What I am most thankful for in my academic career is the opportunity to interact with students. The richness of these relationships has made me a wealthy man!

Since the termination of my career, I made a list in my journal of about 100 students with whom I felt I had a significant relationship. I reached out to those I could find contact information for and in the past few months have enjoyed personal or e-mail conversations as we shared mutually about where we are at in life since our college relationship. This has just increased my wealth as I have listened to the stories of their lives since graduation.

Many of those on my list were in more than one of my classes. From my memory and journal notes, I had a personal mentoring relationship with 25 students for 1 – 4 years; I worked with 28 senior students as part of a team to facilitate the first-year spiritual formation class (I will have a separate post about this in a few weeks); with others I had very personal and intense conversations in my office or in the cafeteria; 8 became my colleagues at the college. Now, some of the above have become ongoing friends and peers who now contribute as much to my life as I do to theirs. I think I could write individual posts about at least 20 students, their stories and accomplishments of becoming partners, parents, pastors, lawyers, librarians, teachers, scholars, activists, artists, administrators, actors, managers, musicians, travelers, counselors, business owners, and most importantly: thoughtful Jesus-followers of all kinds. I wish I could share all 100 names, but I do want to protect their privacy. You know who you are! I am thankful for each of you.

Human connection is what makes life meaningful. For those of us fortunate enough to be called to work in the field of education or other human services, we get a double blessing and get paid for it! College professors tread the sacred territory of being able to walk with students though one of life’s most significant transitions. I had the additional privilege of teaching courses that directly addressed this transition and how to navigate it toward growth and wholeness. Holy ground, indeed!

Three years ago on March 13, the daily worlds of everyone in North America, and everyone around the world give or take a few weeks, got severely altered. No one knew what to do. What we thought might be for a few weeks turned into a few years and counting. But the worst time was that first year because we were dealing with the unknown.

Lives were upended. A personal glimpse into the life of one student might be a good example. Dana Koop has allowed me to share a bit of her story. (Thanks, Dana, for sharing this memory with me and allowing me to share it with others.) She remembers that the last class in our senior spiritual formation course was about the importance of rituals. These are my opening words to the lecture.

“There is a deep need for rituals and ceremonies to mark important transitions in our lives. The tangible and sensual act of participating in a ritual or symbolic action can infuse transitions with spiritual meaning. Without this, transitions have the potential to be lost in the mundane of everyday life. All of us have turns in the road. It is what we do or not do with them that makes all the difference. We need to acknowledge our transitions through rituals and to approach them in a way that leads to growth.”

Since then, Dana has had opportunity to reflect on the irony that her last class before the pandemic addressed the importance of rituals to mark transitions in life. The very thing she was then robbed of! The pandemic robbed her of a closing retreat with important rituals and a time of communal reflection. We tried to do it on “zoom” but even if the technology had worked smoothly—which it did not—the online ambience was far from that of a retreat centre! It also robbed her and her graduating class of a graduation ceremony that is another important ritual for graduating students. Pre-recorded speeches and photographs of grads was hardly a meaningful ritual. That summer she was set to marry another grad, Justin Sun. She was robbed of a wedding ceremony with all of her friends and family in attendance, an important ritual for beginning a life together. Then they had to find their way to a new city, new jobs, and a new place to live—with minimal human contact! She had multiple turns in the road and was unable to practice meaningful rituals to mark them. Dana and Justin have had a difficult three years and the fact that they have emerged as spiritually forming young adults is a testament to their resiliency and the strength of God’s Spirit within them. I am thankful I had and continue to have a small role in their lives.

PS The rest of the spring 2020 semester saw professors use whatever methods they could muster to conclude the semester: classes on Zoom, e-mail communication, YouTube videos of lectures, etc. Some colleges suspended in-person classes for the next year but since that was our college’s strong point, administrators invested a lot of time, money, and energy that summer to set up a consistent method of delivery that was in-person while adhering to health mandates. I remember walking into my first classroom that fall. There were 50 students whom I had never seen before, all wearing masks, all sitting six feet apart in a large room. I was to go up on a stage, manage technology for those who were online, and try to teach something as personal as spiritual formation! I was ready to walk out the moment I walked in. I stayed but it was not easy, and everyone had to compromise on pedagogical ideals. I’m thankful for God’s strength that carried us through.

Every year during the last week of February and/or the first week of March both students and faculty enjoyed what was called, “Reading Week”. Students probably varied in whether they did any reading; I usually did try to do some reading other than student papers. It was part of the rhythm of academic life that made this life so fulfilling.

