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Spring 2001  ·  Vol. 30 No. 1  ·  pp. 5–12 

The Measure of Five Decades: An Insider's Tribute to Walter Unger

George Schmidt

Walter Unger

The year was 1969. Mennonite Brethren Bible Institute (MBBI) located in Clearbrook, British Columbia, had a record enrollment. The Board of Directors authorized the administration to advertise two new faculty positions. This was also the graduating year of thirty-two year old Walter Unger of St. Catharines, Ontario, from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) near Chicago. He was busily researching his master’s thesis whose final title came to be, “The Social Views of Charles Grandison Finney.”

Unger had his eyes on a career in teaching at a postsecondary Christian institution. However, a Bible Institute does not appear to have been his dream venue. Instead his resumé arrived on the desk of Dr. J. B. Toews, President of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California. Having become aware of the openings at MBBI, Toews forwarded Wally’s resumé to Henry Born, President of the B.C. school, and suggested that it might well point to a good match for one of the positions open there. 1 The contact was made, the fit was great, and the romance of a lifetime had begun. The April 9, 1969, Faculty Minutes declare simply: “Mr. Born informs the faculty that Wally Unger has accepted the invitation to teach at MBBI for the coming year.” {6}

Full accreditation by AABC was granted to Columbia Bible College in October 1991. It proved to be foundational for moving the college to the next level of growth and recruitment potential.

On November 9, 2000, at his last Annual Meeting as President of Columbia Bible College, 2 he placed the end-bracket around his long and productive time of ministry at the college with these simple, but poignant words: “[I] will be retiring from the College at the end of the 2000-2001 school year, having then completed thirty-two years of service.” This, of course, begs the obvious question, “What did the five decades in this amazingly long span (1969-2001) bring into the life of our brother, colleague, and leader, Walter Unger?” Vignettes from each of the five decades spanned will point toward some answers.

THE SIXTIES

The sixties were, in many ways, the launching pad for the life of ministry for which we are thanking God in this issue. Much preparation had preceded Wally’s arrival in B.C. in the summer of 1969 with wife Laura and three children ages seven, four and two. By this time he had logged ten years of teaching in the Ontario school system, seven of them at the demanding junior high level. Alongside and around these years he had found time to serve as Associate Pastor at Fairview MB Church in St. Catharines and to gain extensive experience in youth work, radio preaching, and various approaches to evangelism.

As he has been throughout his years in B.C., Wally was very much a student in this preparatory stage. In 1959 he graduated from Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg and from Hamilton Teachers College in the year following. This was followed by a BA from Waterloo University with a major in History and a minor in Philosophy, signaling lifelong interests and pursuits. As indicated above, in 1969 he graduated from TEDS with an MA in Church History and History of Christian Thought. An entry from the most recent Columbia Bible College (CBC) catalogue shows the continued trajectory of Dr. Unger’s formal education: “Simon Fraser University, PhD, 1982; Postdoctoral studies, Regent’s Park College, Oxford, 1985; Tutor, C. S. Lewis Summer Institute, Oxford, 1988.” To this impressive list can be added virtually annual participation in the Society of Biblical Literature and the Evangelical Theological Society conferences. It is also abundantly evident from the wide-ranging topics in his writings (see the bibliographic essay in this issue) that Wally is a voracious, clear-thinking and not-easily-persuaded reader, an education in itself!

Another important involvement contributing to Wally’s preparation for ministry was sports, especially hockey. As a seventeen year-old Junior B player (he wrote thirteen years later), “I was in the position where continued participation in organized hockey could lead to a career {7} in the game. Those were days of decision for me. Two calls beckoned: the call of Christ and the call of Hockey. I realized that I would have to answer to one or the other as my master. The moment we surrender that idol which holds us back spiritually, a multitude of new and exciting blessings can begin in our lives. God is no man’s debtor.” 3

