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

Leadership During a Crisis

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a Zoom meeting with the president of Samford University Dr. Westmoreland on the topic of leadership. He gave seven principles for managing through a crisis:

  1. Take a deep breath. Pause, reflect, relax, and think before you act. Even a few seconds of deep breaths can calm and center your thoughts leading to better decisions.
  2. Establish priorities. Crises require triage to be sure the important things get done and in the right order.
  3. Filter the clutter. Separate the speculative from the informative. Facts are your friends in an emergency.
  4. Take care of your people and yourself. Set limits on your work, a curfew for your emails, establish boundaries, and get needed rest.
  5. Guard your cash. This applies personally and professionally. In an economic crisis, limit spending to the absolutely necessary.
  6. Don’t quit. Even when your reserves are low, your mood depressed, you hope nearly shot, and your nerves frayed, keep going.
  7. Begin and end each day with Colossians 1:17. “He is before all things and in Him all things hold together.” Connect with your faith and operate with the knowledge that many things are beyond your control or ability to repair.

Were I to add an 8th principle, I would include Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” To be poor in spirit is to have our hearts broken by the things that break God’s heart. To hold loosely the material things of this world in recognition that from dust we come and to dust we will return. To recognize our limitations, weaknesses, and failures. To acknowledge our need for help. To admit when we are wrong and ask for forgiveness. To be humble enough to recognize our complete dependence on God, and thereby strong enough to lead and act with wisdom, compassion, and justice.

Juggling the twin crises of coronavirus and racial violence, I suspect that the easiest parts of both are behind us. When camaraderie fades into frustration and solidarity slips into selfishness the complexities of leadership will multiply. May God give us the wisdom and strength to lead with poverty of spirit and perseverance.


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).


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.

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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

Campus Ministers are Not Counselors.

Those who work on a college campus know that the 4-6 years it takes to get a university degree can be incredibly stressful. Students now seem to enter school with more pressure than ever. Escalating tuition and inadequate financial resources mean increasing levels of debt. Students take extra jobs to earn money for expenses, leaving less time for co-curricular activities, leisure, and rest. Dysfunctional families mean increasing emotional turmoil at home. High unemployment for 20-24 year olds means fierce workforce competition and the heightened importance of academic performance. High drop-out rates for religious involvement mean fewer social and spiritual resources available to help. In short, the reality for most college students is increasing stress and decreasing resources to deal it. The result is physical exhaustion, mental fatigue, and spiritual depletion.

When students seek help, they often reach out to whomever they know and trust – a friend, a teacher, a counselor, a campus minister. If the word gets out that you are a trusted and available source of assistance for those in need, your calendar will fill quickly. As a Campus Minister, I think that I could spend nearly 100% of my time counseling students if I were to choose to structure my work this way. But I am not a counselor. Most Campus Ministers are not counselors. Only a few have the training, credentials, and job description that makes counseling their primary function. If you are not one of them, here are a few general guideline that you should probably follow, and communicate to other Campus Ministers that you may supervise:

  1. Understand the difference between counseling and spiritual formation. Counselors seek to provide assistance to people with personal, social, psychological, or spiritual difficulties. Typically counselors operate with a license, a code of ethics, a clear understanding of the extent of services rendered, and full knowledge of the compensation required for such services. I am not a counselor. Spiritual formation (a.k.a discipleship) is my area of expertise, along with the biblical and theological training that is associated with it.
  2. Know your limits. Campus Ministers (and for that matter, pastors, youth ministers, etc.) are the shade-tree mechanics of the counseling world. If you need someone to change the oil or make minor repairs, then take your car there. But for a complicated cross-country road trip, the dealer has better training and diagnostic tools. Such is the case with counseling. A Campus Minister’s training in counseling is limited, so know your limits and when to refer to an expert.
  3. Avoid entering into long-term counseling situations with students. I typically meet with a student for counseling 1-2 times, then refer out for longer term needs. My purpose in these situations is to help set the theological context in which Christian counseling can be successful, and then to be another layer of support for a student who needs long-term care from someone else. And remember that if you are not a counselor, then you may incur certain legal risks if you attempt to deliver long-term counseling services.
  4. Avoid spending more than 25% of your work week counseling students. This is a rough gauge and will obviously vary from week to week, season to season, and context to context. October and April are usually more difficult months for students. June and January are easier. In urban settings, other resources will be readily available. In a rural setting, you may be the best option for most students. That said, if on average you spend more than 25% of your week counseling students, your are likely neglecting other important functions of your work. If you struggle to keep that rule of thumb, you probably need additional staff members or referral resources at your disposal.
  5. Develop a referral network. Know which counselors in your area specialize in the issues with which your students tend to struggle. Know which counselors work from a distinctively Christian perspective. Know both male and female counselors because students often prefer one or the other. Know which counselors work on a sliding scale. Know which counselors take insurance and file the claim themselves. Have an assistant or intern gather this information, along with phone numbers, and have it available to students.
  6. Help students overcome the stigma associate with counseling. Just as there is a stigma associated with mental illness, there is a stigma associated with counseling. I readily admit to students (and everyone else apparently) that I have a counselor – Trey Hill at Covenant Counseling – and I firmly believe that anyone in a caregiving profession should. My counselor is licensed (Notre Dame), highly trained in research based interventions, highly skilled, and highly experienced. My insurance pays 80% of the cost. The 20% that I pay is worth every penny. I talk about this openly to help reduce the awkwardness and to help students see that counseling is a legitimate and professional service.
  7. Identify financial resources for students who cannot afford counseling. Sometimes students simply do not have the money or they cannot file the insurance claim because they don’t want their parents to know they are getting counseling. Sometimes parents will not help because parents are the problem! In these situations, I try to identify some resources in my budget to help pay a portion of a student’s first visit or two to a counselor. I always ask the student to pay something so that he/she is invested in the process. I’ve occasionally asked counselors that I know to see a student for free in exchange for referrals later, and rarely have I been declined. Most counselors do what they do because they want to help.
Campus Ministry

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.