Modeling change for churches

Like churches, universities are shifting to engage contemporary culture. Their approaches can be models for congregations.

By Bill Wilson

Churches are not the only institutions wrestling with the transition from a tradition-bound orientation toward a more relevant contemporary life.

In recent years, I have had the opportunity to watch two universities model how to adapt and redefine in the face of a dramatically changing environment. I recently completed a five-year term as a trustee at Mercer University, and have had regular and ongoing conversations with the leadership at one of my alma maters, Belmont University.

In both situations, a very traditional institution, with aging facilities and a constituency devoted to the past, has found a way to honor its history while morphing and reshaping itself to embrace a very different future. I believe local congregations can learn from them, and many other universities like them, as we seek our way into the future.

From my seat, I see several specific similarities between the life of a university and the life of a local church.

In each case, a strong, visionary leader has stepped into their role and clearly articulated a path forward into the future. Each has used the collective wisdom of a talented staff and loyal constituents to formulate a clear and coherent vision of the future. Dr. Robert Fisher at Belmont and President Bill Underwood at Mercer are visionaries who are relentless advocates for that dream. Both are willing to make the hard choices and unpopular decisions that visionary leadership entails. Both spread the credit around when they find success. Both followed strong predecessors and honored their legacy without being intimidated by them.

Identity and marketing
These universities have both sought to affirm their Christian identity while disengaging from a Baptist hierarchy they felt stifled their potential. Each was forced to answer their identity question at a basic level, and then reframe their identity to a larger community. Using effective marketing methods, they have emerged with a distinctive faith-based orientation that appeals to a wide spectrum of students. They both lead with their strengths as they recruit students in a highly competitive environment. Each has embraced an expanded athletics program as a tool for creating awareness and recognition of their institution. Each has identified specific academic programs that they want to excel in, knowing that they are unable to be all things to all people

Both schools manage to maintain old facilities while refurbishing and rebuilding to meet modern specifications. It is an ongoing and never-ending struggle to do both. Both schools have adopted the attitude that capital improvements will always be part of their annual plan.

Methodology and technology
The transformation by both universities to embrace new teaching methods is breathtaking. Formerly rigid and one-dimensional, they now offer learning platforms in a multitude of formats and technologies. Both have adapted to the new world of digital technology as the new normal for their future, without sacrificing their commitment to the age-old principles of teaching. Additionally, both have adopted a multi-site plan that challenges the traditional one-campus approach that defined each from its beginning. Throw in the fact that the student bodies of each school have shifted from a group of 19- to 23-year-olds coming straight from high school to include a growing percentage of mid-life learners, and you have a challenging learning environment that requires nimble response times and adaptive leadership practices.

Traditions and innovations
The leadership teams of both these schools have worked diligently to manage the tensions between the polarities of honoring traditions and embracing innovations. Alumni are notorious for wanting to be sure their favorite spots, traditions, dorms, etc., are intact. Meanwhile, new students universally want their university to be up-to-date with technology, facilities and extensive student services. Meeting the expectations of both constituencies requires delicate and insightful leadership.

Finances and stewardship
The financial demands and expectations upon universities have changed exponentially in recent years. Making budget, maintaining a price structure that remains within reach of most students, raising absurdly large amounts of money for scholarships and facilities, and ensuring the long-term viability of the institution through planned giving is a primary concern for both universities. Leadership thinks and breathes and lives stewardship 24 hours a day. They unashamedly invite their supporters to use their financial assets to make a difference in the lives of students and communities far into the future.

To be sure, both Mercer and Belmont have had their share of struggles and failures as well as successes. Overall, however, each are seen as innovative and market leaders in their respective worlds. Any congregational leader paying attention to the stresses and strains upon their local church should pay attention to our friends in higher education. They are blazing a path into the future that our congregations would be wise to learn from.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.