Pete Menjares optimistic about future of FPU
Pete Menjares grew up in rough neighborhood of Los Angeles, Calif., struggled in junior high and high school and explored partying and drugs before he committed his life to Jesus. Christian higher education wasn’t exactly on his radar.
But those early experiences helped him understand the need for accessible education and Christian influence in a way that uniquely equips him to lead Fresno Pacific University, the Mennonite Brethren-owned university with a main campus in Fresno, Calif., and regional centers in Merced, Bakersfield, North Fresno and Visalia. Menjares was inaugurated Sept. 28 as the 11th president of FPU.
Menjares became the first in his family to graduate from college, earning not only a bachelor’s degree in religion but also master’s and doctoral degrees in education. He has served as a middle-school teacher for at-risk students, a pastor, a professor and an administrator. He comes to FPU from Biola University, where he served for 18 years in both teaching and administrative roles. He and his wife, Virginia, have one grown daughter and three grandchildren.
CL assistant editor Myra Holmes recently talked with Menjares about his values, passions and dreams for FPU. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
CL: What attracted you to FPU?
PM: One of the things I have been impressed with is FPU’s very strong Christian commitment. We are founded on Christ. That’s on our seal. That’s on everything that we are. I don’t ever want to take for granted the fact that that is a strength that I have received from those who have built this university.
The other thing that has resonated with me is FPU’s commitment to the community. Its core values of social justice and love and compassion ministries have given it a wonderful opportunity in a community with lots of needs to provide practical service in a way that has resonated with my own core values to be community-minded.
And then there’s the fact that FPU really reflects the Central Valley. It’s working directly with first-generation students and serving Hispanic students. It’s serving students who are returning to school after being gone for a number of years in its degree completion program. Those are just wonderful features of the mission of the university that have really attracted me to it.
CL: What about the role of president excites you?
PM: This year I will be personally leading the university through a strategic planning process, and that plan will represent what our community believes to be God’s will for us over the next five years. And of course we’ll submit that plan to the Lord. That is always one of the most rewarding aspects of leadership: to lead an institution—in this case FPU—into uncharted territory, to continue to build the community that is FPU, to work together to discern God’s will for us.
CL: Is there anything about this position that scares you?
PM: I can’t say that there’s anything that scares me. I know that the job of a university president is very demanding, so I have to be on guard against allowing myself to be pulled in so many directions that I can’t provide focused leadership or have the personal reserves and the energy that a growing, dynamic university needs.
CL: So when you need to recharge, what do you do?
PM: At least one day a month I get away and just have time and space to pray, reflect and read. That has been important because my leadership style is very relational, very collaborative, very pastoral. What that does is invite lots of people into my life, so like Jesus, I have to be careful to retreat and be alone with God so that I can have the kind of energy I need to serve the very people I am inviting into my life.
CL: What has God been teaching you lately in those times of retreat?
PM: I have been drawn into a very deep relationship with the Lord as a result of this assignment. It’s such an overwhelming (in a good way) and awesome responsibility to be called to serve as a university president that it’s made me more trusting of God. The Lord continues to teach me about the importance of prayer, the importance of daily worship and my need to have Scripture in my life and in my heart on a regular basis. On one level, it’s simply taking me back to the basics, but taking me back in a way that has had profound meaning to me and is resulting in a deeper personal transformation.
CL: What are you most passionate about?
PM: Being able to be part of intentional leadership development is something that I am very passionate about, because our world needs leaders that are grounded, that are people of integrity, that are people of commitment and service. One of the things I hope to do here at the university is implement intentional leadership development at the student, staff and faculty levels in order to see God raise up leaders for this generation.
Together with that, I have been passionate about the diversity that makes up the kingdom of God. We learn from the book of Revelation that God has purchased for himself people from every nation, tribe and tongue.
Yet we don’t often see that reflected on Sunday mornings in our churches, and it’s even rarer to see that kind of diversity reflected in our Christian colleges and universities. FPU has one of the highest—in fact the highest—populations of Hispanics studying, as well as great diversity across multiple ethnicities. To have an opportunity to see our university reflect God’s kingdom and to be marked and identified with love and joy and peace and reconciliation is something that really excites me.
