Bethany Bible Institute: Still building the family of God
What’s Bible school all about? Love for Christ, love for the church, openness to the Word of God – these are some of the ingredients, says Bethany’s principal, Ike Bergen
Out in the middle of the vast, snowy, bright prairie is an unassuming Bible school which has had a strong influence in the lives of many Canadian Mennonite Brethren. Thirty years ago the school could say that at least one third of its graduates were involved in full-time Christian work. This year the school has seen an upsurge in enrollment which indicates a vote of confidence from its supporting provinces, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Bethany Bible Institute in Hepburn, Sask. has held its own for several years at an enrollment of about 170. At the beginning of the present school year, enrollment rose to nearly 200, outsizing the school’s facilities. The school has attracted an enthusiastic, committed group of young people to its three-year program: 85 students from Saskatchewan; 47 from Alberta; 43 from B.C.; 11 from Manitoba; and 10 from Ontario.
Bethany was first established in 1927, and continued to operate through the ’30s. Some of the men who have led and taught at the school are D.P. Esau, J.B. Toews, G.D. Huebert, G.W. Peters, J.H. Epp, A.H. Wieler, C. Braun and the present principal Ike Bergen. In 1958, the Herbert (Sask.) Bible School merged with Bethany. Then in 1968, the Alberta and Saskatchewan conferences joined hands to co-sponsor the school.
The school is at a threshold of sorts, symbolized by the coming on staff of Jake Wiebe, long-time churchman in Regina’s Parliament Community Church. With a wealth of experience in managing a division of Saskatchewan Government Insurance behind him, Wiebe has joined the staff as business manager.
In the works is a study of the school by the American Association of Bible Colleges which may result in accreditation of Bethany under that organization. The school is also considering membership in the Prairie Athletic Council, a mix of Bible and technical institutes which compete in a variety of sports.
George Geddert, a veteran instructor and librarian at Bethany, suggests that the school’s goal is to accommodate 200 students comfortably. That would mean the construction of a dormitory for the men, as well as another L-shaped dorm building for the women.
Bethany students are subsidized by the 50 Mennonite Brethren churches in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Both the Bethany board and the administration of the school report to the provincial conferences at their annual conventions. Then each November, the provincial executives alternate in leading a separate Bethany convention in Hepburn. At the convention in November 1980, Ike Bergen was appointed principal of the school, having been the acting principal to that point.
Love for the church, body of Christ and Word of God
The aims of Bethany, as described by Ike Bergen, could well be said of all three Canadian Mennonite Brethren Bible institutes. Bergen says that, first of all, the school wants to establish in its students a love for the local church, as well as for the wider body of Christ. Faculty members also want to encourage students to open themselves to the Word of God and submit to its authority.
The academic side of the school is a little bit like one long Bible study. Teachers seem always ready to field even the most immediate questions and comments of their students, and treat them seriously. Teachers know their students well, and sometimes call them by name in mid-sentence to help them stay with the flow of the class. It’s a welcome contrast to the scribble and scramble world of the secular university.
Brian Janzen, a first-year student from Saskatoon, says he came to Bethany to straighten himself out on a few things before possibly entering university studies. He finds the class discussions valuable times to consider important topics from various points of view. Doug Heidebrecht of Medicine Hat, Alta., yearbook editor, enjoys the teaching of David Bergen and Doug Berg. It is helping him to build a sturdy, practical theology, he says.
A comment by David Bergen in a class on New Testament theology illustrates the orientation which faculty members bring to their instruction: “I need to know what I believe and why, but I also need to have a relationship with Christ – both are important.”
Model Christian lifestyle
Another aim of the faculty is to model a Christian lifestyle for the students. Rather than thinking themselves “above” the students, says Ike Bergen, staff members want to be “family” to the young people. Altogether, Bethany has 18 full-time staff, 12 of them faculty, as well as eight part-time staff. Bergen says that each faculty member schedules time to spend with the students in one-to-one encounters.
Bible school is also a place where students should be able to discover and develop their gifts, says Bergen. At an earlier time, a good number of Bethany graduates ended up in missionary or pastoral work. Since then, the number has decreased. But Bergen says that among the present crop of students, he finds many who have come to school ready to do mission, rather than needing to be convinced that it is necessary.
