An interview with three alumni from the class of 1969
Stan D. Gaede, president of Westmont
Dean Hirsch, president of World Vision International
Jay Pierson, floor assistant to the speaker of the House of Representatives
Q: When and how did you sense God’s calling to your career? Have you seen this calling confirmed over the years?
Gaede: Answering this kind of question is always risky since I’m imposing my perceptions on God’s intentions. Nevertheless, God does lead and He leads in and out of careers, along with lots of other places. Where I grasped a sense of God’s calling was clearly at Westmont as an undergraduate. In retrospect, I think it was simply the desire to be a student — to learn and share my learning with others. That is what I did as a faculty member and that’s what I do as president. While it’s been confirmed (and questioned) by students and colleagues alike, it’s mostly a matter of heart and where it finds its resting place.
Hirsch: During my time at Westmont, I attended the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship Urbana Conference at the University of Illinois. The evangelist Michael Griffith spoke from the Scripture “Why do you call me Lord and not do the things I say?” I was very struck by that and felt deeply impacted by God’s message. I began to take a very close look at my life and my relationship to God. Over the years, I have attempted to follow what I sense is God’s plan. It has not always been clear or necessarily easy. Wendy and I spent five years in Africa with World Vision often wondering if that is what God wanted us to do. We saw people come and go, many of them moving on to other things. Yet we bided our time until God had a new plan for us.
Pierson: I have a less specific feeling about calling and careers than most Christians. I started out wanting to teach English on the college level and never thought about Capitol Hill. But when we moved to the D.C. area in 1972, JoAnne got a job there and I followed several years later. I don’t know that I felt God calling me. It would be wonderful if all Christians felt a specific calling to their jobs/stations in life, but I think most of us don’t. Does that mean we aren’t where God wants us? No! Our former pastor Dr. Richard Halverson used to say that if you are in God’s will generally, then you are where God wants you to be. He used to end Sunday services with the phrase, “You go nowhere by accident.” Only if you feel a strong calling away from what you are doing should you look elsewhere.
Q: What have you learned about following God’s calling on your life? What advice do you have for those seeking God’s will?
Gaede: Take a day at a time. It is rare for someone to have a clear, accurate sense of calling with regard to a particular career. Most of us have a number of careers. To be honest, when I went to graduate school after Westmont, I just wanted to continue learning about my discipline. I really had no idea where it would take me. The Lord was happy to let me live with my ignorance. And over time, I learned to live with His daily instructions. It’s called trust.
Hirsch: I’ve learned to be patient. I have slowly learned to truly engage with and value prayer. It’s God’s time, not my time. I’ve also learned to seek good mentors, wise people who will share their wisdom with me and candid advice/counsel. I appreciate people who have been honest with me, who have knocked off my rough edges and helped me better see and understand myself.
I would suggest three things for students seeking to understand God’s will for their careers. First, take advantage of the holistic education offered at Westmont. Be curious. Learn about things outside your major or area of interest. Second, take care of yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually. Finally, develop a life in community with other people. Learn to understand, respect and live in fellowship with other people, especially those most different from you. This is often hard for Americans because we tend to be individualists. We must recognize that we need to better understand ourselves and the world. Today we are global citizens.
Pierson: I do feel there is a connection between what you are good at and what you usually like to do. So for kids graduating and wondering what the next step is, a good place to start is their strengths and desires. Of course, prayer and the good advice of friends are indispensable in all areas of life, especially starting a career. You probably know that the average American changes jobs eight or nine times in a lifetime of work, so I would encourage young people not to feel they are bound by the first job they get. Many times I think graduates merely pick doing something they have worked in over the years (that is why I recommend doing something during the summer that might turn into a job upon graduation), or pick a place to go and just pick up a job, find a church, meet new friends and see what happens!
Q: What does it mean to be a Christian in your particular field?
Gaede: At the broadest level, it simply means being faithful — exactly what it means in every field. So I’ve had to ask myself, what does it mean to be a faithful follower of Christ as a teacher, scholar and now president? It means starting with Christ, Who is our Beginning and our End. It means teaching as if every one of my students was created in the image of God. It means pursuing the truth with the same tenacity and world-view as my Redeemer and loving my neighbor as myself in the process. It means rooting the liberal arts in Christ, drawing from Him our purpose, our pedagogy, our pleasure.
Hirsch: Because World Vision is a Christian organization, we seek to create a culture that affirms and nurtures our faith. In the broader world of relief and development, of course, most organizations are not Christian. Nonetheless, I make it very clear that World Vision is an organization that seeks to follow Christ. I have never had anyone challenge me about that. In fact, I often have people come up to talk to me about how we Christians try to live out the Gospel in our work. I believe that we can be both deeply Christian and deeply engaged in the issues of the day. I firmly believe that the Christian perspective must be part of the discussion of global issues.
