In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins says all great companies “face the brutal facts.” Let’s face this one: In some of Christian higher education’s latest go-arounds with state and federal government entities (see “The California Impact” for one example), it was clear that decision makers do not know much about our institutions. What they do know is too often based on misperceptions. They do not value Christian higher education’s important role in educating citizens or its unique application of faith to curricular and co-curricular pedagogy, nor do they recognize the impact its graduates have had over the last century.
For years, the relationship of faith-based organizations to public officials was generally one of collaboration and trust. They understood why faith in the public square benefitted society. Communicating the value of faith-based nonprofits seemed redundant.
Times have changed.
How did this happen? How did the religious nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses in the United States – which contribute $1.2 trillion a year to the country’s economic bottom line – come to be described as possibly dangerous to the wellbeing of others? Some wonder, “Are some seeking to put Christian higher education and other faith-related nonprofits out of business, or at least change our missions?”
For some, the answer is, “Yes.” They have concluded that any organization or person that does not embrace a new, progressive social theory of personhood, gender or sexual expression is discriminatory and thus should not be in the public square.
Fortunately, not all naysayers are stuck in their perceptions. Those influenced by an inaccurate narrative are often open to a persuasive counter-narrative, particularly if they have positive exchanges with religious nonprofits. While you cannot mandate how people think, your positive interactions can make them pause if a story they hear about you doesn’t fit their experience.
What are some next steps? Many of you are doing these already, but it never hurts to double-check.
- Examine your relationship with people in the state and federal legislative branch of government, as well as your governor and mayor. Who is your contact person in each office? Do you have a schedule for visits from your campus to their office and vice-versa? Do you pray for and encourage them on a regular basis? Have you commented on legislation that affects your city or region? How have you helped them achieve their goals that you share? Are they invited to events on your campus that would interest them? Do they know the stories of your graduates?
- Do you regularly meet together with colleagues at other colleges in your area? Have you visited your shared political leaders together? Have you calculated your joint economic and educational impact on their state/district/town?
- Beyond donor relations, what is your relationship with the business, education and arts communities in your locale? Do they value you as an economic partner for their goals? Do they know how much your organization contributes through earnings and spending to their businesses? Do they know that your graduates are some of their top employees?
- How are your relationships with local immigrant, Asian, Hispanic and African American communities? Is there a platform to stand publicly and boldly with them and the concerns they share? Christian higher education stands for the dignity of all people; if we hear public figures broadly characterize whole groups of people as rapists and murderers, do we denounce them? When “stop and frisk” is offered as the answer to crime without acknowledging the disparate treatment of persons of color, do we denounce it? When displaced people of differing faiths are met with fear and not compassion, do we welcome them? Do the leaders of these communities know the stories of your graduates of color, international students and those of non-Christian faith?
- Do you know the LGBT advocates in your area? How might you begin a relationship with some advocates who are also faith-friendly? Who on your campus would be the best liaison? Can an LGBT graduate go with you to meet advocates to share a fuller, three-dimensional picture of your campus life?
It is not too late. Christian higher education has a worthy and essential future. We are in a time and place in history where our future is impacted by “the unexpected ally” – those who respect religion and the right to hold beliefs that impact the public square. They may or may not be people of faith, but they value religious expression for the good it does. Let’s broaden our spheres of influence by telling non-believers the stories of service, success, inclusion and innovation of our graduates. These very stories are about God’s love and grace. Christians advance our cause and stand up for others because we still have considerable access and power. We have some exciting years ahead of us, and because of the story of the Cross, we can live in the power of love, not fear; trust, not suspicion; gratitude, not anxiety. That is a story the world needs to hear!
Shirley V. Hoogstra is the president of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.