Dr. Loren E. Swartzendruber


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'Sacred Conversations'
Surround EMU Inauguration

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Be available to others, willing to share personal insights and counsel. In these settings, certain conversations may affect and even alter others' lives and choices in remarkable, unimaginable ways.

That was the overarching theme of an inaugural address by Loren E. Swartzendruber on Saturday, Mar. 27, at Eastern Mennonite University.

Dr. Swartzendruber was officially installed as EMU president during ceremonies held in the spacious University Commons and attended by some 900 people. Rosalind Andreas, chair of Mennonite Education Agency (MEA), and Sheryl K. Wyse, chair of the EMU board of trustees, led the investiture charge.

As part of the installation, Andreas and Wyse gave Swartzendruber a presidential medallion and a stole designed from fabric from around the world - symbolizing EMU welcoming students from all lands and cultures. The garment fashioned by Barbara Fast of EMU's art faculty and local costume designer Judy Bomberger.

Swartzendruber took office as EMU's eighth president on Jan. 1, 2004, succeeding Joseph L. Lapp, who served from 1987 to 2003.

The celebrative program included greetings from EMU faculty and a student, a litany written by Dr. Jay B. Landis, professor of English, and the singing of the university hymn, "Christ of the Mountain," written by poet Jean Janzen of Fresno, Calif., to music composed by Shirley Bustos of Valparaiso, Ind.

In his address, Swartzendruber cited a report that "fully half of what a college student learns during his or her four years of study is learned outside the classroom." The point, he said, is that "students learn a great deal from their interactions with professors 'over coffee' outside the classroom. They also learn from their conversations with each other, in the cafeteria and in residence halls. "Even a cursory understanding of our culture reminds us that learning to state one«s opinion succinctly, practicing good listening skills, engaging others in debate, all with civility, is a skill desperately needed," the president declared. "I call these 'sacred conversations.'

"I invite us to reflect on the sacred conversations of our lives and to invest time in such activities, knowing that a conversation which is truly profound and sacred may not be revealed as such until many years later," Swartzendruber told the audience.

"We cannot 'plan' for sacred conversations; we can only live in the moment, understanding that every interaction between professor and student, between co-workers in the office, between mentor and mentee, between parent and young adult, inhabits sacred space."

Several weeks earlier, Swartzendruber had invited faculty and staff to contribute stories that illustrated a sacred conversation that shaped their lives in some way.

One current faculty member remembered a comment by Dr. G. Irvin Lehman, retired professor of Old Testament, in a seminary class. Dr. Lehman suddenly paused in the middle of class, a common habit of his, and said, "He who throws mud, loses ground."

"It wasn't so much 'conversation' as it was a nugget of truth, putting into just a few words a wise expression that stayed with that student through years of service as a church leader," the president noted.

Another current faculty member reflected on a conversation in a parking lot outside the classroom with a Greek professor following a field trip to the deep recesses of an archival library. Her professor said, "Some day I see you teaching New Testament Greek," and that became "sacred" years later when it became a reality.

Swartzendruber recounted a sacred conversation he had in the fall of 1972 after a pastor in the Evangelical Free Church tradition had shared many times with him about leaving pharmacy school to prepare for pastoral ministry.

"After several months of reading more theology and church history, I realized that for the first time in my intellectual life I had found a passion," Swartzendruber said. "But now I had a dilemma – to follow the path of some mentors to the Evangelical Free seminary or to return to the church of my roots."

Swartzendruber talked with Edward B. Stoltzfus, then pastor of First Mennonite Church in Iowa City, Iowa.

"I have a vivid memory of being in his office; he reached over to his massive set of books - which in itself impressed me - pulled off a small monograph, 'The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision,' gave it to me and said something like, 'I think you and your wife Pat should read this before you make a decision concerning which seminary to attend.'"

Swartzendruber graduated from Eastern Mennonite Seminary in 1979 with a master of divinity degree. He went on to pastor Salford Mennonite Church, before taking a position as associate secretary with the former Mennonite Board of Education. He then became president of Hesston College, a two-year sister Mennonite school in Hesston, Kan., where he served 10 years.

"Not only did those sacred conversations profoundly shape the direction of my life vocationally, they often come to mind when I am given the opportunity to converse with students or fellow faculty and staff," the president said. "An invitation to meet with a student or a group of students can hardly be refused if one believes there is always the potential for a conversation that helps to clarify direction, to provide encouragement, to offer a listening ear.

"Eastern Mennonite University has been and will be a location for many sacred conversations," Swartzendruber said. "Because every graduate of this institution has one or more stories to tell, we are establishing a location on our web site for those stories to be shared more broadly.

"We who are privileged to serve at EMU on behalf of the Mennonite Church do so with a keen awareness that this is a sacred and awesome responsibility," he said. "We are called to serve faithfully, with joy and in partnership with parents, congregations, and the larger community. We invite your prayers, your support, your wisdom, and your advocacy as we continue our journey together."

As symbols of their support, Myron S. Augsburger, president of EMU from 1965 to 1980, gave Swartzendruber a sculpture of Menno Simons, for whom the Mennonite Church is named, made by his artist-spouse Esther K. Augsburger. Joseph L. Lapp, EMU president from 1987 to 2003, gave the new president a framed set of coins and currency, and Beryl H. Brubaker, interim president in 2003, presented Swartzendruber with an art piece created by Barbara Fast, associate professor of art at EMU.

A week packed with public events surrounding the inauguration included an evening of improvisational comedy by "CPR," an EMU orchestra concert and an inaugural concert with the EMU Chamber Singers and Bach Festival Orchestra and guest soloists including baritone Tony Brown of Hesston College and a "Twilight on the Plaza" international fair. A golf tournament sought to raise money for the Loren and Pat Swartzendruber student scholarship fund.

Freeman J. Miller, a bishop/overseer of Mennonite congregations in Philadelphia, Pa., and 1975 Eastern Mennonite Seminary graduate, spoke at an inaugural worship service Sunday, Mar. 28. Miller focused on "Kingdom Priorities in Higher Education," declaring that "the pearl of great price, the gospel of Jesus Christ, must be at the heart of all that is said and done at EMU, bringing our lives into the purposes of God in the World."

-- article by: Jim Bishop, posted March 29, 2004

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