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Pulled in Too Many Directions? Get a Kingdom Perspective!

Peterson, Elizabeth A.

doi: 10.1097/01.CNJ.0000343925.63432.5e

Nurse educators are caught in the middle of rising demands.

Elizabeth Peterson, RN, MA, MS, is Associate Professor of Nursing and Director of the Prelicensure Program at Bethel University, where she teaches courses in Mental Health Nursing, and Nursing Care of the Elderly to undergraduate students and courses in Health and Aging, and Nursing as a Christian Health Ministry to graduate students. She also is a Doctor of Ministry student at Bethel Seminary.



HIGHER EDUCATION is facing hard times. Faculty lounges and higher education journals are full of discussions about retrenchment, student retention, teaching effectiveness, faculty morale, gender issues, grade inflation, diversity, decline in faculty numbers and dominance, the changing student population, online education, and other challenges. The public is not as supportive of the educational enterprise as in the past. Educators are teaching more students with more complicated lives, and their effectiveness is scrutinized by deans and student consumers. The stress associated with higher education seems to be rising, and educators are caught in the middle.

For most educators, the three functions of the university—teaching, scholarship, and service—are attractive ideals that provide challenge and satisfaction. The additional expectation of maintaining professional expertise, as in nursing, makes the faculty role more demanding. That, compounded by tenure or promotion requirements, creates significant stress. Add to this the desire to be a good parent, friend, church member, citizen, and follower of Christ, and the role of educator can be overwhelming. Christian educators face such questions as, “How do I deal with all the various ‘deans’?” and ultimately, “To whom do I give my primary loyalty?”

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In Scripture we learn that competing forces war to gain our loyalty. The teachings of Jesus emphasize the concept of the Kingdom of God (i.e., the rule and reign of God). Jesus contrasts this with the idea of the “world,” which represents the power or system opposite God and his Kingdom. In the Old Testament, as Joshua was giving his farewell address to the Israelites just before his death, he advised, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15, NIV). Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24). In each case the decision involved choosing between worshipping the gods of the world or following God.

As contemporary followers of God, we face the same decision. We chose to serve God when we become followers of Christ, but that decision must be reaffirmed many times. One of those times involves deciding who we will serve in our professional lives. Why? As Christians, our profession and God himself are in competition for our wholehearted devotion. Jesus is blatant about this, saying, “He who is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30). At first glance, the expectations of profession don't seem to be as demanding as those of Jesus. But in reality, maintaining minimal competence, let alone achieving mastery or excellence in teaching, service, scholarship, and clinical practice requires much of our lives.

It is natural to wonder whether we could create a compromise whereby we would make God master in his domain, namely, church, spiritual disciplines, and service, and let academia be master of our professional lives. What would be the problem with choosing to serve nursing and God equally? Actually, this creates at least two problems.

First is the issue of God's demands. When we read “Choose whom you will serve,” or “No one can serve two masters,” it seems God might be overly dogmatic and a bit insecure. Does it have to be “either/or”? Couldn't it be “both”?

Richard Peace (1999) in his book Understanding Conversion in the New Testament makes clear the limitations of that perspective when he suggests that it is easy to have an incomplete understanding of who Jesus is and consequently think we might be able to have two masters:

What does it mean to say that you believe that Jesus is the Son of God? It means that in Jesus you have found the human face of God. Jesus is what God looks like in flesh. It means that God is not a disinterested force or spirit that wafts mindlessly through the universe. God is personal. God can be known. We can have a relationship with God. It means that … he is a wise teacher, a powerful prophet, the chosen Messiah, the Son of Man who is able to be a ransom for our sin, and the Son of David who is Lord of all powers, be they on earth or in heaven. He is God. (pp. 327–328)

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By definition, God has to come out on top or he is not God. Os Guinness (1998) suggests that “our primary calling as followers of Christ is by him, to him, and for him. First and foremost, we are called to Someone (God), not to something (e.g., motherhood, politics, or teaching) or to somewhere (e.g., the inner city or Outer Mongolia)” (p. 31). Contrary to popular thinking, God is not willing to share us. He, the powerful God of the universe, wants an exclusive relationship with us.

