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; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. – 1 Peter 5:2-3 (NIV)
We often think about how Christ might animate learning in our classrooms, scholarship, and service. Yet, we often forget one important location—our office. Recently, I thought about the changes I could make to my home away from home—my school office—that would allow me to reach my students more effectively for Christ.
1. Order – Maintain an office characterized by logos, not chaos thus reflecting the Divine Order of the Creation.
After recently reading The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher, I thought about the changes I could make to my home away from home—my school office—that would allow me to reach my students more effectively for Christ. Rod Dreher has noted, “If we don’t have internal order we will be controlled by our human passions and by the powerful outside forces who are in greater control of directing liquid modernity’s deep currents.”1 As a chemistry professor, I am most at home discussing the logos—the Divine Order of the Cosmos that characterizes God’s handiwork in the Creation.
My office is a museum. There is glassware and molecular models on my shelves, and windowsill. The walls are lined with framed newspaper articles I have written and color photographs I have taken of tropical waterbirds in the lakes behind our home. A periodic table of the elements, a photograph of Albert Einstein, a right brain/left brain piece of art and photos from missionary trips I have been on over the years surround a large whiteboard that is always covered with equations, reactions, or solved problems from a student’s homework. Across from my desk nailed to a wall pillar are two plaques; one reads, “Climb Every Mountain,” and the other, “It’s Not About You—to God be the Glory.” A celestial star globe sits on a high shelf next to a humorous caricature of me. Over my doorway hangs a painting of the scene of the throne of God from Isaiah chapter six that my older daughter painted shortly after our move to Florida in 2017 when I was struggling to adjust after leaving our family and friends for 30 years behind in New Jersey. I always enjoy observing students who for the first time to my office sit in one of my two visitor’s chairs and allow their eyes to wander. Inevitably, something sparks a conversation, often aided by my diffuser, it’s vapors gently wafting towards the ceiling; a liturgy in its own rite especially when the oil is frankincense
Dreher writes, “You never know how God will use the little things in a life ordered by His love, to His service, to speak evangelically to others… Everything is evangelical. Everything is directed to God. Everything has to be seen from the supernatural point of view. The radiance that comes through our lives is only a reflection of God.”2
2. Prayer—Engage with your students prayerfully and pray with them often.
Palm Beach Atlantic University’s Provost, Dr. Randy Richards, has often reminded us to be great educators in the Christian tradition by integrating faith into the classes we teach. “But there’s more to it than starting class off with a prayer,” I remember him saying on one occasion. I do begin almost every class with a prayer that includes praying for my students to learn and for me to be clear in my lecture. But prayer doesn’t end in the classroom. When students come to my office for whatever reason—whether help with a difficult assignment, to review an exam, to discuss a research project, a personal issue or just an emotional meltdown, they know that my office is a sanctuary—a “chill zone” as one of my students has characterized it—where they can come and just share whatever it is that is on their minds or hearts. And I make it a habit to pray with them before they leave; a tradition that sometimes results in moist eyes.
3. Work—”… can become very transformative—and very prayerful too”3
Work is a word that some students dislike. No—they actually find it anathema. In science, this attitude is the quickest way to a change in major. Pinned on my corkboard is a copy of a New York Times article entitled, “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard).”4 The headline alone serves as a reminder to students entering my office that they need to commit to four years of hard work and by this, I mean not just reading words on the pages of textbooks but lots of pencil pushing across scrap paper, solving problems as well as time spent in the laboratory.
An opinion piece I wrote in 2021, entitled “10 Suggestions for Incoming College STEM Freshmen” contained this as one of the 10 suggestions: “My college physics teacher had a cartoon on his office door that showed a confused student explaining to his professor that he really understood the material, he just couldn’t do the problems. You cannot learn science by osmosis. Magic happens when the brain, eyes and hand all come together in beautiful synaptic choreography, guiding a pencil across a sheet of paper.” When students come to my office for help, it’s time to roll up their sleeves. And I often ask them to take out a pencil and a piece of paper even if they are working on an online assignment on their laptop or tablet.
