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2011-06-01 issue:

End of an era

A century of publishing ends at Scottdale, Pa.

by John E. Sharp

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Mention 606 to anyone nurtured in Mennonite congregations since the publication of the red 1969 Mennonite Hymnal, and the rich harmony and lively tempo of “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” will come to mind. This “Mennonite anthem” of praise, often sung enthusiastically from memory, stirs the soul, renews the spirit and directs attention to God’s everlasting goodness and grace. Its harmony also serves as a metaphor for the strength of congregational identity and mission.

This hymn is a product of the Mennonite Publishing House, now Mennonite Publishing Network, which for 103 years has generated resources for Mennonite congregations and conferences in Canada and the United States. This publishing ministry of the church has been located on a hill in Scottdale, Pa., within sight of Laurel Ridge, the westernmost landform of the Allegheny Mountains. But the Scottdale era is coming to an end. Its operations will move to Harrisonburg, Va., this summer as it merges with Third Way Media to form MennoMedia. The end of the Scottdale era prompts this retrospective.

The Mennonite Publishing House (MPH) was founded in 1908 by a young cadre of visionaries who believed that a church with any promise needed to nurture its theology and shape its practice. As a representative publishing board of the “old” Mennonite Church, they consolidated the assets of two smaller, private publishing ventures and wrested control of the Herald of Truth, published since 1864 by pioneer publisher John F. Funk of Elkhart, Ind. They merged two papers, Herald of Truth and Gospel Witness to produce Gospel Herald, which served as the denominational voice until it merged with The Mennonite in 1998.

Why Scottdale?
When the Mennonite Book and Tract Society formed in 1892, its offices were in the home of the treasurer. When new treasurers were elected, the office moved from Elkhart, Ind., to Scottdale, Spring Grove, Pa., then back to Scottdale, where secretary-treasurer A. D. Martin lived. In 1905, Martin, Aaron Loucks and Jacob S. Loucks, all of Scottdale, organized the Gospel Witness Company with a board of nine, representing various Mennonite conferences. They published Gospel Witness, which they hoped could become the official periodical of the church.

Aaron Loucks was an entrepreneur and business leader, cofounder of numerous church institutions and pastor of the Mennonite congregation in Scottdale. Aaron’s father, Jacob, owned a large share of the land on which the town of Scottdale was built. The elder Loucks had donated the land for the Mennonite meetinghouse, built in 1893, and provided both land and finances for the Gospel Witness Company. The younger Loucks became the first publisher of the new denominational enterprise.

The late Paul Schrock at his desk at MPH in the late 1960s. Photo provided.

Clearly, the prior establishment of publishing ventures, the visionaries drawn by those ventures, the entrepreneurship of Aaron Loucks and the generosity of Jacob Loucks made Scottdale a sensible location for the new publishing house. Furthermore, Scottdale was located between the larger Mennonite populations in the East and the scattered and less developed communities in the Midwest and beyond. Daniel Kauffman, editor of Gospel Herald, said that more important than location was the right kind of institution, the character of the people who live and work there and economy. Indeed, Scottdale was promising. It was a prosperous town with a booming steel industry, beautiful homes, 13 churches, 15 doctors, four banks, two newspapers and eight daily trains.

New life
The Mennonite Publishing House, its managers and employees added to the prosperity of the town and brought new life to the Scottdale congregation. Mennonite settlers migrated to the region from Bucks County, Pa., beginning in 1789, attracted to the fertile land in the Jacobs Creek Valley. By 1850, 200 members worshipped in two meetinghouses on either side of Scottdale, at Stonerville and Pennsville. But by the end of the century, membership had dwindled to 12. Historians have attributed the decline to a number of factors, including westward migration, reluctance to make the transition from German to English in worship, and the influence of newfound wealth when coal was discovered and the coke and steel industries were developed. Evangelist John S. Coffman lamented the generation “who contended in all goodness of heart for the old ways.” The old ways were good, “but they failed to work in a way that kept the good old ways alive” and communicate them to new generations.

Mennonite Publishing House staff at a picnic in 1957. Photo provided.

