The Bethel College community celebrated the inauguration of Jonathan C. Gering, Ph.D., as the college’s 15th president on Oct. 7 during Fall Festival.
The wheat design on the program and the banners leading the processional was the first clue to a key metaphor for the inauguration.
The ceremony was combined with the traditional Fall Festival worship service, usually held at Bethel College Mennonite Church but moved to Memorial Hall for this occasion.
Campus Pastor Peter Goerzen, in his welcome, invoked the agrarian metaphor when he noted the gathering “to celebrate and acknowledge President Gering’s numerous gifts and accomplishments, his character and capabilities, the deep roots and careful cultivation that have prepared him for this role, and which he now offers in service and leadership to this institution.”
Dawn Yoder Harms, pastor of Bethel College Mennonite Church, in the invocation prayer, expressed gratitude to God for “seeds planted along the way [of the college’s 131-year history], for growth nurtured, and for the harvest of knowledge, wisdom and faithfulness to your way of peace, justice and love, gathered up in this place and shared with the world.”
The Scripture texts for the morning came from Mark 4 (The Parable of the Growing Seed) and 1 Corinthians 3 (“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth”).
Heidi Regier Kreider, conference minister for Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA and a member of the Presidential Search Committee that recommended Gering, connected the final verse of the Corinthians text, “For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building,” to Bethel’s tagline, “Connect to purpose.”
Working together to connect to God’s purpose requires scattering the seeds of knowledge and skills taught and modeled, and then “letting go,” Kreider said. It requires patience, faithful practice and the humility to recognize that the growth ultimately depends on God, not on us.
“As we scatter seeds and as we join the harvest, we connect to God’s purpose,” she said. “With God’s purpose as our common purpose, may we scatter seeds of peace so that we may anticipate a harvest of righteousness.”
And Gering himself, in his response to his charge from the Bethel Board of Directors, through the investiture carried out by board chair Brett Birky, began with a reference to farming.
“I never intended or set out to be a college president,” Gering said. “I know very few among us who have.”
His goals as he completed his undergraduate work in biology at Bethel College were, he said, to earn master’s and Ph.D. degrees, attain a faculty position at a liberal arts college, teach and complete original research, earn tenure and make full professor.
He did that and even moved further, into administration, at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. Then, during what he called “a period of quiet reflection” during a sabbatical, “a skill surfaced” that he said he believes started in childhood, probably through growing up on a farm: listening.
He had to listen to the animals to understand what they were trying to communicate, and to the machinery when working in the fields of dryland wheat to know if all was going as it should.
When he began studying biology, first frogs and toads in Kansas and later insects, he learned that the only way to tell species apart when you can’t look at them is to listen to the sounds they make.
“I’m here today not because I planned, but because I listened – to the Search Committee members, to important mentors, to friends, to immediate family, to my in-laws.”
Speaking to the students present, Gering acknowledged the importance in his own life of “seeds planted” when he was at Bethel by particular mentors and professors (such as Dwight Krehbiel in statistics, Dwight Platt in biology and Duane Friesen in Bible and religion), “some that took years to grow.”
Gering also reflected on another central theme of the inauguration ceremony, that it was not as much about an individual as about the diversity and variety of gifts in a community and the need for collaboration.
“Society tends to celebrate the accomplishments of individuals,” he said, “but Bethel owes much of its history and success to collaboration.”
Some of the groups who worked together in the early years for the common goal of a college included the Kansas Conference of Mennonites (now Western District Conference); prominent citizens of Newton; and the one-time village of North Newton.
As he closed his response, Gering referenced The Wheat Album, a gift from his maternal grandfather, which chronicles and illustrates progress and modernization in wheat harvesting and threshing, from the early 1800s to the mid-1900s.
“Harvest has become faster, easier, safer and more efficient. Fundamentally, though, the [goal remains] the same: the seed, those kernels, must be removed from the husk.
“So it is with the educational process here at Bethel. We can always retain the core purpose of the education, while accommodating the waves of human progress that advance around us.
“With your help, your support, your input and your prayers, my intent is to keep Bethel striving for a better future, always cultivating knowledge and purpose in the minds and hearts of students and planting them throughout the world.”
Six individuals representing different aspects of Gering’s life, career and current role gave brief words of blessing and counsel – a college friend, a current student, a former mentor, a staff person, a state representative.
Joe Manickam, president of Hesston College, spoke on behalf of the presidents of the four other Mennonite Church USA colleges and universities and the seminary.
“Listen more, and listen widely,” he said. “Remain present in spite of anxiety. Do not lead out of fear – instead, remain centered in your spirituality… [Keep] a balance between your professional and home life.”
Bethel College is the only Kansas private college listed in the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, both for 2018-19. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.
Bethel College does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, age, gender, sexual orientation, parental or marital status, gender identity, gender expression, medical or genetic information, ethnic or national origins, citizenship status, veteran or military status or disability. E-mail questions to TitleIXCoordinator@bethelks.edu. –Melanie Zuercher