An interesting sequel is found in the Faculty Minutes of October 16, 1969: “Arrangements for Ice Hockey: W. Unger reports that this would involve 20 fellows and that he would personally be present [meaning, active] in the activity.” This was a very quiet beginning for the hockey program, now an important part of Columbia’s vigorous athletics offerings. A related, touching sidebar was his relationship to Buster Brayshaw, erstwhile Chicago Blackhawk defenseman whom he befriended while Buster was in addictions rehabilitation in Abbotsford in 1971. The outcomes for Buster Brayshaw were two years of coaching of the Columbia Bible Institute (CBI) hockey team (with Wally as a player) and turning his life over to a new GM, Jesus Christ. 4 Over the years, Wally continued to write about issues and personalities in sports. 5

THE SEVENTIES

The new decade began with a bang both for the Bible school and for Wally. The January 29, 1970, Faculty Minutes show the following entries under “New Business”: “[4b] By common consent the faculty of the MBBI goes on record as favoring the working together of the two Bible Institutes”; “[4f] President Toews informs us that for the 1970/71 year Walter Unger has been appointed as Academic Dean [as Hugo Jantz has asked to be relieved of his duties as Academic Dean].” Both of these events would come to absorb a great deal of Wally’s time and energy in the years ahead.

The proposal was that MBBI and Bethel Bible Institute would become one school. Aside from being involved in the various discussions and conferences required to hammer out the many details associated with such a major, groundbreaking venture as the merger of two schools which had operated in virtual isolation from each other for over thirty years (even though being located in the same town), it became Wally’s task to work out the details of running one school. Of course, time was in very short supply.

Both supporting constituencies, the Mennonite Brethren Conference of B.C. and the Conference of Mennonites in B.C., working at breakneck speed, needed the first few months of the year to prepare proposals for membership meetings to gain formal approval to move ahead. This happened, with overwhelmingly high vote results, at both venues. {8}

“Now what?” Wally must have thought. Which courses do we teach? 6 Who are the teachers? Can we keep everyone from both schools? Where do we put all the students? It became evident quite quickly that the new cooperative model was attracting considerably more students than what the combined totals of both schools had ever been. Added to this happy outcome, there was the clear fact that about ten percent of the new student body were from non-Mennonite churches and families. This was truly remarkable because until that time neither school had attracted, with very few exceptions, anyone but its own.

This was widely interpreted as evidence of the Lord’s approval upon the “breaking down of walls” and the positive testimony to idealistic young people and the watching larger community. Some interpreters even thought that the Lord was saying, “Now that these members of the same family are finally accepting each other, I can begin to entrust some of my other children to them.” It should be noted that the percentage of these others has continued to climb so that in Wally’s last year as President it is at forty-nine percent.

In the midst of all this euphoria and good will, Wally Unger, Academic Dean, had a job to do. Basically, it was to get the school ready for a new day in postsecondary Christian Education in B.C. For years CBI was the only school at this level in the world in which MBs and GCs 7 worked together with growing trust and harmony to “prepare people for a life of discipleship in the contemporary world” (a short form of Columbia’s Mission Statement). And Wally had the privilege, honor, and responsibility of providing primary leadership! He was, indeed, together with President P. R. Toews, God’s man “for a time such as this!”

The school continued to grow and reached a new record enrollment of 266 in 1975. The mood was optimistic and energies and resources appeared to be abundant. Then a time of testing set in. President Toews resigned in the Spring of 1977 and the Board of Directors proceeded precipitously to fill the position with a person who understood too little about the history and the ethos of the school. His somewhat limited interpersonal skills prevented him from bridging that deficit and gaining the confidence and support of the faculty and staff.

It was Wally’s challenge to make the best of this situation. He served as go-between, as interpreter, and, at the same time, as captain of our team. As is always the case for those “in the gap,” he had to live with questions and misunderstandings from both sides. It was a harrowing time for him! When the new President’s increasingly inevitable resignation came early in January of 1978, Wally was handed the leadership as Acting President. 8 The Lord used his leadership gifts and his clear vision {9} of the mission and potential of the school to restore hope and confidence on-site.

