Faithful Leadership for the Common Good
by D. Michael Lindsay
September 16, 2011, Gordon College, Wenham, MA
Several years ago I was visiting Boston to conduct some research, and while here I became so turned around that I vowed never again to drive here. When I was selected as Gordon’s president, I realized God really does have a sense of humor. He must take particular delight in watching me navigate downtown Boston. How many one-way streets can there be?
Truth be told, though, Boston is a great city. Rebecca and I have always loved Legal Sea Foods, we’re quickly becoming Red Sox fans, and nothing beats the charm of fall in New England. We’re preparing ourselves for the snow, even the blizzards and Nor’easters, but why didn’t anyone tell us about the earthquakes or the hurricanes?
Of course, as an educator, I realize there’s something even more special about Boston—namely that this is the global hub of higher education. Greater Boston has more colleges and universities on a per capita basis than any other city in the world. And it has more college students per capita than any other place on the planet. Indeed, this is where the world comes to study.
It’s interesting because I have spent the last eight years interviewing senior leaders in government, business, and nonprofit life. My research seeks to explore how senior leaders use the resources at their disposal to advance human flourishing and to serve the common good. My very first interview was with Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, in 2003, and I conducted the final interview with Harvard’s President, Drew Faust, two months ago. In between, I logged 400,000 miles traveling from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I interviewed presidents, titans of industry, celebrity icons, and chief executives of the nation’s largest firms.
Yet as I began to analyze the data, I realized that over half of all these interviews took place on the short stretch of land along I-95 from Washington, D.C. to Boston. This is what we sociologists refer to as the “power elite” corridor—it’s home to the political, financial and intellectual capitals of the Western world.
Now that’s significant to what we do here at Gordon because, as it turns out, we are the only nationally ranked Christian college on the I-95 power elite corridor. To the extent that Christian colleges can make a difference in the halls of power, Gordon College is uniquely placed to do precisely that.
And did you know that when Gordon’s chapel services are held, it is the largest evangelical gathering in New England? Gordon is the largest evangelical employer in the area, and for nearly 125 years, working with our colleagues and friends at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, we have produced tens of thousands of leaders for the Church in New England and around the world. In sum, we are the flagship evangelical institution in the global capital of higher education.
For many months I have been studying Gordon and listening to people talk about the College—its strengths and its areas for growth. Based on those conversations and my own observations, I have concluded that Gordon has been guided for decades by a set of principles that directs the College’s core activities. They represent our collective vocation, our raison d’être—our reason for being. Going forward, I propose that we refer to these principles as the Gordon Commission. They represent the mandates we have been commissioned by God to meet, both individually and collectively.
The Gordon Commission entails three imperatives for our College:
First, we exist to stretch the minds of talented young people and, in so doing, to expand the intellectual horizons of global Christianity.
Many churches talk about the importance of “engaging the culture,” as if they are on the leading edge of cultural change. But in reality, that’s not how it happens, and churches are not really equipped to do that task well.
Cultural engagement is not a buzzword at Gordon College; it’s what we do day in and day out. It takes place in our classrooms, in the laboratories, in chapel, and in the artist’s studio. It requires scholars who are knowledgeable about the latest scientific breakthroughs and the historical precedents that brought us to the current moment. Cultural engagement demands a depth of understanding and a breadth of knowledge, and that is what places like Gordon can provide.
Take, for instance, Professor Marv Wilson’s pioneering work in Jewish-Christian relations. That’s become trendy in recent years, but Marv was doing that decades before the rest of the Church was thinking about Christianity’s rapprochement with Judaism. In terms of the Church’s work at cultural engagement, Gordon College has consistently been ahead of the curve. Indeed, in the important work of the Christian community’s engagement with the world of ideas, we are the tip of the spear.
I have a friend who is a world-class scholar. He has amassed some of the best empirical research on American evangelicals and has built the world’s leading set of indicators on youth culture. He leads multiple centers at a Research I university, and even though he’s a social scientist, his latest book has received accolades from the world of philosophy. My friend is Christian Smith, the William R. Kenan Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame; he is also a Gordon College alumnus. Chris began his academic career as a Gordon faculty member, and his scholarship and teaching embodies the mind-stretching work we are about at Gordon College.
Gordon’s commitment to intellectual inquiry and academic excellence is a distinguishing characteristic of the College. I want to leverage this strength for us to be even more effective in the years ahead. Let me offer just two examples. First, I want us to multiply the number of student-faculty research collaborations occurring on campus. The mentoring relationship that emerges out of a scholar and a student working together is one of the most powerful forms of apprenticeship in higher education. It transforms an education into a relationship. And at Christian institutions it can be a model of discipleship, one existing between student and teacher. In my research on senior leaders, I found that over half mentioned the influence of a mentor in their life. Indeed, a faculty mentor is a better predictor of long-term professional success among the nation’s top strata of leaders than attending an Ivy League school or graduating with honors. That’s significant, and it points to how well positioned we are at Gordon College, where meaningful mentoring flourishes across the campus.
The second way I hope we can stretch the mind relates to study abroad programs. I especially hope we can more significantly engage the Pacific Rim and Asia. College is a time to explore big questions and pursue worthy dreams, and time abroad can be transformative in the lives of college students, both spiritually and intellectually.
The second imperative of the Gordon Commission is to deepen the faith. In a day and age when Christian colleges are lessening their commitment to biblical and theological literacy among their students, Gordon has just added a class in theology to its Core Curriculum. In an era when schools are diminishing their support for campus chapel programs, I am pleased to say Gordon has devoted considerable resources to connecting the big question of “What makes for a great life?” to the person of Jesus Christ.
