New directors carry on work of AMBS research agency

New directors carry on work of AMBS research agency

Jamie Pitts, Ph.D. (at left), associate professor of Anabaptist studies; and Andy Brubacher Kaethler, Ph.D. (at right), associate professor of Christian formation and culture; are the new director and associate director of the Institute of Mennonite Studies (IMS), Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s research agency. They are pictured with Barbara Nelson Gingerich, A.M. in Divinity, IMS managing editor. (Credit: Peter Ringenberg)

By Annette Brill Bergstresser

Following the June 30 retirement of Mary H. Schertz, Ph.D., two new leaders are building on the foundation she laid in her 19 years as director of the Institute of Mennonite Studies (IMS). IMS is the research agency of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, where Schertz also served as professor of New Testament.

Jamie Pitts, Ph.D., associate professor of Anabaptist studies, has succeeded Schertz as IMS director, and Andy Brubacher Kaethler, Ph.D., associate professor of Christian formation and culture, is serving as associate director, a role that Lois Y. Barrett, Ph.D., professor of theology and Anabaptist studies, held for five years. Barbara Nelson Gingerich continues as IMS managing editor.

“Jamie brings a zeal for scholarly work seasoned with a deep faith and commitment to fervent discipleship,” said Rebecca Slough, academic dean, noting that Pitts’ work as editor of Anabaptist Witness and his fluency in Spanish offer opportunities for increased scholarly collaboration with mission workers and church leaders in Latin America and around the world. “And Andy’s abiding interests in nurturing faith across a Christian believer’s lifetime open new possibilities for hosting conferences that address how we continue to deepen our love for God, our neighbors and ourselves.”

During Schertz’s tenure with IMS, the research agency published 60 books; hosted various conferences that blended academic topics with the practical realities of the church; and initiated Scribes for the Reign of God, a collaborative faculty research project.

“Mary brought a persistent and focused vision to IMS’s work, seeking to integrate reliable academic work with the immediately practical life of the church,” Slough said. “She was committed to holding together orthodoxy (right believing), orthopraxy (right action) and orthopathy (right feeling) in the work of IMS, and in doing so, she took risks in publishing and in hosting conversations on difficult topics facing the Mennonite Church.” 

Under Schertz’s leadership, IMS has also worked jointly with Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) to publish 17 years of Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology, a semiannual publication that seeks to encourage theological reflection by church leaders on the identity, mission and practices of the church from an Anabaptist-Mennonite perspective. Brubacher Kaethler is now co-editing Vision with Abram Bergen, CMU director of church and alumni relations and a former professor of practical theology.

Inheriting a legacy

Prior to taking on their new roles, both Pitts and Brubacher Kaethler were involved with IMS as faculty representatives to the IMS Executive Committee. Brubacher Kaethler also served on the Vision Editorial Council.

“I found the work stimulating and fulfilling as an Executive Committee member and was glad to jump into directorship,” said Pitts, who had developed an interest in research centers while working on his Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland). “It’s a delight to be able to work with a research center dedicated to the kinds of passions and interests that are central to my own vocation.”

“Looking over the great list of directors and publications and conferences since IMS’s beginning in 1958, it is an incredible legacy to inherit,” he continued. “I feel like I have an incredible responsibility as well as freedom to develop this legacy going forward in all these different areas of publishing, working with faculty and engaging students and the church.”

Pitts said he looks forward to continuing IMS’s active series: Classics of the Radical Reformation; the Intercultural Biblical Hermeneutics Series; and Studies in Peace and Scripture. He’d like to see IMS help foment development in the field of Mennonite systematic theology. He hopes to expand on Barrett’s support of research on early Anabaptist sources and to publish more contemporary historical works on global Anabaptist churches.

“We too often jump from the 16th century to the present in how we think about our tradition,” he observed. “To really know who we are, we also need to tell stories of how the tradition has developed and taken different forms, and how that shapes our present — not just the origin stories.”

Pitts is also excited to continue to develop the annual collaborative faculty scholarship process that Schertz initiated — Scribes for the Reign of God (based on Matthew 13:52). The process entails sustained conversation among selected scholars who are researching a particular topic during the academic year and provides space to engage the AMBS community and church constituents along the way. In 2017–18, AMBS professors Malinda Berry and Allan Rudy-Froese are working collaboratively on the theme of “the body and embodiment” as part of the Scribes project.

“I’ve never heard of any other seminary or university doing a collaborative faculty process like this one,” Pitts noted.

Pitts highlighted another of Schertz’s unique contributions: an academic conference model that was “fully collaborative with the church.” The June 1–3, 2017, IMS conference on the theme “The (Un)Holy Mix: The Holy Spirit in Movements and Institutions” was planned using this model and engaged the Scribes from 2015–16. About 30 scholars, pastors, congregational members and students were invited to be part of the event. Instead of attending paper presentations and workshops, they worked in small groups with scholars who had contributed to the project.

“[The model] put scholarly conversation with the church at the center of the conference, and worship was at the heart of this event in a way that doesn’t usually happen at academic conferences,” Pitts said.

Continuing binational collaboration

Brubacher Kaethler sees his new role as co-editor of Vision, a journal for the church, as “a natural fit” with his teaching interests in ministry and practical theology. As a Canadian, he appreciates that Vision serves the church in both Canada and the U.S. — as AMBS is a binational seminary — and said he is enjoying the collaboration with Bergen at CMU. As co-editors, they are intentional about finding authors and issue editors from both countries.

In considering future issue topics, Brubacher Kaethler noted that Vision has a long enough history that some topics could be revisited.

“I think it will be exciting to observe how the issues have changed over time and how the church has changed our perceptions and our approaches,” he said. He added that he and Bergen also envision addressing current topics such as relationships with the police or military authority, the Black Lives Matter movement and Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and technology and social media.

Bergen, Brubacher Kaethler and his IMS colleagues have been exploring various options for delivery such as open (online) access. Beginning in 2018, Vision will be published online, and back issues will be available for free online.

“This is a time of incredible flux and opportunity for publishers,” Brubacher Kaethler said. “There is a potential for a global readership that we didn’t have before. We’re trying to figure out which digital technologies are the best for us to use in terms of promoting and sharing the journal.”

He noted that several IMS books — including some that are out of print — are currently available through the AMBS library’s open access digital repository.

The latest issue of Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology and the last one that Schertz edited — on “Proclaiming Christ in a Pluralistic Context — will be released this fall. Subscriptions are available at www.ambs.edu/ims/vision.

Founded in 1958, IMS promotes and administers avenues for dialogue, scholarship and publication on topics and issues vital to Mennonite congregations and the Anabaptist faith tradition. To learn more about IMS or see a catalog of IMS books, visit www.ambs.edu/ims