Why I Am Thankful, Now More Than Ever, For a Liberal Arts Education

I have an undergraduate degree in French Horn Performance. I have master’s degrees in business and theology, and a PH.D. in philosophical theology. Aside from my MBA, all of my education has been in the so-called liberal arts. As opposed to concentrated vocational training in a career-specific course of study, a liberal arts education focuses on the academic disciplines of philosophy, history, language, literature, music, art, and the social sciences. Also called the humanities, these courses of study teach one to think and write and solve problems rather than merely to do a job. The humanities endeavor to make one a better person rather than merely a more credentialed one. I have never held a job that specifically requires me to have any of the degrees I hold, and yet in every job I have had, and at every stage of my adult life, I have been incredibly grateful for a liberal arts education. This is especially true now, for two key reasons.

First, closing and opening a school during a global pandemic has forced me to think carefully, critically, and calmly, skills without which I might have lost my mind or my job long before COVID could get to me. This year I have had to read and study more diligently than ever, sorting through mountains of data, discerning fact from fiction, disregarding hyperbole and speculation in order to attend to relevant information. Leading an organization during a public health crisis requires the kind of information literacy that a liberal arts education helps develop. Sure, a degree in public health would be helpful, but one cannot earn a degree to match every crisis. The abilities to learn concepts quickly and apply them appropriately are valuable precisely because they are transferrable.

Second, the racial turmoil and political polarization we have seen in recent months has exposed our inability as a nation to engage thoughtfully and productively in public dialogue on controversial topics. We are all tempted to exist in an echo chamber, listening to voices that reflect our own, viewing events exclusively through the lens of our own experience, and discounting alternative perspectives. Sustained engagement with the humanities inoculates against the kind of narrow ideology that divides and radicalizes. When we humbly subject our viewpoint to sustained critique, we are much more likely to see our own blind spots and to show empathy toward others with whom we disagree. I see no other way to live peaceably with my fellow citizens.

The free and critical exchange of ideas lies at the heart much of the western intellectual tradition from its inception. As the cost of a true liberal arts education has increased exponentially, I fear the value has been increasingly marginalized. Research shows that the humanities tend to have a moderating influence; serious students tend to view the world with less dichotomy and more nuance, less polarization and more subtlety, less estrangement and more empathy. In the process, perhaps students of the liberal arts also come to see that both politics and pandemics have less ultimate significance than matters of faith. Diseases and democracies rise and fall, but the Kingdom of God remains forever. Worry less about the schools you or your children may attend. Worry less about the fleeting social dramas that tend to occupy our immediate attention. Let us concern ourselves more intently with the kinds of people we are becoming, the kind of society we are helping to create, and the God who sits enthroned above all our fleeting and temporal concerns.

Education Leadership

First Thoughts: SouthLake Christian Academy School Updates, September 2020

Dear SouthLake Christian Family,

For those new to SouthLake, I send a school update on the first of each month entitled First Thoughts, a name I borrowed with permission from a colleague. I take this opportunity to send crucial information that will help you better understand and support our school. Today’s update includes information about our safety measures, enrollment, finances, School Board, and church affiliation.

First, let me begin with a word of appreciation. Thanks to your efforts and cooperation, we have had only 5 cases of COVID in our student population since the start of school. In each case, we were able to identify close contacts, quarantine the appropriate individuals, and provide them with online instruction. We now have first-hand evidence that our safety measures are preventing the spread of the virus at school. This takes remarkable effort on the part of all members of our community. Thank you, and let us all remain vigilant.

Second, our enrollment at this moment stands at 593. On this same day in 2019, our enrollment was 556. Almost all of this growth has taken place in grades JK-4 where we added classes to facilitate demand and keep our class sizes small. We begin this year with more than 150 new students and 23 prospective students still on a wait list. Most of our new families report they heard about SouthLake from other SouthLake families. Our retention rate, defined as the percentage of eligible students who return to SouthLake each fall, remains at 92%. These healthy numbers and upward trends are a testament to our teachers whose reputation has helped sustained SouthLake through multiple economic downturns.

