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Lament for a Small Town Bible School

The official news showed up where all things show up these days: on my Facebook feed. Right there next to cheesy inspirational slogans and idiotic videos and family photos and passive-aggressive politicking…

It is with profound sadness and regret that the Bethany College Board of Directors announces that the conclusion of the 2014-2015 year will mark the end of the ministry of Bethany College in its current iteration.

It wasn’t a surprise to me—I had seen this sad news coming for quite a while, had been talking with my twin brother (the academic dean) about it for months—but I was surprised at the way my heart sank when I read the announcement. Surprised by how surprised I was to see the words on the screen.   December 10, 2014. The day the news came that another small Canadian Bible school—an institution that has been around since 1927­—would be closing its doors.

I did not attend Bethany College but my brother and sister both did, countless friends and family and acquaintances did. My parents met there. So many people in my personal orbit have spent time at this little school in the middle of the frozen tundra of central Saskatchewan. It’s a place I have visited often, a place where we have braved treacherous winter roads to visit family, to play in friendly hockey tournaments on bone-chilling January weekends, to drop our kids off at volleyball camp in the summer. It’s a special place for me, even though I have never spent time there in any kind of “official” capacity.

And I am very sad that this seems to be the end of the road.

I am sad on a number of levels. I am sad for what this means for my brother and his family. I am sad for an uncertain professional future, sad for my nieces who have only known this small Saskatchewan town as home. They will move on, I know. People do it all the time. But still. I feel a heaviness for people I love who are affected by this news.

I am sad for the many people whose faith was nurtured or even birthed at Bethany College. Sad for the many people for whom this place is a vital part of the story of their lives. Sad for the students who will not now get the opportunity to experience this wonderful place.

I am sad for the faculty and staff who have poured years of their life into this place, who have loved students, who have laboured under a cloud of uncertainty for a number of years now, and who must now continue to do their good work while helping a community to grieve this loss.

I am sad for the broader trends that this decision reflects for Christian higher education. Sad that theological education is no longer the priority for young adults and their parents that it once was. Sad that a focused year or two (or four) spent on discipleship and faith formation is seen as something sort of frivolous and unnecessary—a “waste of time” when they could be getting to work on beginning a career.

I am sad for how the news of Bethany’s closing is, in many ways, symptomatic of far broader church trends. Declining numbers, aging populations, struggles to attract and retain young adults in the face of complex social factors… These are daily realities in many parts of the church. The closing of Bethany’s doors echoes the closing of other doors—other small Bible colleges, other churches, other institutions that were once taken for granted, other places which, for all their flaws and however inconsistently, pointed people to Jesus of Nazareth.

I am sad for the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches—the denomination that I was raised and formed in, the denomination that I continue to think of as one of the places that I belong. I am sad that more effort is often put into hyper-pragmatic church-planting techniques than the preserving of spaces for theological education that has as its goal the forming of Christian character and the training of Christian leaders.

But most of all, I think, I am sad that the world will now have one less good place where young women and men can encounter Jesus and learn to love each other in the context of community. Bethany College is not perfect. Of course it isn’t. No school or church is or could be. It is not in a desirable location, doesn’t have gleaming state-of-the-art facilities, is not academically renowned, is not terribly well-known beyond the relatively small world of Anabaptist churches.

But it has been a place that has stubbornly invited people to encounter Jesus, to explore what he means for them and for the world, to ask some good questions, to receive some good answers (or better questions), to learn what it means to give oneself away for the sake of the world that God loves.

In John 11, Jesus came to a town called Bethany where his friend Lazarus had been dead for four days. It was at Bethany that Jesus defiantly summoned a dead man to walk out of his tomb. And so, the sentimental part of me obstinately hopes for the same for Bethany College—that what is dead or dying might rise up and walk again. But I am not naïve. I know that even though Lazarus walked out of his grave at the command of Christ on that beautiful day in Bethany, he eventually died again. I know that all things die, that all things are here for a season, and then no more.

