Remarks to the IVCF National Staff Conference

Sandy Shugart shared these remarks with InterVarsity staff on January 6, 2020.

I thank God for the work you do at Valencia College, where I have served as president for twenty years here in Orlando and where your colleagues, Kim Koi and Lily Massie, have made an impact for the kingdom in my life and the lives of many students, and across the country where you all serve the kingdom on college campuses and beyond.

And I thank God for the work he did through InterVarsity in my life beginning almost forty-five years ago. My own conversion to faith in Christ, my discipleship, and the deepest and most enduring friendships of my life—including my wife of more than forty years—were all rooted in the work of InterVarsity at the University of North Carolina in the 1970s.

It was in InterVarsity that I learned how to read and understand the scriptures, how to pray from the heart, how to engage authentic Christian community, how to receive love I didn’t deserve and how to give love with no expectation of return. Thank you, Lord.

It was also in InterVarsity that I began a long process of discerning where I could serve the kingdom. There were several options explored and surrendered—scholarship, ordained ministry, music, writing, youth work, and so on.

I won’t go into detail, except to say that eventually I found my place and I found the questions I wanted to pursue in my pilgrimage. I knew I was most interested in how people thrive and fail in the large, complex, imperfect organizations through which almost all human services are mediated.

These great servant institutions—hospitals and universities, schools and food distribution systems, both for-profit and not-for-profit—these amazing and enormous bureaucracies are the glory and the shame of modern culture.

They are awesome—because they have enabled us to extend vital services to the masses, enabling them to thrive.

They are awful—sometimes abusing and exploiting the people who work in them and even the very people they were designed to serve.

I knew this was the question that seized my imagination and my sense of service, but was not sure how to engage.

Clearly, I knew I was called to work and perhaps lead, faithfully in the world of non-religious or secular organizations. Over time, it became clear that it was to be in the enormous bureaucracies that comprise American higher education. And my work would not be primarily scholarly, but organizational.

In short, I felt called to the question of whether leadership characterized by servanthood could bring renewal, even redemption, to organizational life. And colleges and universities became for me a sort of laboratory for servant leadership. And they have remained so for thirty-eight years.

So, here I am, a believer, an InterVarsity alumnus, and a college president for longer than many of you have been alive. What message can I bring for you in your work of ministry to students and to faculty and to staff?

First, let me say it again, thank you, and thank God for you, as you love and care for our students and faculty. You serve them in ways we cannot. You may, in some places, encounter resistance, even hostility. God bless you with endurance to keep loving and serving against any of these currents.

Second, I want to ask you to embrace even more fully the redemptive vision of God making all things new by expanding your care and concern to the flourishing not only of those we serve, but of the institution itself. My call to you is in the same spirit of Jeremiah’s words in chapter 29, verse 7:

“but seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you in exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Truly, a large university or college like mine is very much like a city—it has an economy, a social structure, competing cultures, leadership and governance processes, and politics—let’s not forget politics. In many ways these “cities” we call colleges are under siege—divestment by the state or church, fallout from culture wars, broken business models, scandals that go viral, disruption by new technologies, co-option of mission by sports and entertainment, and controversy of every kind threaten the peace of the campus like never before. Yes, pray for us!

But what does it mean to “seek the welfare” of these city-like institutions? Well, it doesn’t mean to worship the same idols. And we have many idols in our colleges and universities—prestige, money, national ranking, endowment, brand—all these things are golden calves when they become ends rather than means to fulfill the core mission. No, don’t pray for our success.

I think, even for secular institutions, the answer to what it means to seek the welfare of our institutions is straightforward—seek and pray that we would better fulfill our missions as servant institutions, to be places that nourish and extend human flourishing.

Pray and seek that the institution where you serve would be: fruitful for others; a place where justice and mercy are practiced, not just debated; a place where people find purpose and joy in their work; a place where truth is earnestly sought and revered; and a place where humility and civility are practiced as normative.

Just making the institution an object of your love and concern enlarges it and brings you into it. All communities are formed around objects of common love. Those I mentioned are powerful community builders, and if you ever feel like an outsider at your college, holding these aspirations for the institution will open gates to you and to the good news.

Still, though, the question remains, what would “revival” mean for a secular institution. Certainly, a college can be a place where revival occurs, where the Spirit moves to touch people in one of the great physical, cultural, and personal crossroads in our society, to launch a new work. But how might “revival” work not just at the university, but in it?

Two familiar images speak to me. The first is salt. We do not seek to conquer secular institutions and set some theocratic new organization in its place, but to season and preserve what is. If I may borrow a phrase, “what is true, what is noble, what is just, what is lovely, what is of good report, if there is any virtue, anything praiseworthy….” (Phil. 4:8-9)

We can season the institution. By conscious practice of love, justice, mercy, grace, all the charisms of godly character, over time, these can become normative in the culture of the college. I’ve seen it in my own work. I’ve seen places that were rugged and bruising and competitive become gracious and courteous and collaborative. Guess which one is better for the mission and more congenial to the good news.

The other image that speaks to me is light. Here I mean intellectual light. Before us lies an invitation to engage in the big conversations that a great university or college is always curating. We cannot expect that prevailing views will always be comfortable for us. But neither can we allow our ministries to become invitations to retreat into protective Christian enclaves.