Third, I offer this brief financial summary. Last year we received $6.9 million in net revenue from tuition and fees after awarding $1.2 million in need-based financial aid. 65% of revenue went to salaries, 18% to instructional costs, 12% to facilities (including debt), and 5% to administrative costs. In spite of the economic calamity caused by COVID, we received $115 thousand in cash donations, approximately $203 per student, only a slight decrease from the previous year. These numbers will obviously look different for the 2020-2021 academic year, but they will be different in amount not proportion. Our goal remains to spend most of our revenue on the thing that matters most to your students – the people who teach, minister, and invest in their lives.

Fourth, our school is governed by the SouthLake Christian Academy School Board. Four members of our School Board are also members or ruling elders of SouthLake Presbyterian Church, of which we are a wholly integrated ministry. The remaining three members of the School Board are selected by the school from among parents actively involved in the school. Members serve a three-year term and their primary responsibilities include financial oversight for the school along with supervision and evaluation of the Head of School. You can find more information about our School Board in our Student Handbook and on our website.

I mention this because the relationship between the church and academy is set to undergo some revision. At the conclusion of our annual audit in 2019, the CPA firm Franklin and Franklin recommended that the church and school divide into two separate legal entities to facilitate greater financial autonomy and transparency. Subsequently, the School Board voted to recommend to the church’s governing body that the church and school form separate 501(c)3 organizations. The church has now taken this recommendation under advisement and is considering what forms of church governance should remain to protect the long-term Christian mission of the school as the two entities separate. These discussions involve complicated details about asset allocation, debt management, financial accounting, and non-profit governance. I am happy to discuss these things with you, but I suspect I have already lost much of my audience at this point. Suffice it to say that our mission remains unchanged: to educate and disciple students in all aspects of God’s reality.

I would apologize for the length of this email, but those who would appreciate an apology likely stopped reading a few paragraphs ago. My tendency is to err on the side of transparency, sometimes at the expense of brevity. I want you to know how our school operates, and more importantly, the purposes for which it operates. So without further verbosity, let me close by saying that I am grateful each of you are part of the SouthLake family.

Leadership

Message to SouthLake Christian Faculty and Staff

As we began faculty in-service last week at SouthLake Christian Academy, I addressed our teachers with an annual State of the School update and some words of encouragement and motivation. I commended their unity as a faculty and their commitment to teaching our students in ever changing circumstances, and also acknowledged the challenges they face as our operations are turned upside down in every conceivable way. I offered the following devotional thought and challenge.

Matthew 14 and John 6 tell the story of Jesus walking on water, but they tell it a bit differently. In Matthew’s account, Jesus walks on water through a storm, gets into the boat with his disciples, and “the winds ceased.” In John’s account, Jesus gets into the boat and “immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. If you are a contemporary historiographer, this may appear as a contradiction. Some argue that the two writers are telling two different stories. For Matthew and John, however, I believe the gospel genre in which they were writing was use for theological rather than purely historical purposes. Matthew tells us when Jesus arrived, the waters calmed. John says that when Jesus arrived, they were carried across the waters; the voyage ended. Sometimes God intervenes to calm our waters and we keep on rowing. At other times he carries us through the waters, the voyage ends, and the difficulty is over. How God chooses to intervene is his choice by providence, and I believe, for our greater good.

In that light, I challenged our faculty and staff to shift their thinking in the following ways:

  1. Shift from likes to needs. Rather than think about operational changes as things we like or don’t like, conceive of them as things we need to continue live instruction as safely as possible for as long as possible.
  2. Shift from opinions to facts. We may all have opinions about school opening, about CDC recommendations, about the politics of wearing masks, etc. but those matter far less right now than science and data. Opinions matter, but facts are actionable.
  3. Shift from feelings to strategies. As conditions change, and inevitably they will, how we may feel about changes is less relevant than the strategies we implement to cope as well as possible with whatever comes our way.

While I would prefer that God simply carry us through this storm, it appears that we still have some rowing to do. So I will hope for calm waters, trust God’s providence, and pray for endurance to give every stroke of the paddle my best.