This is the way of the world. We are born, we march across the stage for a few years, we (hopefully) do some good, and then we die. And we trust that the One who is the source of all that is good, the One in whose name we did what we could, with the resources we had, for as long as we could, can be trusted to bless and care for that which was given, to water seeds that were planted along the way.

47 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ryan, thanks for your reflections here. This is indeed very sad. I have a similar kind of connection with Bethany – grew up MB, siblings and friends went there though I never did, always had links with Bethany folks along the way.

    On a side note, I never realized Gil was your brother, let alone your twin brother. A whole segment of my world now makes sense.

    December 11, 2014
    • Now I’ve just realized that you grew up in Coaldale, is that right? Coaldale MB? That was also where I grew up, graduated from Kate Andrews in 1988. My world is shrinking fast.

      December 11, 2014
      • Yes indeed, Michael. Attended Coaldale MB for most of my life, graduated from KAHS in 1993. We spent six years in BC (three in Vancouver, three in Nanaimo), and then moved back to southern AB in 2011.

        I remember you and your family, too (although not as well as I should, undoubtedly!). 🙂

        December 11, 2014
  2. mmartha #

    Yet “The Torch Goeth Onward.:Tested But Triumphant.”
    That is the title of a book about Vennard College (Holiness background), printed first in 1985. I received a gift copy in 2000 when I had the privilege of donating to their Library an art photo by a dear friend, Ila Dame, who attended Vennard. Ila to me exemplified what the college stood for.
    In 2008, Vennard closed. I don’t know the location of the photo Mission Church, New Mexico now. But I believe Vennard’s goals are going forward to a type of holy living that is normative (p. 184).
    May God bless Bethany in its continuing influence

    December 11, 2014
    • Thanks for this. Good to hear the stories of others who have walked this road.

      December 11, 2014
  3. Sucks. With you I lament all those things you write about friend!

    December 11, 2014
    • Thank you, Chris. Much appreciated.

      (You’re right, it absolutely does suck.)

      December 11, 2014
  4. Kevin K #

    Thanks for words that express well some shared emotion.

    December 11, 2014
  5. I’m so sorry to hear about Bethany. It was, undoubtedly, a good place to go. It was good for the people I knew who attended there. I hope new horizons open quickly for all those who have to find new places to call home, like Gil.

    December 11, 2014
  6. James #

    It’s sad on the deeply personal level but as you say, it’s very sad wrt to the state of corporate decision making among MBs and no doubt beyond. The vision for Biblical education is currently very anemic. Those of us who care should take that challenge seriously imo.

    December 11, 2014
    • “Anemic”—a regrettably appropriate word. Thanks, James.

      December 11, 2014
  7. Thanks for this Ryan. A comprehensive lament, and good to stay with that a while. I think this would have to be the hardest on faculty and staff. — Your point about the conference mostly withdrawing from education and youth focus is so true and just boggles the mind when generational transition/retention may be one of (or “the”) most significant challenges facing it today.
    — Which is not to say that education can’t and shouldn’t be done differently, and what I really hope is that the faculty will continue to put energies into young people, that is, find places to do that, perhaps in new models. But wow, the change is so, so tough. And I don’t want that to sound callous, given that I just said one should stay with the lament.

    Sorry to ramble on, but I had to think about my dad back in the late 40s, early 50s, though, teaching in a Bible school simply based in a local church and serving a quite immediate community, winter only, when the farms not operating. A very different model eventually emerged, hard on these little local ventures. — But maybe it should circle back to something like that again. What if the churches in, say Saskatoon, got together and figured out some way to have “their” youth living in some kind of community scenario, perhaps working part-time, and taking courses and doing music together for 2-3 days a week, figuring out ways to get good teachers who’d they would pay commensurately for those days and said churches also finding them employment for the rest of their week and salaries. Perhaps I dream…

    And, while I did know Gil was your brother, I didn’t know he was your twin. No wonder you’re both such good communicators!

    December 11, 2014
    • Yes, well said, Dora. I know that this process has been brutally hard on the faculty. I’m biased, of course, but I think they have performed heroically over the last number of years. Overworked, underpaid, and carrying the stress of a staggering institution throughout. I feel deeply for all of them.

