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Growing Wisdom & Wonder: the Presidential Inauguration of Dr. James E. Brenneman

jim brenneman and his family
The inaugural festivities for Goshen College’s 16th president, Dr. James E. Brenneman, filled the weekend of Sept. 8-10 with moments of great laughter, joy and celebration that found effortless synchronicity with ritual, worship and tradition.

In addresses to the campus during inauguration weekend, including a special chapel on Friday, Sept. 8, and his inaugural address on Sunday, Sept. 10, Brenneman quoted the biblical books of Isaiah and Proverbs as well as luminaries such as Albert Einstein, Rachel Carson and Aristotle to illuminate his message.

This breadth and depth was not lost to those he addressed, including former President Shirley H. Showalter, the 14th president to serve Goshen College, who joined 11th president J. Lawrence Burkholder and 12th president Victor E. Stoltzfus on the stage in Sauder Concert Hall at the installation service for Brenneman.

“The inauguration of Dr. James Brenneman was a deeply gratifying occasion for many of us in the larger Goshen College family,” Showalter said. “Jim has shared with me his desire to build on the legacy of the past and to take the college in new directions as God guides. I rejoice that he has accepted the call to leadership and think he is especially qualified to unite the academic excellence of a liberal arts education with the needs of the Mennonite Church and with the needs of multicultural communities, beginning in Goshen and extending throughout the world.”

Brenneman’s journey in scholarship and leadership has brought him full circle, back to Goshen College. Several reunions throughout the weekend commemorated those ties: Jim and his wife, Terri J. Plank Brenneman, enjoyed an informal lunch at Howell House with former small group housemates, hosted by current residents of the small group house, the 1974 Study-Service Term to Honduras, hosted by the unit’s faculty leaders Norm and Sharon Kauffmann.

Steve Good ’78, a college housemate of the Brennemans, said, “Jim is a really quality guy who cares deeply about people and the word of God. He is bringing a perspective that is going to create the kind of future Goshen College needs to move forward. I am very excited about that.”

These relationships from when he was a student are important to Brenneman, even as new ones are forged in the role of president. Rick Stiffney ’73, vice-chair of the Goshen College Board of Directors and chair of the presidential search committee, said, “What has impressed me – especially as I talk with various constituencies locally and across the country – is that I have heard nothing but deep appreciation for Jim’s warm heart and deep personal integrity,”

jiim brenneman during his inaugural address
In his inaugural address, Brenneman said that “wisdom and wonder,” hallmarks of exceptional Christian higher education institutions, must be continually nourished.

“The spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, power and knowledge, spoken of by Isaiah, are the quintessential descriptors of the best educational institutions, secular and religious alike, known to humankind,” Brenneman said. “But our educational task is not complete by simply becoming passionate learners of all that there is to know from the vantage point of human capacity. Wisdom and understanding, counsel, power and knowledge must be embedded in the larger narrative of Scripture.”

The modern lure of cynicism, Brenneman said, can be countered with the Christian call to wonder and astonishment. “Let us never lose our capacity for wonder. Though it is awfully tempting to become cynical while learning to be appropriately critical, one cannot be complacent or cynical and wonder at the same time,” he said. “The wisdom of Isaiah invites us to live all our days in complete astonishment under the spirit and wonder of the Lord.”

By continuing to develop wisdom and wonder at Goshen College, Brenneman envisioned the college having an even greater impact on its community and the world.

“Like our forebears of faith, let us continue to grow university students and train thought-leaders for the 21st century. Such Christ-like wisdom will be transformational to us personally and to the world socially. Such Christ-like wisdom will never be exclusively private or uncritically mainstream. Even as we continue to invest in broadly cross-cultural service around the world, may we also increase our attention locally, working closely with civic leaders in service to the surrounding community,” he said. “At Goshen College, we must continue to raise up tomorrow’s thought leaders today who will help reshape the mental framework of the world to more closely align with the peaceable wisdom of God.”

Stanley Green, executive director of Mennonite Mission Network and a longtime colleague and friend of Brenneman’s, took part in the inauguration ceremony to offer words of encouragement and blessing. “One of your particular gifts, Jim, has been to raise up leaders. From Pasadena Mennonite many leaders went forth to serve the church in North America and around the world. As you take on this new role, consider your influence expanded,” he said.