I appreciated the rhythms of academia. They fit my personality, values, and gifts. I taught a class on spiritual disciplines; I tried to practice what I taught. Part of discipline is rhythm. There is a proper rhythm to work and rest. There were numerous other parts of the rhythm besides reading week.

At the college where I worked, the teaching faculty were on a 10-month contract, so we only had work responsibilities between August 16 and June 15 every year. This left two summer months for me to do some therapy from academia in my backyard, from gardening to constructing rock walls. When working with people it is hard to know whether one is really making a difference in the world, but when pulling weeds, it is pretty clear! This is why it was good therapy. Since my partner is an elementary school teacher our time off corresponded for 6 weeks so we were also able to have family vacations and visit relatives in Manitoba every summer.

The two or three weeks before the semester and the two months after the semester were spent doing research and course preparation, attending meetings, doing administrative work, and participating in professional development. Then from Labour Day till graduation at the end of April, it was an intense 8 months of classes, meetings, student mentoring, with grading assignments on weekends and evenings. The few weeks at Christmas were a quick turnaround to begin the winter/spring semester.

One of the perks of the academic life is based on the ancient principle of Sabbath that goes back to the Hebrews of the Bible. Every seven years we are allowed a sabbatical where we stop teaching to engage in a semester of study leave; thus, I had three of them. Since I had a terminal degree in my field of teaching and a disciplined personality, I designed my own sabbaticals based at home. Each one included a personal retreat of silence and solitude, about 10,000 pages of reading related to my courses, a writing project, and speaking engagements. The first two sabbaticals corresponded with a significant change in my course loading, and my last was designed to energize me for the homestretch of my teaching career.

Unfortunately, the homestretch to my academic career got cut short due to circumstances beyond my control. I miss the rhythms of academia. Now I’m trying to practice the discipline of discernment as I wait for God to clarify what the next season of my life will look like.

Anabaptist History and Thought was a required class that all students had to take in their second year. In some ways, this made it a challenging class to teach because students did not come with a lot of intrinsic motivation. On the other hand, with low expectations, it was easier to exceed them! I was always thankful for these kinds of responses at the end of the course.

“When I applied to Columbia Bible College, I can say that my understandings of the Mennonite faith were very minimal. The only Mennonites that I had ever come in contact with drove a horse and buggy, wore bonnets and sold produce at the farmers market. I had no idea there was a string of the Mennonite denomination that didn’t wear pioneer clothes. And when I heard about the Anabaptist Theology class, I honestly thought it was pointless, as I come from a Christian Reformed background. Needless to say, I have learned a lot over this past semester. I have learned that this faith is not inactive and inapplicable, that instead God calls us to live out our theology. I have taken time to learn from the Anabaptists’ history, and, in doing so, have evaluated my stance on baptism, missions and evangelism, as well as church community.”

“Overall, I have learned so much from this class. I almost don’t know how to explain all that I have learnt over the past semester. It has been a process of God revealing new perspectives to me. I have learnt how the Anabaptist faith applies to my present day culture in terms of living ethically and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Anabaptist theology has many core values that I feel require actions. It is not just a faith that a person can be part of only on Sundays. Anabaptism is a community that takes action for God and his creation through practical steps that can be applied to my life now, and in the future.”

“I really love learning from history, especially my personal church and family history, so this course was overall very meaningful and formative for me. It’s helped me sort out my thoughts. I was inspired by the early Anabaptists, especially Hans Denck. Sometimes it feels like I don’t have a lot in common with the Mennonites I grew up with, at least not anymore. There was something about Denck’s words that resonated with me and how I feel I’m experiencing my faith right now. Perhaps Denck was a little more of a mystic, which probably describes me at this point. I admire the way the early Anabaptists were willing to go against the status quo. They were heretics, which gives me some courage to be a heretic in the way I feel called to be: staying true to Jesus and God’s word, AND going places a lot of mainstream Christians won’t go. I would want to avoid being so set in my ways that I never hear other perspectives. I would want to avoid ever firmly believing I have everything figured out. I would want to be known for love, not for belief or piety.”

As with most education, if a student enters a course with an open mind and heart, there is the possibility of learning and transformation. This is also why professors are better known as facilitators of this process than instructors who impart the correct information. It is education not indoctrination.

It’s Louis Riel Day in Manitoba. I have blogged a few times before about the connection between Mennonite settlement and the removal of Metis and Indigenous people from those same areas. Please read these blogs if you have not already done so. They should appear at the end of this post as “related articles.” After 18 years of blogging it is increasingly difficult to be original each time!

