I’m not inclined to hire a graduate from one of America’s elite universities. That marks a change. A decade ago I relished the opportunity to employ talented graduates of Princeton, Yale, Harvard and the rest. Today? Not so much.
Reno argues that while elite institutions may graduate many fine individuals, these campus environments do not “add value” to job candidates who may want to write for Reno’s publication, First Things, a religious and socially conservative magazine and online outlet, even if the graduates of these institutions identify as religiously and socially conservative thinkers and writers.
Reno opines that on elite campuses, “Dysfunctional kids are coddled and encouraged to nurture grievances, while normal kids are attacked and educationally abused. . .Deprived of good role models, they’re less likely to mature into good leaders themselves.”
Absent conservative perspectives and a healthy campus environment where a vigorous discourse is fostered and encouraged, religiously and socially conservative students often choose instead to go along in order to get along, keeping their head down and doing what’s needed to get by. Why speak up if it will only earn you further marginalization, ridicule, and exclusion?
This means conservatives often cede the field, acquiesce, and steer clear of trouble. Reno observes that this is not good, and that over time this choice has a formative effect. He states, “I don’t want to hire a person well-practiced in remaining silent when it costs something to speak up.”
A few years ago a student at an Ivy League school told me, “The first things you learn your freshman year is never to say what you are thinking.” The institution he attended claims to train the world’s future leaders. From what that young man reports, the opposite is true. The school is training future self-censors, which means future followers.
In a few years my children will likely consider a college education, and as they explore their options our primary evaluative factors will not be the prestige or social connections a given institution may secure by way of attendance and/or a degree. Rather, we will be asking about the quality of education and the type of person the institution has as their formative end. We won’t only focus on things like post-graduate job prospects or overall campus climate, but what the institution views as their understanding of human flourishing and how they encourage students to pursue “the good life.”
In A Time to Build, Yuval Levin identifies three predominant campus cultures which are distinguishable, interacting, and sometimes overlapping. Levin labels these cultures, “a culture of professional development, a culture of moral activism, and a culture of liberal education.”
The culture of professional development’s end is obvious: jobs. Levin writes, “The way we often think and argue about higher education policy generally suggest the same: the question is whether students and parents get their money’s worth in terms of postcollege employment and income.”
The culture of moral activism’s end is more amorphous. It has shifted depending on the morality. Levin writes:
Now largely shorn of its religious roots, [the moral aim] often looks like classroom instruction and campus political activism that demand of the larger society a kind of mass repentance for some grave collective sins. The nature of the alleged transgressions reinforces the worldview of America’s elite culture, which today is largely a progressive-liberal one. The content of the doctrines advanced by campus moralists has changed a lot, then. But the motivations of the students and some of the faculty engaged in moral activism today would be quite recognizable to activists of prior ages. Some of their methods, too, and even their excesses, would not have been altogether unfamiliar to their Puritan predecessors.
Harvard and Yale were initially Puritan institutions and were committed to a certain orthodoxy. Today’s moral activists are no less committed, albeit to different doctrines.
The third and final campus culture is that of liberal education. Here’s how Levin defines it:
Liberal education is so called because it involves the kind of learning and formation required to mold free citizens. The idea reaches back to antiquity in the West, and it has long embodied the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) said to make up the liberal arts of the classical curriculum. The concept does more than describe certain fields, though. It constitutes a mode of learning as formation, and an approach to education that seeks the true, the good, and the beautiful.
Problems often arise when people have fundamental differences with regard to what the university is for and how then we should pursue our educational mission. Levin writes, “Each of the three cultures believes it properly owns the university’s core ethic, and at least tacitly looks at the others as inadequate if not illegitimate.”
I think there is a place for all three models. But I think the third model is the right one, that it is the best. That’s the kind of education I received, so I have subjective bias.
I also think that it best aligns with a Christian vision of education, which has as its end the formation of the human person such that they can flourish in accordance with their divine design, becoming people of wisdom as they learn from a breadth of human knowledge, discovering they are endowed with purpose and entrusted to steward their lives in service to God.
This third culture, however, is in the minority, I think, not only within the realm of higher education, but also within the popular imagination.
