Goshen College president opens school year with call for servant leadership

Goshen College President James E. Brenneman speaking Wednesday, Aug. 31 at the first all-campus convocation of the 2011-12 academic year on “Culture for Service Leadership: A Paradox Worth Living.”
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GOSHEN, Ind. – Goshen College President James E. Brenneman opened the new school year by encouraging first-year and continuing students to become “servant leaders” in the local community and the wider world.”Every one of you has been given a high charge to become servant leaders, a calling that may take you to the highest leadership positions in the world, or to the hovels of a refugee camp, or many places in between,” Brenneman said. “Martin Luther King, Jr., said of his calling, which is true of your own, my own, our own, ‘After you have discovered what you are called for, you should set about to do it with all the power that you have in your system. Do it as if God Almighty ordained you at this particular moment in history to do it.'”

Brenneman estimated that each year, Goshen College students, staff, faculty and administrators provide at least 30,000 hours of service in various ways nearby and all around the world. “And I believe we can do even better than that and will,” he said. “So go for it, servant leaders. Lead as if God ordained you to do so at this particular moment in history, and with all the power you can muster.”

Brenneman, speaking Wednesday, Aug. 31 at the first all-campus convocation of the 2011-2012 academic year, offered a humorous, reflective and challenging call to action during an address titled “Culture for Service Leadership: A Paradox Worth Living.” His 20-minute message, which contained numerous scriptural references and was illustrated with PowerPoint slides, was delivered to more than 600 people in the Church-Chapel.

Brenneman, a 1977 graduate of Goshen College who is starting his sixth year as president, began by welcoming students, faculty and staff to the “second happiest place on earth (after Disneyland).” He led the crowd in cheering for new and returning students as well as faculty and staff members.

He also gave a special welcome to Kennard Martin, a Physical Plant employee who will complete 50 years of service to the college on Sept. 6. “He embodies a servant’s heart. His is a labor of love,” Brenneman said of Martin. “He gets up before dawn, stays late when needed. He has mown our lawns, plowed our walks in the winter, day in and day out, for 50 years.”

Brenneman presented Martin with a plaque and proclaimed 2011-2012 as “The Year of Kennard Martin, Leader in Service.” Brenneman congratulated a visibly surprised Martin and the audience responded with a standing ovation that lasted for several moments.

The president’s main message focused on servant leadership, one of the college’s core values, and a subject for in-depth discussion and reflection in the coming school year. Goshen’s other core values are Christ-centeredness, passionate learning, global citizenship and compassionate peacemaking.

In his introductory remarks, Brenneman pointed out that “servant leadership” presents a paradox — a statement or concept that is seemingly contradictory, inconsistent or opposed to common sense or logic, and yet is true.

“The juxtaposition of ‘servant’ with ‘leadership’ creates a paradox, an odd coupling to be sure,” Brenneman said. “‘Servant’ suggests vulnerability, one who serves, or performs duties for another person or master or employer. ‘Leadership’ suggests king of the beasts or a person who takes charge of a situation or workplace. A leader leads, directs or has commanding authority or influence over others. A servant follows. A leader has followers. Servant leadership is a paradox.”

Brenneman explained that the paradox of “servant leadership” was introduced into the modern lexicon in 1970 by business leader Robert Greenleaf, who had worked for AT&T for 40 years and came to believe that the old styles of command and performance leadership were outdated, outmoded, and ultimately, unproductive. Combining the words “servant” and “leadership,” Greenleaf believed, would result in something more profound.

In doing so, Greenleaf acknowledged that he was borrowing from the paradoxical leadership style found in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, who was king, but of an upside down kingdom where the last was to be first and the first, last, Brenneman said. “It was Jesus who said to his disciples when they were arguing over who would be top dog in the kingdom, ‘Here I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:27).’ Jesus: servant leader/God becoming convict, Author of Life, dying on a cross. A paradox.”

Another business leader, Max Dupree, former chairman of Herman Miller, Inc., boiled down servant leadership to one of responsibility and gratitude, Brenneman said. “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say ‘thank you.’ In between, a leader is to be a servant.”

Brenneman went on to suggest several characteristics of Christ-centered servant leadership that he recommended become central to the lives of Goshen students.”First, a servant leader embraces vulnerability as a strength. One of the great images of such vulnerable strength is that of water. Water is paradoxically soft and strong; it yields, caresses, soothes, heals, bathes, quenches, and sustains, yet water can wear a solid, rigid immovable rock into sand and patiently chisel a loamy riverbank into the Grand Canyon,” the president said.

“Such a servant leader listens with willful patience to others whose opinions differ, whose perspectives may not be the same as hers, trusting in the power of the Spirit, or the imagination and creativity of new ideas, to emerge by being openly vulnerable.”

He also encouraged students to live with joy — and laughter. “Laughter at oneself or one’s predicament is a ready sign of a Christ-like servant leader,” he said. “Nelson Mandela turned his own history into a humorous aside when he answered a reporter’s question with a quip: ‘In my country we go to prison first and then become President.’ Mother Teresa said of her labor of love, ‘I know that a loving God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that God didn’t love me so much.'”

Brenneman said a servant leader also shapes culture by defining reality or influencing culture for the common good. “A servant leader promotes a vision that is expansive, contagious and inviting. When Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module onto the moon for the first time, he wasn’t thinking about himself or simply his own national identity or parochial perspective, he simply said, “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for (hu)mankind.”

“Servant leaders do not stand on the sidelines or harp from a distance. They work to implement their vision in real life situations and times and bear the responsibility of its burden. They do not simply deconstruct hegemonies or critique domination systems,” he said. “They take up the harder challenges, like moon walking (both kinds), constructing new paradigms and practices always with a view for the common good.”

Brenneman challenged students to move beyond being “counter-cultural” and to become “intercultural,” and to lead culture or cultures to the better place and a nobler calling. “When Jesus said we are to ‘love our enemies,’ he was defining reality and went to work to create it. His goal never was to be counter-cultural, so much as to pull culture forward to that place where former enemies become friends.

“As Goshen College students, as future graduates, you now have been given a calling to become servant leaders, across disciplines and intellectual and cultural silos, to become truly intercultural leaders in service — whatever major or profession or career path you take. I am calling on each one of you to become  ‘Culture for Service’ leaders — leaders in service.”

Brenneman concluded by reminding students of the power and value of prayer. He cited two favorites prayers from Anne Lamott, a novelist and nonfiction writer. “Praying both together make them ideal for all would be servant leaders. Simply put, they are: ‘O Lord, help me, help me, help me!’ And ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you!'”

After Brenneman’s remarks, Assistant Professor of Music Scott Hochstetler led the audience in singing the alma mater.

Afterward, and in what has become a 10-year tradition, the Goshen College “Tunnel of Welcome” or “Applause Avenue” formed outside the church, in two lines that eventually converged. Faculty, staff and students walked past their peers to sustained applause, and then joined and extended the lines for seniors, juniors, sophomores and first-year students to pass by. The applause of welcome continued until the Church-Chapel emptied and the line stretched into Schrock Plaza. Once there, students and faculty were treated to popsicles and given buttons that proclaim “I love GC.”

–Written by Richard R. Aguirre

Editors: For more information about this release, to arrange an interview or request a photo, contact Goshen College News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or jodihb@goshen.edu.


Goshen College, established in 1894, is a residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” “Making a Difference College Guide” and U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit www.goshen.edu.