Churches are not the only institutions wrestling with the transition from a tradition-bound orientation toward a more relevant contemporary life.
In recent years, I have had the opportunity to watch two universities model how to adapt and redefine in the face of a dramatically changing environment.

I recently completed a five-year term as a trustee at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., and have had regular and ongoing conversations with the leadership at one of my alma maters, Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

In both situations, a very traditional institution, with aging facilities and a constituency devoted to the past, has found a way to honor their history while morphing and reshaping itself to embrace a very different future.

I believe local congregations can learn from them and from many other universities like them as they seek their way into the future. I see six specific similarities between the life of a university and the life of a local church.

  • Leadership

In each case, a strong, visionary leader has stepped into their role and clearly articulated a path forward into the future. Each has used the collective wisdom of a talented staff and loyal constituents to formulate a clear and coherent vision of the future.

Robert Fisher at Belmont and Bill Underwood at Mercer are visionaries who are relentless advocates for that dream.

Both are willing to make the hard choices and unpopular decisions that visionary leadership entails, spread the credit around when they find success, and follow strong predecessors whose legacy they have honored without being intimidated by them.

  • Identity and Marketing

These universities have both sought to affirm their Christian identity while disengaging from a Baptist hierarchy they felt stifled their potential.

Each was forced to answer their identity question at a basic level and then reframe their identity to a larger community.

Using effective marketing methods, they have emerged with a distinctive faith-based orientation that appeals to a wide spectrum of students.

They both lead with their strengths as they recruit students in a highly competitive environment.

Each has embraced an expanded athletics program as a tool for creating awareness and recognition of their institution while identifying specific academic programs that they want to excel in, knowing that they are unable to be all things to all people.

  • Facilities

Both schools manage to maintain old facilities while refurbishing and rebuilding to meet modern specifications.

It is an ongoing and never-ending struggle to do both. Both schools have adopted the attitude that capital improvements will always be part of their annual plan.

  • Methodology and Technology

The transformation by both universities to embrace new teaching methods is breathtaking.

Formerly rigid and one-dimensional, they now offer learning platforms in a multitude of formats and technologies.

Both have adapted to the new world of digital technology as the new normal for their future without sacrificing their commitment to the age-old principles of teaching.

Additionally, both have adopted a multi-site plan that challenges the traditional one-campus approach that defined each from its beginning.

Throw in the fact that the student bodies of each school have shifted from a group of 19- to 23-year-olds coming straight from high school to include a growing percentage of mid-life learners, and you have a challenging learning environment that requires nimble response times and adaptive leadership practices.

  • Traditions and Innovations

The leadership teams of both these schools have worked diligently to manage the tensions between the polarities of honoring traditions and embracing innovations.

Alumni are notorious for wanting to be sure their favorite spots, traditions, dorms and so on are intact.

Meanwhile, new students universally want their university to be up to date with technology, facilities and extensive student services.

Meeting the expectations of both constituencies requires delicate and insightful leadership.

  • Finances and Stewardship

The financial demands and expectations upon universities have changed exponentially in recent years.

Making budget, maintaining a price structure that remains within reach of most students, raising absurdly large amounts of money for scholarships and facilities, and ensuring the long-term viability of the institution through planned giving is a primary concern for both universities.

Leadership thinks and breathes and lives stewardship 24 hours a day. They unashamedly invite their supporters to use their financial assets to make a difference in the lives of students and communities far into the future.

To be sure, both Mercer and Belmont have had their share of struggles and failures as well as successes.

Overall, however, each is seen as innovative and a market leader in their respective worlds.

Any congregational leader paying attention to the stresses and strains upon their local church should pay attention to our friends in higher education.

They are blazing a path into the future from which our congregations would be wise to learn.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C. You can follow the center on Twitter @ChurchHealthy.

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