Looking for ways to make a difference, younger Americans therefore tend to think in terms not of channeling their ambitions through institutions but rather of going around them. Because our politics has always rewarded those who can successfully claim the mantle of the outsider–now even more than usual–the temptation to approach our institutions antagonistically, or to avoid them altogether, has grown very strong. When we look for solutions, we tend to look not to institutions but to individuals, movements, ideals, or maverick outsiders.
Maybe what we resist most is the idea that we would need to be formed by institutions at all. The liberal idea of freedom, which has often been at the core of our political imagination, is rooted in the premise that the choosing individual is the foundation of our social order. Liberating that person–whether from oppression, necessity, coercion, or constraint–has frequently been understood to be the foremost purpose of our politics. Our parties have argued about how to do it and about what kind of liberation the individual most desires or requires. But they have agreed, at least implicitly, that once properly liberated, that person could be free.
Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream
I feel these tensions, having been formed within them. I value institutions. I value individualism. I’m skeptical of institutions. I’m aware of their failures. Early in my ministry I was drawn more toward movements and mavericks, those seeking to reform or to build something new.
But as the years have gone on, I’ve become more skeptical of radical individualism. It can pull us away from community, history, or tradition. I’m wary of those who build their own cult of personality.
In A Time to Build, Yuval Levin makes the case for our institutions. Levin argues that we should recommit to them, highlighting the positive ways they can be formative. He’s right. They can be. As a child of a stable family, relatively healthy churches, and a vibrant university community, I’ve seen the positive effects institutions can have.
But as an observer of unhealthy institutions, I’ve also seen how difficult it can be to reform a decaying institution from within. There are moments when it is easier, better, healthier, and more generative to leave an institution and blaze a new path, begin a new movement, or chart a new course. A new church, college, university, or other association might be just the thing to renew an existing institutional form. Older institutions see it is okay to try new things, make certain changes, or launch new initiatives. Those who go around institutions and who begin to build new organizations are like a research and development division.
These breaks can be messy. Knowledge can get lost, overshadowed, or put aside. But new expressions of existing institutions can, at times, not only serve to bring forth new life in a new place with new people, but it can inspire older institutions to break free of their ruts and enact needed reforms.
I agree with Levin. We need more people to commit to our existing institutions, to be formed by them, and to make their mark through them. But I’m not discounting the fact that some will need to go around our institutions for the good of us all. We need mavericks, too, who help us not only see how we’re getting it wrong, but where we’re getting it right.
Molly recently began here Doctor of Ministry work at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary.
One of her pre-seminar sessions was with Dr. William J. Abraham. He offered the students a list of classroom virtues and practices. What are those virtues? As follows, with Abraham’s expanded description.
Desire for Truth
The aptitude to discern whether the belief-forming processes, practices, and people yield true beliefs over false ones. People motivated by this desire will be more likely to conduct thorough inquiries, scrutinize evidence more carefully, investigate numerous fields of study, consider alternative explanations, and so forth.
The capacity to recognize reliable sources of informed judgment while acknowledging the limits of our knowledge and the fallibility of our judgments. This is not created in isolation but takes into account feedback and correction from other sources of informed judgment.
The capacity to tackle difficult questions without seeking simple answers. Ignoring complex and difficult questions only solidifies vices such as intellectual dishonesty, close-mindedness, and rash judgments. These vices preclude the possibility of refining our thinking and of participating in conversations with others.
Be able to say, “I don’t know.”
The desire to engage in an open-ended search for knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and so on. Presumed here is the capacity to take seriously different ideas and counterarguments, recognizing that being impulsive in assessing evidence fosters intellectual deficiencies and hinders intellectual growth, both personally and communally.
The willingness to articulate one’s own position while considering other perspectives. Responding to objections entails tenacity but should not be confused with close-mindedness.
Articulate robustly. Deal with objections as friends.
An Integrative Habit of Mind
The capacity to grasp how things fit together in light of one another and how an understanding of this sort relates to the situation at hand.
Molly records Abraham saying, “If you cultivate these, you will be more able to detect the divine in the world.”
This week our office will submit grades, tie up administrative loose ends, and then transition to thinking forward to the next academic year.
I’ll admit, I am tired.
This year we’ve adjusted to new health protocols, remote work, and online teaching and learning. Thankfully, most of our instruction took place in the classroom, albeit more distanced and with faces partially veiled. And while I did not have as many opportunities to connect with staff, faculty, and students this year over lunch or in the hallways, bonds were strengthened nonetheless.
