Ministry (Prusso-Russian Background Mennonites)

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Ministry (German, Diener am Wort, Lehrer, Dutch, dienaar, leraar) of Mennonites of Prusso-Russian Background.

Among the Mennonites of Danzig, Prussia, Poland, and Russia Dutch traditions pertaining to the ministry were retained over many generations and even transplanted to the prairie states and provinces of North America and South America in a somewhat modified form. The Danzig church record, beginning with the activities of Peter Classen in 1667, gives a list of ministers from the days of Dirk Philips to the 19th century, and a list of the elders (oudsten) and preachers (dienaar int' woort) from 1598 to 1805, together with interesting information on the election of elders, ministers, and deacons. The congregation always had one elder and from two to five ministers and a number of deacons. At times the elder had a co-elder. A number of candidates were nominated at a congregational meeting, and the one receiving the largest number of votes was considered elected. On 17 August 1800 the election procedure differed considerably from the previous method, in that the church council nominated candidates, from whom the congregation elected the one they wished to have serve as minister. The candidate with the highest number of votes had 41, the next had 30, and the third had 20. The one with 41 votes was considered elected.

In later days it frequently occurred that candidates elected were not willing to accept the responsibilities of the ministry. On the other hand, the candidate who was elected was on "probation" for some time before he was ordained. There was always a possibility that he would remain a candidate and never be ordained. The following entry in the Danzig church record on 1 February 1801 is characteristic: "In the country church where Jacob Bartsch resigned from his ministerial duties and Gerhard Fast was deprived of his ministerial duties, there was an election of a deacon and minister. First two deacons were chosen. Gerhard Dyk with 25 votes, Klaas Reimer with 24 votes. Of these two deacons one was elected minister. Klaas Reimer was elected with 21 votes. Both men accepted the office. May the Lord strengthen them." (Klaas Reimer founded the Kleine Gemeinde in Russia.) On 10 February 1805 the congregation elected two ministers, both of whom refused to accept the call. In the early 19th century it became extremely difficult to find members of the congregation willing to serve as lay ministers (Mannhardt). This led to the calling of theologically trained salaried ministers. Jacob van der Smissen, the first such minister, began serving the Danzig Mennonite Church on 9 July 1826. Elbing followed this practice. This changed the traditional Mennonite pattern of a multiple lay ministry. The theologically trained and salaried minister served as elder and pastor of the congregation, assisted by the deacons. The lay ministers were "retired" and died out. In the rural Prussian and Polish churches, with the exception of Lemberg, Galicia, the old system prevailed until World War II, at which time the Mennonites of this territory were dispersed.

With the change in the function of the minister came also changes in preaching. Originally the minister delivered the sermon seated on a somewhat elevated chair without a pulpit (Mannhardt, 106). On both sides of the preacher sat the co-ministers. The sermon was delivered without notes in the Dutch language. During the second half of the 18th century the Dutch was changed to German. The first German sermon in the Flemish Mennonite Church of Danzig was preached by Gerhard Wiebe of Elbing on 19 September 1762. "Since the congregation was not used to this he did not find general approval." With this gradual shift from Dutch to German it became common for a minister to stand while preaching and to follow an outline. This necessitated the introduction of a pulpit. Hans von Steen complained that "the beautiful simplicity is disappearing more and more from Menno's church." The change was probably brought about by developments in the Mennonite churches of the Netherlands, where the practice of writing out sermons and delivering them verbatim no doubt originated. Numerous sermons from the beginning and middle of the 18th century have been preserved in the Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College (North Newton, Kansas) coming from Prussian, Old Colony, and Kleine Gemeinde ministers. Some were written by the Dutch minister Pieter Pietersz, and (according to entries on the cover) were delivered in various congregations and at times also repeated in the same congregation. This practice prevailed in Russia until men like Bernhard Harder began to preach without notes. Among the conservative groups, such as the Old Colony Mennonites, the old practice has been retained to this day.

The Mennonites of Russia retained the multiple unsalaried lay ministry until the end of the 19th century. With the improvement of educational facilities and the raising of the educational standard within the congregation it became necessary to deviate from this old practice, just as had been the case in Danzig and in Holland. In Holland in the early days the congregation frequently elected the ministers from the ranks of practicing physicians. In Russia the teaching profession was considered most suitable for the ministry. Before World War I the Mennonites of Russia had some 32 elders in the Mennonite Church and 15 in the Mennonite Brethren Church, with a total of 500 ministers. Of this total about one third were or had been teachers with a secondary school training. Two thirds had only an elementary education. Twenty-five of these ministers had received theological training in some place following the pattern of the urban Mennonite churches of Germany and the Netherlands. They encountered difficulties with the government in establishing a seminary. The outbreak of World War I and the consequent Revolution prevented the Mennonites of Russia from building their own theological seminary.

On 8 April 1910 the Halbstadt Church meeting regarding the establishment of a church fund for the theological training of ministers stated that it would be impossible in the future to follow the old practice pertaining to the ministry, and that without intending to break with the practice of electing and maintaining a lay ministry, the time had come when the minister deserved remuneration. The ministerial candidate should also have an opportunity to obtain theological training in short-range Bible courses as well as in theological seminaries; for this purpose a budget of 2,060 rubles was to be created, and the money raised by a special method (Friesen, 760). Numerous attempts were made to create a theological seminary in connection with the secondary Mennonite schools in Russia or by establishing Bible schools. Not all of the plans could be realized. However, the Bible courses offered for ministers in larger congregations were of great significance.

Some of the older congregations with cultural centers and secondary schools had quite a high ratio of ministers with a secondary and theological education. Statistics of the Chortitza Mennonite Church of 1928 reveal that of the total of 18 ministers and 10 deacons of the church and its subsidiaries, 10 had a secondary education including religious training and one had theological training. A similar situation was recorded regarding the Nikolaipol Mennonite Church and the Kronsweide Mennonite Church (Unser Blatt III, April 1928, p. 176; May 1928, p. 193).

