I stood in the student-led chapel service singing along with a worship song that proclaimed, “Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending reckless love of God. Oh, it chases me down, fights till I’m found, leaves the ninety-nine.” Though drawing on the familiar imagery of the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:10-14; Luke 15:4-7), the words of the song struck me differently as I considered the 93 (not quite a full flock of 99!) first-year students I was teaching and the one particular student whose first writing assignment displayed some concerning evidence about his ability to succeed in my writing-heavy course. If Jesus was my model, did that mean I should leave the 92 to serve the 1?
In response to the alarming writing skills that I saw in this one student’s paper, I immediately began to reach out to campus partners for support. Knowing that the student had accommodations, I reached out to our Disability Access and Education Director to seek guidance on how I could be the teacher this student needed. She connected me with our Tutoring Services Director who gave me contact information for one tutor who was assigned to my course and another general writing tutor. Likewise, I reached out to the student’s advisor to let her know that her student would benefit from additional check-ins. Finally, I spoke with my Dean and several other faculty colleagues to share my predicament and get suggestions.
These many conversations took time, time that I could not have possibly devoted to every single one of my 93 students if they had all required the same level of attention. So, in finding the “one,” was I leaving behind the “ninety-nine”?
As a faculty representative on my institution’s Retention Committee, I have found myself immersed in conversations and research on how to increase student retention at my institution. Best practices in retention suggested that I should be doing all that I could to help that one struggling student persist. However, reality told me that I could not possibly offer that same level of intervention to every single student. I found myself wondering, “Is Jesus bad for retention? Is leaving the ninety-nine to help the one a poor example to follow if we want to increase our institutional retention and graduation rates?” I wrestled with this question for several weeks and pondered several possible answers:
1. Maybe Jesus was just being unreasonable if he expected others to leave their own proverbial “ninety-nine” to serve just “one.”
2. Maybe leaving the ninety-nine is admirable but is the purview of Jesus alone and not a model for the rest of us to follow.
3. Maybe the Bible has nothing at all to say to institutional student retention strategies.
4. Maybe we need to forget about institutional retention data and the “ninety-nine” in order to throw all our resources into the “one.”
I was dissatisfied with all these possible answers until I went back to the text of Luke’s version of the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Luke’s account reads:
Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep.” (Luke 15:4-6 NRSVUE)
As I reviewed this text, I was struck by the ways in which the parable emphasized personal and communal connections. Yes, the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine, but in doing so, he creates the opportunity to share a special moment with just the one he carries. Likewise, he does not keep his joy to himself. Instead, he gathers a community around the one to celebrate its re-integration into the collective life of the community. Thus, by the end of the parable, the ninety-nine who were left and the one who was found both have communities of support. The ninety-nine maintain the support of their gathered community. Likewise, the effort expended for the one served to attach that one to the community.
The text does not indicate that the one sheep is immediately returned to the ninety-nine. Indeed, if we are to read into the silence of the parable, the shepherd, with the sheep upon his shoulders, may be understood as bringing the sheep to the gathering of his friends and neighbors. That is, when the shepherd alone could not keep the sheep from wandering off lost, he draws in his own community as fellow caregivers for the “one” who needs a different sort of attention than what he gives to the other ninety-nine.
As I reflected on the situation with my student, I realized that was exactly what I had done as well. In connecting with my own community of professional staff and faculty colleagues, I cultivated a new community of “ninety-nine” for my one student to find support. So, too, as in the parable, this community made all the difference. The student’s second paper in my class, bolstered by the support of the community I called together for him, was remarkably improved compared to the first. I did not need to leave my ninety-two to find this one; I just had to connect the one to the right set of “ninety-nine.” It turns out that the Parable of the Lost Sheep had more to say about student retention strategies than what I’d first imagined!
To be sure, I am not suggesting that Jesus’s parable offers us a strategic plan for increasing institutional student retention data. That would be a terrible, eisegetical misreading of the text! However, for those of us who teach in colleges and universities that claim to be Christ-centered, might there be ways in which Christ’s words can help to guide our work in student retention? For all the talk I often hear about integrating faith and learning or faith and scholarship, I can’t recall ever once hearing about faith and retention beyond the occasional inquiry into how an institution’s religious identity plays a factor in students determining whether there is a fit with their own emerging religious identity.1 While this question of students’ fit with their institution’s religious identities is an important one, an inquiry into how institutional faith identities should inform institutional policies, procedures, and practices related to retention has room to be developed.
If Christ is at the center of all our work as higher education professionals, does that not mean that Christ is also at the center of student retention efforts? If so, then how might the centrality of Christ inform institutional retention practices? Perhaps Jesus’s own model of “retaining followers” can speak to our institutional strategies to do the same.
This is not to say that all our retention efforts will be successful. Indeed, even Jesus failed to win over the rich young man (Matthew 19:16-22; cf. Luke 18:18-24). Just as the rich young man was not ready for the high cost of the discipleship that Jesus offered, some of our students might not yet be ready for the high costs (both in terms of money as well as in terms of time and energy) of pursuing higher education. However, even if up to 75% of one’s efforts go to waste, as in the case of the Sower in Jesus’s parable (Mark 4:1-9), the harvest that such efforts can yield often proves to be worth the effort.
Thus, while the teachings of a first-century Galilean teacher may be far removed from the realities of student retention in twenty-first century Christian higher education, they are not without value to the topic. I believe that the Parable of the Lost Sheep might be able to offer some initial inspiration to those of us who work on student retention, write institutional policies, and set strategic plans to improve our retention data sets. The biblical text cannot (and should not!) be used as a user manual for addressing all the work of contemporary higher education professionals, but it can provide an illustration of the kinds of Christ-centered values that can inform not just our teaching and scholarship, but even our student retention strategies.
- Cf., e.g., Nathan F. Alleman, Jessica A. Robinson, Elizabeth A. Leslie, and Perry L. Glanzer, “Student Constructions of Fit: Narratives About Incongruence at a Faith-Based University,” Christian Higher Education 15, no. 3 (2016): 169-184; Jason M. Morris, Richard Beck, and Albert B. Smith, “Examining Student/Institution Fit at a Christian University: The Role of Spiritual Integration,” Journal of Education & Christian Belief 8, no. 2 (2004): 87-100.