Instead, we can exercise the confidence to enter into the larger discourses of the college community with humility, “taking every thought captive” (2 Cor. 10:5) through a loving rigor of thought, application of reason, and spirit-led and joyful engagement with those with whom we disagree.

Isn’t this one reason why we have so admired C.S. Lewis for decades after his death? Where are today’s C.S. Lewises? And where will tomorrow’s come from?

Well, they may be the young, hesitant freshman in her first inductive Bible study—brilliant, not yet educated, but gifted. Perhaps, if she comes to understand that Jesus came to take away her sins, not her mind, and if she studies long and hard, growing in both discipleship and scholarship, and if she is encouraged by her Christian sisters and brothers, she may find her calling as a thoughtful witness in academia. She may learn to exercise the gifts God has endowed in her to love her students the way a professor should; to love her colleagues out of their fear and pettiness and bickering; to love her discipline and the life of rigorous thought and research as one way to serve the Lord. She may even learn to care for the welfare of the institution where she bears this witness.

Certainly, in addition to up and coming students, there are already many faithful faculty members on your campuses who are already working in the vineyard. They could use your prayer, friendship, and encouragement. They need fellowship with other believing scholars to clarify the witness that all truth is God’s truth and we need not fear any question or argument. They may need to share the corporate witness of reverence before mystery as the companion to curiosity and inquiry.

These faculty and the graduate students who will succeed them are, I know, the special focus of the InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministry. God bless you in that work. But they should also be the focus of the care and love of the undergraduate ministry staff.

Remember, if the university is a city, then the most transient residents are the undergraduates. Many only stay a year or two. Some a bit longer. (A very few, so long that we are tempted to offer them tenure.) Faculty and staff may spend a lifetime at one institution, influencing thousands of students as they teach and coach and write and mentor and evaluate and even grade faithfully. When you reach faculty, you multiply your impact on students and on the institution.

Finally, I want to speak a bit more about this matter of engaging the Big Conversations, those that are already raging on every college campus. The questions that touch on the future of the earth, the purposes of our work, the causes and remedies to violence and disease, the nature of beauty and truth, the questions of justice. They present themselves in many ways, often cloaked in temporary issues, but with these deeper roots.

We 21st century Christ-followers sometimes have the social habits of our crazy uncle Warren—the one who interrupts an already flowing conversation to speak some irrelevant non-sequitur. We often ask or answer questions no one is yet asking. “Are you bathed in the blood of the Lamb?” is an important question, but not in the context of a class in Shakespeare or organic chemistry or computer science.

But there is a conversation, a beginning point that is nearly always relevant and current: What does it mean to be human? What gives human life value? How do we define human flourishing?

These questions often animate the conversation in the most secular of departments and disciplines.

What I am suggesting, and what I often practice, is joining the conversation not through theology, but through anthropology. There is a place in academia for entertaining many competing anthropologies, even what you and I might call a “sacred anthropology.” And this almost always invokes a great theological inquiry at some point, as well. Think of Lewis’s great sermon “The Weight of Glory.” (And if you haven’t read it lately, there’s your homework assignment from Professor Shugart.)

Let me give just one small example. Sometimes when I meet with a group of faculty members to get to know them and talk shop, I’ll ask a question like this:

“Every pedagogy implies an anthropology. What’s yours?” I have had countless conversations with faculty who would avoid religion at all costs, but who warm to these central questions of their work in the world. And many of these have led to the genuine opportunity to answer a question that is being asked, that is “to give an account for the hope that is in” me. And wherever these conversations may lead, I have made a friend with whom I can discuss the most engaging and enduring questions in our lives, a fellow traveler.

You may need time to wrestle with these questions, especially the thought of redemptive work in an institution. I know I still am. You may even feel that you have all the burden you can carry in the ministry as currently conceived, but I hope you’ll dare to dream with me that God may already be transforming not only the persons, but the collective life and work of some organizations, as God surely will when all things are made new.

Think of it as a dream, if you want to. And I’ll close with a little poem about a dreamer.


Four times
the common laborer laid down to rest,
to seek the ordinary solace of night only to be
astonished in sleep by the arrival of power,
an advent, the dream voice beyond all voices
speaking into his life with easy authority.

            Forget convention and marry the overshadowed girl.
            Forget plans and flee to a place
                        As alien and angular as its monuments.
            Forget your fears and journey again through the desert
                        To the occupied country of your father.
            Forget home and settle instead in the land of prophecy.

Four times he saw – what?
A blazing messenger, an other-worldly prince of light.
Four times he heard – what?
Words of thunder quaking the solid ground on which he lived.

            Who knows so clearly what he truly dreams?
            Who trusts so deeply the strange revelations of
                        his own interior landscape?
            Who acts so boldly on what he knows in himself
                        against the evidence of everything he sees?
            Who believes so humbly that he is chosen, too,
                        for a role that makes miracles possible?

This one did.
Four times.

                         Sandy Shugart © 2017

Sandy Shugart lectures around the world on servant leadership, and models it on a daily basis as president of Valencia College in Orlando, Florida. Valencia is one of the largest community colleges in the country, awarding more Associate degrees than any other school. Click here to learn more about Sandy and his journey with InterVaristy.