In the next few weeks I’ll take time out of the office. I have a couple of personal projects to complete, books I want to read, and hikes I want to take. I want to rest, too. Be present with my family and friends. Maybe make art.
The year to come will be filled with transition. It will not carry the same stresses and tensions as this one did. The possibilities ahead of our family are positive developments, filled with hope. My service with Truett moves to full time in August. Molly begins a new appointment at First Methodist Killeen in July. She also will start work on her D.Min. at Truett.
Our family will make adjustments.
We’ll be busy. Galatians 6:9 reminds us, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
I serve in a seminary. How and where we teach is often conducted with methods and in settings very similar to other, more familiar educational settings. The teacher or professor delivers content, and we sit and listen, much like in a public school or a college lecture hall. We know answers to test questions are being given, and tests must be passed to move on to the next level. We take notes. We study. We produce those answers. And we move on.
This is all fine and good. We do a lot of good work. But the church is a different kind of setting, with different educational modalities and formational aims.
We have a problem when we get our wires crossed and begin thinking that the church is identical with the seminary, and how we’re led and taught effectively in one place is identical with the way we’ll lead and teach in the other. In the seminary, we’re taught all kinds of facts about the Bible, history, theology, and the practice of ministry. Those things are important. But we mistakenly assume that it is these facts, and these points of emphasis, that we’re supposed to stress while with the congregation. When we do this, there is something more central, more important, and more essential that we miss. What are we missing?
In The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson writes about his discovery that his educational outlook for pastoral ministry was very different than that of a previous generation of pastors, who throughout church history had learned “on the job” within the life of a parish. Seminaries, either as independent institutions or embedded within university systems, are more recent innovations. How we learn now, and how we teach, isn’t the only way to do it, nor is it the only way it has been done.
Peterson discovered both our problem and a different way to approach the pastoral task as a Christian educator. He writes:
My secularized schooling had shaped my educational outlook into something with hardly any recognizable continuities with most of the church’s history. I had come into the parish seeing its great potential as a learning center, a kind of mini-university in which I was the resident professor.
And then one day, in a kind of shock of recognition, I saw that it was in fact a worship center. I wasn’t prepared for this. Nearly all my preparation for being a pastor had taken place in a classroom, with chapels and sanctuaries ancillary to it. But these people I was now living with were coming, with centuries of validating presence, not to get facts on the Philistines and Pharisees but to pray. They were hungering to grow in Christ, not bone up for an examination in dogmatics. I began to comprehend the obvious: that the central and shaping language of the church’s life has always been its prayer language.
Out of that recognition a conviction grew: that my primary educational task as pastor was to teach people how to pray. I did not abandon, and will not abandon, the task of teaching about the faith, teaching the content of the gospel, the historical backgrounds of biblical writings, the history of God’s people. I have no patience with and will not knowingly give comfort to obscurantist or anti-intellectual tendencies in the church. But there is an educational task entrusted to pastors that is very different from that assigned to professors. The educational approaches in all the schools I attended conspired to ignore the wisdom of the ancient spiritual leaders who trained people in the disciplines of attending to God, forming the inner life so that it was adequate to the reception of truth, not just the acquisition of facts. The more I worked with people at or near the centers of their lives where God and the human, faith and the absurd, love and indifference were tangled in daily traffic jams, the less it seemed that the way I had been going about teaching made much difference, and the more that teaching them to pray did.
The educational task of the pastor is to teach, or to invite, people to be in relationship with God. It is to invite, model, instruct, and encourage them in the life of prayer. There are other facets to teaching, of course. But prayer is central.
I believe that we became educators because we know–on our better days–that the lives of each one of our students is an irreplaceable gift. We want our students to grasp this truth, to live into their God-given potential. We know that we might end up being the only person who sees that one young student for who he or she is: a unique person, made in the image of God, loved by Jesus, and placed here to give him glory. Is there a more sacred trust?
Following extended conversations with and consultation of seminary faculty, alumni and friends, Dean Todd D. Still, Ph.D., announced today, with strong support from university administration, the formation of a Wesley House of Studies at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary. In conjunction, he announced that Dr. William J. Abraham, a theologian, philosopher, author and minister, will serve as the founding director of this strategic initiative.
