Conrad Grebel University College Presidents — Rodney J. Sawatsky

Rodney J. Sawatsky was the fourth president of Conrad Grebel College (1989-1994). There have been earlier blogs on J. Winfield Fretz, Frank H. Epp and Ralph A. Lebold.

Rod Sawatsky and I both began to work at Conrad Grebel College in 1974 when he came from Canadian Mennonite Bible College to Ontario to teach and serve as academic dean, while I began half-time in the Mennonite Archives at Conrad Grebel.

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Rod Sawatsky speaking at an Inter-Mennonite Conference (Ontario) retreat in 1985. In the background are Bernhard Stobbe and Herb Schultz. Photo by Sam Steiner.

We shared a deep interest in Mennonite history and Mennonite church politics. He was very supportive of my increasing involvement in denominational activities, especially the integration of three Mennonite regional conferences in Ontario in 1988 into what is now known as Mennonite Church Eastern Canada.

Rod was known for his booming voice, the way he leaned back while thinking out loud, and for the extremely gracious hosting he, together with his wife, Lorna, frequently did in their home.

Rod was an innovative academic dean, and the years that he and Ralph Lebold were the leadership team at Conrad Grebel stand out in my own memory. Projects like a graduate degree in theology, and the launch of the Conrad Grebel Review as an inter-disciplinary Mennonite academic journal were important to Rod.

He became president of Conrad Grebel at a time that became very difficult for the College. Financial challenges included an ambitious capital fund drive that fell well short of its goal, meaning only a part of the planned expansion could be built. Changes in government funding to post-secondary education ultimately saw the number of Conrad Grebel’s faculty members shrink by a third. Not surprisingly the financial challenges also created tensions within the faculty that resulted in conflicts that received publicity well beyond the college.

Perhaps providentially, Rod received an invitation to become president of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania in 1994. His experience as president there was an extremely positive one, and ended because of his early death from brain cancer in 2004.

My memories of Rod’s years at Conrad Grebel are overwhelmingly positive, particularly as I remember many informal conversations in the staff lounge about the state of the Mennonite church in Ontario, in Canada and in North America.

Below is the article in the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online about Rod Sawatsky by Margaret Loewen Reimer. For a bibliography of his writings, go to the article.


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Rod and Lorna Sawatsky, 2002. Family photo

Rodney James “Rod” Sawatsky: church historian and college administrator, b. 5 December 1943 in Altona, Manitoba, the second child of Jacob and Catherine (Loewen) Sawatsky, who both predeceased him. He was baptized into the Altona Bergthaler Mennonite Church (Conference of Mennonites in Canada) in 1961. He was married to Lorna Ewert, daughter of Agnes (Regier) and Elmer Ewert, in 1964 at the North Star Mennonite Church in Drake, Saskatchewan. Rod and Lorna had three daughters: Tanya, Lisa and Katherine.

Rod graduated from Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and from Bethel CollegeNorth Newton, Kansas, before pursuing graduate degrees at the University of Minnesota (MA in History, 1969) and Princeton University (MA, 1972 and PhD in Religion, 1977). He and Lorna, a musician and teacher, taught at the Menno Bible Institute in Didsbury, Alberta, for a year (1965-1966), before Rod was hired to teach history at Canadian Mennonite Bible College (CMBC). He taught at CMBC from 1967-1970 and 1973-1974. Rod and Lorna were active members of Charleswood Mennonite Church during this time.

In 1974 Rod Sawatsky was appointed Academic Dean at Conrad Grebel College, the Mennonite college at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, under the presidency of Frank H. Epp. He also taught courses in Mennonite history and new religions. Probably his most popular course was “Sects and Cults,” which looked at new religious movements such as the Unification Church (Moonies). Sawatsky was also interested in issues of religious liberty and testified several times in court on behalf of minority groups. Sawatsky presented the Benjamin Eby Lecture at Conrad Grebel College in 1982 on the topic, “Commitment and Critique: A Dialectical Imperative,” outlining the role of Christian education in a pluralist community. In 1990 he helped organize a conference of church-related colleges in Canada entitled “Educating for the Kingdom?”

Besides his commitment to education, Rod had a keen interest in the history and development of the Mennonite church. In the early 1980s he wrote a widely-circulated article entitled “Autonomy and Accountability: Church Polity within the Conference of Mennonites in Canada.” In 1985 he presented the Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel College on “Authority and Identity: The Dynamics of the General Conference Mennonite Church” (published by Bethel College in 1987).

In 1989 Rod became president of Conrad Grebel College, a position he held for five years. Under Sawatsky’s leadership, the college added new programs and hired several outstanding scholars. Lorna taught early childhood music.  They were members of Rockway Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario.

In 1994 Rod was appointed president of Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, a liberal arts college with roots in the Brethren in Christ Church. In his 10 years there he led the college to a new mission and identity that emphasized excellence, diversity, international study and a spirit of service and engagement in society. His leadership resulted in an increase in enrolment and a considerable expansion of campus facilities and programs. Lorna, as “first lady” of the college, was active in campus life, planning and hosting events and supporting school activities. During this time, Rod was active in several educational organizations, including the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the Christian College Consortium, and the Council of Independent Colleges.

Rod’s life was driven by his passion for education within a Christian college environment. Christian scholarship is a holy calling, he argued in one of his last publications, “The Virtue of Scholarly Hope,” a prologue in the book Scholarship and Christian Faith: Enlarging the Conversation (Oxford University Press, 2004). An optimist and visionary, he was always eager to pursue new possibilities. Deeply committed to the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith, Sawatsky was also committed to engagement in the wider church and culture, ever alert to new developments and ideas in the church and in society.

Rod Sawatsky died of brain cancer on 27 November 2004 at the age of 60. He was buried at the historic Detweiler Meetinghouse cemetery near Kitchener, Ontario.

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