The board of Bethany College, Hepburn, Sask., emerged from December meetings with sobering news: the current school year (2014–2015) will be the 87-year-old rural Saskatchewan institution’s final year.
The college, co-sponsored by the Mennonite Brethren churches of Saskatchewan and Alberta, and the Saskatchewan Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference, began in 1927 and was renamed in 2002, following full accreditation with the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges.
A long-term trend of declining enrollment hit a critical point in spring 2014 with projected numbers for 2014/2015 well behind previous years’.
The college sent out appeals for financial support, prayer and students and laid off staff for the summer. Constituency response made the current year possible, but despite an October discernment summit where key denominational and church partners affirmed the need for places like Bethany to disciple young people and offer leadership training, the board determined the college would cease operation “in its current iteration” in 2015.
Interest in discipleship continues
“The trend is that [Bible] schools have been declining for a long time,” says Ron Toews, director of L2L, the Canadian Conference of MB Churches’ leadership development arm.
“The closure of Bethany doesn’t change the reality that we need to continue walking alongside young women and men as they think about the foundation of their lives,” says Toews, pointing to the 1996 board of education document Description of a Growing Disciple as a rubric for evaluation. “I’d say there’s a whole new interest in what it means to be a disciple. Churches are taking this back within themselves.”
“My lament,” says Toews, “is that [discipleship training] may well be more piecemeal. Schools can do some things well in their ‘greenhouse’ environments; churches don’t have that kind of intensity.”
“I think [Bible school education] is absolutely crucial to mission because long-range missional energy is what we get through our institutions,” says Bethany academic dean Gil Dueck. “People think institutions will always exist. But it requires a long vision to sustain a thing like a theological school.”
“This is a moment for fresh imagination,” says Toews. “What does it take for the mission of Jesus to be fulfilled among us?”
Current lament, future hope
The future of Bethany College’s campus, staff and faculty are unknown. “Our first priority is to ensure that students are cared for,” says Dueck. “We intend to sit down with each individual student,” says Dueck, to ensure a strategy for the furtherance of their education.
Most of the third-year students can graduate with a bachelor of biblical studies or receive a BA in 2016 after completing an internship with a church or ministry. Second-year students can receive a diploma, and have good transferability prospects with partner schools and colleges.
“Of course,” says Dueck, “none of this fully satisfies those students who fully intended to finish a Bethany degree and who are now grieving that loss.”
Saskatchewan MB director of ministry Terrance Froese acknowledges the sadness of the closure and expresses gratitude for the legacy of staff and students of the octogenarian institution. “It’s a hard decision, but a clear one,” he says, “and clarity is very helpful in these situations.”
Froese says the provincial conference will continue to support discipleship training through scholarships for post-secondary study, and internships with local churches and agencies.
“In some sense, this closure opens a whole new door for something we don’t know God is bringing.”
In a similar spirit, the Bethany board of directors expressed “its sincere desire that this decision will not mark the end of conversation around discipleship and theological formation” and invited “input from any who are interested in this vital ministry going forward.”
“What doesn’t change,” says Toews, “is the need for believers and local churches to grow in their understanding of the Word. We’ve just got to reimagine a fresh and succinct articulation of the role of theological education.”
MB Herald stories
Church and school lean in (Oct. 8, 2014)
Bethany Sunday (June 22, 2014)
Invest without spending a cent: Bethany College program partners students with supporters for prayer (Oct. 1, 2013)
Bethany College releases