However, because the unrest and instability at CBI had been reported far and wide, churches, homes, and prospective students appeared to take a wait-and-see attitude. The enrollment dipped drastically, reaching its low point in 1986 with below 150 full-time students registered; the levels of the 1970s were not reached again until the early 1990s. A true tribute to Wally’s leadership is the fact that the support of the Conferences held strong and stable during this time: he was able to sell the vision of the school, run a church-related and spiritually transforming program, and keep the books balanced. Not a mean feat!

THE EIGHTIES

Wally’s interim presidency came to an end when Dr. Roy Just, previously President of Tabor College in Kansas, was called to fill that office in 1980. Wally resumed his ministry as Academic Dean at that time. The two, Just and Unger, formed a visionary and productive team. The first major challenge they embarked on was to move the relationship between the two Conferences to a full partnership. Over ten years of common cause, trust, and solid bridges begged the question, “Is there any reason why we cannot finally have the ‘wedding’?” The college’s 1999/2000 catalogue (p. 70) gives an excellent description of this historic event: “In 1982, this cooperative effort was expanded into a covenant whereby the Mennonite Brethren invited the Conference of Mennonites to unite in the ownership and development of CBI, not merely its operation. At the historic June 11, 1982, joint convention, the first inter-Mennonite Bible Institute in North America was established to actively promote and teach a strong evangelical Anabaptist/Mennonite theology.”

The next Just-Unger project was to achieve formal recognition and accreditation for Columbia’s mission and program. In 1984 the Board and the CBI Society gave authorization to apply for accreditation with AABC, the North America-wide accrediting association for Bible Colleges; a name change from “Institute” to “College” was also given clearance. By far the greatest burden in this pursuit fell on Wally’s shoulders. 9 First came a very detailed, but extremely helpful, Self Study whose end product covered several hundred pages; then a campus visit by colleagues from other colleges; finally all the paper work associated with Candidate Status (granted in 1985) and several encounters with the Commission on Accreditation at Annual General Meetings of the association. Full accreditation by AABC was granted in October 1991, a major accomplishment for Wally and his team! It also proved to be {10} foundational for moving the college to the next level of growth and recruitment potential.

In the process it also became obvious that provincial government authorization to grant the degrees for which AABC was accrediting the college was needed to complete the loop. This was achieved on June 26, 1987, when the B.C. Legislative Assembly passed the “Columbia Bible College Act.”

Early on in this decade, in the midst of all this activity, the Faculty Minutes of June 9, 1982, show this interesting entry: “It was noted that Wally Unger was part of the SFU graduating class [and] received his ‘Dr’ degree. Congratulations, Wally!” His dissertation was entitled “Earnestly Contending for the Faith: The Role of the Niagara Bible Conference in the Emergence of American Fundamentalism, 1875-1900.”

Then, unexpectedly in early 1985, Dr. Roy Just resigned and the Board of Directors asked Wally to become the next President of CBC; first this was in an Acting capacity (from July 1) and then fully in October. 10 He accepted with the interesting proviso that he not be required to have major involvement in fund-raising; it is interesting in light of the fact that later Wally not only became rather successful, but also that he actually came to enjoy the challenge of the enterprise. His first President’s Report to the AGM (June 2, 1986) gives glimpses into his heart and priorities:

Right from the beginning of my work [as President] I have stressed the need for consolidation of our present program, fiscal stability, and a strong emphasis on spiritual formation in our ministry to one another as staff and Board, and particularly to our students. The one and two year programs are to be overshadowed by the degree program. A true team spirit prevails at CBC. I have felt intense oneness of purpose and a deep commitment from everyone on faculty and staff.

In many ways the eighties laid the foundation for what was to be “built” at Columbia Bible College in the next two decades under Wally’s leadership.

THE NINETIES

The 1990s proved to be a decade of growth. Enrollment rose from a Full Time Equivalency (FTE) of 191 in 1990 to 352 in 1999. The degree programs, as well as new majors such as Early Childhood Education and Outdoor Recreational Leadership, plus a pervasive spirit of enthusiasm {11} and confidence preached by Wally and supported by the Board, seemed to be at the root of this surge.

A very significant physical symbol of that same spirit was the construction of the Columbia Resource Centre in 1992. This building houses college and faculty offices and the expanding library, as well as the offices of both supporting Conferences.

