The Outward Impact of Faith and Learning Integration

The Outward Impact of Faith and Learning Integration

Fall 2023

A conversation with Lena Crouso, Nicole Eastes, Allin Means, and Emily Milnes

The faith-centered mission of Christian colleges provides the cornerstone of campus life. But this work is not only for the students on campus; every day, Christian colleges and universities are finding new ways to serve their communities, share their wealth of knowledge, and model for both students and those off campus how a Christ-centered educational experience can be a positive influence for the good of all.

The following conversation explores this unique ripple effect of faith-integrated learning and asks some campus leaders — who in addition to their academic work also participate in programs and initiatives that bring the value of Christ-centered higher education to the community — ways that administrators can support this work.

Moderator Lena Crouso recently retired after more than 30 years of serving in Christian higher education; most recently, she served as the CCCU’s senior fellow for diversity and special advisor to the president while also serving at Southern Nazarene University (Bethany, OK) as the vice president for intercultural learning and engagement, chief diversity officer, and professor. Nicole Eastes serves at Sterling College (Sterling, KS) as an assistant professor, the clinical education coordinator for the college’s athletic training program, and the director for the integration of faith and learning. Allin Means is the associate dean and professor at the School of Communications at Missouri Baptist University (St. Louis, MO), where he also directs the university’s Faith and Research Conference. Emily Milnes is the director of recruitment and program relations at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy (Malibu, CA) and is also a licensed attorney with a background in immigration law and modern slavery.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity; to view the full conversation, visit the CCCU’s YouTube channel.

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Lena Crouso: We all work at Christ-centered institutions whose missions are built on the central belief that faith- integrated learning is essential. How do you respond to someone off campus who asks why that kind of learning experience matters to anyone else who isn’t a student or faculty member there?

Allin Means: At MBU [Missouri Baptist University], we’re an evangelical university and we welcome all students from all walks of life. So it’s the relational aspect [of our campus experience] that we hope draws them here — even if they just only know us because we have the word “Baptist” in our name … or they may have never been in a church before or had any Christian influence whatsoever. It begins with that relationship; when they arrive, we want to show them what Christ looks like in what we do. I think that’s what sets us apart.

But it’s a tough question, isn’t it, because you have to get them here before they see that, they’re a part of that relationship, that they’re a part of that kind of connection with faculty and other students. But I do think that at the end of the day, the ethic that a Christian higher education institution centers around is crucial, and it’s so important to a student’s development on the whole. So when people say, “Well, why do you like working at MBU?” I say, “Well, I love being around Christians. I love talking to students, whether they’re Christians or not Christians. I love the openness that we can have in our discussions. We don’t have to check things at the door — we can really talk about things and dive in deep. We’re not here to do the saving. God will do the saving; we’re just here to be [his] vessel.”

Emily Milnes: As I was thinking about this question, I returned to Pepperdine University’s mission statement, which is that we’re a Christian institution that’s committed to academic excellence and to equip students for lives of purpose, service, and leadership. It’s those three last words in that phrase —purpose, service, and leadership — that I think are so crucial to having faith-integrated learning. It’s introducing excellence in the classroom as we pursue truth and what is good and right and beautiful, and as we wrestle with the really big questions with intellectual integrity and with honesty.

But I think it also goes to casting a vision and a real imagination for what could be. C.S. Lewis talks about a baptism of imagination. In the Christian university setting, what does that mean? As faculty and staff are coming alongside students both in the classroom and outside of the classroom and giving them real skills of excellence and questions to wrestle with, they’re also thinking through how one pursues excellence, pursues truth, loves God, loves humanity well, both in the classroom and outside of the classroom.

I think that’s why faith-integrated learning is so important — it’s lifting the vision and the imagination from being so inward to looking outward and saying, “How can I pursue excellence in all areas of life? What’s it all for?” But then we know when the students leave the classroom and go into the world, there’s a lot of work to do. It’s amazing work, but the work is a marathon, and it requires men and women who are willing to show up and do the hard work and stick with it for the long haul. When you’re learning in the faith-integrated classroom that Christ came, he died, he saved us, and now he set us free to be light in the world, [that knowledge is] something that gives fuel to the work for the long haul.