I have taught the course, Anabaptist History and Thought, 2-4 times a year for 17 years. My passion is the radical 16th century European origins and my studies focused on this. People think since I am teaching about the past, the course content does not change but this is not the case!

I came into teaching the course having read Menno Simons, Conrad Grebel, and numerous others during my seminary and graduate studies. During my first study leave I set the goal of reading every piece of 16th century Anabaptist writing translated into English. I accomplished this by the end of my second study leave. Peter Riedemann’s “Love is like Fire” became my favorite piece. Reading the entirety and diversity of 16th century Anabaptist writing changed the content and the emphasis of my teaching.

Secondly, I learned a lot about the subsequent years of Mennonite history that I did not know as much about. I read about and visited Poland to learn about the 400-year Mennonite sojourn in Poland. Unfortunately, my plan to visit Ukraine was upended by a pandemic and then a war. I learned about how both geographical migration and mission changed the theology and practice of subsequent generations of Anabaptists. During the course of my teaching from 2005 to 2022, Mennonites in Africa began to outnumber those in North America. Reading the five volume Mennonite World Conference global history filled in a lot of details I had read from a variety of sources before.

Perhaps the most profound shift in my teaching came about because of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2013. This brings me full circle to where I began this post. I knew that Mennonites were immigrants from Europe to Canada, USA, and central and south American countries. What I was not as aware of was how Mennonite settlers benefitted from the oppressive and racist policies of colonial governments. This began to colour even how I viewed 16th century origins. While Anabaptists were breaking away from Christendom powers in Europe in the 1520s, those same powers were in a race to explore and colonize the “new world” based on the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Mennonite settlers became beneficiaries of this reprehensible doctrine centuries later. I have blogged previously about the specifics of this.

I’ve always appreciated that Anabaptist theology is a radical theology and took joy in pointing out the significant involvement of women, young adults, peasants, and other marginalized people in the origins of the movement. Yet the field of Anabaptist history has been the dominated by educated, middle-aged, white men like me. More work needs to be done to include perspectives from the margins in our contemporary theological dialogue.

There is one course that transcends my career at Columbia Bible College, and it became my signature course with several incarnations.

It began as “Adolescent Development” in 1992 when I was a sessional instructor at Providence College for 3 years. In 1999 it focused and deepened to become “Faith Formation & Spirituality of Youth & Young Adults” taught at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN for two summers. It took a few years for this course to be added to the college curriculum. Initially, it was only youth work students who took it until I convinced the Caregiving and Counseling department to add it to their list of electives. Eventually in 2015, it was combined with the “discernment process” and became a required course for all students graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree. The discernment process included each student gathering a small group of supporters for a 90-minute session reflecting on their academic career at the college and discerning their next steps after graduation. I had the privilege of being invited to some of these discernment sessions. They were sacred times for all involved. When I described this process in a workshop at a Canadian college symposium, there was a lot of envious interest!

One thing that I added to the course in 2015 was an opening and a closing retreat where students would gather off campus for a day to orient themselves to each other and the course at the beginning and then debrief their experience at the end. These also included many holy moments of personal vulnerability, communal ritual, and reciprocal interaction.

In December of 2021, we were having a prayer time at the end of the closing retreat when one bold student, knowing that I was going on sabbatical next semester, offered to lead in a prayer for me and invited “two or three others” to pray “and when there is an awkward silence I will close in prayer”. There was no awkward silence as over half of the 19 students prayed prayers of blessing and spoke words of appreciation to God at how I had impacted their lives that semester. Those retreats were always special times for students as they made closure, not only to their semester but to their academic career at CBC. It was a sacred privilege to walk with students in this, but the prayers for me on this day were a rare treat where I was the one being ministered to. I am thankful for that moment.

Neither students nor I knew at the time that this would be my last closing retreat. A fitting way to end. Since then, many former students have reached out to me and cared for me in my present transition as I walked with them in theirs.

There is one comment on a student evaluation form I will never forget. I am thankful for it. It was after a course during my first semester when I deserved a lot of critique! In my course on the Book of Jeremiah, I received this evaluation: “I knew more about the Book of Jeremiah before the course than I do after taking it!” I actually robbed somebody of knowledge. Now that takes professorial skill! Since it was anonymous, I do not know what the student’s grade was.

But it got me thinking about education, especially education in personal development or spiritual formation. Before a student can be open to transformation there first needs to be some deconstruction, some critical reflection and examination of their presumptions. They may need to get rid of some settled opinions so that they can be truly open to learn and be transformed in the process.

