Rooted and Open Graphic

By Stephanie Robbins Boeding ’99

What does it mean to be a Lutheran college in the 21st century? That question has been a driving force for the Network of ELCA Colleges and Universities (NECU), which includes Wartburg College, and has led to a document called Rooted and Open: The Common Calling of the Network of ELCA Colleges and Universities. The document unites and guides the 27 member colleges and universities as they grow in the 21st century while also holding true to their Lutheran roots stretching back to the 16th century.

The presidents of the NECU institutions banded together in 2015 to navigate practical matters and to help articulate the distinction of being a Lutheran institution in a changing world. As part of NECU from its start, Wartburg President Darrel Colson relished the task of digging into the theological underpinnings. “We really got deep into the core of, what is it to be a Lutheran institution? How are we different from other institutions, and why is that important?” he said. Those discussions led to NECU drafting and eventually adopting Rooted and Open in 2018. “I see it as a wonderfully concise description of what Lutheran higher education is. I think that is fairly well captured by this document.”

For Mark Wilhelm, executive director of NECU, the need for a common statement has been prompted by big changes to the culture and church in recent decades.

“Part of the change over the last 70 years, since WWII, is that our colleges moved slowly from being in their founding phase, organized to serve a specific ethnic group of Lutherans, to being a more diverse and globally engaged group of students,” he said.

Since fall 2016, Wilhelm has been helping the member presidents create language to articulate what it means to be a Lutheran college that is no longer just understood to serve a Lutheran ethnic identity. “We have a theological, intellectual, and educational tradition that’s all shaped out of Lutheran heritage. What does that mean? Rooted and Open is the outcome of pulling all that together and is the culmination of that long discussion and the shifts that occurred in our community after WWII.”

That flow, from the roots of Lutheran tradition to the future of the culture and the church, excites Dr. Caryn Riswold, who has just finished her first year at Wartburg as a professor of religion and newly installed Mike and Marge McCoy Family Distinguished Chair of Lutheran Heritage and Mission. “When I interviewed here, I noticed this is a place where religion matters,” she said. “There’s a narrative out there of religious colleges giving up identity, becoming too secular. I don’t see it working that way at Wartburg.”

For Riswold, the prospect of moving a tree in her yard this spring led to her thinking about the concepts surrounding Rooted and Open and the future of Lutheran colleges. “If you don’t let the tree grow, its roots will die. If you cut it back too far, keep it contained too much, it will die,” she said. “The goal is that the tree grows and puts out leaves and flowers. Those buds and leaves bring the energy in to the roots, and the roots continue to be fed. You actually have to have growth to continue to have roots.”

A group of faculty members from several institutions, including former Wartburg professor of religion the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Kleinhans, now dean of Trinity Lutheran Theological Seminary at Capital University, worked with NECU presidents to identify several underlying theological values for Rooted and Open, showing that the connection to Lutheran tradition is the key for how NECU institutions distinctively educate students in a pluralistic society today.

“Although their mission statements vary, NECU institutions share a common calling,” states the document. “Together, these educational communities equip graduates who are:

Called and empowered
To serve the neighbor
So that all may flourish.”

Each of the NECU institutions adopts these priorities differently, depending on their own history, administration, student body, and mission. The educational priorities are presented so they could be affirmed by students, faculty, staff, and administrators who may or may not be Lutheran, may or may not be Christian, may or may not even be religious at all. 

Wartburg College invited Darrell Jodock, professor emeritus at Gustavus Adolphus College, to share more about the background and themes of the statement during a Wartburg faculty workshop in January. He described the educational pillars of Lutheran institutions of higher education as supports holding up the deck of a bridge, which represents all that happens at a college, such as classes, music, athletics, maintenance, administration, and more. The footings of those pillars, the very foundations, are theological principles drawn from the Lutheran religious tradition, and that’s where Lutheran colleges and universities differ from others.

Built on solid ground

The following are several of the educational principles and theological footings highlighted in Rooted and Open that distinguish Lutheran colleges and universities:

Fostering wisdom: Understanding of people and what they need to live a full life. Values healthy communities and multiple perspectives. Behind this is the belief that knowledge should help others.

Fostering civil discourse: We live in a society that is growing more polarized, but Lutheran roots remind us that other people have something to teach us.

Radical hospitality: Welcoming students and others in a safe place where they can learn and where their positions can be challenged; there is freedom to grow.

Incarnational principle: The presence of the divine in ordinary life.

Theology of the cross: God is particularly present in and with those who suffer; we should be attentive to those who are marginalized.

Limits of human knowing: God is both hidden and revealed. We can never have a full understanding of God; there will always be much beyond our understanding. Institutions should practice a spirit of intellectual humility and genuine curiosity.

Freedom of a Christian: Freedom from having to save oneself and freedom to serve neighbors.

Vocation: The idea from Martin Luther that all people are called to meaningful work that is needed in the world among multiple aspects of life.

Concern for all creation: God’s generosity reaches all humans, and divine generosity motivates us to work for the common good.

Costly grace: We’re saved by grace through faith in Christ. Following Bonhoeffer’s idea of costly grace, we have a resource and power to DO something with this grace. Grace leads us to commitment to other people, advocating for others, works of love, and that costs you something.

Nested in communities: Individuals are always embedded in larger communities. There is a proper balance between individual and community that keeps us from the danger of extreme individualism, or as Luther put it, a “heart turned in on itself.”

