La Verne Magazine
Summer 2003


Where Have All the Brethren Gone?

by Rebecca Cooper
photography by Jennifer Contreras


Faithful servant of the Church, John Gingrich, former dean of the ULV College of Arts and Sciences, has seen the ULV Church of the Brethren population dwindle from 6 percent when he started as College chaplain in 1968 to the current 1 percent.

When Lordsburg College opened its doors in 1891 and allowed students outside the Church of the Brethren to attend, things were bound to change. But no one 112 years ago would have imagined that it would come to a point when less than one percent of the student population would be affiliated with the Church. “We’ve evolved from basically a Brethren-dominated campus to a church-related university,” says John Gingrich, former University of La Verne dean of the college of arts and sciences and board chair of the Church of the Brethren Bethany Seminary. “With only one percent of the traditional undergraduate population affiliated with the Church, you can hardly call it a Brethren school.”

Currently, 15 Church of the Brethren students attend ULV, one of six historic COB schools in the nation. These six schools were founded by Brethren who eventually came to California from the East Coast and the Midwest because of illnesses that they could not overcome due to the weather and hardships. “The University still has the same percent of Brethren students as it relates to overall Brethren presence on the West Coast as it always has,” says Marlin Heckman, ULV librarian. “In 1936, Brethren students made up less than half the undergraduate students. Back then, many COB families thought President Ellis Studebaker was too concerned with accreditation to concern himself with church affairs. He believed it was important to recruit everyone but worried about the problems different mores and convictions of non-Brethren would bring to the campus.”

Part of the reason there are so few Brethren students at ULV today is that there are nearly 140,000 Brethren in the United States, and only 5,000 to 6,000 COB members on the entire West Coast. In contrast, ULV’s student body is now about 40 percent Catholic.

“Today, there has been a significant reduction in the overall Brethren Church, and most Brethren students don’t attend Brethren schools, because of a lack of money. They often attend community colleges or schools closer to home,” Heckman says. With improved medical care and technology available in other regions in the 1930s, many Brethren returned to the Midwest and the East Coast to be closer to their families and more traditionally conservative Brethren. “Even if every student from every Brethren Church on the West Coast attended La Verne, you could never get enough students to keep the University open,” Gingrich says. “In the beginning, most students, faculty and administrators were Brethren, but if you want to keep an institution alive and interesting, then you don’t want all the same kind of people.”

The Brethren influence on campus lessens each year, but it is still evident in ULV’s mission statement and in opportunities available to students. The emphasis on values and service in the mission statement is also very important to the Church of the Brethren. Peace Week programs about nonviolence, the presence of the Campus ministry and numerous scholarships for Brethren students are an important part of life at ULV. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s not very important to increase Brethren enrollment, but I want to work toward an increased Brethren presence at ULV, because it’s important to me,” says Julie Wheeler, coordinator of church relations between ULV and the Church of the Brethren. “The dynamics are very different now than when ULV was founded, but I think it’s important to have a sense of rootedness. I think both the Church and the University benefit from a positive relationship, and I want to work toward building that back up.”

Wheeler is trying to increase the Church of the Brethren student presence on campus, as well as bring a Brethren influence back to ULV. She wants to see more of a Brethren-like emphasis on doing good for the greater world and contributing to the community, rather than just getting the job done. “No one is saying we should break our ties, but we do not want to be controlled by the Church,” Gingrich says. “There was once fear of being controlled, but that has not really been the case since the Board of Trustees broke away from the strict Brethren dominance in 1933.”

ULV was the first Brethren College to allow non-Brethren on its Board of Trustees. Of the 35 members currently on the Board of Trustees, 11 are affiliated with the Church of the Brethren. Today, 21 of ULV’s 332 full-time faculty are Brethren. “In some churches there is a real strong encouragement to attend one of the Brethren Colleges, but one of the strongest ideals of the Church of the Brethren is for people to go and do what is most nurturing and beneficial for them,” says Campus Minister Debbie Roberts. “But there are other churches, especially the rural churches in the Midwest that are more conservative, that think our Brethren Colleges are too liberal for their children to attend.”

The Church of the Brethren is a historic peace church that follows no formal creed or set of rules, but rather the scriptures of the New Testament. The Church was founded as part of the German Anabaptist movement in 1708. After years of persecution, the Brethren moved to Pennsylvania from 1719 to 1740, eventually making their way West in the 1800s. Today, the Brethren are trying to focus on educating youth, practicing foreign and home service, and peacemaking. Even though the Church only has 140,000 members, each congregation differs in its practices and beliefs. “Even if you go to the Midwest churches or schools today, you will see a very conservative Brethren influence,” says John Martin, a Brethren ULV student and communications major from Ann Arbor, Mich. “At my church at home, we are very young and very liberal, which is very unusual for the Midwest. When I went to the Brethren Youth Conference, I could always tell the kids from the West Coast, because they were more liberal and liked to party. The kids from the more conservative churches won’t even play cards or dance.”