Consider the analogy of packing a bag for summer camp. When I was nine years old, heading off for my first ever week of summer camp, my mom packed my bags for me. When I turned fourteen, however, I wanted to pack my own bag. Although I may have chosen a few different items, I continued to put in shirts, pants, underwear, and socks—just as my mother would have. I also remember sneaking in a bag of sunflower seeds, simply because the camp brochure had clearly stated that we were not to bring such items! Something similar happens with packing our “faith bags”.

At airport security they ask if we have packed our own bags. If you have not packed your own bag you are not allowed to get on the plane. This is a good question about faith for graduating students. If you have not packed your own faith bag you should not be allowed to graduate. The unpacking and personal repacking of faith is the task of emerging adults. Whether the faith looks remarkably similar or completely different from their parents’ faith is beside the point; rather, the point is that it has been packed personally through a process of reflection.

As a college professor, it is sometimes my job to help a student dump their faith bag on the table to examine its contents. Only then can they begin to repack it for themselves. Sometimes what appears to be “solid faith” might actually be stagnant because it has never have been personalized, and repacked faith may look to some like the person has “lost their faith” when in reality it is vibrant and growing!

Although the first time I taught Jeremiah was definitely not the high point of my teaching career, I do hope this student went on to some new insights after having been robbed of previously held knowledge.

1. Collaborate

When I came to the college, they offered two alternatives for new students: Christian Discipleship which tended toward the outward disciplines such as service and social justice and Spiritual Formation which tended toward the inward disciplines such as prayer and meditation. Erv Klassen had taught Spiritual Formation for some years and I was given Christian Discipleship that had previously been taught by a sessional instructor. We compared notes and wondered whether by offering these two alternatives we were depriving students of a wholistic view of the Christian life that should rightly include both emphases. The eventual third person in our trinity, Janet Boldt, was on sabbatical immersing herself in the subject matter that year. The academic dean at the time brought the three of us together to dream about how we could offer a wholistic experience of spiritual formation and discipleship to first-year students.

All three of us were present at every lecture. We literally tag-teamed back and forth in the course of a class period and sometimes had three-way conversations in front of the class. We began each semester with a retreat and met weekly for interactive debrief and preparation as a threesome. Janet, Erv, and myself were three very different people who came with unique personalities, strengths, and our own favourite spiritual practices. Students would know by our diverse modeling and pedagogy that there was no one right way to be Christian.

Times change. Erv became the college registrar with a full-time administrative load and was then no longer part of the team. Janet and I became the primary instructors; we expanded to four groups instead of three to make the groups a bit smaller [10-15 instead of 15-20+]; for a few years we invited other staff and faculty to join us as Discipleship Group facilitators; and eventually we invited senior students to join the team so they could gain experience and an internship credit. We made sure we always had gender balance on our team. Then, Janet retired which left me as the sole professor. I then expanded the team to three senior students and encouraged them to offer personal stories and illustrations so that presentations could continue to be conversational and dialogical. Sometimes we had panel discussions where we conversed about a topic. An opening retreat and weekly meetings continued.

2. Innovate

We developed a unique three-way format to deliver the course. For example, on Thursday we would meet as an entire class [this usually ranged from 40 to 75 students] for the presentation of a particular spiritual discipline, e.g. meditation, service, etc. Each lecture included biblical background, historical precedent, and practical guidance. At the end of this class students were given an assignment to read about and practice that discipline, and then write a brief reflection of their experience.

The following Tuesday we would meet in 3 or 4 Discipleship Groups [this usually ranged from 10-20 students] in separate rooms, facilitated by a member of the team. During this time [usually about 45 minutes], students would process and discuss their readings and experiences and we would have opportunity to practice a communal version of the discipline.

During the last part of Tuesday’s class [usually about 30 minutes] students would meet in Spiritual Friendship Groups [3 or 4 in a group] for mutual encouragement and accountability. This gave students the opportunity to learn, discuss, and build relationships with others. Judging by many student testimonials, our objectives were achieved through this three-way format.

3. Find a good text

For most of the history of this course we used Richard Foster’s, Celebration of Discipline. It has become a standard and a classic despite the plethora of books published in the field. The 12 systematic chapters made it ideal as a textbook for a college semester.

About five years ago, I began experimenting with an additional text, eventually adding Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren. I always said I would never drop Foster because it was such a timeless classic, but after reviewing the growing literature during my sabbatical last winter, I decided to develop my own course pack of readings from 12 different sources that were more representative of a wide variety of human difference. After all, Richard Foster was just like me: an aging, white, cisgendered man with a ponytail. Students needed more variety. Now, they don’t have either of us.

