A couple weeks ago a reporter from our student newspaper interviewed me in my capacity as faculty president. After we chatted about some of the theological and political divisions currently roiling our community, he closed by asking if I had any words for the people of Bethel. Just that I’m grateful, I said. It’s a privilege to do this job, and I can only do it because of my current and former students, families that sacrificed to pay their tuition, colleagues who inspire and challenge me, staff and administrators whose labor makes possible mine, and everyone else who supports Bethel with their time, their talents, and their trust.
It was good to be able to share that sentiment, and I hope it finds its way into print. But it’s also hard genuinely to thank thousands of people at once, knowing that I won’t even meet the vast majority of them. So I’m glad that an announcement last week gives me the excuse to thank publicly a certain person who has played an especially important role in my career at Bethel: our president, Jay Barnes.
A graduate of Wheaton College who had spent fifteen years leading student development at Messiah College, Jay became Bethel’s provost in 1995. Thirteen years later he succeeded George Brushaber as our fifth president (not counting founder John Alexis Edgren). Jay has also played an important role in the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, whose board he currently chairs.
But at a special chapel service last Thursday, Jay announced his retirement from Bethel’s presidency, effective when his term ends next June.
It’s a big moment in the life of any small university, especially one that has had so few presidents. And starting tomorrow, we’ll be hearing much more about the process that will lead to the selection of Jay’s successor. But for now, I just want to pay brief tribute to Jay, trusting that I’ll have a chance to say more — if only as one of the people who writes the history of Bethel and its presidents.
If I do end up evaluating Jay’s quarter-century as provost and president, I suspect that whatever bothered me in the moment as a faculty member will tend to recede in significance, while the distance of passing years will help me see more clearly his accomplishments. Most importantly, I’ll better grasp the many ways Jay has championed a Pietist vision for Bethel and fostered “a living orthodoxy that engages the world’s most challenging problems, to God’s glory and for our neighbors’ good.”
When Jay repeated that part of our vision statement in his comments on Thursday, he was kind enough to credit it to me. But if I suggested those particular words, it was only because Jay himself had set me on a trajectory to study Pietism. I’d never even heard the phrase “irenic spirit” until Jay talked about it when I first interviewed for a job at Bethel. I had that March 2003 conversation in mind when I wrote about the irenic spirit in The Pietist Option:
Here were evangelical Baptists who wanted to be known not for schism, heresy hunting, or culture warring but as a peaceable, open-minded people who built a diverse learning community around a shared devotion to Jesus Christ.
As I started to research Bethel’s own Pietist roots, Jay encouraged my work. He and Deb Harless, his successor as provost, helped make possible the 2009 research conference whose proceedings were published two years later as The Pietist Impulse in Christianity. Writing the book’s foreword, Jay celebrated how Pietism integrated love of God with love of neighbor:
This results in epistemic humility, in which we recognize the limits of our human knowledge, an irenic spirit, in which we seek to live at peace with others, and a commitment to social justice, in which we commit to right the wrongs brought by sin.
When I edited a collection of Bethel faculty-authored essays on Pietism and higher education in 2015, the subtitle (“Forming Whole and Holy Persons”) consciously echoed the motto Jay had brought to Bethel as provost. While he continued George’s commitment to hire serious academics dedicated to research and teaching, Jay’s student development background made him uniquely suited to reiterate Edgren’s foundational commitment to Bethel forming the whole person, not just the intellect.
I’m sure Jay would say that his own formation has continued during his tenure at Bethel, years of considerable change and frequent challenge. But even as he recalled some of those transitions in his retirement announcement, it was the lack of change that stood out to me.
In most all the ways that matter most, the university president we have in 2019 strongly resembles the college provost I met 2003. Having more power has made him no less humble and self-deprecating. Suffering the sting of more disappointments has made him no less faithful to the God he loves. Enduring more criticism has made him no less empathetic to his employees — or irenic in spirit. And he still seems able to greet at least half the student body by name, and to share personalized testimonials about every custodian, dean, librarian, coach, administrative assistant, and professor who gets to celebrate a work anniversary with him and Barb.
I don’t know if these are the most important characteristics of a good university president. But they’re what I’ll miss most when Jay moves on to his well-deserved retirement.