      I, too, hope there will be new opportunities. As you say, change is so hard. And it’s hard to know what a workable future might look like from this vantage point. Your dream sounds very intriguing. I’ve actually had conversations along similar lines with other folks who are wrestling with/grieving these same realities. The obstacles certainly seem many and varied, but who knows? Perhaps life could be breathed into dry bones…

      (Thank you for your kind words.)

      December 11, 2014
  8. The congregational Bible school he taught in was Gem, btw.

    December 11, 2014
    • My mom grew up in Gem, AB! 🙂 I dimly recall going there in my (much) younger years…

      December 11, 2014
  9. Thank you for the information of closing Bethany Bible School.Two of our boys spent 4 years there and as parents we will always be grateful for what they learned and experienced there. Life opened up for them they both became efficient in many interests.I too am so sad that this great institute will be no more I think of the many lives that became great in Gods service there and by it closing how many more will be lost for Gods field of service.

    December 11, 2014
  10. Gilbert G Brandt #

    Thanks for the news–something not unexpected. I taught at Bethany back in the late ’70s early ’80s when the school had some 200+ students. Biblical training is no longer in vogue–need to be on a career track, or so the current thinking goes. I am saddened by this news, but know that many great connections and friendships originated at Bethany.

    December 11, 2014
    • Tim Janzen #

      Ryan:
      I was on the board of Swift Current Bible Institute when it was closed in the mid 90’s. I hope Bethany was spared the bizarre politics that is Church Conferences. But sadly I doubt it.
      I understand the agony of thinking how future graduates would not have the great experience many Mennonite high school grads had there over the decades. I suspect that many Bethany alumni will feel now. I know I still have difficulty driving the old res. I know that these feelings are more in focus as my own kids approach decisions about Bible school.
      I hope that current students at Berhany can enjoy their final months and celebrate the great opportunity they have experienced.

      December 11, 2014
      • I’m not on the inside, so I can’t say definitively, but I don’t think there was a lot of politicking involved in this decision, Tim. Mercifully. I think that the letter from the board linked to above tells the story quite accurately. In the end, there simply weren’t enough students. Or enough conference support over the last number of years.

        I hear what you say about hopes for kids. I was hoping that my kids might have a chance to attend Bethany some day. It’s really sad for me that they won’t. I, too, hope that the current students can end well.

        December 12, 2014
  11. Thank you for this articulate and bittersweet post on Bethany. I wasn’t a student there, but did consider attending before finally applying to Briercrest. Still, I’m deeply moved by this news. My Dad taught at a similar little MB school, Winkler Bible Institute, where friends of mine also grew in their spiritual walks, charted their futures, and met future spouses. The connections Dad made at that little school are still blessing my life today, so I can imagine the many, many people who are saddened by the news of Bethany’s closing, and remembering the ways Bethany has blessed their lives as well.

    December 11, 2014
  12. RW #

    My grandfather attended Bethany as a young man in the early years, and I followed his in footsteps many decades later. Like many, I met my wife at Bethany and cherish the school for the discipleship and education I received there.
    Some years ago I spoke with one faculty member about the future of Bible schools in general and Bethany in specific. His conviction, which I share, was that while fewer people want Bible school, the need for Bible school has never been greater.
    I had hopes of one day sending our children to Bethany but those dreams are now also coming to an end.
    Let’s not forget to keep the board and school leadership in our prayers as they have the difficult job ahead of winding things up.

    December 11, 2014
    • I think the person you were talking to is right. Now, more than ever, we need places where young adults can learn, grow, ask questions, and take crucial steps in the process of faith formation in the context of community. It is sad we will have one less of those places now.

      Your reminder to continue to support the leadership of the school is a good and necessary one. Thanks.

