Dr. Joseph McRae Mellichamp is Emeritus Professor of Management Science in the Manderson Graduate School of Business at the University of Alabama and National Faculty Representative for Christian Leadership Ministries. For 25 years, Dr. Mellichamp combined successful academic pursuits with effective Christian ministry activities.
It’s one thing to seek to reach out to students; it’s quite a different matter to try to reach out in a Christian way to colleagues. Students are here today and gone tomorrow. Some of them are really gone, like to the other side of the world gone. If you botch it in attempting to share with a student, you know that in a little while, the student will be out of the picture. But with colleagues, it’s a whole new ball game. They are going to be right next door or down the hall in their office for the next 10, 20, or 30 years. You have to work with them on a daily basis. In some cases, they will be evaluating your work for promotion and tenure. In some cases, you will be doing collaborative work that requires high levels of trust and cooperation with them. If you botch an attempt to minister in the life of a colleague, it could create problems for a long time.
If you are like most Christian professors and staff members, you have felt a burden for your colleagues and have wanted to reach out to them, to minister to them -- especially those closest to you. Perhaps you just haven't done so for fear of turning them off or perhaps it’s because you haven't been able to think of an appropriate way to reach out. One of the real keys of ministry with colleagues is to address felt needs. Through the years, we have tried to reach out to colleagues in a number of different ways, all of which seek to focus on a particular need that professors and staff have.
Perhaps the most commonly felt need of professors and staff in academia is time management or personal effectiveness. What better way to minister to busy colleagues who are under pressure to produce than to offer to help them become more effective? Consider leading a weekly discussion of the book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989). This thoughtful book presents seven principles of effectiveness any one of which if followed consistently should enhance effectiveness. The set of seven principles is especially suitable for individuals working in academia; the concepts integrate extremely well in the academic setting. The book can easily be covered in nine or 10 weekly sessions of 45 minutes to an hour. A packet of discussion notes is available from Christian Leadership Ministries, thus, one could lead a discussion group with no additional preparation other than reading the book.
The following steps are suggested for setting up a discussion group.
Several suggestions will be useful as you begin to meet with the group.
As you conclude the study, several suggestions might be helpful.
By way of encouragement, let me share my experience at the University of Alabama. When I returned to the University from summer break in 1993, I felt I needed to reach out more to colleagues in my department; to minister, to serve, and to give leadership. I decided to challenge the eight assistant and associate professors in the department to do the Seven Habits study. I bit the bullet and purchased eight books and started praying for these eight men.
All eight of them were excited about the study and thought it would be a good thing to do. We met on Friday afternoons from 2 to 2:45 for about 10 Fridays. To summarize the experience, we had a blast! We would talk about applying the principles in the halls and over coffee in the coffee room. Several of us worked to put Covey's scheduling system up on our computers and four or five of us are faithfully using the system to organize our activities. Almost every week, someone in the group would volunteer an application of the material to our work or family situations. Toward the end of our sessions, I suggested that we might like to continue the following semester with The Man in the Mirror; six of the eight decided to continue.
When the word got around the department that I was doing the study, two of the full professors came to me and complained, good naturedly, that I had excluded them. I suggested that if the study went well, I would do it again the following semester for the full professors. It went well, so I did it again with four of the five full professors and one of the assistants who had to drop out of the fall study due to an illness in his family. One of the full professors even purchased a copy of the book and started reading it on his own as we were doing the fall study. The department head joined the study for full professors and commended me for exercising this leadership role in the department.
I was so enthusiastic about the study, that the Sunday-evening adult group in our church asked me to lead a study for couples in the church. Some of the people involved in that study have commented on how the study has significantly impacted their lives. I have already had several requests for the discussion notes I prepared from participants who want to start other groups; one such request came from a professor from another university who was visiting the department one Friday afternoon and was invited to the meeting by one of our members.
The bottom line on this whole experience for me is that it has opened the entire faculty up to discussions of effectiveness, cooperation, support, and other topics that foster a collegial atmosphere in a department. My colleague in the next office and I have had frequent and ongoing discussions about how to apply various principles; the study would have been worthwhile just for the way it has helped the two of us. I would encourage you to initiate this activity in your own situation. It is a win/win ministry option -- I can't imagine any down-side risks, and the potential benefits are significant.
As a postscript, since leaving the University of Alabama and moving to Atlanta, I have done two studies here. One was a more conventional study in a research organization setting with much the same outcome as I had in my department This fall, my wife and I decided to use the Seven Habits study as a vehicle for reaching out in our neighborhood. We have participated with five couples and three singles working our way through the material. One couple drives 25 miles through Atlanta traffic to attend; another couple drives about 15 miles. We meet every other week (to accommodate my travel schedule) in one of the homes in the neighborhood for about an hour and a half to discuss the material and then have coffee and dessert. We have all thoroughly enjoyed the study, and I think it is safe to say that we have all benefited from it. Some of us have been talking about expanding the group next year into an investigative Bible study for the neighborhood. This is a winner!