I like to think my office is a place where students can come and feel settled. We have just climbed out of a years’-long pandemic that has impacted students’ lives in ways we are still learning about. The majority of my students are first year students, and my assumption is always that they have spent the last two or three semesters in high school sitting home behind computer screens, attempting to finish their junior and senior years as best as they could. They now need stability and structure in their lives. Yes—they are in college, and they are supposed to be adults. But I know better. My wife and I have raised four children; two sons now in their 30s and two adopted Chinese daughters who are both Gen-Zers; the younger is about to graduate from high school and the older is a college sophomore. I know what my girls have just gone through and they like many of my students need help finding their way. My office is a place where they can come and get help finding it.
Anyone teaching at a Christian university knows that it is a community. But the idea of community must extend beyond the classroom and the office hours mandated by a course syllabus. Here are a few, simple suggestions to extend the idea of community among students: Attend chapel and make it a part of your weekly schedule. Our campus pastor tells me that students notice which professors attend chapel regularly. And he makes it a point to call on faculty to pray in chapel to showcase faithful attendance as a model. Eat lunch with your students in the cafeteria. If one of your students invites you to attend a sporting event in which he or she is on the team, show up. Encourage your students to attend a doctrinally sound church where they can get involved serving. And the best way to accomplish this is to be involved yourself at your church, perhaps teaching a small group, serving on the welcome team or singing in the choir. Look for opportunities to participate in an off-campus university-sponsored work opportunity as a volunteer with a student group or help lead a mission trip. Consider inviting a group of students to your home for a meal. As one of the defining characteristics of the Benedict Option, these are all opportunities to demonstrate community in a meaningful way. Your students will catch this and appreciate it.
My syllabi list official office hours but I always add, “any time my door is open, and my light is on, feel free to drop in for whatever…” Once my students find out that I have a tray with a generous variety of salty and sweet snacks, they take me up on it (as do a number of my professorial colleagues!). My wife goes to elaborate lengths to keep my inventory well-stocked with chips and cookies. It is an inexpensive way to make students feel welcome.
But it’s not just about food. Last year I began a program to purchase Christian books in bulk that I thought would be helpful to students depending on where they were in their spiritual walk. Don’t Waste Your Life, by John Piper was among my first offerings. For students planning to go on a mission trip I have copies of Eternity in their Hearts, by Don Richardson. And for any anxious members of Gen-Z, The Freedom of Self-forgetfulness by Timothy Keller is a great read.
7. Balance—”prudence, mercy and good judgment”5
The Benedictine monks define balance as being Christ-like in all things while fulfilling the Lord’s calling. And it doesn’t matter whether a person is called to a secular or a sacred life—the Bible makes no distinction between the two. Our students need to see this type of balance in our lives.
The only great tragedy in life according to Dreher is that “no matter what a Christian’s circumstances, he cannot live faithfully if God is only part of his life, bracketed away from the rest. In the end, either Christ is at the center of our lives or the Self and all its idolatries. There is no middle ground.”6
In the church my family attends, our campus pastor closes every service with this simple reminder: “We’ve been the church in here, now go and be the church out there.”
Teaching the subjects in our fields of expertise with passion and excellent pedagogy is our calling: “In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness,” Titus 2:7 (NIV), but pointing the way to God for students, so that they may be transformed into the likeness of His Son, Jesus Christ must never be an afterthought—like that quick prayer before the start of class, with nothing else following.
- Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, Sentinel an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, NY, (2017), 3.
- Dreher, The Benedict Option, 57.
- Dreher, The Benedict Option, 62.
- Christopher Drew, “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard,)” The New York Times, November 4, 2011
- Dreher, The Benedict Option, 63.
- Dreher, The Benedict Option, 74.
Excellent practical suggestions on a neglected topic. I wish I would have read this article 40 years ago!
Thank you Gregory. This is excellent advice for Christian school teachers as well.