Although God deserves our unswerving loyalty, there is a second reason for giving him our all—nothing else is worthy of our primary loyalty. The academic world defines success in terms of publications, credentials, international notoriety, ability to obtain research grants, and highly focused expertise. The problem with that definition of success is that only a limited number of people can achieve it, and once achieved, it has to be maintained. It requires that academia become a way of life, with the rest of life subjugated to it. It's no wonder we have little time for solitude, exercise, or relaxation. The academic taskmaster demands that we give our all, and in so doing, we risk losing ourselves.

Given enough time, bowing to the god of academia will result in an experience similar to that of people in the Old Testament who worshiped Molech. Their belief in a false god cost them their lives and the lives of their children (Jeremiah 49:1–3; Zephaniah 1:4–6).

If we choose to follow God in our professional lives, how will that look? At least three areas will be significantly influenced: our understanding of who we are, what our relationships should be like, and the role of our work.

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Words in Scripture that describe who we are and what God expects of us stand in stark contrast to the demands of academia. In Isaiah 43:4 we read, “You are precious and honored in my sight.” Jesus said, “I no longer call you servants…. Instead, I call you friends” (John 15:15). When those words begin to reach inside of us, we learn to see ourselves differently.

Brennan Manning (2003) advises, “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. God's love for you and his choice of you constitute your worth. Accept that and let it become the most important thing in your life” (p. 58). He adds, “If you get convinced from the top of your cap to the soles of your slip-ons that your Father loves, cares for, and, yes, likes you, you'll start experiencing a calm and tender compassion for yourself that changes—well, everything” (pp. 71–72).

Instead of taking our life away from us, Jesus gives it to us. “Whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34–36, NIV). There is a cost in following Jesus, just as there is a cost in following academia, but the difference comes in what happens to us, to the deepest and most hidden parts of our being. When we follow Jesus, we find ourselves and gain the peace and satisfaction of knowing not only him, but also who we are.

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Following Jesus provides guidance for relationships. For most of us, relationships are a challenge. We want relationships, need them, and find great pleasure in them, but they can be enigmatic, complicated, and bewildering. This is true of personal and professional relationships. The quality of our relationships with others is a significant indicator of the quality of our relationship with God. This is because God, as the Trinity, is by nature a relationship. Thus, our relationships either reflect who God is, that is, give glory to him, or demonstrate how little we know and follow God. Jesus said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples,” (John 13:35, NLT). “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43–45, NIV). The Apostle Peter adds, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called” (1 Peter 3:9, NIV).

If we follow the academic world and accept the expectation that our worth is tied to our ability to produce more and better teaching, service, and scholarship, we inevitably set ourselves up to be the only one who matters in our work relationships. To produce in the way academia requires, we almost have to put ourselves above everyone else. We know of seasoned faculty members who are unwilling to share information or material with new teachers, or graduate faculty who assimilate the work of their graduate students and call it their own, or tenured faculty who have no interest or patience in working with undergraduate students. We know educators who subtly, or not so subtly, demean other faculty members or who are outright feuding with each other. This is in dramatic contrast to the Kingdom of God, in which the sign of greatness is being a servant to others—servanthood based on knowing who we are and knowing we are deeply loved by God, not on trying to win the favor of others but on an inner confidence and peace.

This servanthood allows us to teach beginning students eagerly, to offer support and expertise to new faculty, and to celebrate the accomplishments of colleagues without feeling diminished. We can support others with genuine care and actively seek to promote their well-being. The words of the Apostle Paul remind us, “If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don't love, I'm nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate” (1 Corinthians 13:1, The Message). Or to put it another way, we are talking heads—a phenomenon that can reach epidemic proportions in academia.

