Henry Schmidt: A Life of Mission and Ministry

On September 13, 2002, Dr. Henry Schmidt announced his resignation as President of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, effective June 15, 2003. Dr. Schmidt became the sixth president of the MBBS in Fresno, California in 1993, having served on the faculty of MBBS for a total of 34 years. Board of Directors' Chair Cal Bergen says, "It is with profound regret that we accept Dr. Schmidt's resignation. He has been a strong leader over the past decade, and has reshaped the seminary, bringing it closer spatially and philosophically to our constituencies. We give thanks to God for Henry and Elvera and pray that He will grant the Schmidts many years of good health and productive Kingdom ministry."

Although he entered the office of the President reluctantly, Dr. Schmidt grew into the role and distinguished himself as a leader in changing times. Faculty, staff, students, and constituents alike found him to be deeply committed to personal, spiritual, and institutional growth as well as characteristically candid with his convictions. He remained true to his pastoral heart during his presidency and demonstrated a genuine interest in people throughout the length and breadth of the Mennonite Brethren constituency.

Past chair of the Board of Directors Ron Toews, who served on the Board for nine of Dr. Schmidt's ten years as president, says, "I first met Henry in the mid-seventies when he came to preach in our Saskatchewan church. I was farming at the time, and was struck by his practical preaching, approachability, and zest for life. Later, when I was called to leave the farm to study to become a pastor, it was natural that I would turn to Henry for help in discerning the meaning of such a call. He became a trusted and godly mentor, so that much later, after I had graduated from seminary and was asked to serve on the Board of Directors, it was both my love for the seminary and its cause, as well as my respect for Henry which predisposed me to accept the assignment with joy."

Highlights of Dr. Schmidt's tenure as President include: an open door into the hearts and minds of Mennonite Brethren throughout North America; the recruitment and development of an effective Board of Directors; attracting younger faculty while retaining the experience and wisdom of veterans; the creation of a comprehensive donor development plan; the securing of a 1.6 million dollar grant from Lilly Foundation for the development of a system calling young women and men to consider vocational ministry in the church; and the re-engineering of the MBBS educational delivery system from that of a single campus in Fresno to multiple campuses throughout North America (Fresno, CA; Langley, BC; Winnipeg, MB). The latter affords students greater regional access to seminary level education while at the same time promoting denominational synergy and connectedness.

Although Dr. Schmidt--or as he prefers, Henry--has had a rich and distinguished career, he has never forgotten his western Canadian roots. He was born into a farming family on July 2, 1940 in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada and graduated from Grande Prairie High School in 1957. Undoubtedly the remoteness of northern Alberta, the farming community's intimate connection to the land, and the long winters shaped Henry's values. A need for both private space and community, a deep respect for farmers and their common sense approach to life, and a love of hockey remain to this day.

Henry went on to study at Coaldale Bible School in Coaldale, Alberta (1957-1958) and Bethany Bible Institute in Hepburn, Saskatchewan (1958-1960), before earning a Bachelor of Theology from Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg (1961-1964).

Henry married Elvera A. Langemann in 1960. After graduation Henry and Elvera and their daughter Debra (married to Martin Brady; parents of three sons) moved to Onida, South Dakota, where between 1964 and 1969 Henry served the Emmanuel Mennonite Brethren Church as pastor. A second daughter, Laura (married to Mark Roberts and expecting their first child), was born during this time. Henry enjoyed pastoral ministry and to this day speaks with fondness of this chapter of his life.

In 1970 the young family uprooted and moved to Fresno, CA, where Henry pursued a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology from Fresno Pacific College. Upon completion, he walked across the campus to Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, where he received a Master of Divinity degree in 1972. Henry distinguished himself while at MBBS, receiving the Academic Award, as well as the Sermon Award from Decision Magazine. While at MBBS, he also served as Interim Pastor at Neighborhood Church in Visalia and Rosedale Bible Church in Bakersfield.

Henry always assumed that after graduation he would return to the pastorate, but instead was asked to become Executive Director of Evangelism for the United States Conference of Mennonite Brethren. He served in this capacity, as well as Conference Evangelist, between 1972 and 1977, traveling widely throughout North America and beyond. He was the recipient of an Outstanding Young Men of America Award in 1977. During this time he remained connected to the classroom as well, serving as Adjunct Professor in Evangelism at MBBS between 1972 and 1978. He became the first professor of the J. B. Toews' Chair of Evangelism/Mission at MBBS in 1988.

In 1977 Henry began doctoral studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, graduating in 1981 from the Religion and Social Ethics department. Upon the completion of his studies, he returned to teaching at MBBS fulltime, serving as Assistant Professor of World Mission between 1978 and 1984, Associate Professor of World Mission between 1985 and 1992, and Professor of World Mission between 1992 and 1993. His areas of teaching included missions, urban studies, culture, and social ethics. In 1985, he was appointed as Director for the Center for Training in Mission/Evangelism, and until 1992 convened a variety of consultations related to the global mission of the church. Teaching and ministry assignments took him to many American states, Canadian provinces and places beyond, such as Russia, Indonesia, Germany, England, Spain, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Africa.

However, Henry was not content to teach only principles of evangelism and church planting. Between 1982 and 1985, he served as part of a church planting team for Fig Garden Bible Church in Fresno. Nor was he inclined to isolate himself from his students. Henry had a deep and pastoral interest in students. For a good part of his career as evangelist and professor, he met consistently with a group of three to five handpicked students on a weekly basis for mentoring, prayer, interaction, support and study. He also often invited students to accompany him in local church and constituency ministries.