ULV is not alone in dwindling numbers of Brethren students and faculty in attendance. The five other Brethren colleges, Bridgewater College in Virginia, Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, Juniata College in Pennsylvania, Manchester College in Indiana and McPherson College in Kansas, are also experiencing declining Brethren enrollment. Elizabethtown, which was once more than 80 percent Brethren, now has 50 Brethren students on campus. This is only 3 percent of the school’s undergraduate enrollment. McPherson College, the smallest of the six Brethren schools, with a full-time enrollment of 341 students, has 51 Brethren students. “We do give priority consideration to prospective students who are COB, and we also started marketing campaigns specifically targeted at Brethren youth,” says Carol Williams, director of admissions and financial aid at McPherson College. “Getting the message out to Brethren youth that we exist and offer a quality education built on the foundation of the COB beliefs is the first step all Brethren schools must take.”

Martin, who attended Manchester College his freshman year, transferred to ULV, because it has a better communications program. “A place in the middle of Indiana is not the best place to study film. You need to be in L.A. to be in the film business,” he says. Although ULV has newer technology and a better communications department, Martin says there were more activities for Brethren students at Manchester. “It’s kind of sad almost that they recruit sports players here [at ULV] rather than Brethren students now,” Martin says. “The other five Brethren schools recruit more Brethren students, and it definitely adds to the Brethren presence and influence on their campuses.”

At Manchester College, there are 158 undergraduate Brethren students, which is 15 percent of the overall enrollment. Manchester officials and students continue to work with ULV and the four other Brethren colleges to increase Brethren enrollment through the COB Collaboration on Admissions. The COBCOA was created to increase Brethren enrollment at traditionally Brethren schools. “There is an effort by all the Brethren colleges to increase COB enrollment, as well as overall enrollment,” says David McFadden, vice president for enrollment and planning at Manchester College. “The Church of the Brethren does not have very many young members, only about 4,000 high school students across the country, so we have to accept people from outside the Brethren Church to stay open and provide a quality education to all our students.”

In their efforts to increase Brethren enrollment, COBCOA representatives attend the Brethren National Youth Conference every four years and the denomination’s Annual Conference each year to encourage COB high school students to attend one of the six Brethren colleges. The members of COBCOA also advertise in the Messenger, the COB magazine, six times a year, and they send mailings to COB high school students through their national database. Through the mailings and information from members at her church in Lomita, Erica Schatz, senior liberal studies major, discovered the Brethren colleges. Manchester College looked fascinating to her, but she decided to attend ULV because she did not want to leave California. Schatz said there were no organizations and no gatherings for Brethren students before February, when Roberts started hosting a meal for Brethren and peace study students. At the first meal, they ate pizza and talked and then went to the La Verne Church of the Brethren to play broom hockey.

“It was a lot of fun to get to know the other Brethren students and to relax and have fun with members of my Church,” Schatz says. “I knew other Brethren students here before, but I never really felt a strong Brethren presence on campus, and there was never anyone who organized anything for us. I wish we would have had events like this starting my freshman year, but this will be very beneficial to Brethren students in the future and to help try to increase Brethren enrollment in the future.”

The first weekend in May, the ULV Brethren students gathered again at the La Verne Church of the Brethren for a Polaroid scavenger hunt for ULV students and young adults throughout the La Verne community. “The La Verne Church is now working to get more young adults and college students involved in activities because they realize that we are the future of the Church,” says senior Shane Haldeman, a native of Lancaster, Pa. “Last year, I talked my little brother Jason into coming to La Verne, and one of the girls from my church at home is planning to attend ULV next year. I’m trying to encourage an East Coast migration.” Haldeman, who heard about La Verne through mailings from the COBCOA and the Brethren Youth Conference, is working to increase the Brethren enrollment at ULV from the East Coast. He was initially interested in attending La Verne because his father offered him more money if he attended a Brethren college.

Haldeman works as a youth adviser for the high school youth group at the La Verne Church of the Brethren and encourages the members of the youth group to look into the six Brethren colleges. Two Brethren high school students from La Verne, Irene Beltran and Emily Roberts, will attend ULV next year. “The Brethren influence at ULV hit its low a few years ago, and it has slowly increased,” Haldeman says. “I don’t think we need to change anything about the University, but an increased Brethren influence would be great. I try to encourage all Brethren high school students to attend Brethren schools, because it’s good to keep the tradition alive.”


Stickers and posters proclaiming the anti-war and pro-peace stance of the Church of the Brethren adorn senior Erica Schatz’s dorm window at the University of La Verne. Schatz is one of 15 Brethren students attending ULV.