Another book study approach that some of us have used to reach out to colleagues is based on the wonderful little book, How to Be a Christian Without Being Religious by Fritz Ridenour (Gospel Light Publications, 1967). The book is actually a commentary of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, but its title and the way in which it was written and illustrated make it ideal for use in an evangelistic book study. The idea that one could be a Christian and not be religious has a certain appeal to the unbeliever. The chapter titles are very cleverly done: "Your Faith: Dead or Alive?" "Does God Ever Grade on the Curve?" "Are Christians on Parole or Fully Pardoned?" "Is Your Faith More Than Fire Insurance?" And the illustrations are delightful. There are only 16 short chapters (161 pages) so a study can easily be done in a school term -- semester or quarter -- by doing two chapters per week. There are questions for further thought at the end of each chapter that also facilitate a discussion format. If you have colleagues who might be open to a consideration of spiritual things, you might consider inviting them to your office once a week for eight weeks to discuss the book. Most of the logistical comments given in connection with the Seven Habits study apply here as well.
Search Ministries (address and telephone number available from Christian Leadership Ministries) has developed an effective discussion series approach to reaching out to business and professional people. This approach works well with academics and has been used by a number of professors for reaching out to colleagues. A core of committed Christians is needed to begin with, people who will meet together, preferably in someone’s home, one night a week for about four weeks in preparation for the actual outreach. The usual scenario in Christian Leadership Ministries has been to involve four to six couples as hosts. Each couple commits to invite one or more other couples to the outreach phase. The core group meets weekly during the preparation phase to go over the concept with the discussion facilitator, to understand answers to key apologetic questions, to go over some of the actual discussion materials to be used in the outreach phase, and to begin to pray for non-Christian couples they will invite to the outreach phase. The outreach phase lasts two to four weeks and is essentially a free-form discussion series on important topics related to God and life. Questions such as "Why do bad things happen to good people?" and "If man is good, why does he do evil?" are used to start the discussion. The Christians are prepared to participate in the discussion but are careful not to monopolize it.
Several features of this approach account for its effectiveness as an outreach strategy. In the case where the Christians do a good job of recruiting other couples (trusting God to lead them to invite those in whom His Spirit is already at work), the non-believers might outnumber the believers -- possibly by as much as two to one, thus creating a "safe" environment. The believers are committed to maintaining a low-key approach, being neither dogmatic nor authoritative, e.g., "This is what the Bible says, like it or lump it." Thus, the environment is conducive to honest sharing and seeking. The approach focuses on questions participants have about religion or Christianity, thus there is high potential for addressing concerns that might have prevented participants from coming to a saving knowledge of Christ. The discussion time is strictly limited to 59 minutes and 59 seconds and the duration of the series to two to four consecutive weeks. This way, participants know exactly what the time commitment will be up front. An informal time over dessert is usually included after the discussion where people can fellowship and continue to interact over the discussion points.
As you might have guessed, this approach requires a high level of commitment on the part of each of the eight to 12 Christians involved. The time commitment is about two hours for six to eight weekly meetings. The real commitment, however, is inviting colleagues. The couples need to be praying for several weeks about whom they will invite and then muster up the courage to do the actual inviting. It’s one thing to talk abstractly about inviting another couple to a discussion series; it’s quite another thing to actually invite someone. Of course, if no one does any inviting, no non-Christians will show for the discussion. There also needs to be commitment to follow-up with those who actually participate to the point of actually sharing the Gospel one on one with those who have come to that point through the discussions.
Those who have done this type of outreach are enthusiastic about the experience. It is the kind of thing that would be better if done on a continuing basis, perhaps annually. If you only do one, by the time the host couples have one experience behind them and fully understand the approach, it’s over. Although my own experience was limited to one repetition of the series, I suspect that it would have been much more effective had we repeated it again the following year with the same couples involved.
When individual Christian professors and staff begin to think about having an impact on campus, a Bible study often comes to mind. There are a number of different ways in which a Bible study can be used to minister to colleagues in the university. Let me suggest at least three.
Perhaps the most common situation would be where a number of Christians within the same department or college form a study primarily for fellowship and mutual encouragement. I am aware of many such studies in colleges and universities around the country -- some of these have been in existence for a long time. Usually, such studies begin almost spontaneously when a few people who work in close proximity become aware that they share a common faith and decide to meet on a regular basis. Early in my career, I initiated such a group which included a couple of professors from my "side of the campus" and a couple of graduate students I had met through my involvement in Campus Crusade for Christ. One of the very fruitful studies we undertook was to discover what the Bible had to say about counseling opportunities we might encounter with college students. We also spent a lot of time discussing how we could have a greater impact for Christ in the institution, and it was partly these early discussions that launched me into an exciting career of ministry.
A slightly different twist on this format is where several professors and/or staff members mutually agree to meet together in the context of discipleship. From time to time, I have taken several colleagues aside for a few months of weekly studies. During these sessions, we have studied the Bible topically and also used various Christian books to sharpen our focus. Perhaps the most useful book in this regard is Robert Coleman’s The Master Plan of Evangelism (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1988), but we have also considered books on time management, marriage, and financial management for the purpose of understanding biblical instruction on a particular topic. I look back on these times and suspect I received as much from them as the men whom I was supposed to be leading through the studies.
