You might say it was a “gap year” that led Gayle Gerber Koontz to Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas.
Gerber Koontz of Elkhart was named Bethel’s 2019 Outstanding Alumnus, given on the basis of character and citizenship, service to church/community or college, or other outstanding achievements, honors and recognition.
She accepted the honor at the annual Alumni Awards Banquet at the college earlier this summer. The school in Kansas is not affiliated with Bethel University in Mishawaka.
Marvin Dirks, who was then the youth director for the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC, which merged with the Mennonite Church to form Mennonite Church USA) recruited Gayle Gerber to be part of a traveling youth team called Faith in Action, after she had completed three years at Bluffton (Ohio) College, now University.
Another member of that team was Bethel College student Ted Koontz. After that voluntary service gap year, the two decided they wanted to finish college together, and Bethel was, Gerber Koontz says, “actually $400 cheaper.”
Although, she says, “it was hard to leave Bluffton and my identity there, I was very grateful to be given this sense of the wider church.”
She also made an important connection with Bethel Professor of English Anna Kreider Juhnke.
In her remarks when accepting the Outstanding Alumnus Award, Gerber Koontz said Juhnke “not only expected a lot of me, but was able to combine honest criticism of my work with strong encouragement – something I have sought to emulate in my own teaching.
“She was a wonderful mentor,” Gerber Koontz adds, “and continued to be for a number of years after. She was an encouraging voice in the years of graduate study.”
Ted and Gayle got married during spring break of their senior year at Bethel, and lived in the (now vanished) trailer court area on the north side of campus.
Gerber Koontz completed her degree in English literature with certification in secondary education at Bethel in 1969.
Ted had a Rockefeller Scholarship to study at Harvard Divinity School, so the couple moved to Boston.
Gerber Koontz knew right away that seminary appealed to her as well, “(as a way) to deepen my Christian faith. I was interested in journalism. I could see myself as the editor of The Mennonite or another (faith-based) magazine. I wanted to take difficult ideas and make them intelligible for ordinary people.”
She taught high school in Melrose, Mass., for two years while Ted studied, then in the third year was accepted to Harvard Divinity School herself, where she found that “biblical studies was very much like studying literature.”
After a year, Gayle and Ted moved to Akron, Pa., where Ted worked for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Peace Section and Gayle was hired as an assistant editor in MCC Information Services.
She completed a master’s degree in religion at Lancaster (Pa.) Theological Seminary. She eventually went to Boston University for a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion and ethics. She and Ted were co-recipients of Bethel’s Outstanding Young Alumnus Award in 1981.
Gerber Koontz taught at Goshen College for the 1981-82 school year, where she achieved her “first first,” as the first female professor in the college’s Department of Bible and Religion.
She moved to Associated (now Anabaptist) Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart in 1982 and, when she defended her dissertation in 1985, became the first Mennonite woman to earn a Ph.D. in theology. She also served as chair of the Department of Theology and Ethics. (Ted spent his teaching career at AMBS as well.)
She would go on to be AMBS’s first female dean and first female acting president, following the sudden death of Marlin Miller in 1994.
She retired in 2014, and is professor emerita of theology and ethics at AMBS.
She has continued to be closely connected to MCC over the years, also serving as a member of the MCC Peace Section Task Force on Women in Church and Society and editor of the task force newsletter.
She has held multiple roles within Mennonite Church USA, including as a participant in theological dialogues with the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and as a member of the committee that developed the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.
Gayle and Ted have three children – Rachel, Timothy and Peter – and four grandchildren. They continue with their lifelong dedication to service, spending two to three months a year in Tucson, Ariz., as volunteers with Service Opportunities with Our Partners (SOOP), a program of MC USA.
When Gerber Koontz accepted the Distinguished Service Award at Bethel’s annual Alumni Banquet, she noted, “We are never who we are without the many others who have helped form us. And we are never able to do what we have done without the gifts and encouragement of others.”
She expressed her thanks for her late parents, Leland and Winifred Gerber, “who taught and modeled Christian service,” and for former pastors at First Mennonite Church, Bluffton, William Keeney and Jacob T. Friesen, “who offered a vibrant theology of service, peace and justice that I could own more deeply over time,” as well as for opportunities offered by the GCMC, MCC, the two church colleges where she studied (Bethel and Bluffton), and AMBS, especially its willingness to allow her to develop administrative gifts.
In addition, she said, “(My parents and) two (AMBS) students volunteered summer care for our children so I could finish my doctoral thesis – because they wanted to see more women qualified to teach theology.
“I still can’t believe that while we were teaching and had several small children, (Ted and I) were able to defend our Ph.D. theses on the same day.
“The seminary hired Dorothy Nickel Friesen, a Bethel grad, as assistant dean, so I could spend summers with our children.
“And I would never have contributed what I did without my beloved and trusted companion, Ted, also a Bethel grad, who shared a vision of mutuality in marriage and continued to implement that vision with me for the past 50 years.
“With all these people and many more echoing in my words, Bethel College, I truly thank you.”
Bethel College, a four-year liberal arts college founded in 1887, is the oldest Mennonite college in North America.
– By Melanie Zuercher, Bethel College