It was the Loucks family that had a vision for new vibrant expressions of the old faith. Grandmother Nancy Stauffer Loucks is given credit for fanning the spark into new flame. Two of her grandsons were ordained and charged with leadership—Aaron as minister and Joseph as deacon. Coffman believed that Aaron would be an able leader. The fledgling congregation expressed its faith in a bright future by building a new meetinghouse on the highest hill on the Loucks property.

The Mennonite Publishing House was a large part of the bright future. MPH became a magnet for talented and dedicated people who also served the congregation and the Allegheny Conference. They were active in its life and witness; they taught Bible school and Sunday school, preached, shared their faith in the community and started new congregations—North Scottdale and Kingview.

Intellectual center
MPH’s mission was to promote reading, provide good things to read, “advance the cause of Christ and promote unity of faith in the church.” The publishing mission is important, said J. S. Shoemaker, the first chair of the publishing board and a preacher himself, because “more are being blessed through reading than through preaching.” In order to bless its readers, advance the cause of Christ, and promote unity, MPH attracted and recruited the brightest and the best: writers, editors, educators, administrators, press operators and support staff. They made Scottdale the intellectual center of the church. The writers and editors of Scottdale shaped the theology and practice of the church. They produced hymnals, periodicals, educational and devotional products, and teaching resources for every age and for every ministry, from Sunday school, Bible school and clubs to preaching, teaching and worship. As the nerve center of the church, MPH connected people to each other through its network of communication.

Scottdale also attracted new ministries. When the Commission for Christian Education was formed in 1937, its offices were in Scottdale. When Mennonite Youth Fellowship was organized in 1948 as a program of CCE, it was coordinated from Scottdale. When in 1953, the Mennonite Church appointed Paul Erb as its first general secretary, it made sense for Erb to remain in Scottdale, where he was serving as Gospel Herald editor. When Eugene Herr became director of Mennonite Youth Fellowship in 1958, he moved to Scottdale.

Exiting Scottdale
But that changed in 1971. That year, delegates meeting in biennial assembly at Kitchener, Ont., approved a new organizational structure for the binational church. The ministries of the new General Assembly would be carried out by five program boards, one of them new, and would be coordinated by a General Board. Amid rumors that there was too much power in Scottdale, the offices of the General Board and the new Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries (MBCM) would locate elsewhere.

J. Lorne Peachey, then editor of With magazine, recalls a chart on a wall in a denominational office. The chart listed the qualifications for the location of new denominational offices. Of seven locations, Scottdale was last; every qualification for Scottdale was negative. The writing on the wall was clear. Scottdale would cease to be the center of power and influence. The General Board offices went to Rosemont, then later Lombard, Ill., with easy access to O’Hare Airport. MBCM offices, with a mandate to provide services to congregational education, evangelism, family life and leadership, were established in Goshen, and later Elkhart, Ind.

A business or a ministry?
“It is easy to become a publisher,” John A. Hostetler wrote in 1958, “but it is hard to remain one.” That proved to be true for MPH, as it did for many other publishers, but it would not become apparent for some time. A persistent question has been whether a denomination as small as the Mennonite Church could support a publishing enterprise.

Publishers produce with the expectation that constituency will purchase the product and provide a return on investment. Markets change, technology changes, loyalties diminish. It was often said that if every Mennonite congregation would buy Mennonite-produced products, Mennonite publishing would remain strong. Beginning in the 1960s, congregations increasingly began shopping around—for something cheaper, more attractive, easier to teach or with a safer theology. Sometimes editors and writers stretched the limits of constituents’ tolerance with the fruits of historical-critical methods of Bible study. To write of three books of Daniel or to suggest that Jonah may be an allegory was suspect. Higher criticism, the synoptic problem and the Wellhausen documentary hypothesis sounded dangerous.

What editors and authors believed readers needed wasn’t always what readers were willing to buy. If sales of theology or history were low, was Herald Press, the book publishing arm of MPH, obligated to continue publishing the books? It was, as a service to the church. If readers wanted light reading on popular themes, more Amish novels and cookbooks, was it the role of a denominational publisher to provide them?

