Memorable Commencement

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Commencement is a high point for every university and Concordia St. Paul is no exception. This year nearly 6,000 guests came to campus to honor the graduates in the three ceremonies, one Friday night and two on Saturday. A record 1,263 degrees were granted by the University, awarded to 280 traditional undergraduates, 301 non-traditional undergraduates, and 682 graduate students.

Over the years, many people have commented to me that Concordia St. Paul’s commencement exercises are among the most impressive they have ever attended. This does not happen by accident. The Conference and Events Services staff are the key leaders in making these events the outstanding happenings that they are, but contributions from the Athletic department, Custodial Services, Sodexo Food Services, Security, Operations and Maintenance, Grounds, the Registrar’s Office, the Bookstore, Student Life, Academic Affairs, the President’s Office, University Ministry, the Music Department, and the Academic Events Committee are all necessary to achieve the high level of excellence we enjoy in commencement. Add to that the many faculty members – full-time, adjunct, and retired – who attend one or often all three of the exercises, 94 volunteers from across the campus who helped out this year, and the student musicians who give of their time over the weekend, and you have a small army of people making commencement the special time that it is.

2015 was memorable for many reasons, not the least of which was a gorgeous weekend, the largest attendance and number of graduates ever, and outstanding commencement addresses by our three main speakers – Rev. Tom Evans, CSP alum, retiring Regent, and Pastor of Emanuel Lutheran Church, Inver Grove Heights, MN, Ms. Elizabeth Ries, co-host of Twin Cities Live on KSTP Channel 5, and U. S. Congressman Eric Paulsen. Moreover, the spirit of the graduating classes was palpably high, with an abundance of selfies, hugs, and high fives being spread throughout and beyond the Gangelhoff Center.

I wish to offer my personal thanks to everyone in the University community who make commencement so very special at CSP.

 

 

 

10 Years of Choral Excellence

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For the past 10 years Concordia University and the American Choral Directors Association of Minnesota have jointly produced the annual High School Choral Arts Finale.  High School choirs from around the state submit auditions to a jury of experienced choral directors, who select six top choirs.  Selections are done through a “blind test,” meaning that the jurists are not aware to which high school choir they are listening.  Over the years large schools, small schools, urban and small-town schools, mixed gender and same gender choral groups, have all been part of the final selections.  The six finalists receive travel assistance to come to the Twin Cities on a Sunday in April, the help and direction of a high-profile clinician to hone their own pieces and prepare several pieces to be performed by all the choirs en masse, and a gift to their choral program.  The choirs gather at noon on Sunday, rehearse all afternoon, and then travel to Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis for the evening performance.

The 10th festival was held on Sunday, April 19th.  My wife and I have had the opportunity of attending four of the ten, and it is truly a “knock-your-choral-socks-off” evening.  Per Dr. David Mennicke, this year’s festival featured the largest mass choir of all.  To hear nearly five-hundred voices, including the six choirs and Concordia’s own Christus Chorus perform at this festival is breathtaking.  This year’s clinician was Dr. Janet Galván, Director of Choral Activities at Ithaca College (New York), and performances were offered to a near-capacity crowd.

This festival would not be possible without the magnanimous support of benefactors David and Sandy Frauenshuh, whose original vision and financial support have made the festival what it has been for these 10 years . . . the premier high school choral event in Minnesota.  The festival would also not be possible without the indefatigable effort of Dr. David Mennicke, chair of Concordia’s Department of Music and director of the Christus Chorus.  The effort it takes on his part to make it happen is staggering, but he recently told me that he finds the entire process energizing.

On behalf of Concordia University, I want to publicly thank the Frauenshuhs, Dr. Mennicke, and the ACDA of Minnesota for producing this magnificent event.

Faithful in our Calling to Witness and to Love

One passage of Scripture that has fascinated me since childhood is Acts 5:41: “The apostles left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” After spending a night in jail for the crime of preaching the good news about Jesus, Peter and the other apostles were hauled into court, charged never again to speak publicly about these things, and severely beaten with whips. They left the court, amazingly, rejoicing at the privilege of suffering for the name of Jesus.

A general state of persecution of Christians persisted for two centuries after Jesus ascended into heaven. Fifteen of the first 30 popes were martyred or died in exile, and untold numbers of lesser known Christians suffered similar fates.