I was hired to be the director of the newly forming youth work department at the college. After five years in this role, I moved on to teach core courses in the college curriculum that all students were required to take. This increased my student load from less than 50 a year to more than 200 some years! I may have been able to touch the lives of more students, but it took away from the possibility of closer relationships with a few. As I look back, some of the closest relationships that are still ongoing, come from those first few years. I am thankful for them. Relationships with students were the most important thing about being a professor. Aside from that, I want to write about two personal highlights of my time as the director of the youth work department.

A few years into the job I had my first piece of writing published in a reputable North America wide youth ministry journal published by Youth Specialties. I bared my soul in that article, sharing how my experience of healing from childhood sexual abuse had shaped me for life and ministry. I felt honoured that my story might provide hope to others. But an awkward and unexpected moment came when I took a group of youth ministry students from the college to the National Youth Workers Convention in Sacramento, California. We walked into the large convention hall with thousands of seats and on each seat was a copy of the latest issue of the Youth Worker Journal with my article as the cover story. Not only were thousands of people going to see my article, not knowing the author was present, but my own students would know part of my story that I had never really told them about in person. I did feel honoured and proud, but vulnerability and fear were more prominent feelings at that moment!

Besides two trips to Youth Specialties conventions, I initiated and planned our own local youth workers event on an annual basis. I invited experienced local youth workers to do some practical workshops and tried to bring in a “name” plenary speaker to inspire us more generally. I’m not generally one for hero worship, but Tony Campolo was probably my favorite speaker at the time, and I admired the things he stood for in his life. What if he would come to speak at my little youth workers conference? I thought it would be a long shot so I was giddy with excitement when he said he would come for a price we could afford. It was the best attendance ever for the event as our chapel was packed to the corners and Tony did not disappoint. His addresses were vintage Tony and he tailored them to fit our theme and our objectives. As a bonus, I got to visit with him to and from the airport, finding him down-to-earth and approachable. I’m thankful for the opportunity to have met him.

On this Martin Luther King J. Day it is appropriate to highlight one of the courses I had the privilege of initiating and facilitating. It was not my signature course or the one that I was best qualified to teach, but it may have been the one that had the most dramatic impact on students. And every time it was offered in the winter semester we would watch or listen to a Martin Luther King Jr. speech on this day.

9/11 was a turning point in the mood of our continent. I still remember the morning I got up to watch the second tower fall, live on TV. North Americans were jolted to greater awareness of global injustices and violence because it happened in a big way on our soil. I was the director of the youth work department and more contemplative than activist by nature, but I felt that somebody had to do something on campus in response to these events. With nine interested students, I began a one-hour-a-week Philosopher’s-Café-type discussion of the implications of Jesus for socio-political issues in a small student lounge called “The Cave.” Within a few years it developed into a full course called “Peace & Justice Issues.”

The course was controversial from the beginning. It was not the fact that the author of my original text, The Politics of Jesus, had sexually abused some of his female students. (I changed to Upside Down Kingdom by Donald Kraybill and Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne.) The controversy for students from conservative evangelical backgrounds was that I was claiming that Jesus had relevance beyond forgiving sins and taking us to heaven. It was not only once that I was called a false teacher and a heretic for suggesting that the Bible might have something to say about combatting racism, sexism, economic injustice, warfare, violence, power imbalances, environmental degradation, and homophobia, just to name a few things. It was preposterous to some, invigorating to others, and enlightening to all. There was never a dull moment!

I usually introduced a basic biblical and theological foundation for the first month of the course and then let the concerns of students and the issues of the day guide our subsequent discussion. Students each did their own project that involved research and writing, oral presentation, artistic expression, or social activism. We read articles about current issues and I brought in guests from local organizations. Students who were inspired by the course often attended Mennonite Central Committee student seminars in Ottawa or New York where they could further explore national and international issues.

Dramatic results of the course? I’m not trying to draw any direct causal connections, but some former students have let me know that this course contributed to a different direction in their lives than the one they came to college with. Two students who took the course are now human rights lawyers, numerous students worked for or are working for international humanitarian, peacebuilding, service, or social justice organizations, a few are pastors involved in advocating for marginalized people and promoting peace and justice for all, two are active members of a political party promoting social justice, and hopefully all students who took the course are more aware of how their faith impacts and interacts with their daily domestic socio-economic-political lives.