While lamenting the loss of their pastor, Pasadena Mennonite Church (PMC) members David Lehman and Erin Dufault-Hunter reflected from California on Brenneman’s gifts that will now serve in leadership of Goshen College. “Jim embraced and helped the congregation embrace a vision of itself as a place of nurturing and sending out. It strikes me that this is exactly what happens at a college,” said Lehman.
jim brenneman by adelphian fountain
Default-Hunter said, “Jim is comfortable in his own skin, in convictions that have been hard-won and purchased through consistent pursuit of truth amidst life’s sorrows and joys. … He lives with an infectious, yet serious, joyfulness. … He reflects God’s presence by showing us that humor has its place in the kingdom alongside calls for justice and peace.”

For Jennifer Davis Sensenig, who worked with Brenneman for three years as associate pastor at PMC, one of Brenneman’s great gifts as a pastor was his love for people. “Jim enjoys people, fun and laughing, and doesn’t lose sight of that even when life is intense,” she said. “He reveled in the joy and complexity of working with the culturally and ethnically diverse faith and community leaders in the conference and the city.”

Jeff Wright, Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference regional conference minister, participated in the inaugural service to represent the church family that Brenneman served for two decades as pastor. “In the future, whether we who continue in the Mennonite experience in southern California stand on ‘Jordan’s stormy banks’ or ‘wrestle with canons in conflict,’” said Wright, referring to the titles of books written by Brenneman, “we will know your part in our formation, and we will rejoice for your sojourn with us, and how, in word and in deed, you truly let unconquerable gladness dwell. But we will also know that the wonderful crucible of service together in urban Los Angeles, Calif., has shaped you for the next step of your journey as God’s servants here in Goshen, Indiana.”

 Concluding his address to the gathering of nearly 1,000 people in Sauder Concert Hall, Brenneman noted that wisdom and wonder must also include a great deal of joy. “At Goshen College we are known for our very high academic standards. Are we also known for our laughter, our joy, our willingness to take ourselves a bit less seriously at such an august center of learning?” he said. “Perhaps, we are well on our way to an infectious joy that will draw others to this Christ-centered place called Goshen College and ultimately, and more significantly, to Christ, the wisdom of God. That is my prayer.”

jim brenneman speaking at inaugural chapel
In a special inaugural chapel service on Sept. 8, Brenneman opened his speech, titled “Wondering Allowed,” with a glimpse of his trademark levity, by saying, “I wonder. I wonder when the sign at the restaurant says, ‘No shirt, no shoes, no service!’ – what about pants? I wonder. I wonder is the ‘Hokey Pokey’ really ‘what it’s all about’?”

While a good sense of humor is an important quality of the college’s new president, the crux of his message to those gathered in the Church-Chapel sanctuary was that of the importance of wondering and questioning.

Referring to the Scripture that was read – Luke 2:40-46, which tells the story of Jesus as a child at the temple – Brenneman continued asking questions: “What does it mean that the God of the whole cosmos enters into our reality as a precocious Christ-teen asking edge-of-the-world questions? Clearly, God invites the inquisitive mind, the challenging question, the listening ear, the intelligent interchange between student and teacher as an act of faithfulness.

“Growing in wisdom and wonder is clearly a part of what it meant for God to become incarnate, embodied in Christ,” he continued. “And I pray that in your own wondering aloud, that you too – as the Scripture says, will grow strong. May you be filled with wisdom and in years, for the favor of God rests upon each of you.”
jim brenneman during inaugural dunking
After several students and faculty shared their own serious and not-so-serious wondering questions, Jeff Hochstetler (Jr., Orrville, Ohio), a student member of the inaugural planning committee, led the gathered campus community out to the Schrock Plaza fountain by asking his own wondering question, “I wonder what GC’s new president looks like sopping wet?”

Unlike many of the deep questions of wonder posed by Brenneman that require a lifetime of thoughtful searching, Hochstetler didn’t have long to wait for an answer. Though far from the Pacific Ocean by which he lived for two decades before coming back to the Midwest, Goshen College’s president, with flippers, a snorkel mask and an inflatable shark to accompany him in the traditional student dunking of new presidents in Schrock Fountain, looked right at home.

Experience the Presidential Inauguration Weekend. View multimedia coverage of the events (including audio of the inaugural address, a weekend highlights video and photos): www.goshen.edu/inauguration.