Then something radical happened. Around AD 313, Christianity became the favored, rather than persecuted religion. Alas, not many centuries after this blessed relief, the organized church became the persecutor instead of the persecuted. Horror of horrors, the church itself extinguished dissenting voices, often by extraordinarily cruel means, as humanity slogged through the Middle Ages.

Reformation and Enlightenment brought a return to sanity as the realization dawned again that the Gospel was a message of hope and deliverance, not of retribution for failure to obey. But then the cycle repeated, as once again the delivered became the powerful, and power again adopted new rounds of bias and persecution.

This unfortunate cycle seems regularly to repeat itself. Today in much of the western world, Christians are just beginning to suffer for their faith. As in the days of the Apostles, courts and legislative bodies are revising religious liberties, trampling long-cherished beliefs, and restricting when and where the name of Jesus can be honored. The emerging realities are presenting increasing complications for the church in general and institutions of higher education which seek to honor Christ and welcome all, in particular.

I ask myself: Am I as eager as the early apostles to rejoice at the privilege of suffering for the name? I pray that I am. Gandhi often famously said: “There are many causes that I am prepared to die for, but no cause that I am prepared to kill for.” I know that I would rather die than kill for my Christian convictions.  I do wonder what price God may ask me to pay.  Whether in favor or out of favor, our calling is to witness to the forgiveness of sins won by Christ and to love, even when unloved. May God strengthen us to be faithful in this calling.

Tom Ries

Remembering Our Shared Past

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The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) has produced a new video to be released later this year, entitled The First Rosa. It is the story of Rosa J. Young, a pioneer in the education of Black children in the State of Alabama. Rosa Young, born in 1890 in Rosebud, Alabama, was the fourth of 10 children born to the Rev. and Mrs. Grant and Nancy Young. With encouragement from her parents, Rosa enrolled in Payne University in Selma, Alabama, graduated as valedictorian in 1909, and became a teacher. She taught at various schools, until in 1912 she returned to Rosebud to found the Rosebud Literary and Industrial School. It was the first of 30 schools which Rosa Young would have a hand in founding, including one which later grew into Concordia College Alabama.

Rosa’s connection to the Lutheran church came about when the Rosebud school fell on hard times financially. She wrote to Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute, seeking help. Washington’s personal secretary, Emmett Scott, replied that Tuskegee was unable to offer financial assistance, but suggested she contact the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. Eventually the Synod, along with several other Lutheran denominations working together in the Synodical Conference, sent Pastor Nils Bakke to Rosebud. Together Rosa Young and Pastor Bakke made education the cornerstone of their strategy to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Alabama. Rosa Young died in 1971, but not before being recognized with an honorary doctorate from Concordia Theological Seminary in 1961.

You may view a trailer to this inspiring new video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C692GCE8IeY

During this month of February, Black History month, we are mindful of our shared past. Another milestone in our past will be observed on March 8, the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The historic crossing of the Edmund Pettis Bridge will be remembered at an event called Crossing Bridges: Selma to Minnesota, 1965 – 2015. Concordia University, along with a number of other faith-based organizations and congregations, is helping sponsor this event, which will begin at 2:00 p.m. at the State Capitol, continue with a symbolic march across the Cedar Street Bridge, and culminate with a program at Central Presbyterian Church to remember this important day in Civil Rights history.

You may learn more about the Crossing Bridges event at  http://crossingbridgesmn.com/

As we remember our shared past, with both its heartache and exhilaration, we are thankful for the multicultural, urban environment in which we as a university are privileged to pursue our mission to prepare students for thoughtful and informed living, dedicated service to God and humanity, and the enlightened care of God’s creation, all within the context of the Christian Gospel.

Grace and peace to you.

Tom Ries

 

 

Spring Enrollment, Student Success, and the Power of Prayer

The numbers are in and 2015 spring semester enrollment is at a robust 4,040 students, virtually the same as the record fall number. The rate of retention from fall to spring has been among the highest in school history, a positive indication that the University is making progress on both its strategic Goal 1: Grow Enrollment and Goal 2: Increase Retention and Persistence to Graduation.

The strong showing on retention is remarkable for several reasons. First, the University is far more diverse today in terms of academic programs, levels of student preparedness, the makeup of race, religion, nationality, and ethnicity, and the forms of academic program delivery than ever before.  This vast diversity calls for a diversity of approaches to meet student needs, efforts which translate into retaining students.  Second the strong showing indicates that Concordia is a university that has become especially adept at meeting the needs of a diverse student body.  This quality will prove to be enormously valuable as college students in the future are going to continue to be an extremely diverse population.