Gordon is also unusual in that following Christ here has never been relegated to only intellectual assent or pietistic devotion. A. J. Gordon himself once wrote of the importance of connecting service to Christian devotion by saying, “If we fully serve the Lord, the majority of the good we do happens in such a way that we are unaware of it happening. Service overflows from us.”
Social justice, evangelism and worship have always been closely connected at the institution that bears Gordon’s name, and we are committed to all three at Gordon College today. This is part of the wonderful heritage I inherit from former Gordon presidents Harold Ockenga and two men who have become dear friends and wonderful colleagues, Richard Gross and Judson Carlberg. In fact, will you please join me in thanking them for their leadership legacy at Gordon.
When Gordon mails out its alumni magazine, it is read in 75 countries representing 25 different time zones. Quite literally, over 20,000 Gordon alumni are serving the Lord around the globe. Members of the Gordon community have developed malaria diagnostic tests that are being used in Africa and throughout the developing world. Our graduates are doing good things in places like Burkina Faso and Sri Lanka, compelled by their Christian commitments and our world’s greatest needs.
Jennifer Jukanovich is one of them. She and her husband, Dano, along with some other friends founded Karisimbi Business Partners, the first and only management consultancy of its kind in Rwanda. They work with medium-size companies to alleviate poverty and improve communities on the other side of the world. Jennifer’s passion for serving the world was ignited while she was a Gordon undergraduate. When I asked her about this calling, she said, “The love of Jesus Christ compels us to use our best where the need is greatest, and that is what has taken us to Africa.”
In the days ahead, we will seek to instill in our students a college experience that anchors them in Christian truth and relevant scholarship. We do this to propel them toward innovative ways to serve the world.
The third imperative of the Gordon Commission is for us to elevate the contribution. By this, I mean three things. Gordon has historically elevated the contribution made by its students. We recruit bright and resourceful high school students and help them become better contributors to the common good after their four years on campus. This is the "value-added" of a Gordon education—taking students who are great and helping them become even better. But we can do more in this regard, and we will.
Second, we need to elevate the contribution the Gordon community is making in different parts of our public life. We need to elevate the ways Gordon is making a difference on the North Shore, in Greater Boston, and in American higher education. Elevate the contribution our students make to the cohort of 300,000 other college students in the Greater Boston area. Elevate the contribution Gordon faculty make to their scholarly guilds. So, going forward, each of us in our own way should elevate the contribution we are making to the common good.
And, third, this elevation of the contribution we make also applies to Gordon as an institution. We need to elevate the role Gordon plays in shaping the intellectual agenda of global Christianity and to bringing a biblical sense of shalom to the North Shore. We believe the gospel invigorates and advances truth and beauty so that everyone benefits. After all, it was Christians who invented the liberal arts model of higher education. So we have much to offer, and we remember that from those to whom much has been given, much is expected. We are uniquely positioned to have a leavening influence on the country’s leading cultural institutions, and so we need to elevate our contribution to them.
I fear some of us have convinced ourselves that New England modesty and propriety inhibit us from being bold or daring. As a result, we have tried to get by with limited resources and scaled-back plans. But I’m convinced that “good enough” never is. Going forward, if Gordon has been doing “X,” I want us to do “X-squared.”
We are already making a huge difference through community engagement in the nearby city of Lynn and through managing Old Town Hall in historic Salem, Massachusetts. We are the institutional home for Christians in the Visuals Arts, and in May we will host the next gathering of Christians in Political Science. But we can do so much more.
If we want to inspire the next generation, we have to articulate a vision for serving not just our own interests but also the interests of others. So to elevate our contribution, we have to ask “How can Gordon College support and encourage the good efforts of those around us to be better aligned with the purposes of God and the flourishing of our world?”
This wider vision of Christian service is embodied quite well in the life of George Bennett, whom I had the privilege of interviewing seven years ago. Those of you from Boston instantly recognize the Bennett name. Not only was he the treasurer of the Harvard Corporation and manager of the nation’s largest endowment, but he also managed one of the first mutual funds in the country. He is a deeply committed Christian who just turned 100, and he has spent a lifetime integrating his faith into all walks of life—not as an apology, but as an asset.
He also has been one of Gordon’s most generous supporters over the years, and his son, Peter Bennett, chaired Gordon’s board for quite some time, and now his granddaughter, Lisa Bennett Forkner, is a Gordon Trustee. The Bennetts have shown us how we, as Christ-followers, can elevate the contribution we make to the world around us. Jeremiah 29 admonishes us to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you, too, will prosper.” The Bennetts have been doing that for nearly a century, and our College stands on their shoulders and that of others like them as it embraces the Gordon Commission going forward.
Thomas Merton once wrote, “You are made in the image of what you desire.” Stretching the mind, deepening the faith, and elevating the contribution. That is our calling; that is our desire. I pledge to do everything in my power to guide and equip the next generation of Christian leaders with a framework of faithfulness as they influence cultures throughout the world. And I trust you will join me in this effort.
The Gordon Commission is a communal endeavor. But it’s not really a strategic plan, and it’s certainly not a marketing gimmick. It’s the process of weaving together our individual contributions to meet the needs of those around us. It’s how our individual stories relate to our collective mission.
I first came to love Gordon College through its people, and not just any people, but three particular people—Christian Smith, Jennifer Jukanovich, and George Bennett. Writing to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul says, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts.” Taking up Paul’s metaphor, these three individuals represented the essence of Gordon College to me. The scholarship of Christian Smith has stretched my own thinking; the witness of Jennifer Jukanovich has deepened my own faith; and the example of George Bennett has compelled me to elevate the contribution I seek to make in the lives of others.
They drew me to Gordon even as I hope we can draw others to this fine place. May we be an institution that does this and much more in the lives of our students and our community. This, I contend, is our noble aspiration in fulfilling the Gordon Commission. Because this is what it means to provide faithful leadership for the common good.
God bless you all.