The Impact of One Life on Another: My Address to Bethel’s Faculty

Today is the first day of fall classes here at Bethel University, so I thought I’d share the brief address I delivered last Tuesday at our faculty retreat, as our faculty president for the coming year. I didn’t reflect on the theme verse (“For we are the aroma of Christ to God,” 2 Cor 2:15), but instead took a bit of inspiration from one following it…

Thanks to our Retreat Committee for their hard work leading up to today, and for giving me an opportunity to speak. I think it’s important that you hear from your elected faculty leaders, as well as our president, provost, and dean.

When I first requested this time back in the spring, I expected to get up here and talk about Bethel’s fiscal challenges, or the Faculty Senate agenda for the coming year. We’ll get to such details soon enough this fall. But now that today is here, I want to use my time for a different purpose, knowing that it’s probably my only chance to address nearly the entire faculty as president.

I want to explain what I think it means to be a member of this faculty.

Because especially in a time of economic stress, we’re being given another way of understanding who we are and what we do: In a million ways, we are told that we are employees of a company selling a service to customers. We faculty are assured that we are valuable, in the way that late capitalism assigns value to any assets — according to the demand of consumers, who in this case understand education to be a transaction: a purchase, or at most an investment.

We can’t avoid that talk entirely, but my friends, that is not who we are.

As the apostle Paul says in the verse that follows our theme verse for this retreat, “we are not peddlers of God’s word like so many; but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence” (2 Cor 2:17). We are not peddlers of God’s word — or even of any subject matter that came into being through the Word of God — but persons of sincerity sent from God as what Paul later calls “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor 5:20), not regarding our students from a “human point of view” — as customers or consumers — but as new creations being reconciled to their Creator.

So what does that mean? Let me try to illustrate it through the two best movies I’ve seen this year.

Poster for the film Won't You Be My Neighbor

First, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the acclaimed documentary about Fred Rogers, the gently powerful Presbyterian pastor ordained as an “evangelist to television” in the 1960s. At the end of the film, director Morgan Neville borrowed a trick from his subject and asked each of his interviewees to do what Mr. Rogers had invited Dartmouth students to do at the end of his 2002 commencement address:

I’d like to give you all an invisible gift. A gift of a silent minute to think about those who have helped you become who you are today. Some of them may be here right now. Some may be far away. Some, like my astronomy professor, may even be in Heaven. But wherever they are, if they’ve loved you, and encouraged you, and wanted what was best in life for you, they’re right inside yourself. [starting at 10:51 in the clip below]

We’re short on time, but let me give you a silent gift of 30 seconds to do likewise: think about someone — near or far, living or dead — who helped you become who you are today through their love and encouragement. I’ll let you know when the half-minute is up…

Who’d you think about: Parents or other family members? Professional mentors or co-workers? How many of you thought of a teacher or professor?

Now, imagine Fred Rogers is still alive and has accepted an invitation to address our graduates in this very hall, this December or next May. Imagine that he comes to the end of that commencement address and gives Bethel students the same gift he gave those from Dartmouth…

Do you realize that each and every one of you will come to the mind of at least one person?

Or that the new students who will start coming here next week for chapel are about to encounter you and be profoundly shaped by the experience?

So no, you are not peddling something to customers. You are loving and encouraging young people into becoming the best versions of themselves. And that’s been going on here for many years…

As a historian, I think often of change over time — and what happens at Bethel has changed over time. But as importantly, historians recognize unchange over time: continuity. And I think the way we approach teaching is a profound continuity, starting with in 1871 with that tiny seminary in Chicago, where John Alexis Edgren encouraged a friendly, helpful relationship between student and professor.

Then skip ahead to 1959… Five years into his 28-year tenure as Edgren’s longest-serving successor, Carl Lundquist came to the heart of his vision for Bethel:

We believe that in the end the impact of one life upon another is probably greater than the impact of an idea or a method of teaching or a favorable physical setting…. At Bethel we want our young people to enter into personal contact with their teachers, and we hope to keep such academic paraphernalia as the curriculum, course credits, class hours, and examinations from getting in the way of this relationship.

And now, we arrive back in 2018, with a second documentary film.

It’s called Why We Teach, and you’ve already learned about it from our colleague Sam Mulberry in his sabbatical video. [Sam spent his sabbatical interviewing fifteen winners of our faculty excellence award for teaching, then turned those 14 hours of footage into a 90 minute film. Learn more here.] If I had my way, we’d stay here through supper time, order pizza, and share the collective experience of watching Sam’s film as a whole faculty.

