Mennonite Health Journal

Articles on the intersection of faith and health








Healthcare and Mission

Paul D. Leichty

from Mennonite Health Journal, Vol. 16, No. 2 – May 2014

The theme for this year’s Annual Gathering is Faith at Work: Practicing our Profession. It is a theme that speaks directly to a key purpose for the existence of Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship (MHF), the integration of faith and professional life.

MHF’s predecessors, Mennonite Medical Association (MMA) and Mennonite Nurses Association (MNA), had much the same purpose albeit from a different angle. Today, professional life is taken for granted and it is often the church which challenges the young professional to stay rooted in the church. In the 1940’s, being a Mennonite and becoming a nurse or a doctor still carried with it the suspicion of worldliness which was placed on higher education in general. So although the church wished to retain its young adults, it was often up to the Mennonite student turning professional to convince the church that he or she could actually be a Christian (in the Mennonite understanding) in the midst of his or her development into a doctor or nurse.

One way for the early MMA and MNA members to make their case was to link up with the growing mission movement in the 20th century Mennonite Church. A key method of demonstrating the compatibility and thus the integration of faith and professional life was to become a medical missionary. While there was a recognition that not everyone was called to be an overseas medical missionary, that calling was still considered the pinnacle of the integration of faith and medical professions. A calling to medical mission was to be lifted up, encouraged, and financially supported by the whole membership of both organizations.

Mennonites who became physicians prior to World War II generally left their communities and the Mennonite Church. Following World War II, the growing movement toward relief and service through Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), as well as medical missions through the various mission boards, gave persons trained in medicine places to serve within the church structures. (Amstutz & Wiebe, 1989) Indeed, the annual mission board meetings were the early gathering places for missionary nurses that formed themselves into MNA.   MMA also had some early meetings at the mission board meetings. (Brief histories of both MMA and MNA are linked from MHF History page.)

Both MMA and MNA took steps to keep the importance of medical missions in front of their members. MNA took regular offerings at its yearly meetings which went for mission purposes. MMA began a Student Elective Term (SET) to encourage medical students and residents to do a term of service and learning in an overseas mission setting as a part of their education. To fund this initiative a Mobilization for Mission (MFM) Fund was set up separately from the main MMA operating budget in order to fund SET and other mission-related projects. SET alumni and others continue to give generously to MFM in its restructured format under Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship (MHF).

Two deaths sparked additional giving for missional purposes. In June 1964, Mary Jean Yoder had just graduated from medical school with the goal of following her father, Dr. Jonathan Yoder, into medical mission work in India when her life was cut short by a tragic automobile accident. An endowment fund was established in her name through Mennonite Board of Missions (later integrated into Mennonite Mission Network) with the cooperation and participation of MMA. It had the forward-looking goal of assisting international students associated with Mennonite mission efforts to obtain further education.

The untimely death of medical student, Steven Roth, in December 1990 sparked an additional mission fund administered by MMA which was first intended to assist new physicians to go from medical school and residency into the medical mission field, as Roth himself intended to do. However, the fund was little used, and in 2013, MHF merged it into the Mobilization for Mission Fund.

In order to utilize these funds, it was necessary to rely heavily on overseas medical mission contacts. The SET program usually placed students with mission hospitals which were established, supported, or at least known by Mennonite mission agencies. Students were usually supervised by physician preceptors who were missionaries from North America and could help bridge the gap for students between their North American medical education and the culture and norms of the mission location. The Mary Jean Yoder Memorial Endowment Fund relied on North Americans on location in international settings to refer deserving students for endowment funding.

As the 20th century came to a close, the changing paradigm for overseas missions meant fewer direct connections with Mennonite medical mission settings. Retiring medical missionaries were increasingly replaced with locally-educated natives, and control of the hospitals and clinics was turned over to the local and national churches. Returning missionaries still have maintained contacts with their prior overseas locations, but those contacts continue to fade in many places.

As mission boards and MCC let go of administrative control of medical mission facilities, the concept of medical mission itself has undergone a profound change. More emphasis has been placed on national workers serving in facilities controlled by the national churches. In turn, the North American Mennonite mission agencies have refocused their efforts on evangelization, church planting and development, and Biblical and theological teaching ministries.

This has meant that any ongoing cross-cultural and international efforts in specifically medical missions have become mostly driven by individual medical professionals working directly with an overseas institution. Sometimes these efforts spring out of cross-cultural marriages in which one spouse is from North America and the other from the country being served. In other cases, children who grew up in missionary families and themselves became medical professionals still maintain overseas contacts with the country in which they grew up.

Some of these former missionaries and children of missionaries now form the core group of International Mennonite Health Association (IMHA) which was initially formed after the Mennonite Brethren mission board took the conscious step to focus only on evangelism and church planting and let go of their medical missions. IMHA is increasingly inter-Mennonite in its scope and new leadership in the last few years is finding its way into new partnership relationships with creative community developers in under-developed overseas settings.

At the same time, there are less participants in the Student Elective Term (SET) program even though the program has been expanded to include graduate students in disciplines other than medicine. The reasons for this decline are unclear. Perhaps the interest hasn’t been cultivated in the current generation of students. Perhaps with the transition to Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship the publicity hasn’t been as good. There also appears to be increasingly less flexibility in graduate programs for overseas experiences like this, particularly for any period of time longer than four weeks. All of these may be factors.

What is clear, however, is that international awareness and a spirituality of service continue to inspire the current generation of Mennonite college students. Students are also more aware and thoughtful about relating across boundaries of class and culture. There is considerable interest in partnership relationships which avoid the pitfalls of paternalism and Western domination.

As denominational mission agencies continue to cut back on specific programs in medical missions, the opportunity widens for new paradigms. These paradigms will continue to focus on people-to-people partnerships and doing “more with less.” They will require more networking as individuals and small groups learn from each other.

I am convinced that Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship and its members can play a key role in advancing God’s work in the world through international relationships that focus concern on the health and wholeness of all people. The MHF Board is considering how to most effectively build partnerships with other Mennonite agencies and entities as well as cooperate in larger Christian efforts as well.

A marvelous opportunity exists to advance the missional conversations and activities as North America hosts the Mennonite World Conference Assembly, July 21-26, 2015 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship is taking advantage of this opportunity by scheduling its Annual Gathering 2015 immediately prior to this Assembly, on July 19-21 (Sunday evening to Tuesday morning). A “Coordinating Committee” is being formed to not only plan for the Annual Gathering but to coordinate our efforts with the larger Mennonite World Conference Assembly. We encourage MHF members to put these dates on your calendars, joining in prayer now and planning to be present in July 2015.

About the author

Paul D. LeichtyPaul D. Leichty, M.Div. was the first Executive Director of Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship (MHF), serving from Sept. 2011 through May 2020.  Paul has served as a pastor, church musician, computer support person, disabilities advocate, and administrator/organizer of a number of church-related ministries. In addition to responsibilities at MHF, Paul is Executive Director of Congregational Accessibility Network and was formerly Director of User Services at  He is a member of Agape Fellowship of the Mennonite Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife, Twila Charles Leichty. 


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