Pierson: In my field, being a Christian is not any different than in any other field not specifically related to Christian service. It means doing the best possible job as if working for the Lord and not men. It means being a godly example in all that I do and being ready to give an answer to anyone who might ask about the faith. In my particular case, it means getting to know those I work with and encouraging them when they need to be encouraged. It means being a friend to the pages who are away from home for a school year or summer and generally helping them get through the difficult time of being a teenager!
Q: All of you have significant leadership positions. How does your faith affect your role as a leader?
Gaede: This is a hard one, since there is nothing unaffected by my faith. If all things cohere and find their meaning in Christ, then what business do I have leaving anything out? As you can see, I’m hedging. I think it makes me both confident and careful at the same time. Confident because I believe that God has called this college into being and placed every one of us here at this particular point in time. Including me. This is His work we’re doing at Westmont. No doubt about it. But I’m careful, as well. I want my work to be full of the care I have for God and those He has entrusted to us. I also want it to be about our students and their flourishing and not about my position (or anyone else’s). I want to be careful to make use of the gifts of those around me, which are also God-given, and are typically much more substantial than my own. I want to be confident in the outcome and careful to give our real Leader all the glory.
Hirsch: I can think of at least three ways my faith affects my leadership. Without faith, I’d be a basket case trying to deal with all the suffering and tragedy there is in the world. But with faith, I know there is a sovereign God who loves me just like He loves every other human being. The world is in God’s hands, not mine.
My faith makes me much more sensitive to the complexity and the diversity of God’s creation. The richness of the many peoples, languages, and cultures of the world represents the richness of creation.
My faith teaches me to listen carefully and to share hope with every individual I meet. It is my hope in salvation in God that is the bedrock of my faith.
Q: How can individuals make a difference in the world when the needs are over-whelming and the issues complex? What about believers who retreat to Christian enclaves? Do you encourage them to get involved in the world?
Gaede: If believers are retreating to Christian enclaves, then they are either not believers or the enclaves are less than Christian. You don’t come together as brothers and sisters in Christ and not leave more equipped to serve the world to which Christ has called you. Of course the issues are complex. And the needs are overwhelming. But they have always been so. Perhaps we see a bit more of them, but they are no more difficult than they have ever been. I think our problem is not what we know but our lack of courage. If modern Christians have a problem, it is not that they are too knowledgeable, but too enamored with their own satisfaction. We need bigger hearts as well as smarter heads. Which, by the way, is why we need Westmont.
Hirsch: We must remember that God calls us to be faithful, not necessarily to be successful. In the face of a needy and deeply troubled world, I think of how my predecessor, the late Stan Mooneyham, responded to the question: “How do you feed a million hungry children?” He answered, “One child at a time.”
I don’t see human need as overwhelming. I believe that God simply asks us to take one step at a time. And fairly soon, we’ve walked a mile. We need to work with people of all faiths or of no faith. We need to understand and respect one another and — from a shared understanding of our common humanity — address our problems.
I really don’t see many Christians retreating or withdrawing. In fact, I see more and more churches trying to engage in the issues of the day such as HIV/AIDS. I want to see greater global engagement. That’s one of the things I learned at Westmont: We are all global citizens.
Pierson: I think Stan and Dean typify people who are making a difference in the world, but not everyone can have that kind of impact. Even though I have a job that some would consider important, there is no way what I am doing can impact the world the way being president of Westmont or World Vision can. Most people have jobs like mine. The impact comes mostly in one-to-one contact with colleagues and others who might come into our lives. I hate to use the old phrase, but being “salt and light” in the world is critical for Christians. Not everyone is called to be a pastor, missionary, or even to work in the local church. Most of us are called to be in secular jobs where our performance is part of our witness. Instead of looking for a career in a specifically Christian field, graduates should look for careers which suit their individual talents and desires. Witness of God’s work in their lives will come with a job well done.
Q: Do you think Christians can command greater respect in society and find a more effective voice on cultural issues, or is the gospel simply foolishness to the wisdom of the world?
Gaede: Yes, to both questions. We might command greater respect if we paid more attention to the gospel. And whether we gain respect or not, that would make us more effective in our culture. But, at some level, the gospel will appear like foolishness to those who want the world. If your goal is worldly success, then you won’t take much notice of the One who has overcome the world. In the end, respect is not the goal. Faithfulness is.
Hirsch: The Gospel is certainly not foolishness to a great many people in the world. How else do you explain, as documented in Philip Jenkins’ book, “The Next Christendom,” the phenomenal growth of Christianity in Africa, Asia and elsewhere in the developing world? How else do you explain the hunger for gospel values in the developed world? Christians who know their faith and understand the issues of the day do command respect in society and can be effective voices on culture issues. Citing Scripture, however, is not enough. Faith must be matched with knowledge. Educated, informed Christians can have a huge influence on poverty, justice and human values.
