NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — The Bethel College community celebrated the inauguration of Jonathan C. Gering 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.
Scripture texts 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 and a member of the presidential search committee, 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 seeds of knowledge and skills taught and modeled, and then letting go. It requires patience, faithful practice and humility to recognize growth ultimately depends on God, not 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.”
Gering, in his response to his charge from the Bethel board of directors, began with a reference to farming.
His goals as he completed his undergraduate work in biology at Bethel were to earn master’s and doctoral 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, Mo. Then, during a sabbatical, “a skill surfaced” that he believes started in childhood, probably through growing up on a farm: listening.
He had to listen to animals to understand what they were communicating, and to the machinery when working fields 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.
Speaking to students, Gering acknowledged the importance in his life of “seeds planted” when he was at Bethel by 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 theme of the 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) and prominent citizens of Newton and North Newton.
As he closed his response, Gering referenced The Wheat Album, a gift from his maternal grandfather, which chronicles 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,” he said. “So it is with the educational process here at Bethel. We can always retain the core purpose of education while accommodating the waves of human progress. . . .
“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.”
Hesston College President Joe Manickam spoke on behalf of the presidents of the other Mennonite Church USA colleges, 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.”