      December 12, 2014
  13. Jason Elford #

    Ryan,

    Thanks for sharing here. My heart feels for Bethany. Did you attend a Bible College somewhere other than Bethany?? We’ve been praying along with their leadership, staff, and students over this past while as they’ve walked through this chapter.
    On staff at a small Bible College (Nipawin) I certainly am aware of the realities most Bible Colleges are facing these days. My heart is to continue searching for ways to challenge and stir up in the church (starting with our students!) the reality of our desperate need for leaders (especially men!! where are the men!!) – the NEED for discipling & mentoring, for individuals with hearts ready to serve (instead of a focus on how they are being served), leaders and congregants with biblical literacy and a desire to grow in that, and an overall focus and passion to be shining the Gospel of Christ inwardly (their congregation) and more so, beyond their walls (the lost)…

    Though there is nothing inherently wrong with careers and wealth, my opinion is that unfortunately, they have become the god to much of our Christian culture. And in that the expected return on time spent at Bible College has become focused on what financial gain one can get out of it. As Director of Enrolment here, that is probably what I am asked about the most by potential students, and perhaps even more so, by their parents who see it as – you said it well…”a waste of time”.

    And still, my heart desires to press forward, passionately sharing the immense value of time spent at our College – and in part, the reality of what loss we are left with if we are not as a whole willing to invest our lives in an authentic and committed pursuit of knowing God and His Word…the slow and tragic death of the church in Canada, but more so, the tragic reality of thousands missing out on hearing about and experiencing the saving grace of the Gospel as those of us who call ourselves the church continue to line our pocket books with the gospel of something else.

    December 11, 2014
    • Thanks for this, Jason. As you say, these decisions really do hold up a mirror to us about what (and how) we value.

      Yes, I attended one year of Bible College out in Abbotsford (Columbia Bible College).

      December 12, 2014
      • Jason Elford #

        Ah, ok. I figured you had gone somewhere. The “other” MB school 🙂

        I would be surprised to hear this heart from someone that hadn’t experienced a traditional Bible College somewhere for at least 1 year…

        Blessings to you and your family this Christmas season!

        December 13, 2014
      • And to you, Jason.

        December 14, 2014
  14. Dennis Giesbrecht #

    Sad as it might be, trying to think positively, where one door closes another opens. There are still many religious colleges around and if the staff are worth their salt they’ll find new opportunities. Still waters become stagnant. If GOD didn’t want this to happen it wouldn’t have. Reflect on the accomplishments, praise GOD for HIS mercy and move on.
    Our family went to Briercrest then several stops across the prairies. I hated then but realize GOD’S HAND now.
    Allow HIS GUIDANCE and be thankful. Amen.

    December 12, 2014
    • With respect, Dennis, I don’t share your views here. I don’t share your assumption that Bethany’s waters had grown “stagnant”—I think there was much that they were doing that was creative and good and life-giving. I don’t share your view that God “wanted this to happen,” but I suppose we would probably have different understandings of the nature of God’s providence. “Praise God and move on” strikes me as a bit of a glib response in the context of a lot of hurting people, to be frank.

      I do agree that we should be thankful for how God has worked through the story of Bethany.

      December 12, 2014
  15. Paul Johnston #

    God will use for good what we allow to happen….I’m told the Roman Catholic Church is in serious decline throughout Europe. Other material objectives, political and social movements have captured the imagination of their peoples. From what I sense through my own participation here in Southern Ontario, Masses are still well attended but the link between church and community seems tenuous. I suspect most parishioners, like their European counterparts, prioritize other concerns but still retain a cultural connection to the faith of their ancestors. We may be only a generation or two from a situation similar to Europe. Only in parts of the world (formerly known as “Third” ) where the Church is really committing to ministry that effects personal change, is the Church said to be vibrant and strong.

    The Church must make a difference in the lives of those it serves. When it does the people will respond. Who will lay down his life for a tepid organization, afraid to stand up for and live by its own values. Hypocrisy isn’t a very compelling evangelical tool….and so it goes….

    I do not mean to accuse any at Bethany of lackadaisical faith. We can try our best and still fail. I do not know the story of this Bible college and what it should or shouldn’t have done. May those attached to it remain faithful. Perhaps it isn’t so glib to look at this outcome as an opportunity to serve Our Lord and Savior in a more fulfilling manner.

