Calling shaped church in 20th century

Jul 6, 2015 by

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Biographer John E. Sharp suggests most Mennonites younger than 60 are unacquainted with the life of Orie O. Miller. An extraordinarily influential lay leader in the Mennonite Church, Miller was an entrepreneur who served a long tenure as chief executive of Mennonite Central Committee. He and others developed a host of programs and organizations, including the Civilian Public Ser­vice church-government partnership, Mennonite Economic Development Associates and Menno Travel Service.

imgresRaised in an Indiana Amish Mennonite farm family, Miller took inspiration from his father’s ministry in Mennonite congregations and his parents’ appreciation for books and education. Arriving at Goshen College in 1910, he studied business and within two years joined the school’s business faculty, simultaneously taking courses in the liberal arts.

Drawn to ministry, he assumed he would be called to serve a Mennonite congregation or go abroad as a missionary. Ironically, however, the biography’s title, My Calling, references a key theme of Miller’s life: Instead of a ministerial career, he joined — reluctantly — the successful shoe-manufacturing business in Lancaster County, Pa., owned by his wife’s family.

Miller’s calling, he eventually discerned, was to combine Christian service with business. The entrepreneurial Miller, “after struggling mightily,” Sharp says, “accepted his gift for administration . . . . expressed in a myriad of ministries.”

An early participant in the emerging MCC, Miller, at age 26, traveled in 1919 with eight other Mennonites to Syria for the Mennonite Relief Commission for War Sufferers, which provided personnel for Near East Relief, a partner of the Red Cross. In Beirut, where he worked with American Presbyterian missionaries, Miller advocated for Mennonite relief and mission work to begin in the Soviet Union.

His formative experiences in Beirut, Sharp notes, taught him “that Mennonites were not the only ones who had a heart for such ministries. The 30 Mennonites who served in Syria, Turkey and Palestine were only a small part of a larger interfaith and international relief effort in the Middle East. . . . Here [were roots] of ecumenical and global impulses.”

Two years later, as a youthful director of MCC’s Relief Unit in Constantinople and South Russia, Miller’s work with the nascent international relief organization would provide lifelong credibility as he led North American Mennonites in missions and peacemaking efforts.

Sharp offers a portrait of an admirable servant leader, given to diligence, discipline and humility. Considering Miller’s access to wealth and interest in financing churchwide endeavors, his economic philosophy as a mid-20th-century American capitalist is telling: “It’s OK to make money, but you don’t want to die a rich man.”

Miller traveled prodigiously on behalf of his shoe-manufacturing firm and for church agencies. As sales director of Miller, Hess and Co., he took his first commercial flight on American Airlines in 1932 (Kansas City to Omaha). Representing MCC and other institutions, he made dozens of transatlantic ship crossings in decades when overseas air travel was still uncommon.

Never ordained but generally respected in his adopted Mennonite milieu of eastern Pennsylvania, Miller turned his business base in the community of Akron into the organizational home for MCC and the locus for multiple faith-based enterprises: Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, Goodville Mutual Casualty Co., Landis Homes.

In this telling, Miller had a consistently broader outlook than Lancaster Mennonite Conference leaders whose concern for discipline in dress and other cultural matters Miller regarded as provincial. Not given to drama, he picked his battles with eastern conservatives and sometimes acquiesced, sometimes pushed back, usually in low-key style.

Further, Sharp suggests that Miller “represented his generation’s Protestant pattern of paternalistic missions, and he embodied great authority, yet . . . . his paternalism did not mean imperialism or colonialism.”

Based on Miller’s correspondence with family and associates, as well as dozens of personal interviews, this volume offers an appreciative, insider’s look at a Mennonite leader whose progressivism and global outlook, Sharp asserts, remain exemplary in the 21st century.

This approach, of course, has limits, since readers of Mennonite history might wish for a more critical analysis of what constituted colonialism, or patriarchy, or ethnocentrism in North American Mennonite institutions’ recent past.

While Sharp’s biography bypasses those issues, other scholars are certainly engaging that work, including Alain Epp Weaver in his edited volume A Table of Sharing (2011), a provocative analysis of MCC’s first 90 years.

And while Sharp lauds Miller’s business acumen and managerial style, he leaves opportunities for others to bring a critical eye to North American Mennonite business practices, as Canadian historian Janis Thiessen has done in her labor-oriented appraisal, Manufacturing Mennonites (2013).

My Calling to Fulfill is a commissioned work, with funding provided primarily by MCC, as well as from the Anabaptist Center for Religion and Society, based in Harrisonburg, Va., from the financial services organization Everence, and other sources. Significantly, however, no shoe company is among the underwriters. The once-lucrative Miller, Hess and Co. filed for bankruptcy in 1984, seven years after Orie Miller’s death.

Miller died “according to plan,” his biographer concludes, having directed members of his family that his assets were to be given away. Today, the eastern Pennsylvania shoe factory building that in decades past undergirded Miller’s bent for Christian service has been repurposed as headquarters for Ten Thousand Villages, the successful fair-trade organization.

Rachel Waltner Goossen teaches history at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.


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