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