Biblical Interpretation Leadership Theology

Working from Home

Since the onset of stay-at-home orders, I’ve been working almost exclusively from home for over a month and going nowhere when I’m not working. The whole experience is disorienting. I have good days and not-so-good days. I sometimes lack motivation and sometimes feel manic. I alternate between eating too much and exercising like I’m in the military. I sleep well mostly, but sometimes have bizarre dreams or lay awake thinking about work, or about nothing much at all. I feel focused and then distracted and then focused again. It all still feels rather bizarre. Here are a few of things I’ve learned about working at home.

  1. I need a schedule. Left to my own whims, work will bleed into every waking hour and many sleeping hours as well. When I started setting a regular time to wake, work, and work out, I felt more settled, worked with more focus, and started sleeping better at night.
  2. I need to take breaks. Some days I can work for hours without distraction and the day passes in an instant. Other days and hour seems like an eternity. I’ve returned to a practice I used in college. I take a 10 minute break every hour. I go outside, walk around the block, lay down, stretch, do push-ups, whatever. This breaks up the day and keeps my mind sharper.
  3. I created a work space that I like. Maybe you’re sharing limited space with several other people. Maybe you have your own office. Either way, set up your work space so that it functions well for you. I use lists and sticky notes and I am usually surrounded by books, reports, budgets, and other printouts. I organize my workspace every couple of hours and keep it clean, especially now. I can’t control many things right now, but I do have influence over my work space and that helps.
  4. I try to dress reasonably well. It would be easy to work in my pajamas many days, at least from shoulders down where nobody on a Zoom call could see. I find this makes me feel lazy, so I get dress, shoes and all. At the end of the day I put on casual clothes or work out attire as I did when I went to the school every day for work. This creates some normalcy.
  5. I try to stay in touch. Needed interactions happened normally when I worked in close proximity to my colleagues. Now I have to reach out. I find that I am using email, text messaging, and good old-fashioned phone calls more than ever. I get tired of Zoom but it gets the job done. The social interaction does my soul good, even if it isn’t as completely satisfying as being with others in person.
  6. I spend very little time listening to the news. In the early weeks of this pandemic, I fed on every bit of information I could get. In those early days of this crisis, I needed lots of information to make operational decisions. Now there is less news but a plethora of political hot takes that mostly cause confusion and don’t impact daily decisions. I scan the BBC app each morning for 10 minutes to get new national and international news. I subscribe to a small number of email lists for information about other schools and local and state government actions. I avoid cable news like the plague.
  7. I make time for the arts. I got a free premium subscription to Spotify and I listen to far more music than normal, especially acoustic guitar and classical music. For reasons I cannot explain, these genres soothe my nerves right now. I now follow some new songwriters on Instagram who post nightly covers or give weekly concerts online. These performances are a gift.
  8. I go to church every Sunday. That is to say that I watch my church online, and then a few other churches as well. Sunday is the one day of the week that feels substantially different from the others. Thank God for those faithful ministers who are keeping the Body of Christ together right now, even as we are apart from each other.
community Leadership Work

Why Christian Education

Why Christian Education

[The following is a written summary of an address to the faculty of Westminster Catawba Christian School on August 5, 2019.]

At SouthLake Christian, we began a strategic planning process earlier this year to identify our main priorities as a school for the next chapter in our history. We spent a few months gathering data from our various constituents – teachers, students, parents, alumni, and members of the community – to clarify who we are and what next steps we should take, to select among all the good options the very best ones. Early and often, people identified two traits that characterize our school and must be preserved at all costs: our commitment to academic rigor and our identity as a Christian school. These conjoined twins represent the two main reasons our school was established and continues to exist, the reason parents hire us and pay us to do a job, the reason volunteers and donors give their time and money, and the reason that independent, public, and charter schools haven’t crowded us out. And yet, there are reasons for Christian education superior to those pragmatic considerations, important as they are. I propose that Christian education casts out fear[1], nourishes freedom, and tells a better story.

