GUYS MILLS, Pa. — On a Tuesday afternoon, 22-year-old Andrew Shenk leads a competitive trivia game for 13 fifth- and sixth-graders reviewing facts about Alaska, Hawaii and the Spanish-American War.
He’s borrowing the class from Sharon Yoder, who watches from the back of the room. Shenk is getting some practical experience during his first year in the Teacher Apprenticing Program at Faith Builders Training Institute, a postsecondary educational institution supported by conservative Anabaptists.
Founded in 1984 with the vision of being a conservative Anabaptist college, Faith Builders developed its offerings from summer courses into a year-round teacher-training program in 1993. Today it offers two-year tracks of study in teacher apprenticing, Christian ministries and general studies.
Faith Builders Christian School, for grades 1-12, provides hands-on experience for the teachers-in-training.
Shenk, a member of a Beachy Amish congregation near Hutchinson, Kan., said that afternoon was the first time he had worked with fifth- and sixth-graders.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” he said. “That was actually really fun for me.”
Faith Builders is Shenk’s first post-high-school educational experience. His heart isn’t set on being a schoolteacher, but it’s a career he’s exploring.
“I felt like I did have some gifts in public speaking and acting, and I thought those could be used here,” he said.
Small is better
Faith Builders administrator Steven Brubaker said the goal is to serve the church.
“We’re convinced the focus of God’s work in the world is the church,” he said.
Although enrollment is growing, Brubaker said numerical increase is not necessarily the goal. There are 39 students in the postsecondary programs, and enrollment is limited to 40, with 20 new students each year. Faith Builders has turned away applicants to maintain the small size.
“We want to stay small,” Brubaker said. “That’s one of the ways to stay under the authority of the church.”
It’s also a way to ensure the students receive attention not only in their studies but in their spiritual growth. All students participate in one-on-one and group mentoring sessions.
Shenk is part of a mentoring group of students and instructors.
“I think they do a really good job of creating an atmosphere where you can put yourself out there,” he said. “I’ve found that to be a huge blessing.”
Living up to its name, Faith Builders takes great care not to let spiritual growth take a backseat to academic achievement.
“We recognize that knowledge that does not come along with a proportional reverence ceases to be good,” Brubaker said. “We seek to anchor the knowledge in community, with believers in Christ.”
The emphasis on serving the church has led to growth in other areas. Faith Builders is developing its own grade-school curriculum. It also hosts REACH, a gathering featuring representatives from about 50 conservative Anabaptist organizations that draws 1,800 people. The grade school has 95 students.
Character comes first
Much of the coursework is comparable to general education courses in a bachelor’s degree program. Several of Faith Builders’ courses have been recommended by the National College Credit Recommendation Service to receive transfer credit at other schools. Faith Builders students have transferred to Mennonite Church USA schools such as Bluffton (Ohio) University, Goshen (Ind.) College and Hesston (Kan.) College.
Yet Brubaker maintains what he calls “a philosophical opposition to the complete accreditation process,” saying full accreditation would limit the influence of faith-based consideration in the institute’s approach to hiring.
“What makes a school what it is are its instructors,” he said. Instead of making academic credentials the primary criteria for hiring, the institute’s leaders look at overall character.
“Who is a person who has demonstrated a life well lived, whom we would like our sons and daughters to become like?” he asked. “It’s the difference between a community discernment process and an academic discernment process.”
Brubaker said Faith Builders is not opposed to the idea of college degrees but prefers to operate with freedom to live out its principles.
“Conservatives have felt burned by higher education,” he said. “We’re trying to offer something that’s consistent with our beliefs and values.”
Strong Christian schools
While Faith Builders has a strong Anabaptist identity, it welcomes the intellectual contributions of the broader Christian tradition. On a hallway wall, a large stenciled paper cutout depicts the famous Martyrs Mirror scene of Anabaptist martyr Dirk Willems dashing back across a frozen pond to rescue a pursuer who had fallen through the ice. Down the hall are quotes in large letters from early church fathers Irenaeus and John Chrysostom. The bookstore features Mennonite writers alongside works by C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Dallas Willard.
Yoder teaches both the fifth- and sixth-graders as well as the institute students. At Faith Builders since 1999, she enjoys teaching new teachers.
“I find it’s really rejuvenating to pass on what I’ve learned from teaching,” she said. “What I give them, they can take back to their own communities.”
She particularly values the chance to mentor female students.
“We have a lot of emphasis on women becoming homemakers as a worthy calling,” she said. Yet she has written a book, from her own experience, on singleness for Christian women. To Have and to Hold: Hope Restored for Single Women is sold in the Faith Builders bookstore.
Regardless of whether or not women become full-time homemakers, Yoder wants them to pursue knowledge.
“I care about women being lifelong learners . . . I care that they have a vision for education,” she said.
For Yoder, teaching at Faith Builders is a way to strengthen Christian schools.
“I really care that our schools grow with a lot of knowledge,” she said, “but, more importantly, with wisdom to learn to live in a world that is so opposite to our values.”