RJC: Becoming a missional school

Rosthern Junior College looks to alumni and churches to help shape its direction

January 15, 2020 | Focus On Education | Volume 24 Issue 2
Donna Schulz | Saskatchewan Correspondent
Rosthern, Sask.
RJC students increasingly come from non-Mennonite families. Rather than seeing this as a problem, principal Ryan Wood sees it as an opportunity. (Photo from RJC’s Facebook page)

Rosthern Junior College has been a steadfast presence in Mennonite education for almost 115 years. However, decreasing enrolment has prompted the school’s administration and board to rethink what the school is all about.

With a current enrolment of 64 students—compared to 150 or more from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, according to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online—and a budgetary shortfall of around $300,000, principal Ryan Wood admits there is a need for “blunt transparency,” and says, “We’ve never really fully named the problem. To not name it is to not be helpful.”

So what is the problem?

“At the core of the challenge is finding students when traditional markets are drying up,” he says.

When RJC was founded in 1905, Mennonites on the prairie frontier were a German-speaking minority deeply concerned about maintaining their faith and way of life. In Education with a Plus: The Story of Rosthern Junior College, author Frank H. Epp writes, “Mennonite leaders assumed that their own schools were absolutely essential for the preservation of Mennonitism.”

But this year only one-third of RJC’s students come from families connected with a Mennonite church or families of alumni. Two-thirds have no prior connection with the church or the school.

“We can no longer say that alumni will send their kids,” says board chair Tammy Forrester. 

These days many students come from Christian denominations other than Mennonite, says Wood. As well, a growing number of them are international students and new Canadian students. 

Although fewer students coming from Mennonite homes may look like a problem to some, Wood sees it as an opportunity. “We’re inherently missional, in the sense that we’re inviting people to a radical community and a fundamentally different way of seeing the world,” he says. 

Wood sees an inconsistency in the way churches view the school as compared with the way they view church camps. Both Mennonite Church Saskatchewan and MC Alberta have been staunch supporters of their camps because they see them as places of mission, he says. 

Youth Farm Bible Camp, for example, is supported not for being a Mennonite camp for Mennonite campers, but for providing camping experiences for special needs adults and children from Indigenous communities. 

“I would like it if RJC was celebrated for its missional posture—for being a Mennonite school for the world,” Wood says.

Forrester agrees. “RJC was started to keep Mennonite faith and culture alive,” she says. “There is an underlying mission there that is [still] very much the same.” Only now, instead of being a high school for Mennonite students only, RJC is becoming “a Mennonite school for the global student,” she says.

Even as Wood and Forrester are sounding a wake-up call to the church, they are celebrating the many good things happening at the school, and the missional potential they hope will make good things happen well into the future.

“We have plenty to be thankful for and we are coming from a position of relative strength,” says Wood. He lists “a young, innovative staff” and “students who are actively engaged in our programming” among the things to be thankful for, along with “a supportive church and alumni community,” who have contributed generously to “recent capital upgrades to our dorms, fields, dining hall and classrooms.”

As churches change their perceptions of RJC, they may need to let go of long-held expectations. “If we’re going to take that missional perspective,” Wood says, “we need to serve the needs of those who join us.” 

“When we take the choir to churches we’re stretched financially and in terms of energy,” he says. “We can’t afford to spend our time singing in churches that don’t have students to send.” Rather, he says, “We need to go to the highways and byways and invite others in.” 

This means the choir may be singing at hockey games or in shopping malls rather than in churches on Sunday mornings. “If we stop visiting churches and go to other places, are we abandoning the church or are we finally being the church?” he asks.

To facilitate this shift to a more missional perspective, and hopefully turn the school’s fortunes around, RJC is seeking financial and prayer support from alumni and churches. They are inviting supporters to consider sending their children to RJC or, if that’s not possible, to sponsor other students who wish to attend.

“We want to grow the school to a stable 100-student enrolment, making us less dependent on financial aid and more financially sustainable in the short and long term,” says Wood. “We want to continue to be a vibrant, Christian educational community, where we train students in preparation for lives of faith, service and peacemaking.” 

This article appears in the Jan. 20, 2020 print issue with the headline, "Becoming a missional school."

Read more Focus on Education stories:
Learning to live with technology
Strangers become friends at college
Their stories showed me how to be brave
'Nobody is perfect and that's okay'
Engaging Anabaptist theology in community—at a distance

RJC students increasingly come from non-Mennonite families. Rather than seeing this as a problem, principal Ryan Wood sees it as an opportunity. (Photo from RJC’s Facebook page)

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I used to see RJC as a Bible believing Christian School but there is no mention of the Bible or Jesus in the article.

You make a good point, Esther, neither the Bible nor Jesus are specifically mentioned in this article. As Principal of the school, let me assure you that we take Jesus, and the Bible, seriously; though, this can mean different things to different people. A few things we do at RJC include having all students at take Christian Ethics classes, and attend chapel four days a week. This along with our annual Faith and Life fundraiser (for MCC, and other similar organizations), our Deeper Life Days, and our annual ALSO service week are ways that we invite students to take Jesus, and their faith, seriously. We observe the the Christian calendar, making time in our academic calendar throughout the year to celebrate Advent and Lent, and to share the Biblical stories and themes these holidays represent. We are members of the Rosthern Ministerial and are happy to host both the ecumenical Remembrance Day and Ash Wednesday services at our school, which include student attendance and participation. We pray before meals, before chapel, before staff meetings, and every time a student has a loss in their life, often at their request. A MC SK youth pastor is in our school once a week, and we seek to provide spiritual care and guidance, with support from local churches and families, for our students the best we can. For our dorm students, this is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We invite students from around across the street and around the world (this year from China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand, Dubai, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico and the USA) many who are hearing the word Jesus, or holding a Bible, for the first time. We welcome them all, regardless of their last name, religion, or colour of skin, with love. As a teacher, and now Principal, I have had my own views of Jesus and the Bible challenged and stretched over the years at RJC, but I have found neither absent. As we move forward as a school we will continue to take the Bible and Jesus seriously, as we wrestle with what it means to be a Mennonite school for the world in the 21st century.

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