Conrad Grebel University College’s third president was Ralph A. Lebold, who died recently on October 31, 2017.
I first met Ralph Lebold in 1973/74 during a year that Sue and I lived in London when I attended law school and quickly learned I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Ralph was nearing the end of his time as the pastor at Valleyview Mennonite Church, and had accepted the new role of Conference Minister that would begin in summer 1974.
I recall Ralph’s wit from one conversation that year between Sue and Ralph after one of his sermons. Sue had been very impressed by the content, and told Ralph he had preached “an incredible sermon.” He immediately responded, “Oh, I had hoped it would be credible!” I don’t remember the sermon, but I do remember Ralph’s comment.
A biography for Ralph Lebold in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online has not yet been written. What follows are some of the things that might be included in such an article.
At his funeral I heard someone describe Ralph Lebold as an entrepreneur within the church–not about making a lot of money, but in helping to innovate new programs and approaches to ministry that had an influence on the Mennonite Church throughout North America. These included the founding the Hidden Acres Mennonite Camp (1962), the provision of Supervised Pastoral Experience in a congregational setting for seminary students (1969), early encouragement for women to serve in pastoral leadership (1976), and founding Shalom Counselling Services (1982).
Ralph was born in the town of New Hamburg in 1934, but the family moved to a farm near Wellesley in 1945. He left school after grade 8, which was customary for Amish Mennonites at the time, and happily worked on the farm for several years. By the late 1940s he began to attend Wellesley Winter Bible School, where he met his future wife, Eileen Erb. About 1951 he switched to attending the Ontario Mennonite Bible School in Kitchener, and graduated from OMBS in 1953.
Ralph continued in the pre-university course at Ontario Mennonite Bible Institute in 1953/54, and enrolled at Eastern Mennonite College in 1954, where he received his BA in 1958.
Ralph and Eileen married in 1955, and they would have three children — Connie, Marvin and Cindy.
The family moved to Goshen, Indiana in 1959 where Ralph studied at Goshen Biblical Seminary, and from which he graduated with a BD degree in 1961. He began pastoring the King Street Mennonite Church in London, Ontario that fall. In 1963 the congregation moved to a new location in northeast London, and became known as Valleyview Mennonite Church.
In 1966-1968 the Lebold family took a one-year leave and moved to Chester, Pennsylvania where Ralph studied at Crozer Theological Seminary for an MTh in Pastoral Care and Counselling (1968). Ralph provided some pastoral services to Valleyview during the second year of the program.
The Lebolds then returned to London and Valleyview where in 1969 Ralph launched a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program in association with the Associated (now Anabaptist) Biblical Seminary. That first fall three seminary students spent a year at Valleyview working both in the congregation and at the London Psychiatric Hospital where Ralph was a Teaching Chaplain, while also serving half-time at Valleyview.
In 1974 Ralph Lebold became the first Conference Minister for the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference. (Orland Gingerich had served in a similar, reduced role of this type in the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference beginning in 1966, and the position of a full time paid conference minister had begun in some Mennonite Church regional conferences in the U.S. in the late 1960s.) Of course this led to jokes about a Mennonite “pope.”
It was during the conference minister years that Ralph encouraged women to pursue pastoral leadership. In 1976 he suggested that Doris Weber be commissioned for pastoral service alongside her ordained husband, Rod. By 1978 this status was changed to ordination. Other women in leadership soon followed.
In 1978 Ralph Lebold began work in the new DMin program at the Toronto School of Theology; he received his degree in 1980 with a research project on “The evaluation of the pastoral leader in the context of the congregation.” This led to a later book, Learning and growing in ministry : a handbook for congregational leaders published by the Mennonite Publishing House in 1986.
Ralph served in the conference minister role until 1980, and likely would have continued longer except for a call asking him to consider becoming president at Conrad Grebel College in 1979. He was familiar with some of the issues at the College, having been called to help work at an internal conflict in 1977, and had been involved in the School of Adult Studies based at the college for several years. He accepted the position, and served from 1979 to 1989.
Ralph Lebold’s ten years as president at Conrad Grebel College were good years for the College. Ralph worked well with his Academic Dean, Rod Sawatsky, who succeeded him as president. In 1988 the college received a new charter, permitting it to grant a range of degrees in Religious Studies, leading to the beginning of the MTS program at the College. The Peace and Conflict Studies program also deepened and expanded. In my own memory of my time at Conrad Grebel, these were the “golden years” at the College, with everyone pulling the same direction, and relationships with the Mennonite constituency flourishing.
In 1989, Ralph took on a joint assignment with the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and the new Mennonite Conference (now Church) of Eastern Canada (MCEC) in Pastoral Leadership Training, the part of his vocation that gave him the most energy. He continued in this work until retirement in 1997.
In 1991 Ralph was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, a disease with a prognosis of up to three or four years. Although his health went through cycles, new treatments extended his life 26 years. During most of those years he was able to make strong contributions to the local conference, to Waterloo North Mennonite Church, where he was a charter member, and as a mentor to many younger leaders in the church.