Monday, July 01, 2019

Bethany Remembers President Warren Groff

Warren F. Groff, the fifth president of Bethany Theological Seminary, died Sunday, June 23, 2019. During his career in ministry and higher education, he was characterized as a “perceptive scholar, careful administrator, ardent churchman, skillful wordsmith, and devoted family man.”1  A memorial service for Warren Groff will be held August 10, 2019, at 11:00 a.m. at the York Center Church of the Brethren in Lombard, Illinois.

“Dr. Warren Groff was a man of amazing intellect who possessed a deep love for the church and Seminary,” states Jeff Carter, president of Bethany. “Committed to the academy and service to the church, Dr. Groff’s writings embodied Bethany’s founders’ commitment to academic rigor and a theological education rooted in practical experience and daily life. A gentle soul, he will be long remembered for his thoughtfulness and service to others.”

Groff served Bridgewater College as associate professor of religion from 1954-58 before his call to join the Bethany faculty as associate professor of theology. In 1962 he became dean and professor of theology, just as a new faculty of reputable scholars was being established and Bethany was preparing to move to the new Oak Brook campus. As dean, Groff took a leading role in redesigning the curriculum, featuring a small-group colloquial structure as the core of the MDiv program. He was instrumental in the creation of a doctor of ministry program; the program standards were adopted by the National Council of Churches and were subsequently followed by other seminaries. Also during his tenure, Bethany entered into new cross-registration partnerships with other Chicago-area seminaries and began offering an MATh jointly with Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Earlham School of Religion.

Following the resignation of President Paul M. Robinson in 1975, Groff was unanimously selected by the search committee to become Bethany’s next president, the first from among the Seminary faculty, and served until his retirement in 1989. Highlights of his presidency included growth of the DMin program, with the first degree awarded a year after he took office. Education for a Shared Ministry was founded in 1977, followed by Training in Ministry in 1984, both nondegree ministry programs for lay leaders that continue today through the Brethren Academy for Ministerial Leadership.

Groff’s early years as president saw Bethany transition successfully to a self-funded agency of the Church of the Brethren with strong enrollment and generous financial support. The first endowed chairs were funded, honoring Alvin Brightbill and Albert and David Wieand, and an additional major gift established Bethany’s peace studies program. Groff also initiated a renewal of Bethany’s music program, which by the early ’80s featured tours with a mixed choir, instrumental ensemble, and handbell choir. During his tenure, the Seminary celebrated its seventy-fifth year in 1979-80.

Originally from Harleysville, Pennsylvania, Groff was ordained in the Church of the Brethren in 1947 and pastored the Beech Run congregation near Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, for two years before earning his BA from Juniata College in 1949. He received a BD from Yale Divinity School in 1952, including a year at Bethany, while on the ministerial staff of the First Congregational Church in Southington, Connecticut, from 1951-53. He received a PhD from Yale University in 1955 and was a visiting scholar at Harvard University during 1965-66. During his presidency, he served the denomination as moderator in 1978-79. Juniata College awarded him an honorary doctor of divinity degree in 1976, and in 1983 he received a doctor of humane letters degree from his alma mater, Bridgewater.

During the 1960s and ’70s, Groff was a member of the Faith and Order Commissions of both the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches. He was a delegate to the Fourth World Assembly of the WCC in 1968 and served as president of the American Theological Society in 1972-73. Groff held key positions on the Commissions of Accrediting and Revision of Standards of the Association of Theological Schools and was a member of the American Academy of Religion. Among his publications are Christ the Hope of the Future, Prayer: God’s Time and Ours!, Story Time: God’s Time and Ours!, and God’s Story—and Ours! Between 1947 and 1994, he wrote more than fifty articles and was a contributing author to five books. The spring 2011 issue of Brethren Life & Thought was devoted to excerpts of his writings.

In 1968 Groff coauthored The Shaping of Modern Christian Thought with longtime fellow faculty member Donald Miller. “Warren and I worked closely together on many projects at Bethany,” Miller says, “including teaching classes, writing articles, and developing curriculum. He was highly regarded and respected for his theology and made a heavy impression on all the theologians in the Chicago area. Having come from a simple church background, Warren was extremely intelligent and made innovations wherever he went.”

*From the program of Warren Groff’s presidential inauguration, 1976
‘We love each other despite our differences’: The story of ND9
Church of the Brethren Newsline
July 13, 2019

ND9 is interviewed following the love feast at Annual Conference: (from left) Kenton Grossnickle, Carolyn Schrock, Bobbi Dykema, interviewer Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford of the Church of the Brethren News Services, and Bob Johnson.

“We shared what was on our hearts, the words that were needed,” said Bob Johnson, one of those seated at Nondelegate Table Number Nine--known in the common parlance of the 2019 Annual Conference as “ND9.”

By the close of compelling vision conversations, this table that had a “rocky start” marked by feelings of isolation over their differences had become a group that “wanted to love each other.” 

ND9 offered to share their story publicly because the group felt their transformative experience could be helpful to others and demonstrates the possibilities of the process.

In addition to Johnson, who pastors Middle River Church of the Brethren in New Hope, Va., those participating in the interview included Bobbi Dykema, pastor at First Church of the Brethren in Springfield, Ill.; Kenton Grossnickle from Myersville, Md.; and Carolyn Schrock from McPherson, Kan. Two table members had to leave before the interview.
The group was careful to acknowledge not every table had a transformative experience. They had heard reports from people at tables where the experience had been painful throughout the conversation sessions. However, if one table could be surprised by unexpected relationship-building, perhaps there is hope for others--perhaps even the whole denomination.

The members of ND9 came to the conversation with their own feelings and thoughts, and at times with ill feelings toward each other. Over the course of the three days, their journey toward what ended up being “a wonderful way of listening”--as Johnson put it--was not easy. Some hurtful things were said, even if they were honest. After the first day’s conversation, one person said they wished another person wasn’t at the table. Another person was feeling pushed out, and finally told that to the group.

By the second day, things began to change. The honest expression of feelings--however hurtful--created a new possibility for openness and acceptance. “It’s so powerful to let you feel what you feel and say what you say and still love each other,” Johnson said.

By the third day, the group had decided to wash feet together during the love feast scheduled for that afternoon. When the time came for feetwashing, they went as a group to the area for the genders to wash together, inviting Johnson’s wife to join them. Each person in the group washed every other person’s feet.

The love and servanthood they expressed in feetwashing did not change who they were as people, and did not change their opinions, Dykema noted. But it was a symbol of a new willingness to be vulnerable to each other. “Our ideology hasn’t changed but our togetherness has,” she said.

Surprisingly, one of the things that brought the group together was a common concern for creation care--an issue usually assumed to be extremely divisive. The table shared a concern for farmers in their communities, some grew up on farms, and some are enthusiastic gardeners. They also shared a heart for trauma victims and people with addictions.

“We love each other despite our differences,” said Grossnickle, who noted that distrust was an obstacle they had to overcome from the start. He blamed the distrust on their fear of each other’s differences. It is important to understand that perfect love casts out fear, he said, quoting scripture. He added that it was helpful to realize they could listen to each other without fear.

“After our rocky time, I was praying that God would help us and then I felt the Spirit move among us,” said Schrock.

ND9 hopes the Holy Spirit will move in the same way among the wider church--in Dykema’s words, that the Spirit may “write this large.”