Nebraska university with Mennonite roots to close

Oct 12, 2017 by and

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Grace University in Omaha, Neb., founded by Mennonites in 1943 as Grace Bible Institute, announced Oct. 3 it will close at the end of the academic year.

The interdenominational school was unable to overcome mounting deficits and declining enrollment, which fell to 298.

Enrollment fell to 298 this fall at Grace University, which was founded by General Conference Mennonites in 1943. — Grace University

Enrollment fell to 298 this fall at Grace University, which was founded by General Conference Mennonites in 1943. — Grace University

Although its Mennonite identity declined significantly after a few decades, Grace influenced many Mennonite pastors and educators, especially in the former General Conference Mennonite Church.

Historian Paul Toews wrote in Mennonites in American Society, 1930-1970 that Grace was intended as a school for General Conference Mennonites “of fundamentalist bent.”

Grace’s first president, Cornelius H. Suckau of Berne, Ind., hoped to unite Mennonite fundamentalists, and in the 1950s the school claimed 10 Mennonite groups in its constituency, including multiple Mennonite Brethren groups.

Grace emerged from proposals to expand Oklahoma Bible Academy, a GC secondary school at Meno, Okla. Some people were concerned Mennonites studying at Bible schools such as Moody and Biola went on to pursue careers outside the fold. Yearbooks from Grace’s first few decades indicate a vast majority of the students had typical Germanic and Russian Mennonite surnames.

The school’s name was changed to Grace College of the Bible in 1979 and Grace University in 1995.

Fewer students, more debt

“The economic difficulties Grace has encountered over the past several years were due mainly to declining enrollment while initiatives to grow enrollment were unsuccessful,” wrote Carlon Tschetter, chair of the board of trustees, in the Oct. 3 announcement.

Grace ran deficits of $2.1 million in 2015 and $1.1 million the year before. The university surprised many in March when it announced plans to purchase the campus of defunct Dana College in Blair, Neb., and move there.

Inside Higher Ed reported Grace had about $7.5 million in debt before trustees began a plan to sell some property to Omaha Public Schools. Total sales should be worth about $9.5 million.

This fall’s freshmen class numbered 33 students, down from what was already a small class of 52 freshmen a year ago. Enrollment dropped by about 100.

Registrar Kris Udd said five students identified their denomination as Mennonite at enrollment this year. He said many attend nondenominational churches or don’t know their denomination. After “other,” the largest numbers of students belong to Baptist (53) and Evangelical Free (32) churches.

Different relationships

Greg Zielke, chair of the music department, felt Grace had a lot in common with Tabor College when he was a student at that MB institution in the late 1970s in Hillsboro, Kan., after growing up in an Evangelical Mennonite Brethren Church congregation.

“Back in those days there were a lot of students bouncing back and forth between Tabor and Grace,” he said. “There were family members and friends who had to decide between Grace and Tabor.”

He didn’t feel there was much of a Mennonite identity — cultural or theological — when he arrived on Grace’s staff in 1991.

“My dad told me, when he was in school, they had an office that helped the guys sign up for conscientious objector status, but he doesn’t know when that went away,” Zielke said. “We’ve had a relationship with the Air Force base for many years here trying to recruit soldiers to come to classes that wanted to get a Bible education.”

Take the Bible seriously

Now retired after a career in pastoral ministry, John Esau of North Newton, Kan., attended Grace for two years in the late 1950s before graduating from Goshen (Ind.) College. Being a Grace student was a natural extension of spending nearly half his childhood growing up on campus. His father was a traveling evangelist for Grace and pastor of the campus church, United Mennonite Church.

“They wanted us to take the Bible seriously — that part I caught on to,” Esau said. “I started reading the biblical text sort of beyond what was required for class and began to have questions that began to raise doubts in my mind about the whole theology of Grace. . . .

“That is really what continued to this day to inspire me. I find Scripture a continual resource of faith, but I read it in a different way than my time at Grace.”

Though he departed from the theology taught in Grace’s classrooms, Esau lived out the intentions of Grace’s founders to serve Mennonite congregations. He went on to be a pastor in Minneapolis and North Newton, eventually becoming director of ministerial leadership services for the General Conference from 1985 to 1999.

Influencing leaders

Raised in Montana, Erwin and Angela Rempel met at Grace as students in the 1960s. They estimated at least half the student body was Mennonite then. They got married the day after graduation in 1966.

The school emphasized evangelism and international missions, bolstered by mission workers sharing in chapel every Friday.

“It was very formative in our call as mission workers,” said Erwin Rempel, now living in Harrisonburg, Va. The Rempels served in Brazil with the General Conference and later Botswana in GC, Mennonite Central Committee and Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission roles. Erwin Rempel also held administrative positions with the General Conference and Mennonite Mission Network.

“My impression is that the Mennonite influence began to change in the years after we graduated,” Angela Rempel said. “The next school presidents [following Waldo Harder’s resignation in 1971] weren’t Mennonites. Both Erwin’s brother and sister were Grace alumni who worked at Grace as faculty and staff persons until about 1988.”

While many things have changed since Grace’s first few decades, a few core components have lasted all 75 years. The founders’ statement of faith hasn’t been altered, and choral music survived until the end.

“A lot of our students come from nondenominational churches that are totally praise-and-worship, but our heritage of the choirs is still very strong,” Zielke said. “In fact, this month with the closing of the school, all this is taking on another meaning.

“We were already planning a choir reunion for the 75th anniversary, and a whole bunch of people are coming back. I’m planning a concert that will celebrate all the years of the school.”

The choir reunion and performance is taking place Oct. 22 and includes music choirs sang in each of the institution’s eras.

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