Editor's note: This story is reprinted from the April issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version of the magazine, click here.
By Jeannette Cruz
“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them — not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be.” — 1 Peter 5:2
Sarah Millers first came across that Bible verse when a Grand Canyon University instructor posted it to her classroom’s discussion forum. The online health administration student was asked to think about how she could apply the verse to her job as manager of an emergency room at a local hospital. She felt moved.
“It really sat with me, and I realized that my objective as a manager is to be the quality shepherd at all times, strengthen and to fully understand the flock in my care,” she said. “That was just one of many professors who have contributed to my success.”
It’s an example of how GCU’s Christ-centered curriculum and service beyond the classroom provide a foundation for the community with an intention to bring all individuals together regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs. But it’s also an indication of how online students feel as spiritually connected to GCU as ground students.
“A biblical perspective of life means that if you are going to grow then you need to be in community of others who will help you grow,” said Dr. Tim Griffin, GCU’s Pastor and Dean of Students.
“Community is an overused word at GCU. In an academic setting the idea is typically framed around ‘engagement.’ Students have to be engaged with other students and in their classrooms to be successful. What I see here is that when students are prodded to think about faith issues, they are engaged.”
What is now called the One Foundation mission continually guides the University’s learning and working communities toward faithfulness, excellence and service to God. Students have access to many sources to live their faith daily — from classroom instruction, to university counselors, to GCU’s True North video devotionals on a YouTube channel, ranging in topics from honoring parents in spite of human failures to peace, thankfulness and a life of constant worship.
“We’re educating from a Christian perspective in a way that raises questions and encourages inquiries,” said Dr. Jason Hiles, Dean of the College of Theology. “There’s no fear in opening up that conversation about faith and allowing questions to arise in the different disciplines.
“We have a large number of students who say they come here because this is a Christian university. When they come, however, even a person who identifies as a Christian might not be expecting the University to cultivate anything in relation to their faith.”
To gain insight on One Foundation’s impact, the University reached out to students with a survey on GCU’s distinct Christian worldview and integration of faith. More than 80 percent of campus, online and evening students identified as Christians. Almost 85 percent of campus students had a positive perception of faith integration and almost 87 percent of online students had a positive one.
“We really have a number of superstar faculty in each college who are really passionate about these things, and that makes a difference,” Hiles said. “Everybody is coming together. We are talking and we are seeing what Christian worldview looks like using their expertise in their fields.”
Michele Pasley, an online instructor in the College of Theology, teaches with a purpose beyond academics.
“Grading papers is the other stuff we have to do because it’s there,” she said. “But that’s not what life is about — life is about helping people encounter Jesus in a way that really changes their life.
“As a Christian university we are able to love God, love our students and love our neighborhood around the campus.” Pasley sees her students making connections in classroom discussion forums and in writing assignments. She hears it from other faculty, too.
“We really have a heart and a passion to help students have life-changing encounters with Jesus,” she said. “Typically, mid-course (in Christian Worldview, a required class no matter what their major), students have an assignment where they write about who they believe Jesus to be, and a lot of them really begin to see faith statements and changes in their view of God.”
Nearly 75 percent of all students said their faith has grown while at GCU. Survey responses indicated that more than 80 percent of all students felt well supported in the University process of integrating faith.
Pasley likes that students at GCU don’t always share the same worldview and faith backgrounds. “We try to set up a safe, warm and inviting place, and we let students know that they don’t get graded based on their beliefs,” she said. “When we create that kind of place for civil dialogue, students really enjoy learning from each other, including those who don’t hold a Christian worldview.
“We not only talk about Christian beliefs, but we also talk about the real, hard things in life — suffering, pain and rough experiences.” Pasley remembers when she and a student were on the phone for two hours. She listened as the student sobbed and explained her pain.
“She walked away from God because of who she thought God was. Who He is is somebody she wanted to be. As she began to take steps dismantling false beliefs and diving into the Bible, I began to see a radical shift in her and the way she wrote and the kinds of comments and questions she asked in class. That was really special,” Pasley said.
Sonya Berges, an online professor in the College of Education, noted the rich Biblical and prayer components that help form followers of Christ.
“Coming from an education perspective, I challenge students to think about how they will continue to show forgiveness and grace in the classroom,” Berges said. “How is it that in a world where teaching strategies and standards constantly change, there is one thing (God) that never changes?
“One colleague mentioned how in her welcome calls she often ends with, ‘Can I pray for you?’ I think it works. I think God truly listens to us.”