Jason B. Kauffman
For most of my short time at the Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) Archives, I have occupied myself with “the move.” Shortly before I began in July 2016, MC USA made the decision to transfer all archival collections from their long-time home on the campus of Goshen College to a new facility at the denominational building in Elkhart. I spent the better part of ten months (July 2016-April 2017) planning for and carrying out the move of over 6,500 boxes—from three different locations—onto new shelves in Elkhart. Among these boxes were six new ones from Forks Mennonite Church, a congregation outside of Middlebury, Indiana, which closed its doors in December 2016, 159 years after it was first established. Also among the boxes were those of several Mennonite congregations which have recently withdrawn from the Indiana-Michigan Conference of MC USA.
Forks Mennonite Church, 1967
Not among the items moved were those boxes belonging to Goshen College (GC), composed mostly of institutional records and the papers of former faculty members. While these records had been managed along with those of the (old) Mennonite Church (and related agencies) since the archive’s founding in 1937, as part of the move MC USA formally relinquished “all interest in or claims to ownership” of GC records. The move of MC USA collections to Elkhart was the final step in a process of separating out collection management responsibilities that the two institutions initiated several years earlier. A similar phase in the decentralization of Mennonite institutional recordkeeping occurred in 2012 when Mennonite Central Committee relocated over 1,200 linear feet of material from the MC USA Archives to its headquarters in Akron, PA.
Indeed, the wheels for this year’s move were set in motion long before I arrived. These flows of collections in and out of the archives happened for practical reasons, but are also integrally related to changes that have occurred in the denominational landscape in the last two decades. How have realignments happening across MC USA—and the departures of congregations and conferences—affected its ability to preserve the history of its predecessor denominations, its agencies, and the people whose actions have shaped institutions into their present forms?
Archives move for a variety of reasons. For MC USA, one of the primary “push factors” was that we were out of space. When the archives moved into the Newcomer Center on the GC campus in 1959, it needed 1,500 square feet of space to house its entire collection. As the collection grew, the (old) Mennonite Church rented progressively more space from the college so that by 2016, collections occupied around 2,900 square feet in Newcomer and another 1,700 in the Westlawn building. On a basic level, then, the denominational building in Elkhart offered the space necessary to reunite dispersed records in one location.
While space was a major issue, financial considerations also figured prominently in the decision to move collections to Elkhart. For most of its history, the archives was overseen by a standing Historical Committee which supported the publication of books and spearheaded a variety of initiatives that reached global audiences. The archives was an active part of the ministry of the (old) Mennonite Church and the denomination regarded it as a major center for the preservation of Anabaptist cultural heritage. In fact, the archives accepted records that extended beyond the denomination, including many significant Hutterite and Amish collections.
Since the creation of MC USA in 2002, and likely before, denominational support for the work of the archives has gradually declined. Shortly before I arrived, reduced budgets and smaller staffs contributed, in part, to the decision to create a new collection development policy with a much narrower scope. This, in turn, led to the deaccession of manuscript collections, congregational records, and conference records to new repositories. The move to Elkhart provided an opportunity for the denomination to eliminate rental payments to Goshen College, moving the archives closer to a sustainable operational model.
Many of the reasons behind changes in policy at the MC USA Archives are tied to its own history as an institution. However, these recent developments also reflect changes that the denomination has undergone since it was created through the merger of the (old) Mennonite Church and the General Conference in 2002. Since then, hundreds of congregations (and entire conferences) have left MC USA which, in turn, has contributed to a significant decrease in financial support for the work of the denomination and its ministries. And, like most other ministries, the archives has not been immune to this financial crisis. The move is thus an acknowledgment of the important role the archive plays in the preservation of the denomination’s historical record, but it also represents an effort to shore up the many costs associated with its operation.
But what other costs—beyond financial—have resulted from the move? On a practical level, researchers must now potentially travel to three different locations to consult collections that used to be housed in Goshen. On a broader level, the move ended an almost century-long relationship between Goshen College and the (old) Mennonite Church. It has also ended (and strained) a newer relationship with the Mennonite Library and Archives (MLA) at Bethel College. Since 2002, MC USA has subsidized the work of the MLA to cover the cost of housing and managing the institutional records of the General Conference, one of MC USA’s predecessor denominations. Within the last year, MC USA made the decision to discontinue funding for the MLA. Rather than ship those records to the new facility in Elkhart, Bethel College chose to take on ownership and is currently working to build an endowment to fund the MLA. A similar process has taken place within Mennonite Church Canada, as the denomination recently turned over management of the Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives to Canadian Mennonite University.
As M.J. Heisey has noted, the movement and reconfiguration of archival collections over time “make significant statements on the politics of the present.” This is clearly the case with the changes that have taken place in the Mennonite archival world in the last several years. But why does all of this matter? Certainly there are more pressing issues in our denomination (and our world) that deserve our attention before the preservation of a bunch of old, dusty documents that only a fraction of Mennonites actually use.
I think at least part of the answer to this question lies in the centrality of history to Mennonite identity. As John Roth has noted,
“Mennonites are a people whose identity is formed by story. Our theology has been intimately connected with our history. So attentiveness to how we tell our story is profoundly important. How we preserve these records are not simply technical questions of keeping them dry and well organized. We also have a long tradition of gathering archival records in ways that enable historians to give the fullest possible account of our past.”
With Roth and many others, I lament the recent fragmentation (and defunding) of Mennonite institutional archives. But these recent developments also compel Mennonites to reassess what is important to us about our past and set priorities for the institutions that will preserve our historical memory going forward. Present realities are much different today than they were in 1960 (or even 2000): resources are far scarcer, and old ways of doing things are no longer sustainable. If our story is as important to our identity as Roth suggests, then our denomination—and Mennonite-related historical organizations in general—will need to generate new, creative ways to care for the shared cultural heritage that we have created (and will continue to create). Or, as Rolando Santiago has put it, we need to think seriously about “how we care for our fragile church institutions in times when budgets and resources are decreasing . . . address their flaws, and build their financial assets.”
Such changes won’t happen overnight and they will likely require expertise, wisdom, collaboration, and support from a network of committed individuals and institutions. Already, I have been encouraged by new relationships that have grown out of the move to Elkhart. This summer the archives formed a partnership with Mennonite Mission Network’s SOOP program that will provide an opportunity for volunteers to support the work of the archives. I am also exploring avenues to create a regular internship program for college students interested in a library, archive, or museum career. They will join an existing core of committed volunteers as we work together to arrange and describe the records that continue to arrive at the archives.
If you care about our Mennonite story, I invite you to join with me and other Mennonite-related historical organizations in imagining new ways that we can work together to create sustainable and thriving programs that will benefit future generations. In the meantime, I will continue to do my best to preserve the rich stories that are already here—those of the many individuals and institutions that have shaped the history of our denomination. This includes congregations—such as Forks Mennonite Church—that are no longer meeting and those that have chosen to leave the denomination. Their histories, too, are central parts of our collective Mennonite story.