In this role, Abraham will ensure that students attending Truett from Wesleyan traditions are nurtured and networked for the ministries into which they are being called. Additionally, Abraham, who will regularly teach courses at Truett pertaining to Wesleyan thought and practice, will collaborate with individuals, congregations and organizations in the Wesleyan tradition in the recruiting, training and placing of students and in supporting and educating ministers who are already engaged in gospel service.
“From its inception in 1994, Baylor’s Truett Seminary — an orthodox, evangelical school in the historic Baptist tradition embedded into a major research university — has been blessed to train ministerial students primarily, though not exclusively, from baptistic congregations,” said Still, The Charles J. and Eleanor McLerran Delancey Dean and The William M. Hinson Professor of Christian Scriptures. “In recent years, however, Wesleyan students and churches have begun to turn increasingly to Truett as a desirable destination location for theological education. We have, in turn, warmly welcomed these Christian friends into our seminary community, which exists to train God-called people for gospel ministry in and alongside Christ’s Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. The establishment of The Wesley House of Studies at Baylor’s Truett Seminary strengthens further this ongoing practice and places Truett on a trajectory to become an increasingly multidenominational school while holding steadfast and true to its doctrinal and ecclesial commitments.”
A gifted teacher, sought-after lecturer, prolific author and ordained elder in the Methodist Church, Abraham holds degrees from The Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland (BA); Asbury Theological Seminary (M.Div.); and Oxford University, Regent’s Park College (D.Phil.), and has taught at Seattle Pacific University, Harvard Divinity School and Southern Methodist University.
“We are on the cusp of a new day for the future of the Wesleyan network of families across the world,” Abraham said regarding the creation of The Wesley House of Studies at Truett Seminary and his appointment to serve as its founding director. “In order to fulfill the promise in store for us, we urgently need fresh ways of providing the spiritual, practical and intellectual resources that are essential for the work up ahead.
“Baylor University is a world-class institution, and the creation of a Wesley House of Studies at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary is a landmark development,” he said. “I can think of no better place to be home to a vibrant Wesley House. I am thrilled to play my part in making it a stellar center of excellence that the Holy Spirit can use for reform, renewal and awakening on a global scale.”
I know I have Methodist friends out there who are discerning a call to theological education. There’s a place for you at Truett. As a bonus, I’ll get to see you, too.
Last week I began work as the Assistant Director of Spiritual Formation at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary. I’m thrilled beyond measure, unfathomably grateful, excited, and deeply gladdened to enter service in the Office of Spiritual Formation, working under the direction and guidance of Dr. Angela Reed, Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Spiritual Formation. I’m also very thankful for the leadership of Dean Todd Still, whom I have become further acquainted with during the interview process and during my first few days in office.
I’ll follow in the footsteps of Bill Walker, who has been in the role for the past two years. Bill has been a tremendous friend and colleague. He has done excellent work in the classroom and behind the scenes in the Spiritual Formation office. I pray God’s blessing on him as he returns to his roots in Austin, Texas, where he will serve as Director of Vocation at Christ Church of Austin.
It’s an incredible opportunity for me that involves the sweet coalescence of personal history, hopes, passions, and aspirations. Stated differently, this is very, very cool.
So what’s the job?
All kinds of people are part of the Truett community. Some have discerned a vocation to the pastorate, others seek a deeper faith through theological education, and still others have yet to discover why God has brought them to seminary. Many are from the Baptist tradition, though not all. There are multiple degree programs and certificate programs. The seminary exists “to equip God-called people for gospel ministry in and alongside Christ’s Church by the power of the Holy Spirit.” That’s a big mission that serves a broad diversity of people.
The Spiritual Formation office supports this mission. We do so by praying for the students, faculty, and staff who are part of the seminary community. We also coordinate and offer instruction in one distinct and vital aspect of the seminary’s curriculum: Covenant Group.
Covenant Groups are like small groups, and every seminarian takes part in these groups as part of their course of study. A major part of my new job responsibility is to coordinate these groups, recruit mentors, and shepherd students in meeting this requirement. The model is evolving, changes and refinements are being made. But the basic concept remains steady. When students begin study at Truett Seminary, they are placed in a small group of ideally six to eight colleagues, assigned one group mentor, and then participate together for four semesters in a course of study.
