Most folks in the audience at Eastern Mennonite University’s April 10 spring faculty-staff conference left the first morning assembly with a much better idea of how assistant baseball coach Adam Posey works with his pitchers during bullpen sessions.
A straight talker with an evangelical flair that betrays his Southern Baptist roots, Posey shared some eye-opening strengths and weaknesses related to his own experience as a student at EMU, and urged the gathered community to answer the call to “meet students where they are.”
He ended with four practical questions related to faith formation — picture Posey saying “Go get ‘em,” as we all trot to the mound — that participants carried with them throughout the day’s panel sessions, presentations and worship.
Recognize and build on your strengths as related to faith formation. Evaluate and understand your weaknesses. Ask how you can more effectively merge your calling with your work. And finally, how can you better mentor young people to lives of faith?
EMU’s faculty-staff conferences are community gatherings at the beginning and end of the academic year. This spring’s event focused on “fostering faith among students but also among ourselves,” said Professor Marti Eads, who chaired the planning committee with Campus Pastor Brian Martin Burkholder. “I hope you leave the day fed and hungry for more.”
Titled “Journey Companions: Fostering Faith Formation at EMU,” the theme enabled discussions and development of an objective in EMU’s strategic plan: to nurture spiritual growth and enhance formational engagement among faculty, staff and students.
“Undergraduate students in our faith mentoring survey a few years ago expressed eagerness to hear more from faculty and staff about their personal faith journeys and how they navigated doubt, challenge and opportunity,” said Burkholder. “This conference gives us a chance to hear from each other about how we’re doing that in our work on campus and how we might expand opportunities for fellowship and relationship-building into new places and spaces.”
More from Coach Posey
At a time when EMU’s student population is more diverse than ever – and that diversity includes culture, religion, race, ethnicity and political beliefs – Posey pointed out that being open and hospitable to different perspectives is very much a part of faith formation. It was deep relationships with a small number of influential faculty and staff that aided his own spiritual and intellectual development, he said.
Posey talked about the challenges of coming to EMU from Poquoson, a mostly white, upper middle-class community among the many military bases in the Hampton Roads area. A communications major, he said the first person he met outside of the baseball coaching staff was Professor Jerry Holsopple, an experience “which really should have counted as my cross-cultural,” he joked.
“Even among the baseball team, I heard in those first few months perspectives that differed from mine, and that was a culture shock for me, away from home for the first time, away from my girlfriend, trying to figure out some of the things that come with being at EMU,” he said.
What helped him become more comfortable and get through “a rocky first couple of years” was a tight relationship with head coach Jason Stuhlmiller (then a high school special education teacher and now area director for Fellowship of Christian Athletes) and connections with faculty members Holsopple and Deanna Durham — all mentors who got to know him “on my level, on my playing field, in my arena.”
Though he came primarily with an identity and purpose tied to his athletic experience, Posey said that changed over the years, and now he’s grateful that he chose to stay and “not miss out on experiences that have been really important to who I am today.” There are plenty of students today, ones he coaches and others he knows, who have had a similar difficulty adjusting to the EMU community.
“Whether you agree with why that student is here at EMU or not, you have four years to build a relationship with that person and talk to them about things you’re passionate about, whether it’s peacebuilding or social justice,” he said.
One beauty of these opportunities is how they remind us of what matters: in the midst of a losing streak, Posey said a player reached out to him to talk about how God was calling him but he felt unworthy. “I want to give my life over to Christ, but how do I reconcile that?” he asked.
“It’s easy to get lost in our jobs and lost in what we’re doing and not remember why we’re here,” Posey said. “But we have to keep that in perspective. I would venture to say that we’re all here at EMU because we hope to impact young people in a way that contributes to the rest of their life.”
Bringing imagination to course design
In his keynote address via Zoom, David Smith, professor of education and director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin College, challenged faculty to have imagination about their course designs. He told the story of different workers on a construction site, one of whom said he was cutting a stone block and the other which said he was building a cathedral: “What do my students think is happening when they sit in my classroom? What is it they think they are doing?” he asked, and, “What do we think we are teaching in our subject area? What does it contribute to the world? To the Kingdom of God?”
He recounted a call from a former student excited at having lent a willing ear to a German-speaking train rider after remembering what Smith had taught in German class, that the purpose of learning a language is less to speak it than it is to listen.
Pedagogical norms, he said, are simply how things are done in any given era, according to prevailing social norms. These norms often separate course content matter from reality’s ambiguities that merit curiosity and practicable empathy.
After the annual recognition luncheon, five break-out sessions were offered on a variety of topics, including workshops on spiritual practices for mentors, exploring spirituality types in mentoring.
Panel discussions offered insights into faith formation in various programs, including the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and athletics.
“When we are forced out of our routines, we have to rethink many things and examine our assumptions,” Clymer said. That makes for many opportunities to plant seeds, Hershberger added.
Their own and session participants’ stories bore that out: the student whose host mother prayed for her hemoglobin deficiency, which then was resolved to a degree that without a blood transfusion is medically impossible; the group that found cohesion in protectively encircling a sick classmate who had become ill on a crowded street; the homesick and tired group that, by recounting how they had experienced the presence of God in the last three days, turned their “mumbling and grumbling to singing.”
The group also gathered ideas for trip leaders to further prepare for and build on faith building experiences, cultivating groups in which students have starkly different faith understandings, and establishing shared resources and activities that have proven effective.
A final 45-minute gathering, hosted by Burkholder and Professor Johonna Turner, invited reflection and sharing.
Christopher Clymer Kurtz contributed to this article.