In Memorium: Chester Lehman Wenger ‘36

Chester Lehman Wenger ‘36, who with his late wife Sara Jane Weaver ’42, shared a special Centennial Award at Eastern Mennonite University in 2017, died Oct. 1, 2020, at his residence at Landis Homes, Lititz, Pa. 

When that award was created “to recognize persons who have defined the ethos of EMU in a sustained way for a lifetime,” the couple were unanimously selected by the committee. Read a profile here.

The Wengers “lived beautiful and rich lives of service, leadership and faith and their many contributions to the university and seminary have reflected our mission with consistent integrity and grace,” said President Susan Schultz Huxman. “We are so grateful for their legacy.”

The couple were staunch supporters of Eastern Mennonite Seminary, especially pastoral training opportunities such as the School for Leadership Training.* They also supported EMU’s several seminary students who are now actively ministering in Mennonite congregational and other ministering assignments. 

“It has always been a delight for me to write thank-you letters to the Wengers with the good news of how their encouragement was enhancing the gifts of church leaders of the next generations,” said Nancy Heisey, seminary associate dean.

Their connection and devotion to EMU – a legacy that includes learning, supporting and leading – has spanned four generations, from Chester’s father, president emeritus AD Wenger, to Chester and Sara Jane’s children and grandchildren, many of whom have given, and continue to give, generously through their professional careers to the university and seminary.

Two Wenger grandchildren are current exemplars. Jason Good ‘05 is vice president of innovation and student recruitment. Ryan Good, a professor of applied social sciences, is co-director of the Washington Community Scholars’ Center, a program established by their father the late Nelson Good ‘68 (who was married to Betty Wenger Good-White ‘67).

The memorial service will be hosted by Blossom Hill Mennonite Church Sunday, Oct. 18, at 2 p.m. Visit www.blossomhillmennonite.org for the link. Condolences can be shared at https://www.thegroffs.com/obituaries/Chester-Wenger/. A private interment will be Saturday, Oct. 17. Read the full obituary.

Any comments to this remembrance will be shared with the family as well.

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Chester’s ties to EMU began when he was just four. His father AD Wenger was president of Eastern Mennonite School and the family lived on the Harrisonburg campus during the academic year. In 1936, Chester graduated from EMS, which then offered high school and two-year associate’s degrees, and completed his bachelor’s degree at Bridgewater College. He also returned for one year of Bible school at EMS. Sara Jane graduated later from EMS and met Chester while teaching in his home community of Chesapeake.

Those connections to EMU continued through missionary work in Ethiopia, the creation of Keystone Bible Institutes through Lancaster Mennonite Conference, and years of service with North End Mennonite Church, later renamed to Blossom Hill Mennonite Church. Chester also served several years as a member of EMU’s Board of Trustees.

Seven of Chester and Sara Jane’s children are EMU graduates: Betty ’67 Good-White, Margaret Wenger ’69 Johnson, Jewel Wenger ’69 Showalter, Sara Wenger ’75 Shenk, Mark Wenger ’79, Philip Wenger ’82, and Thomas Wenger ’82.  

The couple had 16 grandchildren, including seven alumni: Charlotte Wenger Boudreau ‘11, Regina Wenger ‘09, Greta Shenk Bucher ‘10,  Joseph Shenk ‘01, Jason Good ‘05, Deborah Good ‘02, and Matthew Showalter ‘99.

Late in life, Wenger’s pastor credentials were stripped when he chose to officiate his son Phil’s wedding to his partner in 2014. The 96-year-old self-described “still zealous missionary” wrote a widely read and published “Open Letter to My Beloved Church,” explaining his decision. 

“My act of love was done on behalf of the church I love, and my conscience is clear,” he wrote. “This is the light that has been burning more and more brightly under my bushel, and I am now prepared finally, as a 96-year-old, still zealous missionary, to let it shine.” He closed with a prayer “that our love in family and Church will bind us together in God’s family even when our understandings of God’s will may differ.”

Wenger’s act of support for his son and the ensuing loss of his credentials was widely covered by countless media outlets, including local TV affiliates, People magazine and on Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast

News of Wenger’s passing brought memories to the many in the EMU community who knew him well or had memorable encounters over the years. “Chester and Sara Jane Wenger leave a distinctive legacy of Christ-like compassion, service and radical hospitality,” said Kirk Shisler, vice president for advancement. “Their legacy, so vibrant and enduring, calls for our response! May their example inspire our best work in fulfilment of EMU’s mission to prepare students to serve and lead in a global context.”

* The couple also supported Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Both institutions benefited from the leadership and teaching of their children: Daughter Sara Wenger Shenk was a professor and dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary from 1995-2009, when she became president of AMBS. Son Mark Wenger also directed the seminary site at EMU Lancaster for a decade.

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