia into wider academic culture; incorporation of the Mennonite peace witness into an international peace and conflict management sector). None of these are intrinsically bad, but it does smell like North American Mennonites may be past their best before date.

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  4. Good analysis, Sam, of our lives of working in the Mennonite USA and Canada institutions. Whether with relatively young institutions such as yours in Ontario or the older ones I worked with here in Pennsylvania (Mennonite Publishing), some of these same dynamics were at work. Sociology (assimilation) seemed to trump theology and history; one might wish otherwise.

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