Student retention must be a grass roots effort, where everyone from the persons who clean the restrooms, serve food in the student life center, and patrol the parking lots, to academic, personal, and spiritual advisors, to coaches and athletic trainers, to faculty teaching in classrooms and online, and yes, even to presidents, see their role as helping students succeed. When retention works at Concordia St. Paul it is a clear indication of the living out of our promise to students “empowers you to discover and engage your purpose for life, career, and service.” I’ve observed this promise being lived out in many ways, by many people at Concordia, and it is gratifying to begin to see the results in terms of lives being changed and student success being attained.

Thanks to the fact that we are achieving success in enrollment and growth in net assets, we are in the enviable position of having the resources to execute on several aspirations we have as a university. For example, nursing education has become a reality for the first time at our university with the enrollment of the first cohorts in our RN to BSN program. Future plans call for expanding nursing education offerings on both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The effort to achieve final approval for our EDD program is well underway and we are praying and working toward accreditation for that capstone program in our academic offerings in Education. Though numbers have fallen nationally in students preparing for vocations in the church, we are determined to break that trend, and are investing heavily in new faculty positions in theology and ministry and a scholarship program called the Twelve Disciples Scholarship, offering full tuition to highly qualified men and women interested in preparing for a vocation in the church.

As I write these lines I am just coming off a visit to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC, an invitation extended to me and my wife Susie through our good friends David and Sandy Frauenshuh. Though we at Concordia are already well aware of the power of prayer, it was inspiring to join with thousands of other Americans and citizens from 130 countries to pray for the welfare of our world and our nation, and to express our trust in God. Many times we heard the words of Proverbs 3:5-6 cited at this two-day event: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your path.”

Many thanks to all of you as we pray and work together

Tom Ries

Wonderful Year with the Saint John’s Bible

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Throughout the current academic year we have been blessed with the Saint John’s Bible on our campus. Two of the seven volumes have been on display in the Library Technology Center since August, and throughout the month of February all seven volumes will be here. It’s probably a misstatement to say the volumes have been “on display.” They have, in fact, been actively used and enjoyed, touched and experienced in many ways. Each Monday, one of the volumes is transported to the chapel for “illumination Monday,” and a member of our faculty or staff talks about both the scriptural message appointed for the day and the rich artwork which illustrates it.

Among the highlights of having the SJB on the campus have been the wonderful speakers, who have contributed to the theological and artistic aspects of the project. On February 12th we have the very special opportunity to hear from Mr. Donald Jackson, the visionary behind the Saint John’s Bible and among the foremost calligraphers in the world. He will be speaking in the Buetow Auditorium at 7:00 p.m. I encourage you to arrive early, as we expect a full house! We are delighted that Mr. Jackson’s wife will be accompanying him as well.

I am extremely impressed with the way our campus community has embraced the Bible and incorporated it into the life of our community in many ways. Though many, many faculty, staff members, and students have found ways to lift up the Bible, special mention should be given to Kathy Haeg, Administrative Assistant to the Vice President for Academic Affairs, for her efforts to coordinate and encourage the many activities and uses of the Bible. We also again want to publicly thank Wartburg College, which loaned us the seven display cases we are using to house the volumes while they are on our campus. As you know, the theme of our academic year is The Word became Flesh. The Saint John’s Bible has certainly helped enrich that theme for us.

Grace and peace.

Tom Ries

Turning the Page

As we prepare to turn the page of the calendar to a new year, we have every reason for hope and optimism.  Early indications are that enrollment will remain very strong for the spring semester.  The financial position of the University for the first six months of the fiscal year is sound.  Qualified faculty and staff will once again benefit from a three-percent pay increase effective January 1st, the sixth such annual increase in a row.  A recently announced $500 thousand grant from a private foundation, paired with gifts from other donors, will enable us to make significant improvements in our laboratories and a number of classrooms.  Hundreds of new donors have stepped forward in just the last year, broadening our pool of Concordia supporters.  Our Strategic Planning Team has helped us identify the top priorities for major investments in the next five years.  What I especially like about this list is that it is both strategic and doable.  The areas for capital investment, which were led incidentally by the need to upgrade our laboratories, are specifically targeted at our tactical plans to achieve our strategic goals of growing enrollment, increasing persistence, improving transitions to jobs and graduate studies, and growing net assets.