But that’s not going to happen, so instead I’ll share one three-minute clip that illustrates well Lundquist’s notion of “the impact of one life upon another”… [if you’re playing along at home, skip ahead to 1:04:22 and continue through 1:07:13]

Now, this clip features Dick Peterson and Kathy Nevins, two colleagues at or near the end of their full-time teaching careers. But it’s preceded by similar comments from Patrice Conrath (who just celebrated her 30th work anniversary at Bethel), Susan Brooks (20th), and Sara Wyse (not yet to her 10th). What strikes me most about Sam’s film is that it comes as close as anything to capturing what’s timeless about our distinctive approach to education.

He has identified, in Kathy’s words, “the things that make Bethel, Bethel.”

So I wasn’t surprised to hear this response from alumni who had graduated in the 1960s and 1970s:
they attended a different Bethel on a different campus at a different time in history, likely had class with none of the professors Sam interviewed, and yet still recognized their experience in a film made four or five decades after their graduation.

At our board meeting this past May, I mentioned that response to a group of our trustees, then read them a comment I received from a more recent graduate, Sara Misgen ‘13, who is completing her doctorate in theology. With her permission, I’ll read it in its entirety:

I rarely find myself nostalgic for Bethel, but this film got at the heart of what I loved about that place, and what I still love about it. I loved that my professors took an interest in me as a person, that they make space in their busy days to listen to the stories of their students, as so many of the teachers of this film point out. I love that my life was changed through their courses, that I’m still in contact with so many of you five years after my graduation. Bethel taught me about how teachers can be co-learners, and that seminars teach more than just information.

When I get development mailings from Bethel, they often assume that I miss broomball, meals in the DC, or chapel. And frankly, five years out, I don’t really miss those things. But I miss my professors. I miss being in a place where I can critically engage faith questions alongside things like science and literature. I miss the liberal arts nature of the university, where I found mentors among profs in my own BTS [Biblical and Theological Studies] department, but also the history, psychology, and philosophy departments. And I miss the sort of attitude towards teaching, students, and learning that comes forward in this documentary. It’s special, and it’s one of the reasons I’m glad I went to Bethel and want it to continue to exist. (Even as I theologically differ from Bethel in some fundamental ways).

I’m at Yale now, and there are gifts and riches and benefits to this place that are hugely important. But I cannot imagine any faculty person here saying that they wish they had published less in hopes of spending more time with students. I can’t imagine anyone offering me a key to their office so I could have dedicated study space (something 3 different Bethel profs did for me while I was there!)… Bethel’s distinctiveness isn’t in the campus, in the buildings, or even in some of its more obscure traditions. It’s in the relationships of faculty and students, and I’m so glad to see that was captured here.

I want this distinctiveness to continue as well… but that’s not inevitable.

In fact, it’s at risk.

When I first watched Sam’s film at its premiere in May, I found myself on the verge of tears half the time. I went home and — of course — blogged:

…coming at the end of a year of financial and existential crisis at Bethel and many other universities like it, this film communicated so clearly the fragile importance of what we do. It left me feeling like I was on the knife’s edge between two futures:

One in which this film serves as a curiosity, an artifact of a Bethel — at least as we know and love it — that no longer exists.

The other in which this film serves as a cornerstone, the first brick laid in the foundation of a new Bethel that… learned how it needed to change and how it needed to stay the same.

Cover of 2018 Bethel Faculty Retreat programImagine those two futures, some 25-50 years distant:

• One in which Bethel no longer exists, at least like this. Someone stumbles across Sam’s
movie and wonders, “What was this ‘Bethel’? What happened to it?”

• One in which we have truly become that Christ-centered university of choice for this century, and students from the class of 2043 or 2063 say the same things about teaching and learning that their
predecessors from 2013 or 1973 did.

If the second is to be our future and not the first, many things will have to happen, including some degree of peddling, but they all come down to the impact of our lives on those of our students.

Our board and administration will have to make wise decisions that allow us to remain on sound financial footing without damaging the quality of teaching in the process. Our recruitment, marketing, and advancement folks will need to do a better job of communicating to prospective students and donors our distinctive ethos of teaching in a Christian liberal arts college.

But most of all, the responsibility is ours as faculty: in spite of everything, we must continue to be the teachers described by Sara, the teachers exemplified by Sam’s film:

The teachers that our students will one day think back on as having made them who they are.

Thank you for listening.