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.