The other night my wife Camie started talking about walnuts and rice, and I had no idea where the conversation was going. But while she went on speaking in foodie parables, I finally realized that what she had in mind was that old Sunday School illustration where you take a jar, a handful of rice (enough to fill the jar) and then a handful of walnuts. And if you put the rice in first and then the walnuts, you’ll find that there is not enough room in the jar for both. But if you put the walnuts in the jar first and then the rice, they both fit fine.
When I started my role at Trinity I quickly realized that my first job was not to fundraise or to develop new initiatives. My first job was to distinguish the walnuts from the rice, what goes into the jar first from that which fills in the gaps. What are the walnuts for Trinity International University? There are two pieces to this answer: the right team and the right vision. The rice is just the rest of the details.
Along the way there has been no small share of distractions and challenges during these past few years of my tenure as Trinity’s president. But through it all, I’ve learned something along the way: While I would not claim that my leadership team is perfect or beyond criticism; having witnessed Trinity’s leadership team operate in the midst of crisis, I do believe that God has blessed me and this university with a good cabinet. I believe that while no one individual is irreplaceable, including myself, I believe that I have the right team. And if I have the right team on my end of things, we just might be that much closer to getting one of those key walnuts in the jar.
Then there’s the other walnut I want to put in the jar: a vision for Trinity’s future. But just to be clear, TIU’s vision is its mission. And this mission, like the core values, remains the same: “Trinity educates men and women to engage in God’s redemptive work in the world by cultivating academic excellence, Christian faithfulness, and lifelong learning.” That’s our mission statement and we’re sticking with it.
But mission statements only tell you so much. Mission statements can tell you what you’re shooting for, but they don’t always tell you how you will get there in the midst of changing contexts. For my part I believe that key opportunities are waiting for us in the market spaces that our campuses now inhabit. But these key opportunities can only be realized as we clarify the “how” of our mission by identifying the necessary strategic priorities. I have identified three. By interpreting our mission through the lens of three different strategic priorities, which are also commitment to certain activities, we can ensure that Trinity and each of its institutions remain more relevant and more urgently needed than ever.
The first strategic priority, the first activity, is this: that we worship in faithfulness. according to our mission statement, our calling at Trinity is to “educate men and women to engage in God’s redemptive work.” That redemptive work not only drives creation along to the day when all the nations will worship the one true God, but also builds on the worship initiated by the Risen Christ through the Spirit. But how is it even possible for us here at Trinity to call our students to engage in that redemptive work as alumni if they do not engage in that redemptive work in their day-to-day student life? And though obviously we are not a church, how is that engagement possible apart from worship?
Here at Trinity, worship is important to who we are. Worship is a key component of our Free Church heritage. For these reasons, we need to recommit ourselves afresh to worshipping in faithfulness—not just in the predictable chapel space, but in all those countless curricular and extra-curricular spaces.
That’s the first strategic priority; the second is this: we must mentor in hope. Why do students choose to come to Trinity—of all the camps, colleges, seminaries, and law schools they can go to? I have a strong suspicion (and in fact recently performed market research has actually borne this out) that one of the key reasons has more than a little to do with one of Trinity’s secret sauces. Trinity might not have all the bells and whistles that its competitors may have. No, sometimes it feels like we could use a few more bells and whistles around here. But how many Christian students around the country (or around the world!) would trade all these perks and amenities in a heartbeat—if only they knew they had the opportunity to be mentored by staff and faculty who care? Judging by recently acquired marketing data, we know that many would—but they need to know. The more intentional we are about mentoring in hope, the stronger the student experience. And the stronger the student experience, the more the word will get out.
We must mentor in hope. This too coheres naturally with our mission statement: if our task is to educate men and women to engage in God’s redemptive work, the most effective way for that engagement with redemption to take hold is by us engaging our students one at a time. I say this not just on the basis of experience, but because this is exactly how Jesus engaged his followers in God’s redemptive work: one disciple at a time. And this, prospective students tell us, is exactly what they want. I suggest we set up a working group devoted to studying how Trinity can be even more intentional about mentoring in hope without undue expenditure of time and resources.
Finally, in order to execute Trinity’s mission, we must build bridges in love. By the grace of God, today’s Trinity campuses are very diverse—ours are among the most diverse of campuses in the country. And yet diversity is not the same thing as a biblically rooted inclusion. Just because we have many different people here (students, faculty, and staff), that does not mean that we’ve in any sense arrived as proficient bridge builders, the way Jesus was the master bridge builder. Who we are, how we relate to another, and even the kind of books that we read need to reflect these things. We have a long way to go.
Truth is, the world does not have the tools within its grasp for the kind of radical reconciliation that’s needed. This reconciliation begins with worshipping in faithfulness, continues with mentoring in hope, and climaxes with bridge building in love. The greatest of these is what we do in love. For all we know, the answer to the world’s most pressing problems may be found right here at Trinity.
Is there another reason that this make sense for Trinity? Yes. Our mission statement says that our task is “to educate men and women in God’s redemptive work in the world.” By “in the world,” I assume the framers of the mission statement intended “world in all its beautiful diversity.” If so, ours is to raise up students who can engage in God’s redemptive work “in the world,” a world where all the familiar dividing walls and corresponding ideologies have already been broken down in Christ.
Twenty years ago, Stanley O. Ikenberry, then President American Council on Education, wrote these words: “The crucial challenge facing American higher education today is that of defining a sense of self.” With this outline of strategic priorities, I have sought to sharpen Trinity’s senses of self, giving added definition to what this university is—and what it is not. Once we know who we are, both as a university and all its discrete entities, and as my administration continues to coordinate the teams on different campuses to maximize synergies and efficiencies between the campuses, I believe we will be well positioned for success.
In short, I have sought to identify the walnuts, those things that go in the jar first. I did so first by identifying the Trinity servant leadership team as the strong basis for change and future growth. Of course, the right team cannot be complete apart from the eager and talented individuals that make up the Trinity community (faculty, staff, alumni, donors, and friends). We need you to be part of this right team. Will you help us secure that foundation by embracing this vision—not reluctantly, but with everything you’ve got?
Then there’s the walnut of the Trinity story, the story that stands to be enacted through the three strategic initiatives noted above: (1) worshiping in faithfulness, (2) mentoring in hope, and (3) building bridges in love. Though this larger story may take a backseat to the various stories represented by the individual schools that make up the University, it is still a guiding and supporting thread. I am calling on the Trinity community to pick up this thread, and then weave it into the fabric of your space. If we gave ourselves five years, until 2025, to execute these strategic priorities, while maintaining and sharpening the distinctive emphases of each entity, what a difference it could make not for our numbers but for the kingdom of God.
To put this another way, if today we have begun the process of inserting the big pieces first, I am now asking you the community to get on board by saying, “We are the right team,” and then to begin the process of filling in the rice—in and all around the larger pieces. In other words, Trinity community, I need your help. Right now, I know we probably have as many questions as we do answers. But I am also hoping that you will step up, embrace the vision I have set before you today, and then collaborate with me in exploring what God has for us.
We are facing some unprecedented challenges, but we have an unprecedented God who walks before us into future ripe for new possibilities. Please join me in the patient task of converting the most promising of those possibilities into reality, as we “educate men and women to engage in God’s redemptive work in the world.”