Re-establishing the Lutheran Soul in Higher Education: A 21st Century Model

May 2nd, 2019 | Category: Administrative Talk, Leadership Talk, Research in Education
By Ardelle Pate and Joy Mullaney

The decades leading into the 21st century and the beginning portion of the 2000s have been identified by the phrase ‘postmodern era,’ a time period that has caused disruption for Christian colleges and universities. Marked by a society that sought to find spiritual value in creativity, uniqueness, authenticity, imagination, feeling, and intuition, the postmodern era has been characterized as embracing broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism as well as a general suspicion of reason (Britannica, 2018). The thinkers and movers of this postmodern culture held renewed attention to the marginalized and skepticism toward traditional beliefs of knowledge, truth, and reason, claiming that truth was a ploy by privileged groups to control others (Crouch, 2000). At the Christian college or university, Jesus Christ is the truth and the way: “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, New International Version) and to some postmodernists, this was countercultural.

Like at other universities, challenges at a Christian college are abundant and sometimes appear to outweigh strengths. With the cost of higher education rising, Christian universities have been forced to make decisions about sustainability and viability. Some individuals have indicated the traditional Christian school is no longer sustainable, but research suggests something more. Even though the postmodernist thinkers saw Christian higher education losing ground, others noted its slow, but steady, momentum toward a sustainable future. Benne (2017) observed a strong effort of Christian colleges and universities to attract students outside their denomination and suggested that Christian schools look to offering a distinctive niche in the educational marketed by a strong Christian identity. One question takes center stage: Does a Christian college lose its soul by finding its niche in society? This article seeks to examine the literature surrounding sustainability and viability of Christian colleges. It focuses specifically on Lutheran colleges and universities who are analyzing the current challenges of their institutions. It is the intent of the researchers to bring to light struggles of other national Christian higher education institutions and offer suggestions to those in Lutheran higher education concerning a plan that will sustain the college or university in the years to come.

In 2016, the Oxford dictionary chose “post-truth” as the word of the year. Gibbons (2018) wrote, “Modernism had been ultimately founded on a utopianism that upheld certain universal truths, but postmodernism rejected and deconstructed the notion of truth altogether. The prefix “post” reflects a lingering postmodernist distrust, while “truth” remains an important touchstone” (para. 6). It is here that Christians can see a glimmer of hope for the future and stand poised to demonstrate what that truth means for Lutheran higher education for the coming decades.

The phrase “soul of the university” has been the focus of research and a topic of discussion, and it has especially come to light as a result of Clark Kerr’s (2001) use of the term multiversity. In 1963, Kerr forecasted the advancing change of the university to that of a knowledge factory. While he insisted that a university would have one soul, he believed the new multiversity would have many souls, even though, he contended, some were debatably less deserving of salvation (Kerr, 2001). Innovation did come to Christian universities who faced cultural changes and for a moment, the Christian universities benefited. Many recognized that the Christian heritage of their institutions was giving way to the postmodern concept of truth, believing that research redefined what truth was. This contrasted with the Christian university stance of a university with a single soul that gave it coherent unity that “pertained to the overall vision of knowledge and its relationship to God” (Glanzer, 2017, p. 28). To stay afloat amid the chaotic, cultural voices and challenges of the world, the Christian university felt outside pressure. Kerr saw the multiversity as intent on generating research that was positioned at the heart of complex national systems of innovation (Dill & van Vught, 2010). Stated one university president (who lamented some of the changes on campus wrought by the social and economic pressures over the increased danger of conflicting interests between the pursuit of knowledge and its commercialization at his university turned multiversity), “many feel we must seek to hold fast the values and ethos of a ‘true university’ rather than those of a multiversity…but the trick will be how to pursue both of these competing goods simultaneously” (Wagner, 2007, para. 9).

Kerr’s vision of the multiversity became reality, with even college presidents recognizing the shift to the multiversity. Wagner (2007) saw his university turn into a multiversity “with a diminished concentration on educating undergraduates as the core mission of universities, with a concomitant rise in specialization and fragmentation of learning” (para. 6). Supporters of Christian colleges and universities began arguing for the restoration of the soul of the university, researching multiple facets of Christian higher education, delving into such aspects as the quest for purpose and meaningful life; the pursuit of Christian and moral identity; and the contemporary meaning of faith and scholarship (Davignon, Glanzer, & Rine, 2013). Glanzer, Alleman, and Ream (2017) stated the university’s soul not only relates to its central identity in regard to its ultimate moral ideals and the most fundamental identity– the story of Jesus Christ, but also connects to the pursuit of academic coherence and excellence without idolatry (p. 321). They explored what it meant for the soul of the university to be saved in terms of sustainability and examined what the ramifications and challenges of the loss of soul entailed.