    Many that I have learned from, love and trust in the faith are prophesying a serious decline and rupture within Christian churches. Millions will abandon them. Many more will persecute them that remain. But what will emerge from that crisis is a church that has no choice but to live a true life of discipleship.

    The church we read about having once existed in scripture. The church most of us know in our hearts no longer exists today.

    December 12, 2014
    • I’m hesitant to pin everything on the institution, Paul, whether it’s the Roman Catholic Church or a small Mennonite Bible School on the Canadian prairies. Sometimes the reason people aren’t drawn to something is due to the people themselves.

      I hear all the time that churches and schools need to be reimagining, reinventing, retooling themselves to meet the needs of the consumers…. And I think, “Maybe. Or maybe not. Sometimes the consumer is wrong to want what they want (or to not want what they should want). Sometimes their desires need to be challenged and reordered.” In this case, it seems that a robust theological education in the context of Christian community was not deemed a priority by enough people for a long enough period of time, that the school was no longer viable. Does this say more about the school or the people who (implicitly) rejected it?

      At least some of the time, it is the people, not the organization, that are tepid.

      December 12, 2014
  16. Karen Williams #

    Great response to BBI’s closing. I went there with your mom, who became a dear and treasured friend. It was a great place of grounding, and what a gift to be able to be surrounded by other young people in community, learning and being rooted in faith.

    December 12, 2014
    • kadubb #

      Oops – I did not go to school with you mom, but with your wonderful Aunt Renita!

      December 12, 2014
    • Thanks, Karen. So glad to hear that this was a good place for you to meet good people (like Renita!).

      December 12, 2014
  17. Doug Willems #

    Ug. Hearing about Bethany ‘dying’ is like hearing about the passing of an old friend. Someone I hadn’t seen in years but who had played an important part of my upbringing and is synonymous with great memories and friends. Spent three years there after high school and before university back when Bethany was at its zenith and there were regularly over 200 students at the start of the 80’s. SO many good memories… crazy roommates… doing deputation with our music/drama group and touring every small prairie town with an MB church… doing ‘gratis’ in the kitchen or cleaning the old tour bus… singing in chorale and even making a record… preaching with shaking legs in chapel… wondering who was hiding out with their girlfriend in the music rooms… hanging out in the student lounge… many late night discussions… just plain fun in the dorms or nutty pranks (like sliding on the wet tiles until someone went right through the glass doors at the end of the hall)…
    Even though its slow decline has been foreshadowing this day for years, it’s still just hard to believe that I won’t be able to drive through Hepburn and say “that’s where I went to Bible school”. Ever.
    I grieve with the staff and probably with many friends who I haven’t seen in years at Bethany’s closing. Goodbye old friend. It was great knowing you.

    December 12, 2014
    • Dora Cornelsen #

      So Geof and Greg how are you feeling about y our old bible school closing its doors I think its so sad but when God closes a door He usually opens a large window lets pray and see what happens.I’m excited to see what God will do

      December 13, 2014
      • mmartha #

        I’m praying too for those at Bethany and their intentions. This has been a wonderful discussion with much good will. Maybe we’ll get updates along the way.

        December 14, 2014
    • Amos Fehr #

      You are so right as it is like saying goodbye to an old friend. My 3 years at Bethany shaped me into becoming who I am today. Many wonderful memories that shall remain deep in my being.

      December 18, 2014
  18. Larry S #

    Ryan,

    I read your post and the thread with interest. An end of an era for sure and I’m sorry for the staff and their families who now find themselves needing to reinvent their futures (I’ve done that myself and it is stressful).

    I wonder if there is more going on here than a shift in parent’s/young adult’s priorities? For example, Dr. Stackhouse, when he was running a blog posted several times warning aspiring students about the difficulties in finding employment as a Phd in biblical studies. Dr. peter Enns has done the same on his blog. Dr. Ben Witherington has an interesting post about the changing face of employment in Biblical Studies also: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2014/12/17/the-changing-face-of-employment-in-biblical-studies/ I have a friend with a newly minted Phd looking for work in biblical studies.