Bob Woodward’s 2018 book entitled Fear describes the inner workings of the White House with this phrase: “Real power is fear.” Machiavelli’s The Prince articulates a similar refrain: “It is better to be feared than loved.” Many leaders rise to power and maintain that power because they manage effectively to understand and articulate the underlying fears of their constituents. Some leaders maintain power by stoking that fear while promising to ameliorate it. These strategies work because fear plagues us all. It drives us to work and overwork, robs our sleep, wrecks our bodies, taints our relationships, and blinds us to life’s beauty. Fear. Cable news fuels it, social media feeds it, marketing firms monetize it. And the thing we have most to fear is fear itself. Yet we have a solution. Christians have always taught that the antidote to fear is love. The apostle John, for whom 4 books of the New Testament are named, writes that “God is love” and “perfect love casts out fear” and “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for a friend.” (1 John 4.8, 1 John 4.17, and John 15.13 – NIV). The love that led Jesus to lay down his life for us lives in us. As we love each other and our students and their families, we cast out fear. As we teach that love, and acknowledge explicitly its source and power, we smother the fires scorching our society. Christian education literally makes the world a better place, God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

As we cast out fear, we nourish freedom. Years ago, I attended a conference of the American Academy of Religion, one session of which concerned academic freedom. The panel discussion was led by professors at various types of universities – state, private secular, and Christian. As they each described their context, something became blatantly obvious. Only Christian schools have any chance at true academic freedom! Public and secular private school teachers avoid religious conversations like the plague, by necessity. They can lose their jobs if they appear to advocate for any particular religious conviction. In the name of tolerance or open-mindedness or diversity, our society has pushed theological belief to the margins, treating nearly every other form of belief more amicably. A rather strange state of affairs now exists whereby religious belief, so important to so many, can barely be discussed by anyone in a secular classroom. And so, I ask, who is really free? The answer is YOU. You teach at a school that sees theological conviction not merely as a subject worthy of open discussion, but one foundational to all discussion because every belief of any kind begins with an unproven assumption. All learning requires faith. Your students attend a school where they can ask ANY question and get a straight answer. We can actually promote tolerance and open-mindedness and diversity not because these things are fashionable, but because they are beautiful, and good, and right, and true, and biblical. We have rich theological language by which to say that we should treat each other with respect and kindness because we are all created in God’s image, that we value people different from us because such is the Kingdom of God, that we seek community with people who do not look like us because heaven will be filled with people of “every tribe and tongue and nation” (Revelation 7.9 – ESV). We do not fear others because we love them. We love them because God first loved us. God’s love sets us free.

Christian education casts out fear, nourishes freedom, and tells a better story. This summer I spent part of a day with Scott Dillon, Head of School at Westminster Catawba, and we talked at length about the why of Christian education. What sets us apart from other academically rigorous schools? Why do parents pay us to educate their kids? What do we offer that is distinctive? To approach an answer to those questions, play a game with me. Imagine your school is not a Christian school. A student asks, why do I need to learn this math? You could answer, because you will need it for next year’s math class. Why do I need next year’s math class? Because you will need it to graduate. And why do I care about graduation? Because you need a high school degree to go to college or vocational school. Why do I need college or vocational school? Because you need more education to find a job in a competitive global economy? Why do I need to a job? So that you can live, pay your bills, raise a family, enjoy the world. Why do I need to do these things? Because they contribute to the greater good. And why should I care about the greater good? And on, and on, and on. Eventually, every answer becomes depressingly utilitarian. We do these things because they have pragmatic value. BORING! As Christian educators, we have a better story to tell. We teach and we learn because all truth is God’s truth. Because every equation displays God’s handiwork, and every element on the periodic table gives evidence of God’s ingenuity, and every musical note sounds God’s beauty, and every star in the solar system declares the God’s glory, and every language expresses God’s love, and every event in history ultimately tells His story. And we are story tellers. And what an amazing story we get to tell.

[1] The idea that Christian education casts out fear I owe to Dr. Dennis Sansom, Professor of Philosophy at Samford University. He presented this idea in a Convocation address to the university sometime during the 2006-2007 academic year.

Biblical Interpretation Education Leadership Theology

Characteristics of the Creative Leader (versus Authoritative Leader)

Here is a link to an excellent comparison of creative leadership with authoritative (tradition) leadership by John Maeda and Becky Bermont. The comparison summarizes some important features of organizational management and captures something of the spirit of leadership to which I aspire, but don’t always achieve.

Characteristics of the Creative Leader (versus Authoritative Leader).

