NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — Up until the last several months of his life, the late missiologist and professor Wilbert Ray Shenk, 86, who died July 13, continued to teach.
This fall, there will be a group of Korean students in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, California, who will receive Wilbert's wisdom, through a translation of his final set of class notes, said Juanita G. Shenk, Wilbert's wife of 63 years.
She shared this story during a telephone interview, from her home at Greencroft Communities in Goshen, Indiana. It's where Wilbert, born near Sheridan, Oregon, Jan. 16, 1935, received hospice care for the final two weeks of his life. For decades before his passing, he served the wider church in missiological vision-casting, seminary teaching, and executive leadership. He was surrounded by his family, who had been keeping vigil with him around the clock.
"Wilbert had been traveling, periodically, back to Fuller, where he served as senior professor and taught short courses," said Juanita, who married Wilbert after they met at Hesston (Kansas) College, while he was a student there, from 1951-1953. "One of those courses involved creating a lecture for Korean students in English, which would, then, be translated into their language. One of the last work things he did was to send off his final lecture in English, through email, to the translator for a fall course."
Those Korean students are some of the many students Wilbert taught, mentored and befriended over the years. Others included several staff members at Mennonite Mission Network, many of whom said that Wilbert's missiological vision-casting is still shaping how Mission Network carries out its call today. James Krabill, former senior executive at Mission Network, said that Wilbert was his first boss at Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM) — the predecessor agency to Mission Network — when he and his wife, Jeanette, were serving in West Africa.
Krabill said Wilbert established an ongoing pattern of mission that still shapes the agency: engaging in mutual partnerships with global communities in which God is already at work.
"There was a core group of us, who really worked hard to integrate his missiological approach in our programming," Krabill said. "The work where he was most insightful involved Indigenous movements, including those with African Initiated Churches and in Argentina, as well as guiding those who would establish urban, Anabaptist centers in Europe. In a lot of ways, he became more known beyond the Mennonite church later on, even though we continued to try to administer and process the things he put in place. So, his legacy is one in which he had a huge role, both outside the Mennonite church and from within it."
Krabill said his mantra for two generations of mission workers was: "We needed to start where people are at rather than import a bunch of stuff. We needed to spend a first year anywhere we served simply looking and listening and keeping a journal. We needed to engage with what people were already doing and partner with it and, then, be ready for the Holy Spirit to move."
Steve Wiebe-Johnson, co-director of Europe and Africa, agreed with Krabill. "He always said that our context was not an object but people," he said. "We were to be relevant by being with them and sharing within in a mutual relationship."
That spirit characterized Wilbert's long legacy. After Wilbert graduated from Goshen (Indiana) College in 1955, he served as a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) worker in Indonesia from 1955-1959, where Juanita served as a nurse. He, then, worked as an administrator for MCC from 1963-1965. From 1965-1990 he worked as an administrator for MBM.
Wilbert also obtained a doctoral degree from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1978. Following his time at MBM, Wilbert taught at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart from 1990-1995. From 1995-2005, he served as senior professor of Mission History and Contemporary Culture at Fuller. And even in in his retirement, he stayed active by continuing to teach short courses, mentoring doctoral students and writing.
It was well known, said many leaders, that Wilbert was one of the leading missiologists among Mennonites, but he also moved beyond Mennonite institutions, to impact the ongoing development of global missiology in other churches and organizations. For example, he was ahead of his time in connecting mission-minded Mennonites by launching international consortiums, such as the Council for International Anabaptist Ministries (CIM), and birthing Mission Focus, a mission journal, which is now called Anabaptist Witness.
John A. Lapp, former executive director of MCC, said that when he and Wilbert were both active at MCC and MBM, he strongly encouraged Wilbert's leadership in building cooperation between these mission and service agencies. "Wilbert not only sensed the importance of cooperation in these ministries, but he also emphasized the theological grounding of mission activity," Lapp wrote in an email. "He emphasized mission as the work of God, an understanding that permeated the entire Christian movement. He was ecumenical in the finest sense."
Among Wilbert's more recent publications are North American Foreign Missions, 1810–1914: Theology, Theory, and Policy (2004), Enlarging the Story: Perspectives on Writing World Christian History (2002), By Faith They Went Out: Mennonite Missions, 1850–1999 (2000), and Changing Frontiers of Mission (1999). Many of the booklets in Mission Network's Missio Dei series were attempts to popularize his missiology, Krabill said.
Mike Sherrill, Mission Network's executive director and CEO, said that Wilbert walked his own talk by being the kind of teacher, leader and mentor that he was forming others to be. Sherrill first met Wilbert when Sherrill was studying at AMBS in 1994.
"That's where my journey with him began, and he remained my mentor up until two days ago, when he died," Sherrill said. "He had been an important part of my life for a long, long time and had a tremendous impact on me. I learned so much from him over the years in his classes, and he supervised my master's thesis and PH.D. dissertation."
Sherill said that while there are a lot of good missiologists out there, Wilbert was his favorite. "His academics were always balanced with such grace and humility and love for humanity," Sherrill said. "I always felt in awe of Wilbert, but at the same time, I also felt so affirmed and respected by him. He welcomed me as a colleague, all the while I considered him to be a mentor, guide and in some sense, a father figure in the best way."
Family man as well as guide to God's family
While Wilbert served as a mentor and father figure to many, he was the father of three children, who were recipients of his warmth, grace and wisdom in their childhood home, they said. His three children are Suzanne Morris, Maria Shenk and Thomas Shenk. He is survived by Juanita, his children, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
"Unlike people across the church, my memories of Dad are of him as a dad at home," said youngest child Thomas Shenk, of Newark, New Jersey. "As much as anything, I really enjoyed talking with him. He was well read and had a deep curiosity about the world. I could literally talk to him about anything. He didn't usually tell you what to do; he listened to you and asked lots of questions and gave a comment or two. He let you talk through your own problems and come up with your own conclusions."
Thomas Shenk said he remembers the do-it-yourself home projects Wilbert asked him to help with, all of which later led to his vocation as a woodworker and carpenter. He also remembers how his father, after one trip, brought home French berets for each of them. "He wore his every single day, and I remember him walking to work every day, to downtown Elkhart, to MBM, wearing that beret. From a distance, you could see him walking home, too. He was easy to pick out, because of his very fast gait and his height and the sight of that beret."
Shenk also reminisced about how they shared many family Sunday dinners with his father's friends and colleagues. "You just learned to understand that the people who came to our table at the invitation of our dad needed to speak to him about whatever was going on, and you were able to sit there and absorb what was being discussed. … You learned that you had to share Dad with others."
Though sharing their dad was a common occurrence, Wilbert also had a gift for relating one-on-one with his children, as well, said Suzanne Morris, his eldest child. She lives in Elkhart, Indiana, close to her parents in Goshen, which allowed her to spend a lot of close time with him during his final days.
"My dad was my best friend," Morris said. "When I was a teenager, I had a lot of struggles. When I got into my 30s, I came back to my parents to set things right. My dad said, 'Oh, we're not going to worry about that.' He gave me so much grace, the kind of grace he extended to so many others, too. When he got sick, we became really, really close. I went with him to his first chemo appointment, as well as his last. I was there with him when he died. We shared lots of talks, lots of hugs, lots of walks."
Morris continued, "He always had a way of being your friend. … Any time I, or my husband and my kids, or grandkids needed an answer to something, we called Dad. He would give his shirt off his back to anybody. He helped a lot of people. He walked the talk, big time. He exemplified everything that he was teaching others. He was a public figure, yes. But he was the same man to everyone, whether at home or elsewhere."