Institutions, Church

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Given their collective size, the Mennonite churches are among the most institutionalized of churches. Their institutions represent various dimensions of Mennonite life in their corporate forms. Proliferation of Mennonite institutions during the 20th century reflects the vitality of Mennonite life and the breadth of Mennonite concern.

That Mennonites should organize institutions on a per-capita-member basis in excess of the major denominations is ironic in light of Mennonite history and theology. Mennonite theology is anti-institutional. Mennonites have defined the church strictly in communal terms. The church consists of congregations organized for personal communion; not institutions organized for mission. Mennonites focus upon what happens when "two or three are gathered together" for (usually non-liturgical) worship, fellowship, mutual support and discipline. Anabaptists reacted against the "institutional" church as an establishment with its objective (sacramental and liturgical) means of grace, its hierarchical organizations and its massive structures. The Anabaptists attempted to strip down the church to its New Testament proportions. Since they believed that primitive Christianity had no institutions, Anabaptists and Mennonites resisted institutionalization for some 300 years and to this day Mennonites have no theology of institutions. The anti-institutional tendencies of sectarian Christianity are well documented and interpreted by sociologists, e.g., Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch. They made the classic distinction between the Gemeinschaft (Community) and the Gesellschaft (society, or association).

That Mennonites would sometime come to terms with institutionalization could have been predicted on the basis of the history of the Christian church as well as the rudimentary principle that continuous, corporate, goal-oriented activity will require organization, bureaucracy, routinization, authority, and defined responsibilities. The establishment of Mennonite institutions was to place on a permanent basis activities which could not be carried out personally and intermittently. Church institutions grow out of the universal implications of the gospel as a source of knowledge and as a healing and reconciling power: hence mission boards, elementary and secondary church schools, Bible schools, colleges, seminaries relief organizations, hospitals, church camps, retirement homes and mutual aid societies. Even patterns of worship and respect for tradition are forms of institutionalization. These followed periods when the vitality and the vision of the church were renewed and broadened. Ironically interpretations of Christianity during times of renewal are distinctly personal, often reactionist. But with few exceptions the Spirit settles into permanent structures as the church seeks to conserve its gains and transmit its experience to succeeding generations.

Two historical developments account in particular for institutional developments in United States and Canada: extension of fairly advanced institutional life among Russian Mennonites in the 19th century and influences stemming from the revivalistic movement among Mennonites at the beginning of the 20th century -- the so-called Mennonite "Renaissance," "Awakening," or "Quickening." The earliest American Mennonite institutions were founded by General Conference Mennonites (General Conference Mennonite) -- the Wadsworth School in Ohio (1868) and Bethel College in Kansas (1893). Goshen College was founded in 1903 and thereafter colleges and seminaries followed in response to theological and regional needs.

Mennonites, as representatives of the free church (Believers' Church) tradition, espoused accepted principles of institutional authorization and legitimization. Mennonite institutions have come into existence here and there at the initiative of concerned individuals or as a result of regional conference action. Sometimes institutions have been started as private "enterprises" and later turned over to the church. Some Mennonite institutions are legally independent of any conference or denomination even though they are well integrated into Mennonite life. Sometimes Mennonite institutions have been organized in direct opposition to other Mennonite institutions.

Mennonites also founded schools, hospitals, and leper asylums in China and India at the beginning of the 20th century. In India institutions preceded congregations because famines left a legacy of need that could be met only by organizations of a permanent sort. To be sure, mission policies changed after World War II in the face of high costs and political problems. Nevertheless, Mennonites planted in foreign countries a considerable number of institutions, some of which were nationalized but continue to serve human needs.

One of the values of Mennonite institutions is their cohesive role within Mennonite communities. Beyond their evident purposes such as educational, medical, retirement, relief services, Mennonite institutions serve as centers where Mennonites of various groups meet. Institutions assist in identity formation. Sometimes they serve as catalysts, as preservers of the tradition, and as places where Mennonites interact with the world. Mennonite hospitals, mental institutions, colleges and seminaries accommodate people of all kinds and sorts. "Where there are no institutions the people perish" (cf. Proverbs 29:18, King James Version) may be too strong a statement, but is one which is sometimes pressed to counter anti-institutional sentiments frequently manifest by Mennonites, particularly those of the Swiss-German ethnic origins.