Leadership

7 Ways to Do Campus Ministry Better Through Peer Review

I took my first campus ministry job in 1990, so this year marks my 24th year working with college students. Through the years I’ve completed a few degrees, attended dozens of conferences, read countless books, and learned through trial and error. These are all valuable and necessary parts of the learning process, but there’s one way to get better at your job that is available to anyone and costs almost nothing – peer review. Identify the people who do what you do well and learn from them. Here are a few ways to do that:

1. Do an website audit. Find 2-3 schools or organizations that you want to learn about, and spend 20 minutes on their website. Take notes. Learn the nuts and bolts of how their organizations work as well as the unusual or creative things they do. You can even assign an assistant or intern to do this for you and compile the information into a brief report.

2. Conduct a phone interview. I occasionally teach a campus ministry class at Beeson Divinity School and I assign students a final project that requires them to choose an organization and learn everything they can about it. They search the web and then make phone calls to leaders, volunteers, and participants in the organization. The interviews usually add something important to what they learn online.

3. Visit other organization’s meetings. Identify the 2-3 most successful campus ministries on your campus or in your city and visit them. If you’re older (like me) you may stand out in a crowd so it’s probably better to get a few insightful students to make the visits and then debrief with them over lunch (that you provide). Ask them what they liked and disliked about the meeting, the people, the leaders, the culture, the content, etc.

4. Visit other campuses. Several times in my career I’ve visited campuses far away from my own to learn all that I could about ministry organizations as well as the campuses themselves. I’ve tried to time the visits so that I could visit a weekly meeting, have lunch with student leaders, meet with the folks in charge, both campus ministry leaders and university administrators. I compile a list of questions in advance. I try to meet with as many organizations/schools as possible in a region to make the most of my time. I take copious notes. I review the notes periodically to solidify the learning.

2014-01-13 16.26.36

The view of the Pacific from Pepperdine University, where my staff and I visited this past January for a peer review.

5. Attend or plan information gatherings of leaders. Several gatherings of this sort already exist across the country, campus ministry leaders who get together in a city for 2-3 days to learn from one another. The cost is free to attend so all you have to pay for is travel, food, and lodging. If there isn’t one near you, plan one. Each fall and spring the campus ministers and college ministers in my city meet together to eat, exchange ideas and pray for one another.

6. Network via social media. Compared to other areas of ministry and service, there is precious little published about campus ministry or college ministry. I suspect that there is now more information about these areas of ministry available through online blogs than in all the books on the subject combined. I follow as many college ministries on Twitter as I can find. I “favorite” and “share” and “repost” the content that I find helpful and relevant for my context.

7. Be a mentor. I’ve been on the receiving end of so much good experience and information that I now take even greater joy in passing along what I’ve learned, for whatever it’s worth to whomever wants to learn. I’m getting old, so people often ask me how we do things where I work. I’m on the receiving end of phone interviews and have grown to enjoy blogging about things I wish I’d known 10 or 20 years ago. If you keep track of what you’re learning, you’re better able to give it away when the time comes.

And here’s the thing … all of these practices are free, or nearly free. All of these forms of peer review can be applied to work in any organization in ministry, higher education, non-profit management, or business. All of them require you to know the people who do what you do, which you should anyway. All of these ideas put you in touch with practical information about work in the trenches, on the front lines. All these ideas allow you to be both a teacher and a learner. Learn from the best. Learn from their successes and failures. Learn from people both older and younger than you. Keep learning and getting better at what you do and you won’t get burned-out or bored.

Campus Ministry Leadership

Preaching to College Students

Many campus ministers rely primarily on guests to preach to and teach their students. This was the strategy during my college years, and many still use that strategy. Not all campus ministers are great preachers, nor do they feel like they have the time or capacity to focus on that particular ministry task, and with good reason. Campus Ministers have to be good at many things, including counseling, administration, money management, personnel supervision, facilities operations, church relations, food preparation, travel arrangements, and the list goes on. I believe that is it a mistake, however, to outsource biblical teaching exclusively to those who do not know your students or their context as well as you do. Simply because you are not the world’s greatest preacher does not mean that you can’t be the world’s most effective preacher for your context. I work for a university where annually we have dozens of guest speakers, preachers, teachers, and lecturers visit campus each year. Dollar for dollar, I think that our faculty, staff, and campus ministers communicate more effectively to our students than even the most entertaining or impressive guests. In other words, if what you’re going for is entertainment, then a guest is best. If what you want is impact, guests often (usually?) fall short. In a world of limited resources, therefore, I say you get more bang for your buck by anchoring your teaching/preaching schedule with people on your campus or on your staff, people who know and love your students better than anyone.