CL: What kind of challenges does the university face?
PM: Affordability is a very high priority for us. We have to keep in mind that a great percentage of our students are first generation students and they need financial assistance. So we need to figure out ways to keep our costs down and keep our education affordable. That’s no doubt a challenge.
The other challenge is how to continue to navigate the changing environment of higher education, especially as students are looking for online education and opportunities to study in creative ways. How do we meet the changing times and expectations and demands on colleges and universities today, while staying true to our mission?
CL: Since you do not come from a Mennonite Brethren background, what, if anything, are you learning to appreciate about the Mennonite Brethren?
PM: As I have gotten to know some of the pastors from around the country, I feel that Virginia and I have been blessed with a national network of colleagues. I want them to know how much we appreciate them, how much we value who they are and what they do for the kingdom of God and for our denomination in their respective areas of service. We are a national movement. We are in partnership together for the gospel. That’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.
CL: Is it necessary in your opinion that the FPU president be involved in a Mennonite Brethren congregation?
PM: I do. I think that given my role as president of a Mennonite Brethren university, it would be wise for us to be part of an MB church. Virginia and I are going to take our time and visit as many churches as we possibly can and then trust the Lord to confirm in our hearts where we are to be attending on a regular basis.
I think it’s important not only to be part of an MB church but also to have opportunities to be in many MB churches as a speaker or to bring a word of greeting or simply participate in worship. That would be a good thing for the denomination and the university.
CL: What makes for a healthy partnership between a Christian university and the denomination that owns it?
PM: We need to listen to one another. We need to learn from one another. What are the relative strengths of each? What is the purpose of a university and how can that strengthen the work of the denomination? One way would be to continue to be intentional about leadership development. How can the university continue to provide leadership and to graduate leaders who will strengthen the work of the denomination?
I think that if we are in close relationship and communication with one another we can begin to think in terms of how our programs can specifically work to strengthen the church. Here we have the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, the Center for Anabaptist Studies and the brand-new Center for Community Transformation. How can we leverage these resources to provide specific service and help address specific needs? I can see our university begin to do that.
CL: How would you like the see the USMB family of churches serve the university?
PM: I would encourage our churches to continue supporting our university financially, providing matching scholarships for students who choose to study with us. And to continue to pray for our success and our blessing and the advancement of our mission.
CL: How do you hope students will be different because of their time at FPU?
PM: That’s an important question, because when it comes down to it, we are about students, and we are bold enough in our belief about the quality and value of our education to actually use the language of transformation. Our commitment is to a whole-person education. So we would hope and pray that our Christian students would be more in love with Jesus at the end of their education. But we also want them to be optimally prepared to succeed in their respective fields.
I’ve learned that we have over 20,000 graduates of FPU; what a wonderful testimony and witness. We hope that our students would characterize the values and mission of our university and also be very, very good at whatever God has called them to do.
CL: How do you hope FPU will grow or change in the coming years?
PM: I believe so strongly in the quality and the mission of our education that it would be my hope that prospective students in the Central Valley would see us as the university of choice. That would bring great joy to me and would result in a greater number of students enrolling in our programs.
At the same time, we want to manage growth in such a way that our excellence is never compromised. That would of course mean continuing to develop our faculty professionally, to see them published, to see them continue as outstanding classroom teachers and mentors.
As we grow the university numerically we must also build the infrastructure necessary to support that growth. It would be our heart’s desire to see some of the buildings on our master plan come to fruition, so that we would have opportunities to break ground and celebrate God’s goodness to our university.
And all of that with a view to our mission. I have a hope and dream that FPU will become a leading Christian university and that we would be looked to by others for how to serve students, how to be effective in leading and serving our community and how to provide an excellent and outstanding education resulting in outstanding graduates.
READ MORE: Christianity Today International writer Holly Vicente Robaina interviewed Pete Menjares about how Christians can influence public education.