The primary crisis that led to the merger of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary and Fresno Pacific University was not financial,” says Lynn Jost, faculty member and former president of the seminary. It was a confluence of events that created a perfect storm and challenged the very existence of the seminary.
Jost, who led Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (MBBS) at the time of the merger, says that the sudden resignation of his predecessor in 2008 began a rapid chain of events. “I was the dean of the seminary, when one afternoon I received a phone call from the board chairman,” he recalls. “He informed me that a very serious situation had occurred and I should be prepared to accept the presidency by 6 p.m.”
With one brief phone call, Jost became interim president; he was later appointed the permanent leader. But he knew that there were other challenges on the horizon, including declining enrollment. Ultimately, in 2010, MBBS and Fresno Pacific University decided to merge, and once it was announced, the consolidation went quickly — less than 60 days from announcement to final consolidation.
|Seminary House on the campus of Fresno Pacific University.
Credit: Fresno Pacific University
Fresno Pacific, founded in 1944 as the Pacific Bible Institute, is also a Mennonite Brethren school, and the university and seminary share a long history as neighbors in Fresno, California. They shared an academic library as well.
The seminary had been founded in 1955 to train ministers at the graduate level, and starting in 1975, the Canadian and U.S. conferences of the church became joint owners. In 1995, the seminary started a campus in Abbotsford, British Columbia, to serve Canadian members, yet just five years later, the denomination decided that the California branch of the seminary should be owned by the U.S. Conference, and the British Columbia branch was spun off as a separate institution owned by the Canadian Conference.
The confusing changes in ownership and jurisdiction were hard on the seminary, which had been trying to serve its members throughout North America and then was compelled to change course. Moreover, in spite of its international focus, the school was not well known by its neighbors in the Fresno metropolitan area, which has nearly a million residents.
The stresses of leadership changes, denominational shifts, and enrollment decline gave many at MBBS the sense that it was no longer feasible to remain freestanding. They began merger talks with Fuller Theological Seminary, a large evangelical school based 200 miles away in Pasadena, California. But after a year of negotiations between the schools’ presidents and administrators, Fuller decided that it would not be a good fit. And even though the Mennonite Brethren faculty members had been on board with the merger, some other constituents feared that integration with Fuller might result in a complete loss of the Mennonite Brethren institutional identity.
“There was the feeling that we were either going to tough it out on our own or merge quickly with another institution,” says Jost. After the talks with Fuller fell through, he was instructed by the board to begin “quick and quiet” conversations with their neighbors at FPU.
The most critical aspect of the discussions revolved around whether the two institutions shared the same mission. “After we agreed that FPU and MBBS shared a mission, it became obvious that the only way this could happen is if the university would take complete control,” says Jost.
Negotiation participants were narrowed to the boards and presidents of each institution, leaving even provosts, deans, and chief financial officers out of the merger discussions. Alumni from the Canadian and U.S. conferences were represented only if they were members of the board.
It was quickly decided that the university president, Merrill D. Ewert, would serve as the president of the merged institution. The seminary’s name would change to Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. Jost became the dean of the seminary and a vice president at FPU.
Six years later, the current seminary head, Terry Brensinger, is overseeing a recasting of the seminary vision to help the school address the needs of its increasingly diverse church constituency throughout North America. “After the merger, the seminary lost two faculty members and its entire staff,” he says. “When I took over the role as dean and vice president, there was a half-time administrative assistant and the rest of the staff was let go. There was no staff in student development or advancement. The assumption was that the university would absorb these tasks, which they were never able to do,” Brensinger adds.
|President Terry Brensinger has led the seminary since 2014.
Credit: Fresno Pacific University
Seminary space was also drastically reduced after the consolidation — during the rapid negotiations, no guidelines with regards to space had been agreed upon, and the seminary lost half its square footage. “For example, when the merger took place, the undergraduate Bible and ministry department from the university were all moved to the seminary house. The administration building became occupied by undergraduate professors.”
Brensinger was originally hired as a faculty member in 2013, but after he had taught for a year, he was asked to lead the seminary so that Jost could return to his first passion, the classroom.
In 2014, Richard Kriegbaum, an advisor to both Jost and Brensinger, was named president of Fresno Pacific University. He has been trying to raise the visibility of the seminary as a resource for Mennonite Brethren in California and worldwide.
Focus on the local
Before the merger, MBBS had had a national and even international presence, but its donors and churches did not feel the same allegiance to Fresno Pacific University. “The Mennonite Brethren conferences outside of the Pacific District felt as if they were losing their seminary,” says Brensinger — and that represented a threat to both enrollment and giving.
But Jost says that after the integration, students were lining up to enroll in seminary classes. A potential downside — losing its identity among Mennonite Brethren worldwide — became a positive locally, as many new students reported that they had been completely unaware of the existence of the seminary. “Fresno Pacific University has a very positive name here in the Central Valley,” says Brensinger. “The name change opened new doors and widened our audience.” The seminary also benefited from the sophisticated information technology and distance learning resources of FPU.
Kriegbaum has just announced his retirement, and the university board has appointed a search committee to identify his replacement. Meanwhile, the title of the seminary head has been changed back to president, although this position is still under the university president in the administrative structure.
Furthermore, the seminary advisory committee, originally established at the time of the merger, has been reorganized with new responsibilities. And Brensinger is working with Daniel O. Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, to craft a proposal that will iron out some of the remaining ambiguities that resulted from the merger.
“All the work that I have needed to do since the merger has been possible because of the profound support of the senior administration of the university,” says Brensinger. “Without that, I don’t know how we could have done all the things we needed to do within the past few years.” The legal merger may have taken place quickly, but the ongoing work of merging takes time.