In accordance, Bethany is planning to introduce a missions minor in fall 1981. Ben Doerksen, instructor since 1968, is completing a doctorate in missiology at Fuller Seminary this year. Dave Bergen is teaching the missions course in his stead. He teaches a semester on Mennonite Brethren missions, which includes “lots of interesting stories,” according to one student.
As in other Bible schools, Bethany students are exposed to a continual parade of recruiters for faith mission, parachurch and camping agencies. These recruiters have familiar-sounding names like Koop and Unruh, and know where to look for young Christians who are earnestly seeking God’s will for their lives.
Bethany has opened wide the horizons of opportunity to include various kinds of contemporary communication, as well as competitive sports with a Christian character. “We’re always open to change,” says Lydia Reimer, dean of women. Instructor Gil Brandt teaches courses such as “Expressive Arts” to help students improve their communication skills. Brandt also heads up the dramatic efforts of the school. He supervises major productions in fall and spring, and coaches several small drama teams as well as the music-drama group, “His workmanship.”
Sheryl Coffin, a third-year student from Regina and now from Saskatoon, has enjoyed acting in dramatic productions at the school, and hopes to continue studying Christian drama after graduating this year. Student council president Arlen Bartsch of Dalmeny, Sask., is interested in the communication potential of multi-media. He has felt encouragement from the students for his photography through the communications committee, and says that Gil Brandt’s Christian education course gives opportunities for interests like his. Arlen is a Christian education major who appreciates courses taught by Alvin Enns, including “Christian leadership” and “Anabaptist theology.”
Music and sports
Music, a traditional attraction at Bible schools, remains a strong program under Neil Matthies and Phil Siebert. Matthies directs the school’s chorale and teaches voice lessons. He brings with him many years of experience in teaching music in Bible institutes, including Columbia Bible Institute in Clearbrook, B.C. Phil Siebert graduated from MBBC in 1979. Among his duties this spring are to see through the production of a musical titled “The Witness.”
The sports program at Bethany has attracted a number of students in the past few years. Development of the sports program is partly the work of Doug Berg, who came on faculty after graduating from Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in 1978. Doug holds a BEd in math and physical education from the University of Saskatchewan. He is sports director at Bethany in addition to teaching biblical studies.
Bethany competes in the Athletic Association of Prairie Bible Colleges in hockey, badminton, curling, basketball and volleyball. It also sports a soccer team. The hockey team mixes with Saskatoon churches through the Christian Fellowship Hockey League there. The Saskatchewan government no longer allows post-secondary schools to host tournaments with high school teams, so Bethany is considering any options in providing students with chances to play.
Bible school life wouldn’t be complete without dormitories. “The classroom is not really where things happen,” suggests Doug Berg. “The pulse of the school is in the dorms at around 10:30 each evening.” Faculty members at Bible schools always seem to be working at that particular balance of freedom and discipline which will make dorm life the best possible experience for the students.
“Deep down, students really want discipline,” says Berg. Along with Lydia Reimer and Milfred Wall, dean of men, Berg invests a lot of time in this proposition. His strongest desire has become to have students feel at home in his office, to listen to students and to be a sounding board for them. He had more students visit his office during the fall semester, he says, than during his first two years at the school. Other staff members could tell a similar story of close involvement with students.
Lydia Reimer and Milfred Wall team-taught a course during the fall semester for residence assistants around the book How to be a people helper. Lydia feels that if her 10 assistants feel comfortable and encouraged in their work, they will do the best disciplining job possible. She meets with each of the girls every two weeks, and also has the whole group in for breakfast every two weeks.
A large part of Lydia’s time is spent getting to know girls in a personal way. She estimates she had 240 visits to her home during the fall semester. Part of this work is simply to make the girls feel welcome at the school, and to break own the negative connotations of the term “dean.” But it is also to help students grow spiritually and to “see that Christianity is something practical rather than simply theoretical.” She tells students some of her own hassles, she says, so that they can see that there are answers for everyday problems.
All of these things come together to form the Bible school experience: instruction in God’s Word, opening the horizons of service opportunity, hearing the points of view of other Christians, building relationships, living in dormitories – in a phrase, being the church together. It’s an experience which Bethany Bible Institute claims is “an investment that brings eternal dividends.”