    Perhaps baby boomers have done a poor job raising kids who are willing to spend a couple years studying the Bible in a post secondary setting like Bethany. But shifts in denominational identity, shifts in the economy (and associated stresses on our kids which shouldn’t be discounted) are significant factors also. Perhaps the future will mean that local churches become the place where theological training via pastor/teachers suplimented by online Internet courses fills the gap left by the loss of places like Bethany?

    Larry

    December 17, 2014
    • Yes, the challenges you identify are very real, Larry. There are so many reasons why the Bible School model is proving difficult to sustain in the present context. I didn’t mean to convey that it was SOLELY a priority problem with respect to young adults and parents. It is one of many, no doubt.

      I’ve read the pieces you cite above. Those authors certainly paint a bleak picture of the vocational prospects (or lack thereof) that might await the graduate student in biblical studies and theology. It’s one of the reasons that I have not pursued a PhD, to be honest. I wonder what the point would be? Just to have one more (expensive) degree with virtually no improvement in job opportunities? I TOTALLY get why parents would steer their kids toward trade schools and more practical education. Indeed, I look ahead five years to when my kids are making these decisions and I wonder what counsel I would give them…

      Re: churches picking up the educational gap… My first (admittedly cynical) reaction is to say, “That SOUNDS great… But its hard to imagine it happening.” Having said that, I’m aware of a few (mostly quite large) churches that are attempting to do this already. I hope it works, I really do.

      December 17, 2014
      • Larry S #

        On churches picking up the educational gap: are there other options ?

        My hope would be that we see more pastor/teachers treat significant issues from the pulpit. Issues such as Peter Enns raises re biblical criticism and loosing our kids. And maybe having intentional smaller settings which do the same.

        Perhaps I’m responding to some of the posts on this thread which don’t seem to understand that things have very significantly changed. There is no going back to the way things were.

        My other concern is that with the vast amount of info available via the Internet, people may think that a bit of web browsing means the’ve developed informed views. The “mile wide and inch deep” metaphor.

        Anyway Merry Christmas to you and yours

        December 18, 2014
      • Yes, I agree, Larry. There is no going back. I know that whatever comes next will look different than what has gone before. I wish I could say this filled me with hope and optimism, but if I’m honest, it doesn’t.

        I do hope that churches can pick up some of the slack, but churches will never be able replicate the intensity of the Bible school experience, the dynamic of being formed in community (flesh and blood, not virtual, as you say) during a formative stage of life, the experience of being “away,” etc. I can preach about all kinds of significant things from the pulpit, but at the end of the day, it’s twenty minutes once a week. Yes, this can be supplemented with other forums and opportunities, but it’s not the same. At least not in my (limited) experience.

        (I do realize that not everyone’s experience of Bible College was quite as idyllic as I’m suggesting here. 🙂 But the nerve that this post seems to have touched is suggestive, I think. In two days, this post became quite easily the most viewed piece I have written in eight years on this blog. This is a significant loss.)

        December 18, 2014
  19. mike #

    I agree with Larry concerning the paradigm shift taking place within Chrisendom (“things have changed-there’s no going back to the way things were”), and while I can personally/painfully relate to those who have or are losing their jobs because of this Shift, I believe we are witnessing God’s Hand at work, either way it’s futile to resist it. Organized Institutional Christianity is collapsing all around us, God is calling.

    Interesting metaphor, Larry. “informed views” almost seems a like a misnomer to me in the context of Christianity since our views are constantly evolving and being re-informed over time. I see access to the Internet as God’s method of splitting Open the heretofore closed and guarded system of the religious elite, and providing any and every Layperson who so hungers and seeks, a vast wealth of “privileged” facts and information regarding Church history and the Christian Faith.

    One startling thing I’ve noticed about “facts”, especially within Christianity, is that Truth is pliable and bendy. 🙂

    December 18, 2014
  20. Ryan, thanks for giving voice to a profound sadness and at the same time a larger vision of what it means to be followers of Jesus.

    March 11, 2015
    • Thank you, David. Good to hear from you.

      March 11, 2015

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