Covenant Groups receive instruction in biblical, historical, practical, and theological approaches to the Christian spiritual life. Each student is required to read assigned texts, to participate in their groups, and to practice spiritual disciplines individually and together. The groups allow space for testimony and ministry to one another, as well as for discernment and mutual counsel as each student listens for God’s will for their life. At the conclusion of four semesters together, our goal is for students to have a firm grasp on their story, to identify ways God has formed their identity in Jesus Christ, and to gain clarity in how God is calling them forward into a deeper, fuller faith as disciples, heralds, servants, and ministers of the gospel.
We also hope these groups nurture friendships, create community, and allow for collegiality to develop among our students. We hope our mentors are seen not only as guides or teachers, but as encouragers and helpful counselors. Community is indispensable for our students as they carefully study and practice the Christian life. Covenant Groups provide a space for a body within the Body of Christ, a place where the ideals we speak of concerning the church can be lived out among a small fellowship of disciples.
I’ll help recruit, train, coordinate, and support the mentors who lead these groups. I’ll also have the opportunity, in concert with Dr. Reed, to teach courses and offer lectures that are part of the Covenant Group curriculum.
While Covenant Groups are my most significant responsibility, I’ll also work with Truett’s Spiritual Direction Training program. As a certified spiritual director, I’m excited to continue that ministry within the context of this program.
I mentioned that the opportunity to join the Truett family was a “sweet coalescence” of my history, hopes, passions, and aspirations. Twenty years ago, while I was an undergraduate at Baylor University, I dreamed of one day serving in higher education. I wanted to be a Christian scholar, serving the academy and the church. I had models to follow in Dr. John Wood, Professor Robert Reid, and Dr. Larry Lehr, people who embodied ideas that I wanted to adopt for myself. There are other examples I could name. My highest hope and my biggest dream was to one day serve in this capacity at Baylor University–as a learned teacher, mentor, and friend.
Furthermore, one of the important figures in the history of Truett Seminary was a man named Paul W. Powell, who served as Dean from 2001 to 2007. Before he served as Dean, Paul was an evangelist, pastor, and Texas Baptist statesman. When I was a boy he was my pastor at the Green Acres Baptist Church of Tyler, Texas. His life and ministry had an effect on multiple generations of my family. Paul baptized me. Later, he preached the charge at my ordination at the First Baptist Church of Allen, Texas, which is pastored now as it was then by Pastor Chad Selph.
The chapel at Truett Seminary is named in Paul’s honor. I’m thankful to be serving in a place that has been marked by his legacy. By witnessing Paul’s life, reading his little books, and hearing stories about him, I’ve been deeply inspired to work diligently for the Lord while it is still day, while we still can, to do all to the glory of God, for “night cometh,” therefore “Go into all the world.”
Lastly, serving in the area of Spiritual Formation aligns with my research interests. I’ve been reading stuff in this area for years. I’m a nerd when it comes to Christian discipleship and formation. Plus, I’m a Christian educator. I want to teach what I’ve learned. I believe in the importance of an intellectually informed faith, rigorous and challenging theological instruction, the formation of character, love for God, and service to the world.
I look forward to serving the seminary community as we create an environment where students can be formed in the way and likeness of Christ. A couple of my friends know that means I will be quoting a lot of Dallas Willard, and they are right. Guilty as charged.
But that won’t be all. Hopefully, the person I quote most will be Jesus. He’s the Master. And I hope to serve him well in this new capacity of service with Truett Seminary. If you are ever in Waco, make an appointment to see me. I’d love to show you my desk, give you a tour, hear what you’re up to, and talk about all the good and great things taking place in this vibrant, thoughtful, and committed community of faith.
I was born about twenty years too early. Colleges are offering scholarships for esports. Video games! You can get an education for being good at games like League of Legends and Overwatch. Rebecca Heilweil of Wired writes:
Most parents dismiss videogames as a mind-dulling distraction from their kids’ studies. Little do they know all that buttonmashing could translate into a fat college fund. Over the past five years, esports have grown into an estimated $906 million industry, with recruiters, coaches, and dedicated arenas. Nearly 200 US colleges are offering around $15 million per year in scholarships for the esports elite, and university teams can earn millions more in tournament prizes. Unsurprisingly, Silicon Valley is getting in on the market: PlayVS, a startup that organizes high school esports leagues, has raised $46 million from investors like Diddy and Adidas. Game recognize game.