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Winds of change, breath of Spirit reframe theological education on Great Plains

Laurie Oswald Robinson

June 10, 2014

Floyd Bartel, Jacob T. Friesen and Dotty Janzen are former directors of the conference-based theological education program in central Kansas. At the far right are Dorothy Nickel Friesen, interim director of AMBS-Great Plains Extension, and Rebecca Slough, AMBS academic dean. They were among the congregation celebrating the closing-yet-ongoing work of AMBS-Great Plains on June 1 at Bethel College Mennonite Church.

Floyd Bartel, Jacob T. Friesen and Dotty Janzen are former directors of the conference-based theological education program in central Kansas. At the far right are Dorothy Nickel Friesen, interim director of AMBS-Great Plains Extension, and Rebecca Slough, AMBS academic dean. They were among the congregation celebrating the closing-yet-ongoing work of AMBS-Great Plains on June 1 at Bethel College Mennonite Church.

To deal with the winds of change, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) is closing its Great Plains Extension in North Newton. It is being replaced by options that are responding to the needs of today’s theological students and to fresh breezes of the Spirit.

In a “closing yet ongoing” celebration, the AMBS community gathered June 1 at Bethel College Mennonite Church in North Newton for a late afternoon worship service and reception. Current and past administrators, professors and students and other guests marked the transition with reflections, responsive scripture readings, hymn-singing and special music.

Varied emotions enriched the celebration—feelings of loss and uncertainty but also of gratitude for God’s faithfulness since the birth of the Great Plains Seminary Education Program in 1980. Sara Wenger Shenk, AMBS president, and Rebecca Slough, AMBS academic dean, symbolized the reconfiguration of AMBS-Great Plains into AMBS-Kansas Center as time for renewal rather than regret.

The change, fueled in part by declining enrollment, is replacing a full roster of on-site courses each semester with the offering of just one class each semester. This is in conjunction with the main AMBS campus in Elkhart, Ind., offering new online and hybrid course options.

“Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary is becoming accessible and re-vitalized in new ways,” Wenger Shenk said. “Program innovations at the Elkhart campus now allow students in this region and many regions to engage creatively in learning opportunities that don’t require relocation.”

Changing times change structures

The process of training leaders for God’s reconciling mission is changing, said AMBS–Great Plains interim director Dorothy Nickel Friesen. Her charge was to conduct an in-depth assessment of the extension site during the last six months of 2013.

“In the late 1970s, there were no graduate theological centers of training within miles of central Kansas, which made an extension site a great idea,” she said in a late May interview. “In 2014, a graduate education in theology is available at anyone’s computer and is offered at many other centers close by.”

As a result of the assessment findings, the Great Plains Advisory Board recommended closing the extension site in January 2014. Nickel Friesen then helped envision and forge a different accreditation option allowing graduate courses to be offered in Kansas at a reduced frequency. An administrative team including four members from Kansas and three from Elkhart, along with a local coordinator, will manage the AMBS–Kansas Center. The offices and classroom will return to offices on the north side of Western District Conference (WDC) on July 1.

“These changes have pushed us to become more nimble, more practical, more creative,” Nickel Friesen said. “Obviously, we are experiencing feelings of sadness and loss. But by choosing to reframe and renew ourselves rather than closing altogether, we are also giving ourselves the opportunity to see this as a great time.”

Four decades of great times

Other speakers at the celebration reflected on the many great times that have shaped AMBS–Great Plains history through its four decades. “Seminary-level graduate study was not an option in central Kansas,” Duane Friesen said about the beginnings. “The nearest seminary options were Kansas City to the east, Denver to the west, Enid, Okla., to the south or Dubuque, Iowa, to the north. This was, of course, before online courses and before Friends University developed a graduate program in Christian Ministries.”

During the second decade, a greater connection to the AMBS curriculum grew and offices and classes were centered in the WDC conference site. “Nothing I have experienced in my life has brought such joy and frustration, unleashed such humility and thankfulness, plunged me toward wholeness and so many larger-than-life experiences than being a pastor,” Debbie Schmidt, former student and pastor, said. “It was a journey shaped by Great Plains.”

The AMBS–Great Plains Extension site was established in 2002 with approval by the accrediting bodies of AMBS. “Thanks to those visionaries who dreamed up this AMBS extension, and those who over the years have put their heart and energy into this effort to cultivate ‘the mind of Christ’ among us,” Jim Jantzen, student and auditor, said.

Wenger Shenk reminded the gathered participants, “Our centers of theological education are what help form compassionate, competent and confident leaders who play an immense role in the flourishing of our Christian communities.”

At the reception following the worship service, a report of statistics by Rebecca Slough, AMBS academic dean, helped to honor many who have been part of the conference-based and seminary extension program in central Kansas. Eighty-two professors taught at least one course through the 34-year history, Slough said, including five core adjunct faculty members: Duane Friesen, Keith Harder, Patty Shelly, Cynthia Neufeld Smith and Jerry Truex. Thirty-eight people served on the advisory board for AMBS–Great Plains. Marlene Faul gave administrative support for more than nine years and Lois Barrett served as director of the extension site from 2002 until 2013.

Members of the administrative team for AMBS–Kansas Center as well as the coordinator will be announced soon. Information about courses and other offerings through AMBS–Kansas Center will be available on the AMBS website: www.ambs.edu/kansascenter.

Visit a photo gallery from the celebration event.