While the ramifications of the loss of the university’s soul are many, the most basic threat occurs as Christian educators lose their way when chaotic, cultural changes occur, putting pressure on many to change with the times. The postmodern era has not always offered Christians an equal voice without criticism. Because the postmodern era has aimed to discredit the universal story that binds humankind, it deconstructs all attempts to build religious belief and states that truth is constructed internally (Fennema, 2010). For some Christians, sustaining the academic institution of higher learning has never been more difficult. Some Christians believe that we have lost our way of truly showing reverence to God with our minds, desires, and actions in the past decades. Many Christian universities question the necessity of a single denominational belief while others are slowly being fragmented into their own silos with their own unique identities, narratives, and purposes (Glanzer, 2017). Likewise, the ramifications of the loss of the soul in Lutheran colleges and universities have been echoed in Christian higher education (Benne, 2001; Benne, 2017; Brink, 2018; Henry & Beaty, 2006; Lewis, 2006; Marsden, 1996). The good news is that many Lutheran institutions of higher education are looking toward a sustainable future.

Sustainability in Christian education refers to the uncompromising struggle to provide for the current and future needs of the university student: the undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate. While growth relies on economic development, in the Christian setting it also relies on the current generation’s vigilance in balancing a healthy learning environment with one that intertwines an awareness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, thus living our identity. According to Reynolds and Wallace (2016), the “institution’s identity generally refers to the mission statement, values, norms, and ethos of the institution” (p. 108) in response to changing social attitudes in a post-Christian world. Likewise, Simmons (2016) found liberal arts education to be the best education to prepare students for sustainability leadership in the coming decades of this century. He went on to say that educators must foster a realistic but open and hopeful attitude toward the future and the systemic changes they are all facing. To some organizations, sustainability means merely staying in business while to others, it is a richer concept going beyond existence, ascribing such adjectives to the vibrancy of the organization as “alive, fresh, vital, evolving, diverse, and dynamic” (Stone, 2010, p. 34).

To understand sustainability theory as it relates to whole-system capacity building on an ongoing basis, one can first look at Fullan (2005), who expanded upon the nature of sustainability and strategies to promote it and addressed the problem of transforming systems in education through the ultimate adaptive change to current operational systems. The author explained, “Sustainability is an adaptive challenge par excellence” (p. 14). Christian colleges and universities can envision Fullan’s elements of sustainability in relation to education. These would include five elements:

  • Focusing on renewing and sustaining a Christian mission, vision, and moral purpose and strengthening the Lutheran voice of the university
  • Analyzing strengths and challenges of the current institution
  • Integrating the voice of Lutheran identity through leadership from all constituents of the higher learning community to enact necessary change
  • Training faculty for cyclical, constant evaluation of deep learning and innovation in response to the diversified needs of the world today
  • Hosting conversations and supporting lateral and vertical capacity building, with relationship building through local, national, and global communities. (Fullan, 2005)

In sustainable Christian schools, themes or key elements will be present. There will be a commitment from all stakeholders to their moral purpose or mission; the commitment to foundational truths grounded in Christianity (the Gospel) will be obvious. Players in leadership roles at all levels will act, talk, and model the moral purpose in words and deeds. A commitment to change through strategic planning and development, all in a proactive manner, will be evident as leaders – through open communication – will address threats, barriers, and vision through systems thinking and a governance structure that works. Viable Christian schools will support and commit to quality in terms of curriculum, instruction, assessment, human resources, and a breadth of programming. Christ-centered universities will respond to the needs of the academic community, and with intentional outreach, remain sustainable.

The first element of sustainability, the focus on mission and moral purpose of the university, will be seen through the lenses of all stakeholders. From leadership to instructors, from staff to students and all other constituents, the mission or moral purpose will be present. What is the moral purpose of the Lutheran higher education institution? All should know. Leaders might consider taking the pulse of the academic community through survey-data collection to evaluate the knowledge and application of mission.

The second element lies with analyzing strengths and challenges of the current institution. Rogalski (2003) stated, “A broadly-participatory grass-roots planning process assists schools in many directions” (p. 279). Christian universities may consider starting with a schedule of analysis of each program, the future of facilities, budgeting processes, and planning for future tuition increases. A healthy school will implement a strategic-planning process with clear, measurable objectives that grow out of the compelling mission, with built-in accountability.

The third element centers on the integration of the voice of the Lutheran identity leadership from all constituents of the higher learning community. Schmidt (2017) reminds us that the work of Christians and non-Christians in their vocations is of great value to others. God has chosen human activities to serve the needs of the world; God is hidden divinely in the work of mankind. At the university, leaders remember that their work or vocation is the work of moving students forward into their calling or their vocations, to prepare them to serve worldwide needs. Service and stewardship are imperative at the Lutheran university.

The fourth element involves training faculty for cyclical, constant evaluation of deep learning and innovation in response to the diversified needs of the world today. As our world continues to change, Lutheran universities must continue to adapt. Internationally, the world is interdependent. Businesses target local, national, and global markets. Global immigration grows the population of America (Rietschel, 2000). Christian missions integrate internationally. It is necessary for universities to transcend national boundaries through cross-cultural relationships in order to immerse themselves into the global society. Cyclical energy applied to continual program evaluation and adjustment may offer a unique entrance for people who lack connection to Christianity.

