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What does leading with faithful presence look like in higher education?

Posted by Coral Christopher on Feb 1, 2018 12:30:27 PM

Culture clings to a well-worn adage: “knowledge is power.” The prominence is prevalent across cultures and led to the industry spread and expectation of higher education. But is knowledge enough? Is knowledge alone truly power?


Missouri Baptist University was built on the premise that knowledge alone is not enough. Instead, the MBU community embraces the classroom experience as just a portion of higher education.
That’s why it’s not unexpected to hear that the MBU science department adopted a student from gang-ridden Compton, Calif., who is expected to graduate from medical school next year. That’s why it’s not unexpected to hear how a shy student with crippling anxiety found her voice, and in return her roommate found her faith.
These stories are not few and far between; they are the faces on the quad, the families at graduation and the smiles long after.
These stories don’t come about on accident or through good intentions alone. These lives are changed because of a culture of intentional faith that pervades this University.
One might call it a faithful presence.
Chancellor Alton Lacey first read about the idea in the summer of 2012 on sabbatical. This phrase was introduced by James Davison Hunter, a respected sociologist and professor at the University of Virginia, in his book, “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.”
When Lacey read Hunter’s book, he knew these principles were at the heart of MBU and should be central in higher education leadership.
“In recent years there has been a trend toward viewing faith and learning more as an ongoing intellectual activity that celebrates working through alternative arguments and studying the positive contributions of human learning while developing a Christian worldview,” said Lacey. “It seems to me that a better understanding of faith and learning incorporates the idea of engaging a pluralistic world in which we are just one culture among many. How can we encourage faithfulness in students in all circumstances?”
Hunter introduces three principles to be the solution: being faithfully present to each other, to tasks, and to our spheres of influence. These three principles are not exclusive of each other — they are interrelated throughout our lives and relationships with Christ’s light shining through.
To Each Other
On a hot Thursday night on the eve of summer, two men and their families reflected on the past and marveled at where God continues to lead them in life. Both men are awarded educators highly esteemed throughout St. Louis, but their relationship originated as a collegiate wrestler and his coach.


In 2002, Jason Lievanos, then 18 years old, ventured from his home state of California to see if a Christian University in St. Louis would be a right fit. After touching down at Lambert Airport, Lievanos joined Tom Smith — then MBU’s wrestling coach — for a family dinner with one other student. When Lievanos began his freshman year that fall, he found himself a permanent spot at the dinner table.
After learning of Lievanos’ financial struggle, now associate vice president and director of athletics Dr. Tom Smith invited Lievanos to live with him and his family. Smith exemplified the servant leadership that Lievanos was brought up to emulate, and Lievanos was relieved to find a strong mentor so far from his home in California.
“I just knew that the piece of servant leadership was always there for Tom and Merry (Smith),” said Lievanos. “It drew me to them, the wrestling program and MBU.”
Lievanos is not the only MBU student who has lived in Smith’s Ballwin, Mo., home. In fact, the family has housed 20 college “children” in all, including four students at once. When these students live with Smith, they are nothing less than family. This was crucial for Lievanos when a shoulder injury ended his wrestling career.
“My senior year I was injured and couldn’t go to nationals,” said Lievanos.
“That was hard. When faced with the end, athletes can easily go off the deep end, but they didn’t let me. They kept me going and kept me in check. This is what I hope to be for other people.”

Jason Lievanos (left) and Tom Smith, along with their families, catch up on a summer evening at the Smith residence.



Smith insists Lievanos has indeed been that source of hope for people — including his adopted daughter Grace. Lievanos met Grace when she first arrived in the United States and looked after her in between classes his senior year. Years later, he became her teacher at Parkway West Middle School and was able to return some of the guidance Smith gave him years ago.
Today, the culture of mentorship within MBU Athletics has grown into Project Timothy. Through the project, each coach chooses two student-athletes to mentor and read through the book ofTimothy. The next year, each mentee chooses two new students to mentor and the pattern continues as new students cycle in and mentored alumni enter the world.

But faithful presence among students isn’t always structured. In fact, it’s often not.
Rebecca Morrow and Olivia Cox were freshman suitemates, but that relationship quickly proved to be so much more after Cox invited Morrow to stay with her family before Morrow returned to her homeland of Peru over their Christmas break freshman year. During those two weeks and countless Target trips, Morrow became a part of the Cox family. Today, they spend their time dreaming of the future over coffee, encouraging each other during bike rides and enjoying family game nights.
“Rebecca has become a part of my family since day one,” said Cox, whose mother, Tammy Cox, works at MBU as the director of teacher education and is a faculty member. “There are times when I even forget that she doesn’t biologically belong in our family. She fits in so well and I have witnessed the way she treats each member of my family, and I would not trade her for the world.”
Morrow feels the same way.


“I enjoy my bike rides with Becca,” Cox said (right). “But I love our breaks more.”
“Kendall and I are like one and the same, and I feel very protective over her,” said Morrow of Cox’s younger sister. “I get really excited and proud when she achieves something. Tammy and John (Cox) have done so much for me; there’s no way to express how thankful I am. Tammy is someone I can always go to for advice, and John is such an encourager.”
Being faithful to each other as Christians isn’t easy, but it’s not all we are called to do.
Around the MBU community, new alumna Toni Stang is known for her strong faith and discipleship of other students. But when Stang first came to MBU, she wanted nothing to do with Christ.
During Stang’s second semester, Andrea Mossman was her roommate.
“When I first met Andrea, I saw that she had a large Bible,” reflected Stang. “I thought, ‘Oh no. She must be one of those faith girls,’ and asked our mutual friend not to leave me alone with her so she wouldn’t ask me about my faith.”
Mossman didn’t push Stang away. In fact, they quickly became friends and Stang noticed her roommate’s example even as Mossman dealt with significant anxiety issues. Mossman’s kindness and persistence led Stang to attend church and eventually accept Christ.
“After I was saved, I would ask her to tell me Bible stories, and she told the stories of Samson, David and Goliath, and it took off from there,” said Stang. “Little did I know that she was praying on my behalf before I was a believer that I would come to Christ.”
To Our Tasks
Under Hunter’s “Faithful Presence,” investing in others exemplifies the ability to achieve excellence. Christians are called to do all of their work, including academics and careers, with the utmost care to the glory of God.


