It is fitting that the Institute of Mennonite Studies at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary last year (2002) published a tribute to Erland Waltner. Perhaps slightly awkwardly entitled The Work is Thine, O Christ: In Honor of Erland Waltner, the book is edited by associate professor of communication and preaching June Alliman Yoder, and contains three main parts: Erland Waltner: His Life, His Work, His Influence. This volume is enhanced by about ten pages of photographs.
In the first section, Bethel College professor of history James Juhnke sketches Waltner's early years from his youth on a farm near Freeman, South Dakota, through his college and graduate education, early pastorates, and teaching at Bethel College from 1949 until his appointment as president of Mennonite Biblical Seminary in 1957.
In a second chapter of this first section, C. J. Dyck, professor emeritus of Anabaptist-Mennonite studies at AMBS, takes up the story of Waltner's 21 years of the presidency of MBS until his retirement in 1978. He explains the circumstances of the seminary's relocation from Chicago to Elkhart in 1957, when the seminary exchanged its association with the Church of the Brethren seminary in Chicago for an association with Goshen Biblical Seminary. Dyck also touches upon Waltner's handling of the student turbulence of the late '60s and early '70s and chronicles the administrative transitions from two cooperating seminaries to one integrated theological school.
Ross Bender, former dean of AMBS and former president of Mennonite World Conference, reports Waltner's involvement in that Mennonite world body, beginning with an address Waltner gave to MWC in 1948 and continuing through Waltner's ten-year presidency of MWC from Kitchener, Ontario, in 1962 to Curitiba, Brazil, in 1972.
In a fourth chapter, retired Goshen physician Willard Krabill recognizes Erland Waltner's contribution as Executive Secretary of the Mennonite Medical Association from 1979 to 1992, after Waltner's retirement from the presidency of MBS.
In the last chapter on Waltner: His Life, Nina Bartelt Lanctot, associate minister of Belmont Mennonite Church in Elkhart, expresses appreciation for Waltner's work as a spiritual counselor in nonpublic settings, mostly since his retirement. Living just across Benham Avenue from the seminary, Waltner continues to keep an office at the seminary and continues his interest and support of the cause of ministerial education and church life to which he has given so many years.
The second section of this book, Waltner: His Work, consists of 11 selections from Waltner's pen, beginning with a sermon he preached as pastor of Bethel Mennonite Church, Mountain Lake, Minnesota, right after Pearl Harbor in 1941. This section also includes Waltner's inaugural address as president of MBS in 1958, an excerpt from his commentary upon First Peter in the Believers Church Commentary series (published in 1999), and several 2001 columns in the Mennonite Health Journal. Waltner himself likely chose these selections, I would guess.
One is surprised at the long gap between the inaugural address of 1958 and a paper at a Notre Dame workshop on Pastoral Care in 1985, seven years after Waltner's retirement. The inaugural address declares an intention to maintain a balance between academics and spirituality. Waltner's vision was for seminary education to produce a graduate who would be both "saint and scholar." Well said. But why no other addresses from the rest of this era of Waltner's presidency of MBS, the height of his career? These years are the middle third of a sixty-year career as pastor, teacher, and administrator.
The third section of this book is headed Waltner: His Influence. But it reflects that influence only in a most indirect fashion, because the ten chapters in this section are almost all sermons by different people from various times and places. In this respect they resemble the content of the typical Festschrift, in which selected scholars "do their own thing," each producing a short monograph on one of his or her own areas of interest.
The choice of contributors to this section is not especially clear or logical. The writers are all fine people, and one would expect pieces from AMBS faculty and administrators who know Waltner and whose bylines appear here: Jake Elias, Janeen Bertsche Johnson, and June Alliman Yoder. One is also not surprised to see sermons from James Schrag, Mesach Krisetya, current president of Mennonite World Conference, Peter Dyck, and Rose Waltner Graber, Erland's daughter.
But why no other representatives of the AMBS faculty who have had a long association with Waltner? Granted, many of them are deceased: Howard Charles, Jake Enz, Marlin Miller, Gertrude Roten. Yet I would have expected something from Leland Harder or Millard Lind or Willard Swartley. And why not tributes to Waltner? Coming to the Rose Waltner Graber contribution, the last piece in section 3, I was at last expecting something from his daughter about Erland Waltner the father and family man, something more personal than another sermon.
Erland Waltner himself is given the privilege of an epilogue, and his comments there explain the title of the book. For many years he has loved the hymn "The Work is Thine, O Christ." The ideals articulated in that hymn have guided Waltner and reassured him in times when he encountered pressures and conflicts in his administrative work. That is no doubt the reason he gained the confidence of people who were willing to entrust him with the tasks of pastor, college teacher, conference moderator, seminary president, Mennonite World Conference President, and Mennonite Medical Association Executive Secretary. His contribution of over sixty years to the Mennonite church merits our profound thanks.