In the prairie states and provinces of North America the Mennonites of Prussian, Polish, and Russian background continued the practices to which they had been accustomed in the old country. Gradually an adjustment to the environment and to new needs took place. This change was first effected in the United States. One of the reasons which speeded up the shift from the unsalaried multiple lay ministry to a single theologically trained and paid minister was the change from the German to the English language in worship services. As in Russia, Prussia, and Holland the rise of the educational level of the laity also caused the downfall of the old system here. In the United States in the congregations of the General Conference Mennonite Church, the Mennonite Brethren Church, and the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Church the change was nearly complete by the 1950s. A minister was hardly ever elected from the members of the congregation to serve for a lifetime without special preparation and remuneration. As a rule he continued his training beyond college at a seminary or Bible school. After he received a call from the congregation he entered into a contract with the congregation for one or a number of years. The old division of duties whereby the minister preached only and the elder was responsible for administering baptism and the Lord's Supper was discontinued. The present-day pastor takes care of all ministerial and elder duties, although much of the work of administration may be done by the church council of the congregation or the board of deacons.

The former Prusso-Russian pattern had been retained most fully among the Mennonites in Canada (in the 1950s), Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay, with Canada showing greater changes than the other countries. With the rapid changes from German to English it would most probably follow the usual pattern of the United States. In the 1950s most of the Canadian congregations in the General Conference Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren, and other groups still had one elder or leader and a number of ministers, up to five or even ten. However, there was a tendency toward a salaried one-minister system. The Russo-Canadian Mennonites had til then drawn heavily upon the teachers from Russia. They were now producing their own ministers. Young men were being prepared in the two Canadian Mennonite Bible colleges of Winnipeg; many of them go on to other Mennonite colleges and seminaries.

A 1950s study revealed that in the United States there was a constant turnover in the ministry. The practice of electing a lifetime minister from the membership of the congregation was past. Most of the General Conference Mennonite congregations had had from two to five ministers within the previous 25 years, indicating that the tenure was from five to twelve years. It is likely that the situation was similar among the Mennonite Brethren, Evangelcial Mennonite Brethren, and Krimmer Mennonite Brethren groups. The larger congregations apparently had a slightly higher rate of change in the ministry than the smaller congregations.

All ministers of the General Conference Mennonite congregations of the United States were partially or fully supported, whereas in Canada 50 per cent were self-supporting in the 1950s. In the United States 69 per cent were fully supported, and 28 per cent partially supported. Almost all General Conference Mennonite ministers in the United States serving congregations of more than 150 were fully supported. In most of the larger congregations the salary of a minister was equal to that of a faculty member in a Mennonite college. In some of the large congregations an assistant minister or a minister of music was employed. The Mennonite Brethren situation was very similar to that of the General Conference Mennonites, except in Canada, where there were as yet few fully trained and salaried ministers. The old ministerial pattern was best preserved in Church of God in Christ, Mennonite congregations, which were mostly of Polish background.

A unique incident was related by H. B. Schmidt, which may have represented a general practice among the Mennonites of Prussia and Poland. When the brethren of the Friedenstal Church (Tampa, Kansas) visited him to ask him to become their minister they gave him a farewell kiss (which had originally been a general practice but was then restricted to this occasion).

The trend toward a supported ministry began in the Eastern District Conference before World War I and spread westward to the Western District Conference, and was nearly completed by the 1950s. The process was a little slower in the Northern District.

In the 1950s, fifty per cent of the Canadian General Conference churches had from two to four ministers, the other 50 per cent having only one. Most of the elders served more than one congregation. About half of the congregations had called their ministers from within the congregation in the previous ten years.

In some of the congregations it was a practice to license a ministerial candidate to preach before he was ordained. This was in keeping with the old tradition in the Danzig Mennonite Church. It was also in keeping with the Anabaptist emphasis that the minister and his family were expected to be the best representatives of a consecrated disciplined congregation. A high ethical standard was still emphasized more than eloquence and education.


Buller, Harold W. "The Problem of Pastoral Responsibility in the General Conference Mennonite Church in Its American Environment." Dissertation, Princeton, 1952.

"Danzig Mennonite Church Record." Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College (North Newton, Kansas, USA).

Friedrichsen, K. "Die Allgemeine Mennonitische Bibelschule." Unser Blatt I: 280; II: 101.

Friesen, P. M. "Der geistliche Charakter der Gemeinde und der Predigerschaft." Die Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Brüderschaft in Russland (1789-1910) im Rahmen der mennonitischen Gesamtgeschichte. Halbstadt: Verlagsgesellschaft "Raduga", 1911: 730-766.

Krahn, Cornelius "The Office of an Elder in Anabaptist Mennonite History." Mennonite Quarterly Review 30 (April 1956): 120 ff.

Mannhardt, H. G. Die Danziger Mennonitengemeinde. Danzig, 1919.

Shelly, M. "Practices and Trends in Mennonite Congregations." Proceedings of the Study Conference on the Believers' Church. Newton, 1955: 27 ff.

Regier, P. K. and I. I. Friesen. "Values and Problems of the Lay and the Supported Ministry." Proceedings of the Study Conference on the Believers' Church. Newton, 1955: 197 ff.

Author(s) Cornelius Krahn
Date Published 1957

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Krahn, Cornelius. "Ministry (Prusso-Russian Background Mennonites)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 24 Jul 2024.

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Krahn, Cornelius. (1957). Ministry (Prusso-Russian Background Mennonites). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 24 July 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 701-703. All rights reserved.

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