Speaking of fund raising and capital investments, I am increasingly aware that prayer is the most powerful tool we can employ in the funding process.  Even before we had finalized our list of top priorities for investment, Vice President Mark Hill was made aware of the possibility of a gift from the aforementioned foundation.  It reminded me of the verse in Isaiah: “Before they call I will answer.”  Yet another need, repairs and improvements to our magnificent organ in the Buetow Auditorium, was just recently funded with a gift by two donors who had named Concordia in their estate plan decades ago, long before anyone knew we would have this need at this time.  Remarkably, the distribution was about a thousand dollars above the expected cost!  If you see a need for capital funds, I suggest you commit it to prayer.  I’ve got my own list going, but the more of us praying, the better!

Yet another reason for optimism is the progress we are making in university ministry.  I have not been this excited about CSP ministry for a long time.  Understandably, the focus is often on our Pastor, Tom Gundermann, and Ministry Associate, Shelly Schwalm, since in many respects they are the face of university ministry.  But hundreds and hundreds of students, faculty and staff are currently involved in university ministry in a meaningful way, and I have every confidence that more will be in the future.  In addition to the University’s strategic plan, Tom and Shelly have led us in the preparation a strategic plan for ministry.  It centers in four activities: Equipping, Welcoming, Caring, and Worshiping.  All of us as faculty and staff have a role to play in ministry, whether it is praying for and with students, exhibiting care for the personal needs of students, worshipping with students, or helping students discover and engage their own God-given gifts and talents.  I look forward to seeing what each and every one of our faculty and staff will do in the years ahead to give expression to the Christ is honored, all are welcome promise of our University.

Ultimately, of course, our reasons for hope and optimism are grounded in the magnificent news that The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.  Thank God for Christmas.  Thank God for Christ.  Thank God for the future.

Tom Ries

 

 

Leaders Needed

Every organization needs leaders. Concordia University has been blessed with an abundance of tremendous leaders. We recently celebrated the life and contributions of one extraordinary leader, Dr. Loma Meyer. She is but one of many figures who have led heroically throughout the last twelve decades.

God raises up leaders for his people. But it is also true that God works through people to identify and enlist leaders. I am hoping that we as a community will become more intentional in identifying, inspiring, and equipping future leaders for our University. Many are needed. Our University has key academic leadership positions as department chairs, associate deans, deans, chairs of key faculty committees and the senate, and, of course, the vice president for academic affairs. The University also has vital leadership positions in such academic support areas as admissions, financial aid, registration, career services, advising, student services, plant operations, and many others.  Developing leaders, empowering leaders, and doing some basic succession planning are all things an organization has to do.

In an effort to become more intentional in identifying and preparing leaders, I’ve appointed a Task Force for Leadership Development. This ad hoc group has a five-part charge:

  1. Review what is currently being done at our University to assimilate new faculty and staff into the Concordia culture and into their specific job responsibilities.
  2. Review what activities, programs, or events have been carried out in the past to contribute to the development of individuals as leaders.
  3. Identify the key leadership positions at our University, for which we should be developing future leaders and considering succession planning.
  4. Propose a system for leadership development, including tracks for academic leadership and academic support leadership, as well as professional development tracks for faculty and staff who may not aspire to leadership roles, but have the capacity to make a career out of their particular roles as faculty scholars or academic support professionals.
  5. Identify some specific internal leadership development activities and external leadership development opportunities which we may want to incorporate at Concordia.

I’m grateful to the six Concordia professionals who have accepted my invitation to serve on this Task Force. I asked them to serve based on the specific roles they fill at the University.

  • Ms. Mary Arnold, Director of Human Resources
  • Prof. Katie Fischer, Co-Chair of the Faculty Development Committee
  • Rev. Tom Gundermann, University Pastor
  • Dr. Don Helmstetter, Dean of the College of Education and Science
  • Mr. Matt Hewitt, President of the Concordia Staff Organization
  • Dr. Rob Krueger, Chair of the Department of Mathematics and Chair of the Faculty Senate

Please include this task force in your prayers, and offer any encouragement and insights you might wish to make into the important topic of leadership development.

Grace and peace.