Those who know Henry well are accustomed to hearing him lament his lack of administrative acumen, yet his contributions to committee work at MBBS are illustrative of the fact that Henry understands that the building of effective teams is paramount in the carrying out of Kingdom mission. The committees on which he served include Hispanic Studies, Faculty Representative to the Board of Directors, Missions, Long Range Planning, Task Force for Review of Mission Program, Strategic Planning, and Administrative Team.

His contributions to denominational and community work have been equally wide and varied. Among his involvements are the following: Board member of the Cabana Recreation Association in Fresno; Vice-Chairman of Planning Committee for the Inter-Mennonite Evangelism Alive 1985 Conference; chairman of the US Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches; member and President of the Board of Directors for Habitat for Humanity Fresno; and member of the Fresno Area Mission Network Commission.

Henry has a hunger for intellectual stimulation and growth. Some of this hunger was satisfied through interaction with the various professional groups in which he became a member, including the Academy for Evangelism Professors in Theological Education, Book Review Editor of Mission Focus, National Association of Evangelicals, and North American Society for Church Growth. He has also given priority to professional conferences and seminars, including: International Congress on World Evangelization, Lausanne, Switzerland; Oxford School of Revival, Oxford, England; Urban Congress, Chicago, IL; International Congress on Itinerant Evangelists, Amsterdam; and Church Planting Seminars, Fuller Institute, Pasadena, CA.

Henry is rarely without a book in his briefcase, indicative of his need for ongoing stimulation and growth. He reads voraciously, pen or highlighter in hand. His bookshelves spill over onto the floor as volumes yet to be read pile up. Henry has made his own authorial contributions. In 1980 he edited Conversion: Doorway to Discipleship (Hillsboro: Board of Christian Literature); in 1986 he edited Witnesses of a Third Way: A Fresh Look at Evangelism (Elgin: Brethren Press).

He has contributed chapters to various volumes, including: "Realizing the Vision Through Evangelism." in The Seminary Story: Twenty Years of Education in Ministry. ed. A.J. Klassen; "The Mennonite Brethren Peace Witness." in The Power of the Lamb. eds. John E. Toews and Gordon Nickel; and "Global Urbanization: The New Frontier in World Mission." in Reflection and Projection: Missiology at the Threshold of 2001. eds. Han Kasdorf and Klaus W. Mueller.

Henry has been a frequent contributor of probing articles and book reviews to various denominationally oriented publications, including Christian Leader and Mennonite Brethren Herald, as well as Witness and Direction. In all, more than two-dozen articles have been contributed over the last 20 years, in diverse and varied subjects. His articles are typically candid, confessional, and pastoral at heart.

Whether as professor, preacher, or fundraiser, Henry has touched many Mennonite Brethren around the world and he loves to make time for interaction with each in his travels. His overstuffed luggage on his numerous flights around North America often include gifts of books, oranges, grapes, or pistachios for friends old and new.

His presidency, indeed his career, has been marked by travel, with Henry often logging more than 150 days away from home annually. It is this travel schedule, coupled with irregular hours, eating habits, and exercise patterns, that have taken their toll on Henry, so that one of the Schmidts' interests is a more regulated lifestyle and ministry, as well as travel together.

But this travel schedule has also placed Henry in many homes away from home and resulted in friendships forged far and wide. Henry is widely known and respected in Mennonite Brethren constituencies in North America and beyond. His 6'3" frame, angular gait, and trademark white wavy hair set him apart from his peers. Referring to the latter feature, one young kindergarten child noted that he had seen Henry on the movie Back to the Future (a reference to Dr. Emmett Brown, played by actor Christopher Lloyd).

Henry has a special love for children and young people. It is not unusual for Grandpa Henry to initiate a rousing game of roller blade hockey with his grandsons; nor is it unusual for neighborhood kids to converge on the impromptu arena to join the fracas. A typical score is 6:6. Understanding his own intensely competitive nature, Grandpa Henry explains, "Everyone goes home happier that way."

Other young people find Henry approachable, too. A group of Canadian youth sat in rapt attention in the Schmidts' living room recently, listening to Henry describe the call of God on his own life as a younger man, and later marveled that a man of Henry's stature would share so freely of his time and so vulnerably from his heart.

Henry is quick to recognize Elvera as the one person who has shaped his life more than any other. Her constant love, support, encouragement, and prayer have sustained him through the highs and lows of public office. Her willingness to evaluate and challenge have sharpened Henry's perception of himself and issues. Her gifts of hospitality have made their home a welcoming place for guests, as well as a place of refuge for Henry after his long and frequent absences.

Henry has taken special delight in Elvera's career and accomplishments. The two studied together at Fresno Pacific College, where Elvera earned a Bachelors and Teaching degree. She taught part time until 1982, at which time she assumed a fulltime role teaching Kindergarten at Lane Elementary in Fresno. To this day, Henry often slips into her kindergarten classroom to meet her young students or teaching colleagues. His special delight in her accomplishments occurred in 1998-99 when Elvera was recognized by Fresno County School Board as Teacher of the Year at Lane. The timing of Elvera's resignation from Lane coincides with Henry's resignation from MBBS.

We give thanks to God for Henry and Elvera, for faithful servants who have shared freely and transparently of their hospitality, faith, lives, and love. They have touched young and old, and have been marvelously used of God to inspire greater faithfulness in the Church to her mission in our time. For this we bless God.

Submitted By: Cal Bergen (Board Chair)

Posted: December 18, 2002