Remembering Wilbert Shenk

Published: August 26, 2021

Wilbert Ray Shenk, PhD, 86, missiologist, author and educator, died on July 13, 2021, at home in Goshen, Indiana, surrounded by his family.

Shenk served as Director of the Mission Training Center and Associate Professor of Missions at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana, from 1990 to 1995. He continued to serve as Adjunct Faculty in Mission and Evangelism for AMBS while on the faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, from 1995 to 2005 — and also following his retirement from Fuller. He wrote and edited numerous books, among them Changing Frontiers of Mission (Orbis, 1999), By Faith They Went Out: Mennonite Missions, 1850–1999 (Institute of Mennonite Studies, 2000) and Enlarging the Story: Perspectives on Writing World Christian History (Orbis, 2002). Shenk also founded the Mission Focus journal in 1972, which became Anabaptist Witness in 2014. 

AMBS President David Boshart, PhD, described Shenk as an eminent missiologist who was an early contributor to post-colonial missiology and the contextualization of mission. According to Boshart, Shenk’s influence is seen in the development of the missional school of thought and in the significant work of the Gospel and Our Culture Network, to which Wilbert contributed from 1990 to 1993.

“Wilbert will always be remembered as one who believed that ecclesiology and mission must be held together,” Boshart reflected. “He believed that leadership development plays an essential — but often overlooked — role in mission, and that an essential part of leadership development is the learned ability of leaders to read their cultures.”

Boshart said he was honored to have Shenk as the external reader at his dissertation defense and to have received his encouragement at key points in his own journey.

“Wilbert was a generous mentor to countless students, myself included,” he said. “His emphases on accompaniment and contextualization in mission and his understanding of the nature of the church as both product and agent of mission are major reasons why Anabaptist perspectives on mission are taken seriously by scholars and mission workers around the world. His legacy will continue to influence the fields of missiology and leadership education for years to come through the many students who were formed by his teaching.”

Walter Sawatsky, PhD, AMBS Professor Emeritus of Church History and Mission, former editor of Mission Focus and one of Shenk’s former colleagues, also affirmed his contributions to scholarship and the church.

Based on interviews with Shenk in July 2004, Sawatsky wrote a short biography, “Living and Writing the Vision: The Missiological Pilgrimage of Wilbert Shenk,” as the opening chapter for a Festschrift in Shenk’s honor that he edited along with James R. Krabill, PhD, of Mennonite Mission Network and Charles E. Van Engen, PhD, of Fuller Theological Seminary.

In the Festschrift — titled Evangelical, Ecumenical and Anabaptist Missiologies in Conversation: Essays in Honor of Wilbert R. Shenk (Orbis, 2006) — the editors chose to feature five areas of mission focus that Shenk cared deeply about. According to Sawatsky, they were able to surprise him with the volume upon his retirement from Fuller and during a conference on missiology hosted by the Mission Studies Center at AMBS.

“Wilbert did not seek the limelight, so many who knew him did not realize how influential he was, in particular as a missiologist,” Sawatsky reflected. “The 27 friends and colleagues we asked to contribute chapters to the Festschrift were urged to focus on their particular specialty in mission and pose issues for the coming decade — rather than to eulogize him — but even so, the breadth of Wilbert’s interests, his relationships with so many prominent thought leaders, and the major structures he helped create and maintain came through; his articles and books were necessary references for what the scholars were presenting.”

In Shenk’s biography, Sawatsky noted how Wilbert and Juanita Shenk’s horizons were stretched during their time of serving with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Indonesia (1955–59), where they “discovered the pattern of recognizing local leaders with whose wisdom new missionaries could be entrusted.”

“Somewhat later, as head of global ministries for Mennonite Board of Missions, Wilbert sent a letter to the mission staff in India that the recipients called ‘the bombshell,’” he wrote. “They had been working at moving toward a post-colonial model, having noticed how much property was ‘the primary tool for mission control,’ and the letter invited missionaries to ‘get out of the way’ to enable local churches to gain independence. Other subsequent rethinking resulted in a mission stance now widely known as ‘mission accompaniment’ (acompañamiento).”

According to Sawatsky, Shenk was known as a collaborator, helping form a consultative body of various Mennonite mission boards and MCC that eventually became the Council of International Ministries (CIM). He also played a role in forming the American Society of Missiology, which included Catholics, mainline Protestants and “Independents” (free churches), with equal representation on its board and project committees.

“When Wilbert retired, it was already commonplace for many mission thinkers and leaders to understand that continuous dialogue between theory and practice is essential for the good missionary and missiologist and to remember that ‘good missional incarnation is always more than the speaking parts,’” Sawatsky noted.

To access the Festschrift, Evangelical, Ecumenical and Anabaptist Missiologies in Conversation: Essays in Honor of Wilbert R. Shenk, email [email protected] (U.S.), or see the Common Word website (Canada):

A memorial service for Shenk was held at Belmont Mennonite Church in Elkhart on July 17.


Wilbert Ray Shenk

Wilbert Ray Shenk, 86, a resident of Greencroft in Goshen, Indiana, died Tuesday, July 13, 2021, at home surrounded by his family.

Wilbert attended high school in Sheridan, Oregon. He attended Hesston College from 1951 to 1953 where he met his future wife. Then he attended and graduated from Goshen College in 1955.

He worked for the Mennonite Church in various capacities, first as a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) worker in Indonesia from 1955 to 1959. Following this he worked as an administrator for MCC from 1963 to 1965. From 1965 to 1990 he worked as an administrator for the Mennonite Board of Missions (now MMN, Mennonite Mission Network). During this time, he worked on and obtained a doctoral degree from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1978. Following his time at MBM, Wilbert taught at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart from 1990 to 1995 and Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, from 1995 to 2005. Even in his retirement he stayed active by continuing teaching short courses, mentoring doctoral students and writing.

Wilbert was born on Jan. 16, 1935, near Sheridan, Oregon. He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Juanita G. Shenk; and his three children, Suzanne Morris, Maria Shenk and Thomas Shenk; five granddaughters; and six great-grandchildren.

A visitation for family and friends will be held from 9:45 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. on Saturday, July 17, at Belmont Mennonite Church, 925 Oxford St., Elkhart, Indiana. The celebration of life service will follow the visitation and starts at 11 a.m. Pastor Phil Schmidt along with Amanda Yoder will preside. Cremation will take place and inurnment will be at a later date in the church columbarium. Elkhart Cremation Services is entrusted with his care.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be given to Mennonite Mission Network or Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

Published in The Elkhart Truth on July 15, 2021

—Annette Brill Bergstresser, AMBS

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