Although the enrollment continued to increase throughout the decade, a somewhat heavier spirit began to trouble the college from the mid-nineties on. This was largely related to debts accrued through the purchase of neighboring properties. The motivation had been clear: “the way we are growing, we had better prepare for the need to enlarge campus facilities and capacities.” Then the real estate market took its prolonged dive, and the long and short of the matter was that, because the college’s operating budget was impacted very negatively, a great deal more money needed to be raised by way of donations.

This became a very heavy burden on Wally to the extent that his health suffered considerably. However, the wonderful side of this story is how faithful supporters of the college, who had learned to trust Wally and recognized the kingdom work being done at Columbia, stood by him, dug deeper, and not only helped to balance one budget after another, but also set to work to reduce “the deficit” by significant amounts. “May their tribe increase!” Wally was heard to say more than once. The final jolt which catapulted this rescue effort over the top to erase the total debt is part of the story of the next decade.

THE “ZEROS”

This decade began with the knowledge that Wally was about to enter his last year as President of Columbia Bible College. Instead of becoming a time of waiting it out until the “lame duck leader” departs the scene, the atmosphere became charged with optimism and literal excitement. There were two main reasons. One was another major enrollment increase from 353 in 1999 to 466 FTE in 2000. It brought with it significant challenges, but was definitely encouraging and endorsing.

The second reason, the “final jolt” mentioned above, was the almost unimaginable challenge of a longtime, always generous supporter couple in words somewhat like these: “If you eliminate all capital debt by such and such a time, we will build you a state-of-the-art gym with no cost to the college!!!” Many generous people were inspired by such a huge vision; some very large sums were given and/or pledged; some gave for the first time; the total was supremely gratifying. The net result was that the challenge was met, and by summer 2000 site preparations {12} were begun. By Christmas 2000 the walls were up, and the prospect of celebrating Wally’s last graduation at CBC in our own, beautiful facility was no longer a dream.

CONCLUSION

We have traced in brief, selective strokes how the Lord has used the five decades of self-giving ministry and visionary leadership of Walter (“Wally”) Unger at Columbia Bible College to build his kingdom. At the time of writing, the bottom line has not yet been drawn. In any case, how one would summarize the legacy he will have left at Columbia—in churches and Conferences, and especially in the lives and ministries of the thousands of students whom he served and impacted—is material for further research.

NOTES

  1. It is interesting to note that, while Wally was relatively unknown to Henry Born, he had been known to the Board well enough to be listed in the Executive Minutes of January 24, 1969, as one of the candidates for replacement of the resigning president of MBBI.
  2. Columbia Bible College is the inter-Mennonite descendant of MBBI and Bethel Bible Institute of the Conference of Mennonites in B.C.
  3. Wally Unger, “Hockey: Master or Slave?” Mennonite Brethren Herald, 28 January 1966, 16-17.
  4. Walter Unger, “They Called Him ‘Buster,’ ” Mennonite Brethren Herald, 19 March 1993, 12.
  5. Examples of articles in the Mennonite Brethren Herald related to sports: (a) “God’s Gift of Recreation,” 31 May 1974, (b) “Discipleship in Sports,” 20 April 1984, (c) “Ryan Walter: A Man Set Apart,” 28 August 1992.
  6. There was mostly common ground between the previous curricula.
  7. “GC” stands for General Conference and represents the popular form of reference customarily used when speaking of the Conference of Mennonites in British Columbia because they were a constituent part of the General Conference of Mennonite Churches, now part of the Mennonite Church.
  8. CBI Board Minutes, January 12, 1978, #8.
  9. After 1985, when Unger became President, this was shared with John Vooys and then John Schmidt, who succeeded him as Academic Dean in that order.
  10. CBI Board Executive Minutes, October 22, 1985, #4.
George Schmidt is the Dean of Students at Columbia Bible College and has been a colleague of Walter Unger for the better part of thirty years. He was formerly President of Bethel Bible Institute, one of the parent institutions of Columbia Bible College.

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