The challenge today for Lutheran colleges like Wartburg is to help students, faculty, and staff see the difference the theological roots make in how the institution carries out its mission.

“What’s at the foundation is our belief that when we are liberated from sin, by the grace of God, we are liberated for the purpose of serving our neighbors,” said Colson. “For us, there’s this deep, deep root that explains why service is important. At other secular schools, they say service is important, but I don’t think they can say why.”

“Service and leadership show up in a lot of colleges’ missions, but the fact that it’s fed by the roots of a robust theology influences our student and faculty culture and ought to influence how decisions are made,” said Riswold, who feels the importance of Rooted and Open as a faculty member. She spent her first May Term taking students to Germany for a course called Reformation Then and Now, which studies Lutheran theology in the country where Martin Luther lived 500 years ago. “I had no opportunity to bring that into the classroom previously, and I do now. We work through Luther’s difficult texts about the Jews, and it’s important we confront the underside of Luther,” she said.

For students, no matter their religious background or beliefs, coming to a Lutheran-affiliated college like Wartburg makes a difference in what is studied and how knowledge is applied, and that includes exploring matters of faith.

“If you’re a student here, you don’t have to be a Lutheran or even religious, but you should not escape our mission goals,” said Wilhelm. “You shouldn’t leave here without asking why 90 percent of the world’s population thinks religion is important. You can’t call yourself an educated person without exploring that.”

The Rev. Dr. Brian Beckstrom, in his role as Wartburg’s dean of spiritual life, echoed that support of faith exploration. He is working to clarify Wartburg’s faith identity in a concise statement that is guided by the principles of Rooted and Open, then to articulate how Wartburg, as a college of the church, understands interfaith relationships. “There are some really exciting possibilities here in terms of us continuing to understand who we are and the Spirit continuing to lead us in that discernment,” he said. “God’s doing something new, and the question is, how do we participate in that, and what does it look like to be followers of Christ in the midst of this time when we have so many more and different religious traditions that are all around us?”

An extension of the radical hospitality laid out in Rooted and Open is serving students, faculty, and staff of non-Christian backgrounds. Beckstrom noted that the Lilly Reflection Room in Saemann Student Center has been a space for interfaith prayer, but more can be done as the student body grows more diverse. “We are in the process of remodeling an old conference room in the basement of the Chapel into another interfaith prayer chapel, and that will be available to students of any background,” he said. Another effort is to help students organize a Muslim student association on campus. “Obviously, Spiritual Life & Campus Ministry has a clear Christian identity, and yet as Rooted and Open calls us to do, there’s a sense of hospitality as well to people of all different religious traditions and non-religious traditions. So that openness and being able to learn from one another is critical.”

Earlier this year, Beckstrom led a small group of Wartburg religion faculty and students to Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., to study what the sister institution has implemented for interfaith programs. The group sat in on a Muslim prayer service, and what Beckstrom observed struck him: One of the Wartburg students, a Muslim, joined in the worship. “To see her being able to live out her faith and practice her faith was just such a moving moment for me, because I realized she doesn’t have an opportunity to do that very often with other Muslims,” he said. “If I was in a majority Muslim country, and I was a Christian trying to practice my faith, what that must feel like to be among people who come from that same tradition. And to feel supported by people who are not part of your tradition. That was a really moving moment for me.”

Beckstrom knows the discussion about interfaith practices at a Christian-affiliated school can be a difficult topic. “I’ll admit, when the interfaith conversation first started, I was like, ‘How do we do this?’” he said. “I think one of the best ways to understanding it is to think about it in terms of exactly what the statement says, Rooted and Open. And so is it possible to be part of a specific religious tradition and yet be open to the other, to be willing to see Christ in our neighbor? To see all those who come as Christ among us?

“Contrary to the fear that some people have that we need to protect our faith as fragile, the truth is when we have experiences with people from other faith traditions, you tend to grow more deeply in your own faith, because it makes you think about what’s really important to you and what your beliefs are,” said Beckstrom.

“When you look at our mission statement, we’re committed to inculcating and encouraging in our students these predispositions toward leadership and service because of our understanding of grace. But if our students graduate into lives of leadership and service and they’re spiritually animated by the Hindu faith or the Muslim faith, we’re perfectly comfortable with that,” said Colson. “We’re happy to welcome into the community those who believe differently than we do, because we believe we can build a strong community as diverse people with diverse points of view.”
The principle of vocation, which lies at the heart of Rooted and Open, has long been at the heart of Wartburg’s mission to prepare students to “lead lives of leadership and service as a spirited expression of their faith and learning,” and students graduate having reflected on their own sense of vocation through coursework.

“It’s so embedded in the students’ culture here, to talk about vocation and calling,” said Riswold. “There’s space and support for those conversations in a way that the institution is creating that is distinctive.”

For Riswold, the concept of Rooted and Open explains how Lutheran higher education has remained vibrant through the decades, evolving from its beginnings of educating only young white men for church leadership. “It’s only alive today because institutions, the leaders, and the church expanded their notions of what a church leader looked like, and expanded their notions of what the purpose of Lutheran higher education was for. It’s not just for church leaders, but for teachers and nurses and doctors. So we would be dead had we not allowed it to grow,” she said. “I think that’s what we’re continuing to do, and that’s what Rooted and Open captures, is the necessity of growth to have healthy root systems.”