I am a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University. It was my first choice for many reasons: PLU was a top-ranked institution, it had the country’s No. 1 Army ROTC program, and it was a Christian university.
However, my sense as a student then and as an alumnus now is that there’s a strong financial and societal lure for the university to be more like secular institutions — to not bother those of different or no faith with its Christianity.
If it did that, though, what would make it special enough to be someone’s first choice today?
A recent article from the school’s alumni magazine, Resolute, implied that community involvement and inclusiveness are characteristics that make PLU special.
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It is right, of course, and there are many reasons why PLU might embrace those traits. Money, admittedly is one; PLU is an expensive private institution and needs high student admissions to run its operations.
Culture is another. Western Washington has a diversity that colleges must grasp.
But I do not think PLU is inclusive or known for its involvement for those reasons. Rather, those characteristics exist because of its Christianity, not in spite of it.
Consider some of the things that make PLU great. For one, it is deeply invested in sustainability; many campus buildings are certified for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), as an example. Of course, it is popular to espouse environmentalism in the Pacific Northwest, but the school is invested in it because God himself created the Earth, said it was good, and gave humanity its stewardship (Genesis 1:11-26).
For another, PLU is deeply involved in the local community. Cynically, one could say that this is just good business practice; positive community interactions translate into admissions and grants. But I do not think that is why the school does it. It is involved because, as a Christian endeavor, it recognizes its divine duty to do good to its neighbors (Isaiah 1:17).
One more reason that PLU is great is its aforementioned inclusiveness — but not because society told it to be. As a Lutheran university, this quality derives from its sincere and willing obedience to Christ’s commission to look after the physical and spiritual welfare of others (Matthew 28:19).
On June 1, the PLU website posted a sermon that the interim campus pastor, John Rosenburg, titled: “Is PLU Lutheran Enough?” In it, he said that “we are not a church. Our call is not to preach the gospel.”
He is right, that is not its job. However, he was also right when he went on to say that PLU’s mission is to provide “learning for the sake of serving our neighbor who, as Jesus taught us, is anyone in need that God places in our path.”
The school must always unabashedly embrace its Christianity. Said another way, it should never look like a secular institution.
Certainly, this is not to say that it should confine its efforts to just Christians or Christianity, but it should remember the motto that Pastor Haseroth unapologetically gave it back in the earliest days, in 1891: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10).
It is from its Christian nature that PLU derives true competitive advantages: faithful involvement, meaningful inclusiveness and genuine candor, which I believe make a winning business model.
As Pastor Rosenberg said best, PLU’s mission is to educate students for lives of inquiry, service, leadership and care. “By the grace of God, students and faculty from all faiths and from no faith are responding to that mission, drawn by the Spirit, just like the people that Solomon prayed would come to the temple. That’s a mission that is worthy of your respect and support.”
U.S. Army Maj. L. Burton Brender graduated from PLU in 2004 and later served as an officer at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He’s currently chief of operations for the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. His family makes its home in Olympia. His views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. government or the Army.