When in 1960 businessman-publisher Ben Cutrell followed A. J. Metzler as publisher, Cutrell asked the church whether it would subsidize publishing. The answer was no, publishing would have to pay for itself. It was difficult. Typically, the magazines struggled. Some books made money, many did not. When Provident Bookstores were added, most became assets. In order to capitalize the enterprise and produce cash flow, MPH under Cutrell turned to debenture notes. The notes were loans from individuals, congregations and agencies for a specified length of time. Interest was paid during the term of the loan, usually slightly less than market value. When the loan expired, the lender had the option of calling in the loan or extending it for an additional term. These lenders were happy to invest in church publishing.

In 1978, MPH built a large warehouse. It raised about a fourth of the cost and borrowed the rest. At the time it made sense to build the warehouse, since it was better to print large runs and store them on the assumption that the product would eventually sell; reprinting was expensive. Now MPH had a large debt on the warehouse in addition to its debenture notes, and publishing was becoming more expensive. By the 1980s, MPH no longer had money to upgrade technology, equipment and offices. Leaders and employees, with a heart for the church, made the best of things, operated on shoestring budgets, jerry-rigged machines and renewed debenture notes. By 2001, there were 221 such notes worth $2.4 million.

Merger, demise, and restructuring
During the process of merging General Conference Mennonite Church and Mennonite Church publishing agencies, the financial stresses of both agencies became apparent. Both were operating at a loss. In 2001, Faith and Life Press had an operating loss of $167,211, and MPH had a loss of $369,430. Combined losses in 2002 were $793,079. Included in the loss was an unusually large write-off of inventory previously counted an asset. MPH initiated cost-cutting measures that included eliminating medical supplemental insurance for retirees, which raised a storm of protest. They also closed the Scottdale Bookstore and suspended the development of vacation Bible school curriculum and the Mennonite Directory.

In 2001, J. Robert Ramer retired after 15 years as publisher. Dennis Good, who had been publisher of Faith and Life Press from 1997 to 2001, was named Ramer’s successor. Having worked in securities and investments, Good recognized a legal dilemma and refused to sign debenture note renewals. MPH leaders were not aware of changes in U.S. securities regulations. The Securities and Exchange Commission had set a limit of 35, after which it was necessary to register with the state department of corporations. Loans across state lines were also problematic. Good’s recognition of the legal dilemma set off a chain of events that ended in 2004 as a restructured agency.

After a full audit disclosed operating losses and debts of $5.1 million, including the debenture notes, the Joint Executive Committee (JEC) assumed oversight of operations. The MPH board hired consultant Paul Silcox. When Dennis Good took a medical leave, Silcox became acting publisher with a mandate to restructure MPH.  Silcox soon earned the reputation among employees as the “hatchet man.” Thirty-one jobs were eliminated, including about a third of Scottdale’s workforce, saving $700,000 in payroll but creating an atmosphere of anxiety and mistrust. And there was the indebtedness.

Mennonite Church USA borrowed $1.5 million from Mennonite Mutual Aid, and Mennonite Church Canada mortgaged property to back a loan of $975,000 to pay creditors, close a costly bank line of credit and fund current operations. In March 2002, the JEC, in an unprecedented move, dismissed the MPH board and assumed responsibility for operations, believing it necessary to restore credibility and to ensure a viable publishing future. Leaders of Allegheny Mennonite Conference, the regional conference that includes Scottdale, initiated a fund-raising campaign to retire outstanding MPH debt and urged the denomination to join the effort. As a result, a churchwide Barn Raising Campaign was launched to retire the debt and provide future funding. Also in March, a grievance committee called MPH to honor its commitments and restore the eliminated medical supplemental insurance benefit to retirees. In June 2002, Norman Shenk of Lancaster released the results of his thorough financial audit, the first complete audit since 1989. Shenk’s report showed a negative net worth of $67,000.

