October 2019: Sharpening Our Institutional Identity

Sharpening Our Institutional Identity

Welcome to October, my friends.

As I have traversed campus and listened to faculty and staff over the past three months, one of the (many) recurring themes has been an undercurrent of some anxiety over whether Gardner-Webb University’s identity as a faith-based institution has eroded or been adrift for several years. The narrative, as I have heard it, is that GWU “might not be as Christian as it once was.”

By way of an initial response, I’ll just give you the impressions of someone new to Gardner-Webb. Coming as I did from a large, public, secular university, I have been both profoundly impressed and daily energized by GWU’s foundation of faith. To me, that foundation appears strong, it appears authentic, and it appears widespread. Kim and I have never felt so comfortable about the connection of our personal priorities as Christians and our professional priorities as advocates for higher education. To us, Gardner-Webb’s Christian character is nothing short of exhilarating.

Bill and Kim Downs at prayer

In fact, I am composing this blog only minutes after worshiping in Dover Chapel with colleagues at Gardner-Webb’s monthly community prayer gathering. That is one of but many manifestations of the strength and character of Gardner-Webb’s longstanding identity as a Christian university.

Among the others, of course, is our School of Divinity, which houses some of the institution’s signature degree programs. Students choose Gardner-Webb as the place to earn graduate degrees in Pastoral Care, Christian Education, Biblical Studies, and Pastoral Ministries, among others. Beyond the School of Divinity, our Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy attracts traditional undergraduate students to Gardner-Webb to pursue one of five possible majors, the most popular of which is Discipleship Studies. Additionally, our Music program offers a degree in Worship Leadership. The E. Jerome Scott Gospel Choir inspires us with high-energy praise and worship lifted to God through song, and it represents a wide range of other active student ministries at GWU.

Our Office of Christian Life and Service organizes the Dimensions program as a required curriculum aimed at the spiritual growth of our undergraduates. The weekly, student-led Gathering is another important venue for prayer, fellowship, and music. Furthermore, our students have the opportunity to participate in numerous global mission opportunities during fall, spring, and summer breaks. The list of vibrant programs at Gardner-Webb could go on and on, and it is only complemented by the routine affirmations of faith that we witness and live out each day on our campus:

  • I celebrate our practice of prayer before meetings and athletic events;
  • I celebrate the distribution of both praise and concerns when members of the GWU family are in the middle of major life events;
  • I celebrate the placement of plaques commemorating what Jesus called the Greatest Commandments on buildings across campus; and
  • I celebrate the fact that no matter what church I visit in Cleveland County, the pews are populated by GWU alumni, faculty, staff, and students.

This is the Gardner-Webb difference, and it is real.

I have often heard Gardner-Webb described by our own internal constituents as, “Well, we’re not Liberty, but we’re not Wake Forest.” Other variants have included, “We’re not Bob Jones, but we’re not Wingate either.” I’d like us to stop defining GWU by what we’re not; instead, let’s profess who we are. WE ARE GARDNER-WEBB.

University leaders long before my arrival penned a three-sentence mission statement that underscores who we are:

Gardner-Webb University, a private, Christian, Baptist-related university, provides outstanding undergraduate and graduate education that is strongly grounded in the liberal arts while offering opportunities to prepare for various professions.

In this opening statement, we proclaim in no uncertain terms our identity as a faith-based, Christian University. We recognize and honor our Baptist roots and the enduring connections we have with the Baptist church. We know that our commitment to a Christian identity, permeating a set of outstanding academic degree programs, is what distinguishes Gardner-Webb in the increasingly crowded marketplace of higher education.

Fostering meaningful intellectual thought, critical analysis, and spiritual challenge within a diverse community of learning, Gardner-Webb is dedicated to higher education that integrates scholarship with Christian life.

In this second sentence of GWU’s existing mission statement, it is clear that as a university we pride ourselves—as all universities should—on rigor, on critical thinking, and on the production of new knowledge. At the same time, we look to marry those endeavors with a life of Christ-like service. We embrace diversity (our student body represents 24 different denominations!) and we don’t shy away from challenge. In my view, fostering “spiritual challenge” is a key aspect of our enterprise…if every one of our students arrived on campus already knowing all they need to know, believing all they want to believe, and feeling as though they’d already completed their spiritual journey…then we probably wouldn’t be needed.

By embracing faith and intellectual freedom, balancing conviction with compassion, and inspiring a love of learning, service and leadership, Gardner-Webb prepares its graduates to make significant contributions for God and humanity in an ever-changing global community.

This last sentence of the GWU statement is essential. Gardner-Webb is outward-focused. Gardner-Webb is a private university with a very public mission. Gardner-Webb is nimble in the face of an ever-evolving world. Gardner-Webb, as a university, is not a fortress of the faithful with steep walls to keep others out; instead, we provide a welcoming space for conversations about faith by people who come to us from diverse backgrounds.

To further clarify, Gardner-Webb’s leaders some time ago crafted an additional Christian Identity Statement:

Gardner-Webb University is a Christ-centered university committed to demonstrating God’s love for the world both by what we do and by what we say. We maintain that Christian higher education is a formative process in which students, faculty, and staff learn to become good stewards of all of the gifts that God has given to us. Without imposing religious conformity, Gardner-Webb fosters intellectual development, critical reflection, and spiritual growth modeled in the life and teachings of Christ.

This, again, is Gardner-Webb.

After just about 90 days on the job, I am so proud to be part of this community, this family, and this institution. We will soon be launching into a new strategic planning process, one which will inevitably involve some reflection on our mission and identity statements. Such reflection will afford the opportunity for some continued refinement and strengthening of our identity and its clarity to internal and external constituents. I will approach that process with the enthusiasm and respect of someone who genuinely perceives our Christian character to be bold, distinctive, and authentic. We have something special here.