The fifth element involves hosting conversations and support for lateral and vertical capacity building, and building relationships through local, national, and global community networks. It is important to continue to grow as a university and to build capacity through faculty and administration. As professors learn from each other through professional development, conferences, and continuing education laterally, it is equally important to build capacity vertically through higher-level accountability systems such as accreditation.

Research underlines a growing awareness of the necessary changes that will sustain the Christian university and the work that has begun. First, it is important to note that Christian universities have now emerged from the turbulent postmodern era that separated and criticized Christians. They recognize that the freedom of religion and Christian voice is more evident than in past decades. Rising from a once-fragmented model, they are asserting the true faith of one body. Christians now have a strong voice in many circles. Because Christians affirm God with an equal voice with other “conversations” in the global community, they can concentrate on weaving faith and spirituality into one inclusive voice within academic discourse (Fennema, 2010). Second, there is a growing interest in attending a Christian-focused university (Davignon, Glanzer, & Rine, 2013) as well as the growing interest of fostering spiritual growth among the college-student population (Astin et al., 2011). Henry and Beaty (2006) place major emphasis on the central importance of the faith in Jesus Christ and the learning of the intellectual community in the Christian university. This reflects the soul of the university. Finally, Christian parents, families, and extended families of the community support the Christian-campus decision for higher learning, and the children of these groups are in concurrence.

This all comes back to the sustainability of the Lutheran university. To sustain the Lutheran university and affirm the future, steps taken must be reinforced. To begin with, as the world exits the postmodern era and enters into a new, still-yet undefined era, Christians must lead with courage, continuing to follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which needs to be evident in all courses, traditional, blended, and fully online. One theoretical approach that began with postmodernism and continues today is constructivism. As constructivism is student-centered learning (or learner-centered), constructivism aligns with Christ-centered education because it is anchored in learning that is both interactive and relational. Equally important as leading with the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a strong Lutheran leadership voice that must be evident in every aspect of teaching and learning. Even as some have suggested that schools de-emphasize the Lutheran aspect and rather emphasize a school as Christian, many do not see the flaw of this reasoning. With this type of marketing comes with the danger of marketing a non-denominational, generic brand of Christianity that may be misleading, especially in higher education (Moulds, 2003). Lutheran education that deliberately communicates the Biblical and historical context will bring insights into the Gospel that provide understandings rooted in sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura. While this does not mean preaching and indoctrinating, it does mean that ethical and moral applications should be guided by an instructor whose stance is clearly Lutheran. Most importantly, all Lutherans must recognize their calling and vocation in this new era as stated in Matt. 28:19, NIV (Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit). Humbly following Christ is modeling faith and godliness with our lives (Phil. 3:17, NIV) by building relationships with others.

As Lutheran instructors, we do not want to live in the past. Encouraging diversity within the Lutheran higher learning campus, the experience of a Christian campus reliably predicts spiritual growth among students of color by encouraging their sense of belonging, thus resulting in an overall satisfaction with the university (Paredes-Collins, 2014 in Otto & Harrington, 2016). This attention to students of color is an important component of the ongoing attention to sustainability.

Finally, disruptive innovation cannot unhinge a Christ-led educational system unless it alters the Christian educators’ way of teaching. To allow technology, for instance, to change the very premise of how we view relationships would go against the very core of Lutheran education. Christensen and Eyring ((Otto & Harrington, 2016)) suggest a cautionary measure to universities who wish to survive the disruptive challenges of today. They state that higher learning must recognize and honor its strengths while innovating with optimism. This includes virtual models of learning for both undergraduate and graduate levels. Online Lutheran educators need to create both a telepresence and online presence within the virtual world. By infusing a Lutheran identity into the online class, reiterating the mission, vision, and core values of the college or university, Lutherans can shape a Lutheran identity that can build relationships that help students engage and understand the world beyond our campuses and classrooms, as well as demonstrate how our vocation as academics can shape the inquiry and ethics that drive our scholarly activities. “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4-9, New International Version). Christ-centered academic integrity is a moral code that extends far beyond the classroom and the student; it begins with the instructor’s intent to be true to the mission and vision initially presented.

We are hopeful because we are living in an advantageous time. We cannot force all the participants of the university system to have soul. That was never the intent. Simmons, who has written extensively about faith and learning in higher education, said that Christians must cultivate a coordinated ethical vision that weaves common threads from diverse cultures into the current global community of which the university is a member. As he indicated, Lutherans are not Calvinist under God’s sovereignty or reformists who are in radical discipleship. Instead, we are with the world, free to take seriously the kingdoms of God (Simmons, 2010). The Christian task of higher education is not to impose on the world, but to study the world and then bring the world into dialogue with the Christian vision of redemption and grace (Simmons, 2010). LEJ


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Dr. Ardelle Pate teaches graduate level courses at Concordia University Chicago. Her primary areas of research include examining how affective, cohesive and interactive behaviors impact one’s social presence within an online environment. Prior to coming to Concordia, Dr. Pate served at Dominican University as an adjunct professor and as an English teacher for Lake Zurich School District 95.

Dr. Joy Mullaney serves as the Director of the Office of Field Experience for the College of Education at Concordia University. She oversees student field experience and partnerships with public and parochial schools.