Tom Ries

A Big Week for a Good Guy

 

This has been quite a week for our good friend and Vice President for Finance Dr. Michael Dorner.  Michael successfully defended his PhD Dissertation today, the topic of which was The Governance of Denominational Colleges and Universities in an Era of Declining Denominational Identity among Students.  A good number of his friends and colleges, and also his brother Frank who drove up from Chicago, filled the small conference room at the University of Minnesota to hear him share his findings.  This is the end of a very long journey to the PhD and we are excited to offer our heartiest congratulations to the newest doctor on our campus!

Tomorrow Michael will be honored by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal as CFO of the year.  The ceremony will be held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Minneapolis.  Michael was nominated by one of his colleagues at Concordia, Dr. Bruce Corrie, and I was happy to add my name to the nomination.  Under Michael’s leadership, net assets of the University have grown by over 40%, our cash and debt positions have improved dramatically, and we consistently have financial audits with no adverse findings.  The University’s Department of Education Financial Responsibility Score has improved to a 2.9 out of a possible 3.0.  Michael and his staff have played an invaluable role in the success we are enjoying right now as an organization, and it is nice to see him (and through him, the staff) get this well-deserved recognition.

I first met Michael when things were not nearly so positive financially for the University.  He came to work at Concordia as a staff accountant in 1998, just as the CFO and most of the others on the accounting staff were exiting the building.  Even from his limited position on the accounting staff, he played a major role in helping hold things together during those difficult days.  When I became the Vice President for Finance myself in 1999, I looked around for a Controller, and found no one better qualified than Michael.  Happily, he was willing to take the job, and together he and I began to build a foundation for improved financial performance.  It should be noted that soon after becoming Controller Michael hired PaNhia Thor to replace himself on the accounting staff.  When Michael ascended to the office of Vice President in 2004, PaNhia became the Controller and she and he have been working together in those roles ever since.  We are very fortunate to have both of them here.

A system for financial accountability is indispensable to every college and university today, and ours is among the best in the country.  But that is not the only contribution Michael makes to Concordia.  he frequently serves as an adjunct faculty member, teaching courses in accounting and some other business-related subjects.  He is also an accomplished organist, who offers his talents regularly to a local congregation and occasionally on campus.  And as an ordained minister of the Gospel, he shares his talents as a spiritual leader in chapel and in other ways.

Congratulations to our friend and colleague for a very big week!

 

Two Griefs Observed

Recently Concordia University hosted a nationally known author, whose book has appeared on the New York Times best seller list. The topic of both the speech and the book was the author’s experience with the untimely death of her mother from cancer over two decades ago, and her personal journey to find relief, and peace of mind and heart from the agony of that loss. In seeking this relief, the speaker/author followed a path initially of degradation into self-destructive behaviors, and then personal resolve to complete an unaccompanied hike along the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Ultimately the speaker purports to have found contentment in a mixture of personal accomplishment and polytheism, and in fact made the statement: “Nature is my god.”

I appreciate this author’s candor in telling the story of her journey through grief and loss. Every pastor has walked through this valley with individuals. In a number of cases, I as a pastor have witnessed similar radical rejection of faith of any kind, and the acting out of amoral and immoral lifestyles in the attempt to pursue relief from the pain of loss. Nevertheless, I was left grieving for this author. She has had no pastor to guide her in the dark valley and even these many years later continues to seek peace outside of the grace of the personal, living God, whom all may know in the face of Jesus the Christ.

Over three decades ago, I experienced the untimely death of my own mother from cancer. I well remember the pain of that loss. I was hoping she would survive long enough to meet my first child, who was scheduled to be born that very week. Alas, my mother died several days before the birth of my daughter. I and the other members of my immediate family were with her when she died. My father gently held her in the last moments of her life. The last thing she heard this side of heaven was his voice, asking: “Is Jesus calling you?” Indeed, he was.

Five days later, my first daughter was born. The birth occurred at 3:03 A.M., a moment I shall never forget. Driving home from the hospital later that morning, I stopped by the side of the road and wept openly. It was a strange mixture of tears. Tears of grief at the loss of the woman who gave birth to me and nurtured me throughout her life. Tears of thanksgiving for the woman whom I adore and who had given birth to our first child. Tears of immense joy at the child who was now God’s gift to us. This mixture of tears was assuaged and enhanced by the surpassing peace and hope found in Jesus Christ.

When observing these two experiences of grief, you and I are left with the obvious, ultimate question. Is true peace to be found in self-expression outside of Christ or immersion into Christ? That question was long ago answered for me. For others, the answer remains yet elusive.

Grace and peace to you.

Tom Ries