The closing of Grace University in Omaha, Neb., is a sobering reminder not to take the existence of a small Christian college for granted. Grace was never officially Mennonite, but its founders were. Most were General Conference Mennonites who wanted a conservative alternative to Bethel and Bluffton colleges — a Bible institute, as Grace originally was. For decades Grace’s Mennonite connections remained strong, but over time it evolved into a generically evangelical institution. Next spring, due to high deficits and low enrollment, Grace will shut down after 75 years.
For Mennonite college supporters, the news hits close to home. A college can fail. Are we doing enough to make sure it never happens to one of ours?
Word that Grace was shuttering came the same week as Mennonite Church USA released a proposal to strengthen relationships among its schools. The goals include improving collaboration and ensuring a commitment to Anabaptist-Mennonite identity and mission.
The latter is especially important in light of Grace University’s history. What began as a Mennonite institution ended with no more than a tiny remnant of Mennonites involved. The proposed new statement of arrangements for the MC USA colleges, universities and seminaries seeks to ensure that a similar drift from the moorings will never happen to them.
But the statement is not about control. It combines the expectation of loyalty to MC USA with a promise to respect the schools’ academic role of gadfly and questioner. The schools, it says, “hold together — in creative tension — scholarship and faith, knowledge and love, wise judgment and welcoming embrace.” They are charged not only to accept guidance from official statements of faith but also to “examine how well time-bound confessions and convictions express the Word of God.” Such critical loyalty is an essential quality of the future leaders who emerge from Mennonite schools.
Many of these alumni will use their gifts outside the Mennonite institutional world. Carlos Romero, executive director of Mennonite Education Agency, notes that the schools are shifting their perspective “from being schools for Mennonites to being Mennonite schools for all.” Anabaptism is bigger than the Mennonite church. All Mennonite schools — not just those affiliated with MC USA — are seedbeds of Anabaptism among young people with diverse faiths and worldviews. These schools should be, as the MC USA proposal says, both “warmly ecumenical” and clear about their Anabaptist Christian identity.
This clarity is the cornerstone of the proposed statement of arrangements. It’s a promise by the MC USA schools not to stray from their roots as Grace University did. But the schools are only one side of the equation. Grace’s drift didn’t happen in isolation. Some of its supporters turned away from their Mennonite identity and merged into the evangelical mainstream. The college and its constituents followed a parallel path away from Anabaptism.
Grace’s demise offers evidence that a mutual pledge of loyalty between MC USA and its schools is important to the future of both. A church that wants to be theologically distinct needs a unique brand of higher education. A Christian college and its church might thrive or fail together. Either path is possible.