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When we work to gain approval, recognition, or status, whether it be from God, others, or ourselves, we step onto a never-ending treadmill that goes faster and faster. But the good news of God's kingdom is that there is another way of understanding our work. Os Guinness (1998), who indicated that our primary calling is to God, also talks about our secondary calling. He explains:

Our secondary calling, considering who God is as sovereign, is that everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for him. We can therefore, properly say as a matter of secondary calling that we are called to homemaking or to the practice of law, or to art history…. They are “callings” rather than the “calling.” They are our personal answer to God's address, our response to God's summons. (p. 31)

Author Marva Dawn (2006) says, “Against the passivity, busyness, workaholism, and selfishness of the culture around us, God reigns through Kingdom people so that we become involved, engaged, centered people who image God” (pp. 232–233). Scripture expresses this by saying, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Luke 10:27, NIV).

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God normally calls us along the lines of our giftedness. Guinness (1998) suggests, “Somehow we human beings are never happier than when we are expressing the deepest gifts that are truly us” (p. 45). If Guinness is right, it is highly possible, and even likely, that we as academics could live this call to love God with our hearts, souls, minds, strength, and our neighbors as ourselves through the functions of teaching, scholarship, service, and practice, and experience deep happiness while doing it.

Living out our secondary calling as a faculty member with the understanding that our teaching, service, and scholarship are ways to glorify God could free us to look at our work differently. It might mean we would see teaching as empowering students rather than as an opportunity for us to display our knowledge. We might see working with beginning students as a privilege rather than a burden. We might treat students who have made mistakes with respect and grace instead of shaming them because their mistake embarrassed us. We might mentor graduate students by sharing our values and perspectives with them as they wind their way through the confusion of theses and dissertations, or we might intentionally seek out international or culturally diverse or disadvantaged students to mentor and support.

We might see scholarship and reflect excellence in new ways. We might do research on spiritual care. Or we might, instead, ask faith-related questions on other research topics, including faith as one of the variables studied. We might write journal articles that incorporate a student-centered relational approach to teaching. We might look for ways to make our teaching and the learning environment more effective, especially for students who find traditional learning environments challenging.

We might choose to collaborate with others who share our faith. Being a follower of Jesus Christ in academia is easier if we are not alone. We need support from church, family, and friends, but we also need support from people who understand the issues facing educators. What if followers of Jesus made the decision jointly to reclaim Christian terms such as “healing,” “caring,” “promoting hope,” “ministry to the suffering,” or “care for the poor and vulnerable”? And what if we did this, not by out-shouting or belittling others who are already using these terms, but by engaging in legitimate scholarly critique and dialogue?

Maybe it's time for a movement to be born rooted in the perspectives and values of God's kingdom that attempts to bring a Christian presence into nursing academia. This doesn't imply that we need to spend hours developing a unified Christian theory of nursing or that we should do scholarly work only on topics dealing with spirituality. Instead, it implies that we make a commitment to incorporate a Christian presence into our teaching, scholarship, and service and allow the Holy Spirit to create a movement, a movement that uses individual passions and gifts and combines those with the passions and gifts of others, that is not defined by a single leader, location, or organization, a movement of people who see teaching, scholarship, and service as acts of worship and who joyfully offer them to God to use as he sees fit.

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The task of influencing nursing academia is formidable. We may struggle with how to begin, but we need to remember that we are not acting alone or on our own power. We share this task and goal with fellow followers of Christ, and we have God's Spirit to guide and empower us. Maybe the bottom line is that to begin and finish well in an academic career, we need to know who we are and do what we are called to do in God's power. Marva Dawn (2006) provides a wonderful description of this process: “A vision of the Kingdom frees us to be ourselves, to do our part and nothing more—and nothing less” (p. 233).

May God help us to do just that.

Dawn, M. (2006). The sense of the call. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Guinness, O. (1998). The call. Nashville, TN: Word Publishing.
Manning, B. (2003). Posters, fakers, and wannabes: Unmasking the real you.
Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
    Peace, R. (1999). Conversion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
    Copyright © 2009 InterVarsity Christian Fellowship