The Other Side of the Jordan: Leaving CCU

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last sermon always gets to me. I listen to it at least once a year. It’s almost as if he knew he was delivering his final public remarks before facing his death. The line that always resonates with me is from the end of the sermon: “I have been to the mountaintop.” The mountain, of which he speaks in metaphor, is based on an actual location half a world away from Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. King was assassinated the very next day.

One of the best vistas in the Holy Land is Mount Nebo. (I took the above picture when we were there in 2005.) Although the view is breathtaking, its place in biblical history is rather minimal; it’s best known as Moses’ final resting place. As detailed in Deuteronomy 34, on this obscure mountain in modern day Jordan, Moses’ life came to an end. You know well the story of Moses: God called him to return to the place of his birth (where he was known as a murderer) to lead an ungrateful people to their freedom. His faithfulness was continually tested by the Israelites’ grumblings, but he persevered flawlessly.

Well, not quite. There was this one incident.

One day, when the Israelites were thirsty and were grumbling for the umpteenth time, Moses lost it and took his frustration out on God’s commands. Rather than simply speaking to a rock to provide water (as God commanded), he struck it in anger. That small act had a massive consequence: it prevented Moses from stepping foot in Canaan, the destination of the Israelites’ journey.

Mount Nebo, in my opinion, is the setting of one of the worst endings in the Bible. You see, the best conclusion to Moses’ narrative would be for him to lead the Israelites across the dried ground of the Jordan River (replicating what he did at the Red Sea) into Canaan. Instead, Joshua took them there while Moses’ life of service ended without him ever setting foot in the Promised Land. His last vision in life was a hazy view of the land from a mountain, unable to clearly depict the goodness that lied just ahead.

And this is why MLK used the metaphor to close out his speech. He would spend his life combating racial inequality yet never get the opportunity to experience the joy of completed work.

SO CLOSE, BUT MILES AWAY Understand that by opening with this anecdote, I’m in no way comparing myself to either Moses or Dr. King. (I’m a little frazzled, but I’m not completely out of touch with reality.) I just have been thinking about that mountaintop for the past 48 hours.

Last Friday, I was notified that I will be laid off at Cincinnati Christian University at the end of this year. I wasn’t alone; more than two dozen of my colleagues lost their jobs as well. After a decade of work (split up by a five-year break), I’ll be leaving the place where I’ve invested myself fully. I’ve detailed before how much the school means to me and my family, so I’ll steer clear from rehashing that now. While dismayed, I’m confident in my family’s future; I know I can find a job doing something. Instead, I’m heartbroken for all those affected and concerned about what is at stake for future generations.

CCU is critically important to the success of the kingdom of God.

This is something I believed last Friday morning and I still believe now. I believe in what we were trying to do and still believe in our (notice I’m still using the first person plural here) future. With all the concern about our Restoration Movement schools struggling to succeed (see here, here, and here), CCU is attempting to establish a bold model to ensure its future. I still believe it is the best possible plan for a school like CCU to succeed without being able to rely on a hefty endowment to supplement our expenses:

  • Keep the operational costs as manageable as possible through efficiency
  • Listen to the churches hiring ministry students and provide immersive hands-on education
  • Diversify academic offerings for students who want a Christ-centered career preparation for non-church vocation
  • Use athletics as a vehicle to enroll students who might not consider CCU otherwise
  • Take advantage of our urban setting to provide networking/job opportunities

This strategy behind the moves was developed to ensure that CCU can operate on firm financial footing. Many other small colleges are going to face these kind of decisions in the years to come. So whereas Friday’s staffing moves were brutal, they make long-term financial sense. While it’s easy to fixate on individual moves, it still remains that CCU is dedicated to quality ministry education; the new teaching church program will involve local church practitioners in our education model. And with nearly 40% of our traditional undergrads as student athletes, it’s proving to be a successful initiative bringing some great students to campus (although there were considerable cuts in this department as well). More important than providing employment, the university exists to train up future generations of Christian leaders.

So while the events from the past few weeks definitely hurt, but it’s part of a plan, and CCU needed a plan.

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE JORDAN I choose to endure the pain if it contributes to the long-term success of CCU.

