Called to Disciple

by Cynndie Hoff

"Azusa Pacific University is an evangelical Christian community of disciples and scholars who seek to advance the work of God in the world through academic excellence in liberal arts and professional programs of higher education that encourage students to develop a Christian perspective of truth and life."--Azusa Pacific University's mission statement.

Down the street at the local coffee shop, a young student cradles her latte and watches her math professor intently through the warm vanilla steam. Class ended about an hour ago, but this lesson has just begun. She leans in closer to hear her teacher describe her spiritual journey.

Back on campus in a dusty dugout, an assistant coach learns about God’s grace as he watches his mentor respond calmly and counterculturally in the heat of a critical athletic contest. Across the street, a seminary student kneels on his apartment floor, praying for God to cause an encounter with a new believer eager to know Jesus better.

Such scenes unfold every day at APU and demonstrate the university’s hallmark fusion of academic rigor and personal care--a powerful combination that many secular schools lack. In an October 2014 Business Journal article, “The Biggest Blown Opportunity in Higher Ed History,” writer Brandon Busteed summed up the findings of the Gallup-Purdue Index. When asked if they are engaged in their work and leading fulfilling lives, the majority of 30,000 graduates surveyed reported negatively and traced their discontent to their college days. “Where you went to college matters less to your work life and well-being after graduation than how you went to college. Feeling supported and having deep learning experiences during college means everything when it comes to long-term outcomes after college.” In short, they wanted and needed mentors—and most didn’t have them. Fewer than 3 in 10 graduates (27 percent) feel their professors cared about them as a person, and only about 2 in 10 (22 percent) had a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams. The news sent college administrators scrambling to set up task forces, conduct internal surveys, and search for a successful model they could emulate--one like Azusa Pacific’s.

Those who look to APU, however, may find it difficult to replicate its deeply ingrained culture of caring for students, because at Azusa Pacific, the approach transcends a program, it is a lifestyle. In fact, this focus goes beyond mentoring; it is discipleship--the purposeful enrichment of one’s spiritual life with Jesus through the guidance and support of a more experienced helper. And this personalized care manifests itself in countless formal and informal ways.

Sometimes it happens one on one, other times in small groups. It can occur situationally, occasionally, or intentionally, but whatever form it takes, one thing remains clear—at APU, discipleship permeates all we do. “We emphasize discipleship because it is the call of Christ,” said Coba Canales ’06, associate campus pastor for discipleship ministries. “Whether it takes place on campus, in a residence hall, or at Starbucks, it is nonnegotiable. The Great Commission calls us to make disciples of all nations. The APU mission defines us as a Christian community of disciples. As we continue to grow as an academic institution, it becomes even more critical that we keep these core values at the forefront of all we do.”

Fulfilling that call to invest in one another’s spiritual well-being at a comprehensive university takes intentional planning at every level. The Azusa Pacific community comprises thousands of students at various points in their academic and spiritual journeys: undergraduates, graduates, doctoral students, adult and professional learners, distance learners, commuters, regional students, international students, people from different faith backgrounds, and people with no faith background. Roughly half of all APU students have an adult mentor in their lives: 1,515 students are voluntarily connected in Discipleship Groups (D-Groups) or one-to-one discipleship mentoring programs, and many more participate in informal discipleship pairs outside of a structured program. More than 150 students lead D-Groups and other discipleship efforts on campus, and more than 300 faculty, staff, and administrators representing more than 40 offices and departments, along with several nonemployee volunteers, serve as mentors. “Discipleship is part of our institutional DNA, but we can do even more,” said Terry Franson, Ph.D., senior vice president for student life/dean of students. “Students are crying out for mentors. The Ivy League schools are aware of their lack in this area, and thankfully, Azusa Pacific has been leading the way. Increasing opportunities for discipleship for every person who seeks it is my number one priority. I am convinced this constitutes the rebar in our infrastructure and will help us stand fast as we engage culture.”

President Jon R. Wallace, DBA and the Board of Trustees endorse this expansion of discipleship and approved efforts to support it with human and monetary resources. “A generous donor and alumna who believes deeply in helping anchor and expand APU’s discipleship and spiritual emphasis committed to gift $600,000 to fund the first three years of an initiative to do just that,” said David E. Bixby, Ed.D., acting president. With a portion of the gift being overseen by the Office of the Campus Pastors, the initiative seeks to find new avenues that stir interest in discipleship among the student body at every level and provide qualified mentors to meet rising needs. Concurrent plans include more extensive D-Group leader training involving an annual weekend retreat and general training opportunities throughout the year, and to provide for more focused development of mentors based on the principles outlined in the university’s Spiritual Mentoring Handbook. The emphasis calls for a solid infrastructure of personnel comprising undergraduate interns, Azusa Pacific Seminary graduate interns, a men’s mentoring coordinator, and an operating budget. The board further demonstrated its commitment by commissioning a pilot program to test the viability of remote discipling relationships led by trustee Nick Yphantides ’86, MD, who lives in San Diego.