Nicole Eastes: I’ve been thinking about what it means to have a holistic approach to education. Being in my area of healthcare, there’s this push — whether you’re in a secular culture or you’re in a Christian faith-based culture — for a holistic approach, looking at the whole person in order to be well and what it means to be successful. When somebody comes to a place like Sterling or any of these other institutions — maybe they’re young in their faith, maybe they’re mature in their faith, or maybe they have no interest whatsoever in pursuing a faith in Christ — this type of education helps those students to wrestle with some of those tough life questions. It helps them to, in a safe space, think through what it means to have integrity. What does it mean to have faith and morals? How does that then apply to my future vocation? To me, that’s really at the core of it.

We all pray that in their time here, those students that don’t know Christ would come to know him and that those students who do know Christ would grow deeper, because that’s what we’re always pursuing. But marrying those two things of faith and learning together, it helps us take the faith aspect and understand that it affects our vocation. It affects what God has called us to do.

I go back to, as Emily was saying, the why. There is so much burnout and so many mental health struggles that people have been dealing. So when we look at how we help our students be prepared for what they’re going to face in the world, helping them to have that strong foundation in faith, and then also helping them to know how to stand on their morals and their integrity, that “why” changes everything. If you have a why, if you have that meaning and that purpose, it changes that pursuit of excellence from being just, “Okay, I did it, I’m excellent in my field,” into a continued growth and a continued pursuit of excellence because of who you’re serving.

Means: We know Gen Z wants to make a difference. … So to Emily’s point of the “why,” why does this generation care? If we can connect that to faith, that’s crucial. It might be a way that God can come into that mix. We talk about how Gen Z is entitled, they expect things, and some of that might be true, but they really want to do good. They grapple with difficult questions. They want to change the world, but they’re not sure how yet. If we come alongside them, we can help them let God work through them and us to find out their “why” on a bigger scale than just, “It feels like the right thing to do.”

Eastes: I’m going to borrow from one of my colleagues [who spoke at] our first convocation [of the academic year]. He talked about AI in higher education and how we’re reaching an era where we don’t necessarily need people to crunch the numbers and find all of the research and do all of the answers. What we need people for is for the humanity. We need to train people how to care for other people well, and how to take what we’re learning and apply the moral and ethical element to it and actually care and not just be robots. A faith-integrated classroom does that.

Milnes: I think that’s so beautiful. It’s thinking about the imago Dei, how do we care well for the imago Dei, and incorporating this idea of human dignity and inherent value that is in each and every person. … Students want to do good, but there are a lot of voices and pressure on them right now, [saying], “You’ve got to perform, you’ve got to do all these things by the time you’re 22 years old or else the world’s going to fall apart.” [Faith-integrated learning] gives them the freedom to know that there are a lot of voices and pressure, but there’s one voice that actually matters most. What is it that Jesus is calling them to do, and where is he telling them to go? And learning to recognize that voice — you can do that. Faith-integrated classrooms really equip students to walk in freedom and not have all of the pressure.

Crouso: In your own area of leadership and your experience, how are the external, tactile, practical aspects of learning — the public faculty seminars, the student performances or presentations — how are they important for sharing this value of the faith-centered learning approach?

Means: I don’t want to just use this as an opportunity for a shameless plug of the Faith and Research Conference that I direct. But I will say, in all honesty, I took over the conference about three or four years ago because I saw an opportunity to reach out to a larger audience, whether Christian or not. We decide on themes. Two years ago, it was mental health and the wholeness of creation; last year, emerging from COVID, our theme was well-being, mind, body, and spirit. This year, our theme is going to be on artificial intelligence. These things are relevant in our current culture. When we saw statistics about students struggling with mental health issues, we said, “All right, now let’s build this year’s conference around that.” And so we invited people from all over. A lot of folks from Missouri Baptist present, of course, but we also had speakers from different areas and secular schools, and we didn’t question their faith. If they submitted a strong proposal that fit into our theme, then I added them to the docket. We must have 14 or 15 universities here in the St. Louis area, and it is a great way to let this larger community know that we have areas that we can meet and visit and discuss together.