In July 2002, Phil Bontrager was appointed new acting chief executive officer to replace Paul Silcox. Bontrager’s mandate was to stabilize MPH operationally and financially, determine the appropriate resolution of the outstanding debenture notes and work with the Publishing Transformation Team to implement their vision for a revised, viable publishing agency that was named Menno­nite Publishing Network. Bontrager reported to the JEC members—Ron Sawatsky, Jim Harder and Ervin Stutzman—who guided the restructuring process to its successful conclusion in 2004. In September 2002, an unidentified organization made a one-year loan of $2.3 million to repay the debenture notes. Some note holders donated interest earned, and others contributed the principle.

Bontrager’s major challenges included building trust in a community that had experienced “profound change” and faced an uncertain future. He recalled recently that he attempted to walk with people in their pain, grief and anger while continuing to implement organizational changes. He found it challenging to balance the need for confidentiality with transparency, especially with news of the Enron, WorldCom and Global Crossing scandals, which generated suspicion and mistrust. MPH employees resented the parallels drawn in the church press to the fraudulent corporations. It was also unfortunate that the Scottdale community “frequently learned of decisions directly affecting them via the church press with limited context or additional information from the denominations,” said Bontrager.

Ben Sprunger followed Bontrager as yet another interim CEO and served for four months. In October 2002, the publishing board approved a “lean and clean” designed to inspire confidence and dramatically change publishing. The plan called for closing its printing operation and expected to save $82,000 a year, but it also eliminated 10 more jobs. On Feb. 1, 2003, Mennonite Publishing Network (MPN) completed its year-long restructuring plan, and in April, the interim board appointed Ron Rempel of Waterloo, Ont., as executive secretary. His start date of Aug. 1 coincided with the appointment of a new eight-member board of directors. In January 2004, the Barn Raising Campaign completed its mission by raising $1.3 million to pay more than half the short-term $2.3 million loan made by the anonymous organization. MPN planned to amortize the remaining $1 million over eight years, but in 2006 MPN sold the last of its 10 Provident Bookstores and paid off its remaining debt of $3.1 million. Finally it was free and clear.

In November 2010, after initial hesitation, Mennonite Church Canada joined Mennonite Church USA in approving MPN’s merger with Third Way Media and its relocation to Harrisonburg, Va. Rempel explained that the merged entity, to be called MennoMedia, would “be well-equipped for both print and electronic distribution.” The new agency is to serve Mennonite Church Canada as well as Mennonite Church USA, though Canadian leaders fear the reduction of MPN staff in Canada. They are also concerned that Third Way Media re-establish its services to Canada, since it has been a U.S.-based ministry of Mennonite Mission Network. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, Third Way Media, then known as Mennonite Broadcasts, had staff and program in Canada.

Clearly changes were needed in recent MPH operations. But the demise of publishing in Scottdale was long in coming. The reorganization of Mennonite Church structures in 1971 and the subsequent exit of offices and ministries from Scottdale can be seen as the first sign. The changing nature of publishing, new technology, increased cost of publishing and declining denominational loyalty all figure in. So does the church’s demand for products that were not cost effective. Mennonite publishing is not alone. The list of other church publishers who have cut staff and services or have closed their doors is long indeed.

New dreams
When MPN leaves Scottdale, it will leave behind the 70,000-square-foot facility on the top of Jacob Loucks’ highest hill. Leaders of Scottdale Mennonite Church have written a letter asking church leaders not to abandon the building across the street but to explore possibilities for its continued service to the Scottdale community. Will they create a vision for a new ministry, just as an earlier generation did in 1908? The Scottdale business community is not thriving as it once did, but young people are coming back to Scottdale. Many more youth, some 200, have congregated in nearby Pittsburgh.

While we await new dreams, let us cherish what has been. When we sing 606, let us recall the contributions and dedication of the many who served the church’s publishing ministry during its 103 years in Scottdale.

John E. Sharp teaches history at Hesston (Kan.) College and was pastor at Scottdale (Pa.) Mennonite Church, 1989-95.

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Additional Notes

Disclaimer: The Mennonite and one of its predecessors, Gospel Herald, were part of the publishing enterprise at Mennonite Publishing House until The Menno­nite, Inc., formed a not-for-profit corporation in Indiana in August 2002.


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