With that in mind, here are a few brief ideas on preaching to college students in a campus ministry context:

  1. Preach as often as you can, or as often as it makes sense in your environment. Don’t let the fact that you aren’t great at it or don’t love it keep you from being effective at it.
  2. Pay attention in speech class and preaching class. The technical details about presentation style, stage presence, eye contact, diction, pace, pronunciation, visual aids, etc. – these details matter. This is especially true in a world where students spend more time fact-to-face with screens than with live people.
  3. Know your audience. Know their life stage, social tendencies, emotional burdens, and intellectual curiosities. Know their language, their intelligence level, their average GPA and ACT scores, their music, their culture.
  4. Don’t assume that students have any degree of biblical literacy. Most do not. At the same time, don’t “dumb down” your content. Explain concepts confusing to someone who didn’t grow up in church, but don’t be pedantic.
  5. Challenge students. They expect to and want to learn. They don’t necessarily need to or expect to “feel better” after a message. Hit them between the eyes; say it like it is; throw down when necessary. Do this with humor and grace, the proverbial iron fist in the velvet glove.
  6. Be personal and missional. Let them learn a little about you and your struggles, without emotionally streaking. But stay focused on the mission, the Gospel message and its proclamation, what theologians call “Christo-centric” preaching.
  7. The sermon should be part of a process, not an isolated event. Invite others into the planning process. Give clear next steps. Use the sermon to lead an organization, to expose its flaws and your own. Use the momentum created by a challenging message to accomplish things far more important than the sermon itself. At the end of the day, the sermon is a means, not an end.

 

Leadership

Sermon Preparation

Finishing sermon preparation this morning has me thinking about the process from start to finish. If time is no issue (and it almost always is), here is the full process I follow, with very little commentary, when preparing a sermon:

  1. Select the text – or better yet, have someone, or a team, or a sermon series, or the lectionary select it for you. A text of between 15-20 verses is about all most people can handle in a single sermon.
  2. Read the text several times, thinking primarily about its application to you, the preacher/teacher. Here’s where prayer is most important, although it should take place at every step.
  3. Think about the audience, their place in life, their needs, where the text will bump up against them.
  4. Outline the text – A, B, C, i, ii, iii. Often you’ll get your main points from this step.
  5. Diagram complex sentences, research unclear meanings, consulting commentaries, cross-referencing other biblical texts.
  6. Construct a thesis statement – the main idea or argument of your message. This should generally be a simple sentence.
  7. Select 3-5 main points, then consolidate them to 2-3.
  8. Fill out each point for clarity, listenability, understandability. Here I sometimes ask my wife, kids, or colleagues if I’m making sense.
  9. Tweak for “fix and flow,” in other words, the fixed points that the listener needs to follow, and transitions between those points.
  10. Add analogies, stories, illustrations to explain important or complex principles.
  11. Memorize, practice, edit. Repeat.
  12. Preach, get feedback, critique.
Leadership

Responding to Criticism

“Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”                                    – Galatians 1.10

Sometimes you’re going to make people angry, not because you do something wrong but because you do something right. People generally do not like change, even if the change is for the good. Ruffle feathers, touch a sore spot, topple a sacred cow, disrupt the status quo, and people will respond negatively.

In those moments, how will you respond? In the past, I’ve responded well and poorly, and here’s what I’ve learned:

  • The way people respond to a decision does not make that decision more or less correct.
  • Listen to your critics. They will usually teach you more than your fans.
  • You do not have a moral obligation to respond to every criticism. Sometimes the best response is no response at all.
  • Avoid the temptation to fire off an angry email response to a criticism. Email is permanent. Assume your response will be read by everyone, so have a trusted friend or colleague preview written responses before you send them.
  • Don’t obsess over what others think. You don’t need their approval. They cannot make you feel bad about yourself without your permission.
  • Ultimately, there’s one opinion that matters above all, and God regards you highly, even when you screw up.
Leadership