Being on social media exhausted me this weekend. (side note: I discovered that, if there’s a job out there answering Facebook messages and texts, I have a bright future.) As much as I was mourning for my colleagues and their families, I was burdened by the vitriol directed toward CCU. Listen, friends, I’ve been around this school for nearly all my life and there have always been moves that people don’t understand. When business decisions are made about beloved followers of Christ, there is going to be widespread anger. And there’s no way CCU can win that PR battle. People always take priority over institutions.

My termination was a business decision. I do not enjoy it, but I get it.

Yet what I can’t do is let my frustration take away from how important this school is. We all need to remember why we’re so passionate about CCU in the first place:

  • Did you meet your spouse here? And do you have kids? If so, I shouldn’t have to convince you further.
  • Did you discover your life’s calling here? Isn’t that life change worth something?
  • Did you develop lifelong friendships here? How have those CCU connections blessed you?
  • Did you learn something from a staff or faculty member that changed your life? Maybe it was a lesson from Tom Friskney or RJ Kidwell in class. Or perhaps it was something that Jon Weatherly taught you in a hallway conversation. Maybe Evelyn Taylor mentored you or Dan Dyke wove the story of the gospel into a discussion on firearms.

These are experiences that all CCU alumni share but are easily forgotten in times like these. And while you’re free to still be angry, nothing beautiful emerges from negativity. I have to get over it and I’m hoping that you (eventually) will too. The kids on campus are trying to be positive and they’ll be those most affected. Hopefully we can follow their lead.

CCU is going to make it to the other side of the Jordan, but it needs us now more than ever. Unless we who believe in it fervently take ownership of what we can control (as opposed to worrying about the things we cannot), it won’t happen.

TWO CALLS TO ACTION So if you are part of the CCU family, and if you even remotely respect me, I’m hoping you join me doing two things in response to what happened last week:

1. This week I’m asking you to pray. It’s what we do best. When challenges come, we pray. Pray every day for CCU. There’s even a student-led prayer service Monday night at 9:30pm if you’re a local and would like to attend. Take one day this week and fast.

If you have enough time to Facebook about it, you have enough time to pray about it. In prayer, we gain perspective. I’ll try to encourage and remind you on social media throughout the week to do so.

But make no mistake. I want one more thing from you.

2. I want you to make a financial gift to CCU. Yes, you need to give to CCU.

The trustees believe that I can continue to do my job for the next ten weeks and I value this trust. My job at CCU is to raise funds. Even in this difficult time, I still believe that this school has blessed us so much that we should be compelled to give back. During the next two months, we’re going to be asking all of our CCU family to make their mark on the school’s future. This week, as you’re praying, I not only want you to think about what this school means to you, but I want you to prayerfully consider a financial gift reflective of how God has used CCU to bless you.

There’s just too much good that happens here to ignore:

  • Later this week I’ll be attending our missionary convention in Virginia. I’ll get to connect with dozens of missionaries throughout the world who were trained on our campus.
  • Our alumni serve in industries across the spectrum, earning livings from “secular” jobs while using their talents to bless the local church.
  • And current students have some audacious, God-sized plans that will not happen without this place. Their passion for committing their lives to kingdom work is something that inspired me daily.

Know this: I would never, never ask someone to put their money to a lost cause. If I ever had wanted to turn my back on the school, now would be the time. But I can’t.

I still believe in CCU. I am asking you to believe with me.

And I’m not asking you to do what I won’t do myself. Even though I have no idea about my future employment, and the thought of personal finances is in the back of my mind, our family is going to write a check to CCU. And my small church is still committed to remain a Partner Church (a greater amount than churches with much larger budgets).

This is our school. And that means we need to contribute more than words and be willing to commit our resources to its future. Your excuse might be, “I gave them years of tuition; that should be enough.” This charitable giving permits you an even stronger voice of accountability while signifying your belief in the cause.

I sign every gift receipt that comes through the school so I’ll know if you’re really with this. So start praying now and seriously consider a financial gift. I’ll look forward to signing a personal note to you.

I’m not going to lie: I wanted desperately to set foot in the Promised Land. That’s how I always thought my story would end. But sometimes we’re not permitted to cross the Jordan. I like to think it’s so we remember that it’s the Lord who brought us here while we’re merely blessed to be along for the ride.

Love you all, steve