Milnes: I am a lawyer; that’s actually what brought me to Pepperdine in the first place. At Pepperdine, we have the Sudreau Global Justice Institute. It’s housed in the law school, and it’s an opportunity for students to work around the world in public justice systems, to come alongside and support the leaders who are doing courageous work there. It means going into the prisons; it means going into the [courts]. Faculty and administrators go along — I was just in Uganda with our president and vice president in June, in the prisons alongside our students and students from other schools around the country, doing plea bargaining and working with dear friends there.

In that setting, it really is rolling up the sleeves and seeing that academic excellence that’s taught in the classroom being implemented in real life, saying, “What does this look like?” It gives students a vision for what could be. It doesn’t mean all of them will go into human rights law or practice immigration law or look at human trafficking, but it does give them an idea of what could be. It’s what Allin was talking about: we need universities to think deeply on these topics and to think well, but we can’t just stop there. We’ve got to take the good ideas and actually put them into action. At the policy school, we have students who have to do an internship for graduation. They also have [to complete] a capstone for graduation. Our encouragement to our students is to work alongside organizations or NGOs or governments and ask, “Where are there gaps, and how can we fill those gaps?” It’s meeting the requirements for the curriculum and the coursework, of course, but it’s also saying, “How can I actually use what’s learned in the classroom and apply it in a very practical and real sense?” It helps them recognize that they’re not the hero of the story, but they do get to be a part of it.

Eastes: One of the things that came to my mind was the day-to-day “normal” experiences — how do we make a difference in the lives of the people that we rub elbows with every single day and be a light to those people? Thinking about the programs that we have here at Sterling — whether it’s the athletic training program that I teach in, or it’s our education program where we have student teachers going out — we need to make sure that we’re first equipping them before we send them out into those experiences. We need to make sure we are modeling what that should look like, to be a positive influence wherever you go.

One of the things in my role that I’ve had to work on is doing different inter-professional education for our athletic training students with other healthcare professions. Being at a small Christian school in the middle of Kansas, there are not any other healthcare professions on campus, or even many nearby. So I stumbled upon a connection at a larger state institution, and now [our students] connect with one of their nurse practitioner programs and work alongside them. That is an opportunity to show that what we do here is just a little bit different — to show the light of what we do. That’s a priority for us, being with people … whether it’s other faith-based individuals or people that have no interest in faith whatsoever — showing them the inherent good that comes from what we’re doing here and showing them that we are also scholars. We are still excellent in our field.

Crouso: As in all of higher education, Christian higher education has an increasing amount of faculty who are adjuncts. What are some of the skills, the mentoring opportunities you would offer them in this important area of faith and learning integration?

Eastes: We have quite a few adjuncts in our department, so I do get the opportunity to mentor them and answer those questions that they have. And with my role for the director for the integration of faith and learning, [the questions] tend to be like, “What does that even mean? What does that even look like? Do I have to read a Bible verse every day or something like that?” My first piece of advice to any faculty member, but especially a new faculty member or a faculty adjunct, is authenticity — living your faith in a way that you’re modeling for your students that you mean what you say, and that you really do believe all of this stuff that we talk about at Sterling College. When we’re trying to encourage people to integrate faith into their classroom, it’s first how they live it — and that’s in the classroom, but that’s also outside of the classroom. It’s in their office hours; it’s in how they respond to an email or a text message. It’s when they run into their student at the store. How we live and the calling that God’s placed on our lives to live a certain way is far more important than any content we’re going to share or any one practice that we’re going to implement into the classroom. Invest in the continued spiritual renewal of our faculty and encourage them to let that authentically come out and be who they are — because that’s why they’re here. They love being in a Christian institution and getting to be in their discipline.

