Distinguishing in the Midst of Change

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In times of change in any area of our lives, some of us see opportunity all around. The old restrictions seem to melt away, and opportunities for new activities and new relationships seem abundant. In those same times, others of us feel anxiety and uncertainty. The familiar and comforting patterns melt away, and forces we cannot control seem to threaten. For almost all, I suspect, at one time or another, the familiar ways and traditions have given shape and meaning to what we do. For many, I suspect, at one time or another, the established ways and traditional practices have constricted and restricted our desire to find new expressions that help us see what has been hidden or is new in our experience and understanding. The old anchors us for response to current situations; the new helps us respond to changing situations.

I don’t think I am expressing anything earth-shattering in these observations. It is a standard and important topic in the some of the subjects that I teach. My students in the History of Political Theory and Ideas have probably heard it dozens of times. But we experience the tensions of the two sides of the response, not just between individuals and groups within an organization (like a business, church or university) but sometimes within ourselves. We recognize the tension between these responses to uncertainty because we ourselves have experienced them.

I offer these brief observations because we are in such a time of change at FPU and in higher education across the country, and have been for some time. Perhaps the change has been long enough and constant enough that we are fatigued by it, and would rather turn from it for our own comfort. I suspect, once again, that this is the response of many of us, whether we spend our days at one of the campuses of FPU or watch from a distance as an alum or supporter of the university’s mission. If you are like me, then you know exactly what I am speaking about.

What can we do in such times, times of change that demand response and energy? First, we can recognize what is going on in our profession, in the university we love and in ourselves as we live and work within the world of education. The above is one such first step. Second, we can reflect on what is and must remain consistent and lasting. We usually think of our mission as something that guides us consistently and is a rock we stand on.

Third, we can step back and think about and study what is changing and why, the extent we can control it, the urgency needed in our response and the ways we may creatively respond. It is not an easy calculation. Sometimes we must respond quickly, but often we have more time to think creatively and plan. The sooner we recognize the change occurring, the more time we have for insight and creativity. Our new strategic plan addresses our current environment and how we will respond.

One of the greatest of Christian theologians, Thomas Aquinas, when he is about to offer what he considers a deeper understanding, will write “let us distinguish…” Let us do the same. Fourth, we can begin to distinguish between what we want to pursue and accomplish, and how we will go about it. The former might be our learning outcomes, and the latter how, and in what form, we teach. This seems simple enough, but the simple distinction has profound implications and is at the heart of our work.

In our new environment, for instance, we want to retain biblical understanding at the core of what we teach. How we teach that biblical understanding varies. We might offer a course on a book of the Bible or particular theological topic. We do this in our traditional undergraduate program and in the seminary. In our degree completion programs, however, we bring biblical ethics into professional subject matter, using topical courses to weave these teachings into programs focusing on leadership, or health care professions or criminal justice, as examples. We want each student to learn whatever it is that we are teaching, but we teach differently with adult students (average age 30+) than we do with traditional-aged students (ages 18-23).

We do each of these because they fit the needs of the students who enter those programs, and because if we do not address the needs of these students we will not have the opportunity to teach them. We have thus, as a university, both retained a traditional way of teaching, and responded creatively to a new situation, educating a population who in the past could not afford a Christian education. We have something that many other institutions do not have, and that students find (even if they do not anticipate it) is of lasting and deep value.

In times of change, when we want cling to the “tried and true” and also see the opportunity or necessity of responding, we can take a few moments to reflect on the work ahead of us. Sometimes distinguishing helps us through the uncertainty.