It would appear that Mennonites are good managers of institutions. Administrations are usually efficient, honest, and responsible. Were it not for good administration, many Mennonite institutions would not survive since they are as a rule inadequately funded. Most college histories include chapters telling about underpaid, if not unpaid, faculty. Buildings are generally simple and functional with little regard for aesthetics. Endowments are small. Some Mennonite leaders go out of their way to insist that institutions are not the church. Rather they are "agencies" or "arms" of the church. At best they are "servants" of the church. Mennonites frequently fail to understand that institutions represent a "permanent" commitment to the church and to the world. The chief executive officer (CEO) of a Mennonite institution sometimes faces a dilemma representative of conflicting interpretation of Christian ethics. On the one hand, Mennonites sometime expect the institutions to "take no thought for the morrow," to shun endowments and large. gifts, while the other hand they demand balanced budgets based upon aggressive financial campaigns, slick advertising, wise investment, and prudent hiring and firing (personnel management). In general, it may be said that Mennonites have not faced the sociological and theological implications of institutional life. Were they to do so, they would come to terms theologically with reasonable capital investments, at least moderate wealth, long-term commitments and structures for which justice is the operative principle. Ironically they sometimes expect Mennonite institutions to be run according to Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft principles at the same time.

Having said that, however, Mennonite institutions quite properly seek ways by which some of the principles of the Gemeinschaft may ameliorate the structures of the Gesellschaft. Mennonite institutions frequently seek to provide an atmosphere of care, generosity, warmth, and imagination reflecting some of the better aspects of Mennonite life. Also vertical authority structures are qualified by cross-departmental communication, by thoughtful administration and by distributing power as far as efficiency and order will permit. What cannot be accomplished structurally is sometimes accomplished by fostering an ethos of concern and affection.

In the modern world it has been generally assumed by sociologists and political reformers that institutions are so conservative that they cannot be prophetic. Historically institutions have been the object of prophetic criticism rather than the sources of prophecy. Prophets according to the stereotype are lonely individuals after the image of Amos and Hosea who, as outsiders and therefore uncorrupted by power, lay their message on the king. In this connection, some have assumed that the withdrawn community is in a stronger position to be nonconformed and therefore prophetically authentic than the socially involved institution. But that is not how it has worked out for Mennonites during the 20th century. Almost invariably Mennonite institutions have led the church in the prophetic ministry. Mennonite colleges, seminaries, and mental health institutions have generally been more conscious of the need for social change than the general Mennonite constituency.

Furthermore, Mennonite institutions have been the principal carriers of Mennonite historical consciousness in many sections of the church. Congregations have not been a significant source of new and creative ideas. Almost all creative changes in 20th century Mennonite life may be attributed to the thinking of people in the institutional situation. Many institutions, such as colleges and seminaries, have as many of the "marks" of the church as most congregations, even though, according to Mennonite doctrine ecclesiology, they are not given the dignity of being the church. The theological status of church institutions within congregational order is a classical issue yet to be considered by Mennonites.

One of the problems facing Mennonites is what some would consider an inordinate demand of institutions upon Mennonite leadership potential. Institutions must be administered; hence many able leaders who may otherwise serve the church as pastors, scholars, teachers, and missionaries are drawn into administrative positions. They may make fine contributions as administrators but some of their more creative energies are squelched. Some pastors are drawn to institutional careers because the expectations of Mennonite institutions offer greater job security, albeit low salaries. Sometimes church administration offers professional identity over against the undefined character of the Mennonite "lay" ministry.

One of the most significant contributions of institutions and church agencies is their impact upon Mennonite consciousness of the world. Experience as relief workers, missionaries, and volunteers in disaster situations in many continents enables Mennonites to break out of ethnic boundaries. Through Mennonite agencies such as Mennonite Central Committee, and Disaster Service organizations, Mennonites have become "world citizens" transcending to a significant degree national and cultural differences.

It should also be pointed out that many institutions founded by Mennonites have become controlled by boards representing communities at large. They may be said to be quasi-Mennonite. Oak Lawn Psychiatric Center and Hospital at Elkhart and Goshen, Ind.; Mennonite Hospital at Bloomington, Ill.; and Kings View at Reedley, Cal., are examples of institutions founded by Mennonites but which are viewed by most people as community institutions even though Mennonites as individuals may continue to occupy administrative positions and serve as members of the board.

The future of Mennonite institutions is ambiguous. Some are struggling for survival while others are being enlarged or created anew. Since the Mennonite churches have no effective central control (polity), it may be presumed that economic factors may be more significant in determining the future of Mennonite institutions than consideration of the mission of Mennonites as a whole.


Redekop, Calvin. "Institutions, Power, and the Gospel," in Kingdom, Cross, and Community, ed. J. R. Burkholder and C. Redekop. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976: 138-50.

Research in progress (1990) by Albert J. Meyer, Mennonite Board of Education (MC).

Tonkin, John. The Church and the Secular Order in Reformation Thought. New York: Columbia U. Press, 1971.

Author(s) J. Lawrence Burkholder
Date Published 1989

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Burkholder, J. Lawrence. "Institutions, Church." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 24 Jan 2022.,_Church&oldid=88252.

APA style

Burkholder, J. Lawrence. (1989). Institutions, Church. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 January 2022, from,_Church&oldid=88252.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 441-443. All rights reserved.

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