Annette Brill Bergstresser
Former pastor encouraged people to pursue seminary, service
ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — For 65 years, John Gaeddert (MDiv 1964) of North Newton, Kansas, has created works of art out of pieces of wood he’s picked up off the ground. Being part of letting the beauty of each piece emerge became so important to him that he has devoted time to his artwork on a daily basis during his retirement.
Gaeddert, 92, now a retired minister, brought this quality of seeing potential to his relationships as well, personally encouraging people to develop their God-given gifts in service of the church and their communities. In part through his influence, several people from Bethesda Mennonite Church in Henderson, Nebraska — where Gaeddert pastored from 1955 to 1965 — chose to pursue seminary training at what is now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.
Two of them, Lauren Friesen (MDiv 1970) of Chicago and Lois Thieszen Preheim (MDiv 2005) of Newton, Kansas, organized a reception to honor Gaeddert and his wife, Mary, for their lifetime of ministry. The Oct. 2 event was held at Bethel College Mennonite Church in North Newton, Kansas, in conjunction with an exhibit of Gaeddert’s wood sculptures curated by Nathan Bartel, Gaeddert’s grandson, in the Robert W. Regier Art Gallery in Bethel College’s Luyken Fine Arts Center during Fall Fest that weekend.
“John represents the best of AMBS,” said Ken Hawkley, senior associate director of development at AMBS. “He has provided stable strong Christian leadership, he has been a peacemaker, he has led people to a greater understanding of the Christian walk, and he has encouraged gifts in others to pursue leadership education and nurture through AMBS.
At the reception, Hawkley presented Gaeddert with a ceramic oil lamp and a framed certificate of appreciation for his role in encouraging people to pursue studies at AMBS.
During the reception, which included singing, storytelling and prayer, the Gaedderts also received a bound book of letters of appreciation that Friesen and Thieszen Preheim had collected from people influenced by Gaeddert.
Of the more than 100 people who attended, more than half were connected with the Bethesda congregation, said one of the Gaedderts’ daughters, Dee Gaeddert. The Gaedderts’ three children, Susan, Dee and Russell; their four grandchildren and their spouses; and John’s only living sibling, Velma Stoesz, were all able to attend the event.
“John encouraged people to develop a stronger sense of spirituality, commit themselves to service and pursue educational opportunities,” noted Thieszen Preheim and Friesen in a press release announcing the event. “He also applauded those who prepared for a career in academics, medicine or other service professions.”
“An amazing number of pastors and church organists came out of Bethesda Mennonite Church in the John Gaeddert era and beyond,” said Clarence Rempel of Newton, Kansas, a retired pastor and conference minister who was a child at Bethesda when Gaeddert was pastor. Rempel later took classes at AMBS; his wife, Amanda Friesen Rempel (MATS 2001), was an organist who later also became an ordained Mennonite chaplain and pastor. “I expect that many would see the era of his pastorate as the golden age of Bethesda’s history.”
A witness for service and peace
Gaeddert himself credits Albert Gaeddert, his uncle, with inspiring him to come to seminary. Albert was a minister at Gaeddert’s home church, Hoffnungsau Mennonite Church near Inman, Kansas, and also served as a director of the Civilian Public Service camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado, during World War II.
“He was both an encourager and an inspiration for me,” he reflected. “I idealized him but also felt he was a good model. He had a strong peace stance in his sermons and in his life.”
Gaeddert said he was also encouraged to come to seminary by fellow staff members while working at Camp Mennoscah near Murdock, Kansas, as a young adult. As a music major at Bethel College, he often led others in singing songs with service and peace connections.
Gaeddert left his career as a high-school music teacher to begin pastoral studies at Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Chicago in 1953. When he was first called to Bethesda, he directed the choir and worked with the congregation’s youth; when Pastor Arnold Nickel resigned in August 1956, Gaeddert was invited to take on the lead pastor role. Later, while on sabbatical from Bethesda, he completed his Master of Divinity degree at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart.
“My seminary studies were very important to me to develop my own skills — I hope — in preaching, teaching and thinking,” he reflected.
“Service has always been a very strong emphasis in my life, in the teachings I have followed and the preaching that I’ve done,” he continued, noting that the Bethesda congregation shared his concerns for peace and service.
Catechism instruction was a place where he could help young people in the congregation integrate the importance of service and peace into their understanding of faith, he said. At the recognition event, Arlene Epp Pearsall of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, recalled that Gaeddert had written a personal letter to each of the 30 students in her catechism class at Bethesda in 1960. She still has the letter he gave her when he baptized her that June.
“John’s letter, neatly handwritten in ink and covering a full page, was like a friendly report card,” she said. “He noted one’s contributions to class discussions, involvement in the church and potential for future service in the church.”
Pearsall is now a retired chaplain; in 2000, she was ordained as Deacon at Calvary Episcopal Cathedral in Sioux Falls, and she continues to serve as Canon Pastor there.
Dee Gaeddert noted that many participants at the reception commented that it was important to the Bethesda congregation to have a young pastor at that time who was “not just talking about service but really modeling it,” citing as an example the Gaedderts’ decision to leave Bethesda in 1965 to serve for three years with Mennonite Central Committee in Congo as country directors.
After returning from Congo, Gaeddert would serve as pastor at Tabor Mennonite Church near Goessel, Kansas; as director of admissions at Bethel College; as executive secretary of the Commission on Education for the General Conference Mennonite Church, Newton; and as pastor at Halstead (Kansas) Mennonite Church.
“In all of these vocational settings he brought quality preaching, his love of music and the value of service; he addressed the challenges of education and nurtured a personal commitment to discipleship,” Thieszen Preheim noted.
The care and patience that Gaeddert has invested in his relationships and in the concerns he is passionate about over the years are visible not only in the lives that have been shaped by his encouragement and example, but also in the artwork he’s created along the way.
“I pick up beautiful pieces of wood that have fallen to the ground and try to see what is in the wood itself — what could turn out to be a piece worth saving,” he said. “I follow what the wood suggests to beautify it.”
John (MDiv 1964) and Mary Gaeddert were honored for their lifetime of ministry at an Oct. 2 reception at Bethel College Mennonite Church in North Newton, Kansas. John received a ceramic oil lamp and a certificate of appreciation from AMBS for his role in encouraging people to pursue studies at AMBS. Behind John and Mary are (l. to r.) Amanda Friesen Rempel (MATS 2001), Clarence Rempel (alum), Lois Thieszen Preheim (MDiv 2005), Lauren Friesen (MDiv 1970), Steve Ratzlaff (MDiv 1998), Mel Friesen (MDiv 1976), Marvin Thieszen (alum), Ardean Goertzen (MDiv 1972), Rosie Epp (MDiv 1983), Leron Peters (MRE 1965). (Photo: Ken Hawkley, AMBS)
“My Lady” (bristlecone pine), sculpture by John Gaeddert on display at Bethel College’s Luyken Fine Arts Center on Oct. 2. Gaeddert gave this sculpture to his wife, Mary, upon her retirement from Mennonite Press. (Photo: Ken Hawkley, AMBS)