The Gift of Leadership: Paul N. Kraybill’s Ministry to the Global Mennonite Community

For the last several weeks, I have been working to arrange and describe the personal papers of Paul Nissley Kraybill. Kraybill is best known for his work as the Executive Secretary of Mennonite World Conference (MWC), a position he held from 1973 until 1990.1 During this time, he led the effort to create and implement a new structure for the organization and oversaw planning for three assemblies in Wichita, Kansas, Strasbourg, France, and Winnipeg, Manitoba. Shortly before he began his position, the presidium for the tenth assembly chose Million Belete from Ethiopia to serve as the first non-western President of MWC. Along with Belete and MWC staff, Kraybill created a new constitution designed to better serve the organization’s diverse, global constituency and a travel fund to enable a broader segment of the Mennonite community to participate in assemblies. Under the leadership of Kraybill and Belete, the MWC blossomed into a truly global organization.2

Kraybill and Belete, 1973

Kraybill and Belete, 1973

As I worked my way through his papers, I was struck by the variety of Mennonite-related organizations with which Kraybill worked during his life. Aside from the global Mennonite and Anabaptist groups he partnered with as executive secretary of MWC, over the course of his forty-year career Kraybill worked with or served on the boards of at least a dozen other organizations. Like other successful Mennonite administrators before him, Kraybill was skilled at bridging inter-Mennonite divides, and he privileged ecumenical understanding and collaboration over rigid adherence to the creeds of a single faith community. Unlike some Mennonite leaders before him, however, Kraybill’s strengths did not lie in envisioning the creation of new organizations or initiatives, but in articulating and implementing a plan to improve those that already existed.3

By the time he planned his first MWC assembly in Wichita (1978), Kraybill had long proven himself as a skilled administrator. Born in 1925 in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Kraybill grew up attending Bossler Mennonite Church in Elizabethtown and graduated from Lancaster Mennonite School in 1943. Before completing his B.A. at Eastern Mennonite College (Harrisonburg, Virginia) in 1955, he received two separate calls to ministry: one to serve at his home congregation and the other to serve as the Assistant Secretary of the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (EMBMC) in Salunga, Pennsylvania. Kraybill chose the latter call and worked with EMBMC for a total of seventeen years, first as Assistant Secretary (1953-1958) and later as Overseas Executive Secretary (1958-1970), a position he took over from Orie O. Miller.4

FestivalQuarterlyBackCover_Feb-Apr.-1981

Back cover of Festival Quarterly, February-April, 1981

In 1970, Kraybill’s gifts in administration were further affirmed when he was appointed Executive Secretary of the (old) Mennonite Church Study Commission on Church Organization. Shortly thereafter, Kraybill assumed the role of General Secretary of the Mennonite Church General Board and moved to Lombard, Illinois, with his family and children. He held this position until 1977 when he took on full-time responsibilities with Mennonite World Conference. However, Kraybill’s Mennonite institutional influence extended far beyond his work with the Mennonite Church General Board. Over the course of his long career, Kraybill donated his time and expertise to a variety of other organizations (some Mennonite, some not) as a committee or board member:

He also served as an organizational consultant for a number of Mennonite-related organizations, including Chicago Area Mennonites, Lancaster Mennonite School, Lancaster Mennonite Conference, and Lombard Mennonite Church.

Although he never served as a pastor or received any formal seminary training, Kraybill was “ordained to ministry with [the] worldwide fellowship” of Mennonites at Lombard Mennonite Church on April 12, 1981. In his written examination for ministry in the Illinois Mennonite Conference, Kraybill reflected on his call and his “gifts for the ministry” as follows:

I do not feel that my gifts are strong in the current sense of a professional pastor . . . If I have gifts I think they are in the area of organization and leadership . . . For me that means communicating ideas, helping to shape new directions, working at reconciliation, creating larger vision and encouraging the church to be faithful to the Scriptures in terms of the understandings which grow out of our Anabaptist heritage.5

OrdinationService_B15_F12

Order of service for Kraybill’s ordination

While Kraybill expressed ambivalence about his ordination, Lombard co-pastors Joe and Emma Richards were unequivocal in their affirmation of Kraybill’s gifts. In their letter of support for his ordination, they pointed to Kraybill’s “life of consistent discipleship [and] sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit” and described him as a “gifted administrator, a resourceful counselor, and a confident leader.”6

Leadership is important in the church and cannot be easily separated from other gifts of ministry. Unlike other leaders, however, administrative leaders like Kraybill held considerable power to determine the eventual shape and function of multiple church institutions over the course of their careers. In fact, these organizations welcomed Kraybill’s leadership for precisely those reasons. Fittingly, when he died in 1993, Kraybill was in the midst of planning the restructuring of the Mennonite Health Association, an organization for which he had served as president since 1990.

While leaders are often over-represented in the Mennonite historical narrative (and archives), their lives can teach us much about the historical evolution of the institutions that continue to structure relationships between members of the Mennonite faith community. They can also serve as reference points as we reflect on our past and articulate common dreams for the future.



  1. Mennonite Church USA Archives is also the official repository for the records of Mennonite World Conference
  2. For an excellent synopsis (authored by Kraybill) of Mennonite World Conference’s historical development from 1925 to 1990 and the changes that Kraybill implemented, see the following article from the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO): http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mennonite_world_conference [accessed 10/12/2017]. 
  3. One exception is Mennonite Housing Aid, Inc., in Chicago, Illinois. Kraybill played a key role from its inception and served as president during its first six years, from 1975 to 1981. 
  4. For more on the relationship between Kraybill and Miller, see John E. Sharp, My Calling to Fulfill: The Orie O. Miller Story (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2015), 318-320 and 334-335. 
  5. Examination for Ministry, Illinois Mennonite Conference, January 9, 1981. Box 15, Folder 12. Paul N. Kraybill Papers, 1942-1992. HM1-998. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana. 
  6. “Paul N. Kraybill Ordination,” Press Release, undated. Box 15, Folder 12. Paul N. Kraybill Papers, 1942-1992. HM1-998. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana. 

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