Means: I’ve written down something you said, Nicole: Encourage. I just started this position this semester, and so I’m getting my arms around our adjuncts — we’ve got them all over the country, and they’re excellent. They do have to have a statement of faith to be hired, even as an adjunct, but [beyond that] I want to be encouraging. I want to let them know that if they are thinking about trying something new that may or may not work but it integrates some sort of faith message into whatever they are doing, try it.

For us at Missouri Baptist University — and probably all of our [CCCU] schools — the main mission is to keep doing the mission. The best way to do faith and learning is to keep doing it and keep it at the front of our minds. So I want to let our adjuncts know, don’t be afraid to try something. If it doesn’t work, that’s okay.

Milnes: What came to mind was the Gospel itself, when Jesus says, “Come and see.” I think that’s the great invitation in the classroom — whether it’s mentoring new faculty, adjunct faculty, or students and staff, it’s that invitation to come and see. At the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine, we have adjunct faculty who are policy practitioners in their field all over the world, and they’re teaching students, come and see how to do the work of public policy — whether it’s in international relations, or economics, or state and local policy — come and see how to do this well. But it’s that invitation that Jesus extends to all of us as well: come and see. [So we can extend that] in support of adjunct faculty.

Crouso: In the ongoing quest for resources — that includes money, but also time and other valuable resources — what one or two important ways can administrators support you and your colleagues right now in this work?

Means: Give us the space to do the things that we’re already thinking about doing. I’ll circle back to the Faith and Research Conference — no one came up and said, “Hey, Allin, would you be willing to take this thing over?” It’s something I saw; I felt led to take it over and see what I could do with it. And immediately the university said, “Yes.” We have very limited funds, but they gave me some release time and allowed me to hire a few more adjuncts to fill in some of the gaps so I could focus on this thing. Space was made available for us to host things, and our food services folks gave us a great price. Everybody pitched in a little bit together. It takes a village to do that.

You’re right, it’s not all about money. It’s about effort. [For this conference,] everybody pitches in and says, “What can I do to help?” It was amazing to see the kind of response I’ve gotten. It hasn’t required a great deal of money, and we still don’t have to charge a fee to come and present or attend. It’s free, and I hope to keep it free forever. The university has supported us, but everybody pitches in, old church picnic style — everybody’s got a piece. Then, as you come away from that, you’re like, “I’m just so excited about how this turned out because everybody was so helpful.” It’s been a real blessing. It’s a picture of the church in a way.

Crouso: Well, it’s bringing the body of Christ to Christian higher ed. We talk about the body of Christ from a church embodiment. But to see what you’re describing there, that’s really a beautiful thing.

Milnes: It goes back to that first question: what is this all for, and why does the university exist? So part of the support that administration can give is being on board and available and willing to listen and engage in the conversation, but especially to support it through prayer. We can talk a lot about doing, but really, spending time in prayer [is so important], and that comes from the top down and [includes] being engaged fully.

Eastes: Yes, jumping off that, the biggest way that administrators can support these efforts is to truly live these [efforts] themselves. So prioritizing that integration of faith and learning in their own life, that thought process that once we’re done being a formal student and we’re not in a formal classroom anymore, we’re still learning. And if we’re a Christian higher education institution, then that means we love education and learning and we love Christ. So making sure that how we spend our time, how we spend our energy, and yes, our budget dollars, it should go toward those things that we say we prioritize and making sure that those are the priority.

And then for the events that are meant to facilitate growth in this area, [a priority would be having] administrators come to those events. I know administrators are very busy, but prioritize that — because your time is so huge. There are a lot of things that we can figure out financially — God makes the money for what we need to have money for, is my philosophy. But when it comes to administrators supporting the integration of faith and learning, model it in your own lives and also show your faculty and staff that you prioritize it by participating in those events and being a part of those conversations. It also really helps with the camaraderie among administration and faculty, to see the heart of the administrators in those roles.