Adrian Simien (’13) exemplifies this mission.
Simien is entering his fourth year of medical school at Des Moines University on a full-ride scholarship. It’s a far cry from his childhood in gang-ridden Compton, Calif.
Growing up, Simien lacked any real guidance in school or life. His cousins were in gangs, and kids from his neighborhood were not expected to grow up to succeed — or even live to grow up due to gang violence.
Simien first came to MBU on a basketball scholarship, thinking he would eventually play overseas. After he met and married his wife, he found new determination. Simien thought that if he truly worked hard and with God’s favor, he could perhaps become a physician’s assistant. One of his professors, Dr. Lydia Thebeau, disagreed.
“Simien had a natural zeal and commitment to become a doctor,” said Thebeau. “He had many obstacles to overcome, but his dedication told another story.”
He could become a doctor.
“Medical school was never in my plans for the future,” said Simien. “While attending MBU, I was exposed to many areas. My advisors guided and assisted me with every curious question I had.”
The science faculty rallied around him, and Thebeau helped Simien become a technician at Mercy Medical Center. There he decided he was meant to become a doctor. Determination and a strong support system propelled Simien to thrive in his studies and work, despite juggling full-time work, school and family.
Simien’s dedication to excellence led him to become sought after by medical schools as he continued his education.
For Lievanos, who was the first of his 30 cousins to graduate from college, his story of excellence is one that began years ago. Growing up, his father was a role model of servant leadership and the example was continued through Smith, leading him to a career in education.
“I came to MBU knowing I wanted to be a teacher,” reflected Lievanos. “I felt called to ministry, but I just didn’t know how.”
After graduating from MBU, he worked at a Christian school where he had the privilege to not only teach students academically but also to lead them in their lives. He took that approach — teaching the whole child — with him to Parkway West Middle School as a social studies teacher. There he worked with students in and outside of the classroom, removing obstacles so they could succeed.
His dedication and results were noted when he won Teacher of the Year for Parkway West Middle School and Parkway School District in 2014.
In addition to his bachelor’s degree in social science education, Lievanos also earned a Master of Science in Education in classroom and instruction in 2006 and a master’s degree in education administration, both from MBU. He now works as an administrator for Wildwood Middle School, continuing his servant leadership among students and the teachers he leads.
Within Our Spheres of Influence
When St. Louis Baptist leaders set out to form a Christian university in St. Louis, they were determined to build up Christian leaders in the St. Louis area whom would become influencers in their communities and careers.
The involvement of professors living out their faith outside the classroom grants an authenticity to the message and truth of the faith.
This influence has made a decided impact on students such as Mossman.
“There isn’t one professor who has not made an impact in my life,” said Mossman. “Not only because of who they are in the classroom, but who they are in the workforce. I’ve worked with Kasey Cox outside of MBU in community theatre, and she keeps her strong faith.”
Because her professors authentically live out the Christian faith among other cultures, they have influenced Mossman to do the same.


Mossman originally wanted to be a counselor for young women. Through her first class with Dr. Holly Brand, associate professor of psychology, Mossman realized she could have just as much impact through higher education. Her professors have inspired her to follow a similar career route so she can influence students like herself.
“I see them as stepping stones for my life,” said Mossman. “Kasey Cox is already working as a full-time professor, wife and young mom. I also want to be like Dr. Holly Brand when I’m her age.”
For Simien, that positive influence came from a professor who reached out to help him realize his potential, even beyond his studies.
“I am really close to Dr. Thebeau and have always been since attending MBU,” said Simien. “She has guided me in many ways throughout my undergraduate studies and even beyond that. Not only was she my advisor, she acted as a mother figure and mentor in many ways.”
As a fourth-year medical student, Simien is dedicated to using his position to influence his patients and classmates.
“My faith and principles guide me on how to treat and respond to my patients and classmates,” said Simien. “Although most students and patients don’t believe in God, I still express who I believe in by my confession and actions. I continually show love to everyone I come across, whether it is in medicine or not.”
Simien believes he was uniquely prepared to follow through with his mission.
“MBU actively includes the Christian beliefs in every aspect of education. Prayer before class, after class and even privately gives us guidance and strength,” reflected Simien. “MBU teaches the principles needed to succeed in every environment and these are the principles we take with us outside of the classroom.”
It’s with this approach our students and graduates are prepared to do more than thrive outside of the University.
It’s as Chancellor Lacey realized during the hot summer of 2012: While changing the world is a daunting task, being faithfully present to one another is a critical step to making the world a better place.
“I have stood in prayer circles and heard students talk about their faith and friendships and how MBU took them in, encouraged them to grow, and became their family,” said Lacey. “It is a scene repeated every day across our campus with professors, coaches, counselors, residence hall staff, and anyone who works with our students. We don’t brag about it, we just try to be a faithful presence in students’ lives.”


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