Overwhelmed with Gratitude: A Final Interview with President James E. Brenneman

Interview by Jodi H. Beyeler ’00 and photos by Brian Yoder Schlabach ’07

On June 30, 2017, at the end of the 2016-17 academic year, Dr. James E. Brenneman ’77 will step down from his role as the 16th president of Goshen College, concluding 11 ½ years of distinguished service to the college. In August he will begin as president of the American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley, California.

Q: How has your faith been shaped during these years as president?

A: I have come to believe even more in the story of death and resurrection as expressed in the life and teaching of Jesus. I have seen this cycle played out again and again on grander scales as an institution, certainly, many times personally, emotionally and spiritually as I have tried my best with God’s help to lead us through the Jesus story relived in our own experiences, institutionally and personally. I would say, in some ways, my faith is more resilient than ever, though I know the next death may come to test that confidence.

Q: What gave you the greatest joy as president, and what was the most difficult challenge?

A: My greatest joy and deepest source of awe has always come from, hands down, the students themselves. They are a source of inspiration, motivation, rejuvenation and joy for me. Every single year, their bright energies, their will to learn, their push-back, their challenges, their enthusiasms, their amazing talents simply blow my mind and expand my heart. They are the best evidence that GC is good at growing wisdom and wonder. To see our student-body grow into a soon to be majority student body of color and the added blessing that is for our entire campus has been among my greatest joys.

My most difficult challenge has been to steer the college through the biggest economic crash since the Great Depression. That, along with the tectonic and tumultuous shift in the business model of higher education that has been emerging over the last couple of decades, was an excruciating period to recover from. But I am very hopeful about the many new initiatives, programs, delivery systems, collaborations and the positive enrollment trajectory that we are now on. I truly believe there is no pastGoshen College greater than the Goshen College which is still to come.

Q: What do you hope your presidency is remembered for?

A: For me, in its simplest version, if there is a student for whom Goshen College was an impossible dream for whatever reason, and she or he entered with hesitation or fear, but graduated full of confidence ready to take on the world for the better, I would be honored to be remembered as a president for whom making that dream come true for that student was my greatest passion.

Q: What advice would you give to your successor?

A: As my former executive assistant and friend, Betty Schrag, said to me when I first started, ‘Remember you are running a marathon, not a sprint.’ I would add, in the spirit of former president J. Lawrence Burkholder ’39, don’t strive to be perfect; flawed and very good is good enough. Above all, hang with students, who will inevitably remind you of your highest calling as president and be the source of your greatest joy.

Q: What do you plan to do on your last day in office as president?

A: I’ll probably be boxing-up books and other wonderful gifts given to me along the way, including the key to the city, the prayer shawl from my pastor, the purple bucket to collect tears from a friend, the ceramic wall art by former student Isaac Shue ’10 and a painted icon of Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ll probably also sit back and soak in the beauty of my sanctuary-like office and, perhaps, write one last note of thanks or sign one last stack of admissions certificates. At the end of the day, I’ll look back one last time, turn out the lights, shut the door and head off into the future overwhelmed with gratitude.