Pierson: Tough question! I think holding a finger in the dike is an apt metaphor. In the end, you might be overwhelmed, but that is in God’s control. We must first be willing to put our fingers in the dike and then see what comes of our stand for principles and moral values. Yes, in many ways, the gospel is foolishness in the world’s eyes, but that doesn’t get us off the hook of sharing it when we can. There must be a certain time when people who work in the trenches trying to be salt and light (in Hollywood, for example) find themselves overwhelmed and have to get out. That, of course, would depend on each individual. Do I think we can turn around our society? No. I am quite a pessimist on that score. But we can speak for godly things when given the chance. We are not responsible for changing America, God is if it is in His will.
Q: When you were at Westmont, what did you expect to do with your life? How does that expectation relate to what you have done in the last 35 years?
Gaede: When I was at Westmont, I didn’t have a clue about the future. I still don’t. At the time, I considered going back to the farm to work for my dad. Or going into some kind of social service. Or maybe being a pastor. I asked Dr. Enroth what I should do in the spring of my senior year. He said, “Try graduate school and see what you think of it.” There was a lightness and a caring attached to his suggestion that inclined me to obey. And I’ve been grateful ever since.
Hirsch: I had a fantastic experience at Westmont – academically, socially, and spiritually. At the time, I dreamed of being the president of a college or university. But I knew that I wanted to work with people. I have spent the last 35 years working with people in teams, communities, churches and organizations. I believe there is direct correlation between the people experience I had in the residence halls and classrooms at Westmont and the people experience I have today in World Vision and in poor communities around the globe.
Pierson: This question gets to the crux of why I answered some of the questions the way I have. Many young people don’t have a clue as to what they will do with their lives. And many who do, end up doing something else! When I was at Westmont, my plans were to be a teacher and coach. Washington, D.C., and politics were the furthest things from my mind. Had I not married JoAnne, it is almost impossible that I would have ended up where I am today. I did finish a Ph.D. in English, but I never taught. That is why my advice to young people is to prayerfully consider your choices and don’t think just because you love to do something that God probably doesn’t want you to make a career out of it. There are so many people at my age (50s) who would never have dreamed they would end up doing what they are doing. Does that mean they are out of God’s will or that some time in the past they missed God’s calling? No! God was with them all along. Very few people find their dream job. Most are OK with what they have and need to find meaning through family, friends and church.
Q: In what ways did Westmont prepare you for your work? What people were most influential in your life?
Gaede: Because of the accident that occurred the year before I transferred to Westmont, I entered the college (for the first time in my life) ready to learn. And Westmont took full advantage of my readiness. I flourished at Westmont — that’s the only way I can describe it. I became a much better student. I met Judy (what more can I say). And I began, finally, saying, “Yes,” to Jesus. There are so many people who impacted me that I couldn’t possibly name them all. Furnish, Hillegas, Gundry, Robinson and Wilt — those are names that come to mind, in addition to Ron Enroth. But there were lots of fellow students who educated me as well, not the least of which were the five people I lived with in Emerson Hall during my junior year. We pushed each other, provoked one another and generally cajoled each other into being much better students than we had a right to be. I think that’s one of the precious things about a Westmont education, by the way, which is that it provides a genuine community — of faculty, staff and students — all of which are a part of your education. That’s the way it should be. Of course, the person who was most influential in my life was, and is, Judy. She has been my teacher, my mentor, my friend and the love of my life. I’m still learning, and she’s still showing me the way. Amazing.
Hirsch: Westmont prepared me to think outside the box, to challenge the easy answers, to tackle the bigger issues. Long before Nike invented its slogan, Westmont helped me understand: You can do it!
There were many people at Westmont — faculty, coaches and fellow students — who influenced my life. In particular, I think of Dr. Michael Mecherikoff, the psychology professor who stressed the importance of community by sharing meals with us at his home. I think of Pastor Bryan Leech at nearby Covenant Church, a gifted and creative musician who took a special interest in my intellectual development. Dr. Edmund Bouslough introduced me to the world via a European studies program. I think of Ron Mulder, not only a coach but a dynamic residence hall director at Van Kampen, and Tom Byron, a coach and dean of students, who gave me an understanding of life that was far bigger than sports. There were so many warm, generous, and dedicated staff at Westmont.
Pierson: Westmont prepared me wonderfully for my graduate work in English literature. Unfortunately, I never went on to teach! So there was no direct connection to my education and what I am doing now. However, Westmont prepared me for life in general with its emphasis on a Christian world view and a foundation for building a life. I lived off campus for four years so didn’t have contact with many of the wonderful people who might have helped shape my life. The best literature professor I ever had all the way through graduate school was Ed Ericson, who came to Westmont my freshman year and is now retired from Calvin. Also, because I am from Santa Barbara, I have been back on campus scores of times over the years so many of the people we like so much weren’t even at Westmont in the 1960s (David Winter, Russ Smelley, the music professors and Brad Elliott who were so good to our son Joel ’01). In the old days, I remember Rath Shelton, Tom Byron, my basketball coach, and two other English professors, Kingma and Lynip. I am sure there are others who don’t come to mind right now.