GOSHEN (Mennonite Mission Network — As a skilled administrator who served with passion and humility, Ernest Bennett led mission efforts in the former Mennonite Church for more than two decades.
Bennett, 94, died Wednesday in Goshen, Ind.
Bennett served with Mennonite Health Association, Mennonite Health Assembly and Mennonite Central Committee, but spent most of his career with Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network, including 21 years as executive secretary.
Stanley Green, current executive director of Mennonite Mission Network, said Bennett had a rare practical wisdom that he fused with a love for the church and a passion for God's mission in the world. Bennett left a legacy that continues, Green said.
Missiologist Wilbert Shenk, who directed MBM’s overseas missions from 1965 -1990, said Bennett’s steadiness, judgment and trust in others made him a wonderful administrator during a time of major changes.
“He had a good feel for financial questions, especially good sense about structures and structuring, but he wasn’t guided by a rigid ideology or theory,” Shenk said. “He didn’t protect old structures, but was open to modifying and changing. That was the ethos he created over the years.”
Bennett followed J.D. Graber as executive secretary of MBM, freeing Graber to continue to inspire people toward mission as general secretary. Bennett focused on operations.
Shenk said Bennett understood his own gifts and recognized the gifts of others, whether it was Graber’s speaking or the talents of his staff members.
“You felt like your contribution was valued, would be acted on, would be tested along the way, but was respected,” Shenk said. “I would have felt awkward being autocratic when I, myself, was treated so respectfully. … He created an ethos of mutual respect and mutual trust.”
John Powell, Mennonite Mission Network church relations associate and anti-racism coordinator, said Bennett initially hired him to help begin the Minorities Ministry Council in the late 1960s.
“Ernest was open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. On the other hand, he knew his constituency and how far that constituency was ready to go,” Powell said.
Powell noted Bennett’s support and attempts to offer guidance to members of the council, especially at a time when race relations were at a critical and contentious point within the church.
“He walked a fine line to try to be supportive of us. … He was caught, but also ready to help the constituency understand where people of color were coming from,” Powell said.
Becky Miller was his administrative assistant from 1973-78. She remembers that he was effective in bringing people together in consensus and always took the stance of a servant leader while appreciating and affirming his co-workers.
One generation of children who grew up in Mennonite churches may better know Bennett through a sort of doppelganger. Bennett and Sam Janzen, then MBM board chair, were the naming inspirations of hand puppet Ernest Sam, developed by MBM staff member Mary Ann Halteman Conrad to introduce children to mission projects. The puppet, and accompanying cartoons and a coloring book, were widely distributed in congregations across the denominations that now make up Mennonite Church USA.
After his retirement, Bennett served as custodian at Prairie Street Mennonite Church. James Krabill, Mission Network’s senior executive for global ministries, was Prairie Street’s custodian for three years as a youth. He said he and Bennett often joked that they had switched places.
“That was one of his many contributions to the church in retirement,” Krabill said. “He was never above doing anything to serve the church.”
H. Ernest Bennett, 94, of 1225 Greencroft Drive, died at 12:55 a.m. Wednesday (Nov. 18, 2009) in Greencroft Healthcare. He was born Jan. 22, 1915, in Cumberland, Md., to Frank and Theoda (Collins) Bennett. He married Earla Hostetter on July 12, 1941, in Akron, Pa. She died Nov. 10, 2008.
He is survived by one son, Dr. Ernest Dale (Millie) Bennett of Castle Rock, Colo.; two daughters, Kathy (Rick) Stiffney and Joan (Todd) Yoder of Goshen; nine grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and one sister, Hazel Metzler. He was preceded in death by his beloved 5-year-old grandson, Seth Whicker, and by one brother and two sisters.
Mr. Bennett received a Th.B. degree from Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, Va. He attended Eastern Baptist Seminary, received an A.B. degree from Goshen College, attended Northwestern University, and served a residency in hospital administration at Memorial Hospital in South Bend.
During the Spanish Civil War in 1939, Bennett did relief work in Spain with the Mennonite Relief Committee, and in the early days of World War II, he served under Mennonite Central Committee in France. From 1941-46 he was assistant treasurer of Mennonite Central Committee at its headquarters in Akron, Pa.
From 1946 to 1980, Bennett served at the Mennonite Board of Missions headquarters in Elkhart, Ind., first in hospital development, then as treasurer and secretary for health and welfare. From 1959 until his retirement, Bennett was executive secretary.
Bennett served on the Mennonite Central Committee executive committee for 16 years and spent 25 years as executive secretary of Mennonite Health Assembly. From 1981-1990, he was executive secretary of the Mennonite Health Association. He also served for extended periods on the boards of both Bethany Christian Schools and Greencroft, Inc.
Bennett was an accepting and caring businessman who focused on relationships with others. He was a devoted family man, truly enjoying his time at home—with his grandchildren, on the tractor, gardening. On his own time, he became a licensed real estate broker, and developed Woodridge Estates, just south of Elkhart on C.R.9.
He was a member of the Prairie Street Mennonite Church from 1946 until his death. During those years, he served as congregational chair, elder and stewardship chair. He also served the mission and service commission, and taught adult Sunday school.
Services were held Nov. 23 at Prairie Street Mennonite Church and the Prairie Street Cemetery, presided over by the Rev. Gene Lackore. Yoder-Culp Funeral Home handled the arrangements.
Memorials may be given to Mennonite Mission Network, Mennonite Health Services Alliance, or Greencroft, Inc.