Building faith by sharing oneself

In our research on what students hope faculty will do to provide an education that is both spiritually strengthening and intellectually enlarging, it is obvious that students would like faculty to share more of themselves, in and out of the classroom.  In this post, David Whetten (Faculty Center director and Professor of Organizational Leadership and Strategy) helps us to see why sharing ourselves can make such a difference for students and offers suggestions for how to do it.

Please consider making a contribution to this blog.  Share a brief experience you’ve had in trying to teach in a way that is spiritually strengthening and intellectually enlarging.  We’d love to hear your stories!

From David Whetten

Inspired by my recollections of several high-impact BYU professors I had as a BYU undergraduate, I welcomed the opportunity to integrate gospel and disciplinary knowledge and approaches to learning in my teaching when I returned to BYU in 1994. However, I wasn’t very proactive about doing this until I was called to serve as a campus bishop. In that position, I quite often found myself counseling ward members whose belief in God had been shaken by something that had happened during their time at BYU. While I wasn’t surprised to learn that faithful LDS students were experiencing crises of faith, I was surprised by the cause of those crises.

Rarely did the impulse to abandon the “faith of their fathers” stem from the classic conflicts experienced by college students with a strong religious background, stemming from conflicting claims often made by science and religion. Instead, their doubts were more often provoked by a personally devastating turn of events in their everyday life—something that made them question whether the object of their faith was truly a loving Father in Heaven. In some cases, they were rocked by the divorce of their parents, or the death or serious injury of a sibling. In other cases, they involved the prospects of having to drop out of school due to serious financial hardship despite their efforts to live God’s commandments, or failing to be admitted to a major they felt spiritually called to pursue, or the dimming prospects of marriage. In still other cases, they involved the onset of a debilitating physical or emotional illness.

As a consequence of my service as a campus bishop, I resolved to do more as a BYU professor to build faith in my students. I felt a sense of urgency to prepare my students for the storms of life. I particularly saw a need to help inoculate them against the doubt-provoking thoughts that often accompany these storms—thoughts like, “Because this isn’t what I expected from God, maybe I can’t trust Him, maybe He doesn’t exist.” Or, “It seems to me like His ways are so inscrutable and He appears to be so removed from my cares and concerns that I see no good reason to have faith in God.”

I am now much more deliberate and specific when I pray for guidance in the classroom. In particular, I pray for opportunities to help students see their lives through spiritual eyes, to help them think clearly about what it means to be a disciple of Christ, both in terms of what God expects from us and what we can expect in return.

A few years ago we conducted an informal study of BYU faculty who have a great impact on their students. I was surprised to find that in many cases these professors taught very large classes where the teacher never met one-on-one with most of the students and didn’t, possibly couldn’t, know everyone’s name. Despite such daunting circumstances, these teachers found ways to connect with their students, to make a very large, and at times impersonal, learning environment seem very intimate. One of the characteristics of many of these teachers was that they were willing to share themselves, not just their professional expertise, with students. One student recalled a teacher who talked briefly about the struggles he faced as the father of a teenager who was questioning his faith and what he was trying to do to strengthen his child’s faith. In another case, a teacher explained he had missed the previous class  because he attended the funeral of a retired colleague. The teacher briefly paid tribute to his colleague, recalling how he had inspired her, first as a student and later as a newly minted PhD, to live up to her potential. In still another case, a student described how a young professor talked about the challenges he was facing as a father, professor, and church leader. The teacher then bore his testimony that God magnifies our best efforts in all aspects of our life.

Modeling the examples of other BYU professors, I try to allow my students to know me as a “whole” person, as someone who is more than a professor of organizational studies. Sometimes I use topics in the course as bridges to these discussions; other times, I just ask their permission to share something that it is very important to me—something that I have learned about getting answers to prayer, or what to expect from God, or how to avoid letting a trial undermine our faith in a loving, thoughtful God. I avoid making these discussions routine, or even predictable, and I strive to link them to the subject of the class. Sometimes I tell a story or share a thought from my morning scripture study or a weekend conversation with my wife or one of my children. On some occasions I interject these comments and then we move on. At other times they lead to an extended conversation. On a few occasions, especially in small classes, as the semester comes to a close, and as we gather at my home to explore the larger implications of our subject matter, I’ve shared my own crisis of faith as a graduate student, a long way from my Utah roots following the death of my first wife.

As teachers of LDS youth I encourage you to deliberately, consistently and prayerfully consider how you might use your classroom to build faith in God and hope in His promises. I pray that we will find ways as BYU professors to continue testifying of God’s tender mercies, using not only scriptural and historical accounts, but when appropriate, personal experiences as well.

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2 Responses to Building faith by sharing oneself

  1. Larry St. Clair says:

    Dear David,
    Thank you for sharing these important thoughts and personal experiences about helping our students with both secular and faith-related challenges as a part of your teaching and as a part of their educational experience here at BYU. I have often felt the spirit prompt me to share feelings or insights with the students in my Biology classes – letting them know that both faith and science are powerful but not mutually exclusive ways of knowing.

  2. Travis says:

    A very thoughtful and helpful post.

    Can I supplement Dr. Whetten’s observation that religious doubts are mostly provoked by everyday traumas? I agree that such experiences can indeed provoke doubts about God or religious belief in general. But my experience in a campus bishopric, in various home stake and ward callings, and with my own children and students, would all suggest that many times doubts about the Church or its doctrines in particular stem not from everyday challenges of life, but specifically from discipleship failures of one kind or another. And contrary to what is implied by many concerned addresses on such issues, the resulting obstacle for most people is not a personal offense that must be forgiven (or a recognition that each of us is only human), but doubts about the degree to which God is indeed involved in everyday ecclesiastic or religious affairs when obvious wrongs are not righted, when critical issues of faith or doctrine are not directly or effectively addressed, and when protocol take precedence over people. Just this week, I’ve heard two different students in two very different contexts utter the words, “how could such a person be inspired?”

    As conversations with my children have suggested numerous times, the critical issue isn’t so much whether or not there can be spiritual experiences or whether there is a God, but why those experiences are counter-intuitively experienced at home or in private rather than in church or in religion classes, and whether a particular path in life (including, but not limited to religious affiliation) is what God wants for us? For instance, as one of my children once replied when I apparently misunderstood his concern and launched into an unwanted sermon, “Dad, I’m not asking why I should read the scriptures or pray or obey the commandments or be a good person; I want to know why I should go to Church?” (with a big emphasis on the word “church”)

    Hence, I fully endorse and appreciate Brother Whetten’s suggestions, But I’d also be particularly appreciative of any insights into how, specifically in our capacity as professors (even if on Sundays or in another domain of stewardship we are also Church teachers or leaders), we can help our students fortify themselves against or deal with these kinds of problems–which we are often afraid to discuss even among ourselves. In short, aside from modelling Christian behavior and bearing testimony, which hopefully strengthens our students convictions about our personal attempts at living a good life, and which can sustain them for a while, what can we do to help them develop or defend convictions about the good (Godly) life itself–convictions upon which they can stand when appreciation for kindness rendered or the memory of our personal attempts at goodness are not enough?

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