NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College and Mennonite Church USA have reached an informal agreement about the short-term future of the Mennonite Library and Archives (MLA).
Declining membership in MC USA over the last number of years has meant less funds available to support various affiliated organizations and entities, such as the MLA.
One potential way MC USA saw to save money would have been to consolidate its records into one location (Elkhart, Indiana), and end its funding to the MLA, which now holds some of those records – those pertaining to the former General Conference Mennonite Church.
The subsidy from MC USA goes into paying almost all the salary of a full-time archivist, John Thiesen, Bethel co-director of libraries.
Ervin Stutzman, executive director of MC USA, was on the Bethel campus in mid-November to meet with Robert Milliman, vice president for academic affairs, about the proposal. The result of those conversations was an altered proposal, sealed with a hand-shake agreement that should be formalized early in 2017.
“My argument was that the old General Conference documents should remain in the same place as the Bethel College records and the district conference and personal papers that the MLA also holds,” Milliman said.
It was never suggested that the latter, which comprise between two-thirds and three-quarters of the MLA’s holdings, should be removed from the MLA – but the ending of the subsidy would have meant no person to care for their preservation or to make them accessible to researchers.
“We want these records to remain available for research by historians, and by our students,” Milliman continued. “We have a curricular interest here.”
The informal agreement is for MC USA to meet its full financial obligation through the end of FY 2017 (June 30, 2017) and then to pay a partial subsidy through the end of FY 18 (June 30, 2018). Bethel College, meanwhile, will work at raising the money for the remainder of the subsidy amount for one year and, ultimately, toward creating an endowment that will maintain the MLA in perpetuity.
There is already someone on board who has agreed to spearhead the fundraising effort, Milliman said – Dale Schrag, retired as campus pastor and director of church relations.
The plan is for Bethel and MC USA to sign a new memo of understanding in February 2017, stating that MC USA retains custody of all its papers currently housed in the MLA, while Bethel commits to preserving them and to making them accessible to researchers – which Bethel already intended to do, Milliman said.
The MLA’s holdings related to the former GCMC are more than just a bunch of boxes.
“They are the last remaining denominational symbol on campus,” Milliman said.
“For MC USA to have gone forward with its original proposal would have looked too much like a takeover, and no one wanted that,” he continued. “But to leave the materials here with no financial support for the MLA would have seemed like abandonment.”