Even with the administration’s participation and backing, students far outnumber available mentors. According to Canales, the most effective recruiting method remains word of mouth from current mentors. One such seasoned mentor, Peggy Campbell, president of Ambassador Advertising Agency, chair of the APU Board of Trustees, and long-time mentor, understands the reticence of would-be disciplers. “The thought of discipling intimidates some because it requires advocacy. At some point, you have to provide input and give advice that will help direct the course of someone else’s life. That’s a big responsibility. What I have learned at APU—what has thunderstruck me—is that younger people covet relationships with adults who listen to them and speak into their lives. Discipleship enables them to become a conduit for the Lord to change the world.”

Priscila Diaz, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and the Honors College, agrees. “Taking on a spiritual mentoring role can be intimidating,” she said. Having led three D-Groups and discipled four students during her four years at APU, she draws on personal experience as she encourages fellow faculty and staff members hesitant about entering into a mentoring relationship. “Yes, it’s time consuming and sometimes draining, but God refills you. He won’t leave you empty. This is His call on our lives, and He is faithful to equip us, so don’t fear the process as you follow Christ’s lead. We have the responsibility to walk alongside our students beyond the academic material we teach and beyond basic Bible study.” In the Department of Psychology, Diaz and her colleagues serve more than 700 majors and minors. “The entire department read Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith to prepare our hearts and create avenues to disciple students. That inspired the launch of a special annual worship service by and for psychology students, though all are welcome. It’s very intimate and personal. Faculty members recount their spiritual journeys, we share communion, and we serve one another. The ultimate goal is to prepare people who can turn around and prepare others.”

This vital relationship, however, is not limited to faculty and students. Alumni, APU employee spouses, local church members, seminary students, and staff members who have undergone an extensive application and equipping process also mentor students and one another. “Our purpose at APU is to send students into the world equipped with a relationship with Jesus Christ and developed skills to be in a job or situation where they can serve well,” said Pershing Lum, senior project manager in Information and Media Technology, who has mentored students and colleagues at APU. “Getting to know Jesus is caught more than taught. When I was discipled, I watched how my mentor responded to situations and learned from his example. Discipleship involves a relationship with someone who knows you.”

So how does one measure success in discipleship? “The goal is to help the person discover and become the person God wants him or her to be,” said Lum. “I ask them, ‘Is God as real as the circumstances you face every day?’ When they can answer ‘yes’ and have a clearer understanding of who they are meant to be, then we’ve done good work together.”

Given the logistical challenges, why would colleges and universities bother to facilitate these one-on-one connections? According to the Journal of College Student Development, students who receive out-of-class mentoring demonstrate increased academic achievement and retention. Research in Higher Education reports that students with mentors have higher GPAs. And the Journal of Counseling Psychology notes that undergraduate and graduate students alike report mentoring helped them develop skills and behaviors necessary to succeed professionally. Given these results, universities can no longer afford to ignore the correlation. At APU, this strategic integration of personal connections within the context of higher education goes even further and reinforces the symbiotic relationship between the academic and spiritual aspects of life. It also demonstrates APU’s deep commitment to faith integration, the discovery of and informed reflection on Christian faith within every academic discipline.

This emphasis distinguishes APU from its secular counterparts. “Discipleship and mentoring must first be grounded in our institutional identity based on our spiritual heritage,” said Kevin Mannoia, Ph.D., university chaplain, who believes that, like individuals, the collective community must be discipled. He works closely with faculty, adjuncts, board members, staff, and administrators to help them understand this heritage so they can more effectively communicate it. “If we deepen and strengthen our knowledge of who we are, discipleship will be the natural outcome.” Mannoia joins annual retreats with faculty members to facilitate a clearer understanding of their spiritual heritage, and meets with adjunct professors to explain the university’s core values.

He also oversees SoulQuest, a spiritual care ministry for graduate students. “We want everyone to have a personal encounter with Christ,” said Mannoia. “Graduate students are very different from undergraduates. They are adults, many are married, roughly 35 percent of them are not believers, and all are commuters. I email each one of them weekly to let them know we are here and available to all who seek guidance. We help them locate a church, pray with them, meet with them one on one. No graduate student attends APU without clearly knowing that we care for him or her as a whole person. They leave here knowing that APU is genuinely interested in their soul.”

And they leave here equipped to serve and increase the Kingdom regardless of circumstances, geography, or status. “Today, we need a Church that is mobile and impactful,” said Canales. “If disciple-scholars emerge from APU with marketable skills and employability coupled with a deeper faith, a solid understanding of who God wants them to be, and a Christian mentor who knows them well and holds them accountable, the Church would be infinitely more effective in living out the biblical call to be salt and light in the world.” Azusa Pacific envisions a population of alumni--doctors, scientists, mathematicians, social workers, teachers, coaches, nurses, pastors, missionaries, artists, musicians, business professionals, entrepreneurs, and parents--ready and able to model the Great Commandment and fulfill the Great Commission.

This happens when they engage in discipleship just as Jesus modeled it--an apprenticeship for successful Christian living that transcends the world’s understanding of mentors, interns, and life coaches. As an institution committed to standing as a city on a hill, APU carries the solemn responsibility to integrate this training throughout every office, department, classroom, dorm room, and chapel, keeping God First at all times, and discipleship and degrees inextricably linked.

Apply to be a spiritual mentor.

Cynndie Hoff is a freelance writer living in Walnut, California.

Originally published in the Fall '15 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.