Another less-frequently used format is an evangelistic Bible study. Here, the idea is to challenge a number of non-Christian colleagues to meet on a regular basis to discover what the Bible is all about. Obviously, this approach is not for the fainthearted. Walter Bradley has probably followed this model as effectively as anyone I know using How to Be a Christian Without Being Religious. I would not recommend trying this without first spending considerable effort in developing prospects for the study. When Walter has used the evangelistic Bible study, it has been after some relationship cultivation and some assessment of interest, usually through a discussion series.
One final way of ministering to colleagues through a Bible study is the couple’s Bible study. For many years in Tuscaloosa, I led a Bible study for couples that involved mainly university employees and their spouses, but also included several couples who were not connected at all with the university. We had a pretty stable core of Christian couples who were very committed to each other and to the group as well. Most of these people were outreach-oriented, so every year, they would invite friends and acquaintances to join the group. Peggy and I saw the group as a natural place to invite our non-Christian university colleagues -- the fellowship was warm and the environment was open toward seekers. We met each week in a different home for about an hour of study followed by dessert and fellowship. Some close relationships were formed -- we attended conferences together and some of us vacationed together. Through the years, we saw a number of people come to Christ either through the group directly or as a consequence of the group including a department chairman, several married doctoral students, and children of the couples involved in the study. One time, I was voicing some regrets that I was not as effective as I wanted to be in impacting people for Christ when Tommy Howard, one of the faithful members of the couple’s Bible study, gently replied that he was offended by my remarks; he said the Bible study had had an enormous impact on his own life and the life of everyone in his family.
I am also big on activities that simultaneously accomplish more than one objective. The couple’s Bible study is a wonderful way of involving your spouse in ministry while cultivating deep relationships with other Christian couples. Recently, we received an email message from a couple involved in our couple’s Bible study years ago. We had almost lost touch with them because they moved from Tuscaloosa 20 years ago and we moved two years ago. We are planning a get together again soon. We are really looking forward to seeing them as they have been our soul-mates in ministry over the years, even though we haven’t been in close touch.
It should be pretty clear that all of the formats described here for ministering to colleagues through Bible studies require a fairly serious time commitment. We are talking about a weekly meeting with some outside preparation for anywhere from a few weeks as in the case of an evangelistic study, to several years for a couple’s study. However, the benefits of such studies in terms of transformed lives always outweigh any expenditure of time and energy we might make. If you are at all gifted in the area of teaching and this seems like a good ministry fit for you, I would encourage you to do it.
I want to register one small word of caution at this point regarding faculty/staff Bible studies. A Bible study is not the appropriate vehicle for fundamentally impacting the university for Christ. This purpose is effectively accomplished through the Christian Faculty/Staff Fellowship, which is discussed in the next section. Unfortunately, professors and staff often get involved in a Bible study that they view as the "be all, end all," and they use the study as an excuse not to get involved in more comprehensive efforts to impact the campus. More on this later.
I think mentoring junior colleagues is a perfect ministry opportunity for Christian professors and I would like to see us really begin to capitalize on this. I have mentioned before that effective ministry should be needs-based -- we have to become more aware of the needs of those to whom we are seeking to minister. One need that every new professor in the university has is in the area of professional development. The business world has long recognized the value of mentoring. Talk to any executive in a large business organization, and he will quickly let you know that having a mentor is an imperative for personal success in business. Most successful professors in the university, likewise, can point to a senior professor who has had an impact on them personally. Unfortunately in the university, we have not been nearly as intentional in this respect as our counterparts in business.
Those in the university who are senior professors and well-established in their careers need to see mentoring younger professors as a significant ministry possibility. Consider coming alongside one or two young professors in your discipline and helping them to succeed in the academy -- help them get their research programs off to a good start and help them become effective classroom teachers. If the person you are mentoring is not a Christian, you will have many natural opportunities for talking to him about spiritual matters, perhaps by sharing with him your personal goals and objectives, which would, of course, include spiritual goals. If the individual is a Christian, you will have opportunities to encourage him toward spiritual maturity. We aren’t talking about a great time commitment here -- perhaps an hour or so a month. The payoff could be considerable.
One of the ministry opportunities we will discuss in the next section is the Tenure Seminar. As you and your Christian colleagues reach out in this way to junior colleagues in the institution, you might have good opportunities to establish mentoring relationships with junior faculty colleagues in other departments. And in Christian Leadership, we ultimately want to put in place a mechanism for mentoring on a national and international basis, putting young professors in touch with Christian scholars (without respect to geographic location) in their disciplines who can help them succeed. This is probably a few years in the future; for the present we need to develop a mindset that views mentoring as a fruitful ministry opportunity.
© Copyright 1997, Joseph McRae Mellichamp
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