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A president’s final thoughts regarding FPU, Christian higher education

By D. Merrill Ewert

Editor’s Note: Nearly every Monday morning that Merrill Ewert served as president of Fresno Pacific University, he sent an email message to the faculty, staff and trustees of the university called “Merrill’s Monday Morning Memo.” While his final note was intended for the FPU community, Ewert’s words challenge all of us involved in Christian higher education and who support these institutions.

In 10 years of Merrill’s Monday Morning Memos, I’ve written nearly 2,000 pages and more than a million words. Although there’s probably very little left unsaid, I leave you with some final thoughts:

Cling to Jesus. While rebranding Fresno Pacific several years ago, we added the following words (drawn from I Corinthians 3:11) to the university logo: Founded on Christ.

Another Christian university once used the same words on its logo. Then it hired a president who brought renewed energy, sharpened the institution’s vision and increased its academic reputation. Excited about the appointment, people overlooked the fact she was also Jewish. Quietly and without fanfare, the words, Founded on Christ, disappeared from the logo. Two decades later, there’s barely a trace of the university’s founding faith tradition on its website.

People often talked with me about the “slippery slope” on which some evangelical institutions lost their “Christian” moorings. I believe three things can prevent this. First, it doesn’t happen when the board remains thoroughly, completely and committedly Christian. Second, presidents with a deep faith, an abiding commitment to Jesus and a view of higher education as ministry help institutions retain their Christian identity. Third, when faculty and staff clearly demonstrate a deep and personal relationship with Jesus, universities remain Christ-centered.

I pray this will ever be so at Fresno Pacific!

Be agents of shalom. C.S. Lewis calls Christians to recapture society, culture and all creation for Jesus Christ. Today as the culture wars tear our society apart, someone must demonstrate another way. The Hebrew concept of shalom is an integral part of FPU.

Scriptural shalom reflects a transcendent wholeness that includes health, welfare, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest and harmony. The Bible calls us to bring shalom to the community, reconcile warring peoples to each other, promote justice and inspire hope.

Individually and institutionally, God calls us to bring redemptive love into our relationships, our work and our communities. Unfortunately, some of the angriest people I know are Christians. I’m embarrassed at the words and actions of some who claim to be followers of Jesus. Too many speak and act with little regard to the consequences; they tear down and destroy without feeling any obligation to replace it with something else.

I pray Fresno Pacific will always live as the people of shalom, especially when the cultural warriors would divide us.

Courageously speak into the culture. At FPU, we often discuss the university’s prophetic role as laid out in the Fresno Pacific Idea. Being prophetic means transforming society.

Christians once occupied the center of intellectual life in this nation. Over the past 200 years, however, we’ve marginalized ourselves, Mark Noll argues in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. We haven’t participated fully in the hard intellectual work of the academy. Rather than helping create new knowledge, he suggests, many Christians have chosen the easier path—focusing on the application of our disciplines and service to humankind. The latter are important, but engaging in scholarship can help shape the nature and direction of our fields of study.

Our society needs more Christian scholars who speak out boldly. I was a young professor when Nobel Laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave his famous Harvard commencement address in which he said, “The Western world has lost its civil courage….” His call for moral leadership, grounded in a deep and abiding commitment to our Lord, remains equally urgent today. That speech infuriated many in higher education but became required reading for my classes.

I pray Fresno Pacific will always be known for outstanding Christian scholars who examine the big issues and courageously speak into the culture.

Remember that it’s God’s work. Over the past decade, Fresno Pacific trustees have often reminded each other of Psalm 127:1 (NIV): “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.”

Several years ago, I received an email from a former doctoral student who had become a professor on the East Coast. I was startled by the subject line: Follower of Jesus!!!!

She had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Asia when several MCC workers convinced her to pursue graduate training at Cornell where they knew this “Mennonite professor.” Life was tough for this young, single mom. My Christian graduate students and I walked with her through separation, divorce and the pressures of life. Before finishing her Ph.D., she began attending a “mainline” church and calling herself a “Christian” because, she told me, she now attended church regularly. She also wasn’t a Muslim (like her ex-husband) and believed in the values of community, peace and justice about which she heard in church.

Now in her email, she explained that her heart was overflowing with joy because she had found Jesus as her personal Lord and Savior. “I now pray for my graduate students just as you used to pray for us!”A few days later, she flew across the country just to tell Priscilla and me how God had transformed her life. She now understood what she had seen in those MCCers, heard in my office and experienced in our home.

I pray Fresno Pacific will faithfully tell the good news but understand that God gives the increase.

Aspire to greatness. I titled my FPU inaugural address, “Called to Excellence!” I noted that when God created the earth and everything in it, he didn’t say, “That’s good enough.” Nor did he suggest, “Not bad for a Thursday.”Rather, at every step, the Lord labeled his creative work “good.” He set the bar high; so should we. God gave us enormous capacity to learn, grow and use our knowledge and skills for the kingdom. He calls us to excellence.

Author Jim Collins famously suggested that “the good” is the biggest enemy of “the great.” Settling for “good enough” keeps us from becoming “great.”Great athletic teams have a burning desire to win; world-class musicians aspire to be the best. If we demand excellence of ourselves, we’ll also get it from our students.

Research shows that when students choose a college, the most important factor in that decision is how they perceive an institution’s academic quality. We seek to demonstrate a culture of excellence to attract and retain the best students, but we also do it to realize our full, God-given potential. We strive for excellence to honor the God who created that capacity within us.

I pray Fresno Pacific will always aspire to greatness!

A blessing. As Priscilla and I leave Fresno Pacific, I challenge us all to cling to Jesus, the center of our faith. Be the agents of shalom in a world that is torn by conflict and in desperate need of reconciliation. Drawing on your scholarship, speak courageously into a culture that is looking for meaning, purpose, direction and hope. Aspire to greatness, but remember that we’re doing God’s work.

We treasure the many friendships we formed in Fresno. We will remember the many kindnesses, words of encouragement and prayers on our behalf. We’ve been blessed and shaped by our time at Fresno Pacific. Thank you! And now, we leave you with the words of that ancient Irish blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind be ever at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face
And the rain fall softly on your fields
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hallow of his hand.

With love,
Merrill and Priscilla Ewert

Merrill and Priscilla Ewert served Fresno Pacific University for 10 years. They are currently living in Washington, D.C., where Merrill is working on a project with several higher education associations.

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This article is part of the CL Archives. Articles published between August 2017 and July 2008 were posted on a previous website and are archived here for your convenience. We have also posted occasional articles published prior to 2008 as part of the archive. To report a problem with the archived article, please contact the CL editor at editor@usmb.org.

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