May 18, 2021
It is all about the students. That has been the heart of my calling since I first arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota in August 1977 to take up the newly created position of Director of Residence Life at Bethel College (now Bethel University). I had no obvious qualifications for the job—only a commitment to work hard, an eagerness to learn, and a sense that this was where I was supposed to be.
I still puzzle over why Dean Marilyn Starr took a chance on me. But I will be forever grateful for that opportunity; the challenge of crafting the new program, of working with new colleagues, and of seeking to meet the needs of the students took me out of my comfort zone of studying history and writing papers—and forced my small, fearful social self to come alive.
What seemed diversionary from my initial plan to go straight through graduate school in history proved to be one of the most important assignments of my life. I learned through experience that any true education has to address the whole person. It is not enough to be able to pass tests. One’s learning has to be translated into life. That conviction shaped my entire journey in higher education—through 23 years of teaching history, several years in the work of Chief Academic Officer, and finally in the Presidency. Every context with students—from the traditional classroom to museums and art galleries on travel-study programs to the residence to coffee shops—became an opportunity to frame invitations to students to call them to choose to become more fully the very particular person God created them to be.
As I worked with students in various professional capacities, I found that God used them and the challenges of the jobs themselves to work on me. That is the fascinating thing about life in God’s Kingdom. As we offer our work to God, God, in turn, is working on us. I believe that is part of the message of Ephesians 2:8-10. He is the master craftsman. We are the art project. I have always thought of this in terms of sculpture—perhaps from my admiration for Michelangelo and especially studying his “Unfinished Slaves.”
Last Saturday, I sat on the platform in Wesley Chapel at my final Commencement, listening to Dr. Timothy Dalrymple, CEO of Christianity Today, who used a different metaphor—that of Master Weaver and the Tapestry—to encourage graduates at this critical juncture of their lives. As he said to them,
“We don’t have any idea what will come next. We don’t have to. We just need to submit to being the tapestry—and ultimately the Storyteller—witnessing to God’s faithfulness in our lives.”
As I listened, I knew deep in my spirit the truth of the message—in a way that I could not possibly have imagined 45 years earlier when I sat on that same platform waiting to receive my diploma. I yearned to be able to infuse this confidence into the graduates. But, of course, they too have to learn this for themselves in the context of their own stories.
Once a Student, Always a Student
My task today is to embrace the next step in my own journey with this same confidence. In so many ways, I feel as if I am just a beginner in the school of life. I have been meditating this year on Psalm 27:4. “One thing I have desired; that will I seek after. That I may dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the Beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.” I don’t pretend to understand fully what this means. But the text holds out before me the same adventurous invitation that drew me into a life of learning in the first place—and that I have always sought to share with students.
As I write to you my final enewsletter, I wish for you today this same spirit of openness to all that God might want to offer you in whatever stage of your journey you find yourselves.
Grace and Peace to you,
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976