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The Future of Graduate Christian Education

by Anne Marie MacDonnell, PhD, Jan 25, 2005

macdonell_l_001Sometimes, God directs our paths in ways that we may never even begin to anticipate. In fact, there are times when God’s calling does not make much sense to our limited human intellect at all. Yet, it is at that very moment when we are most mystified that God often calls us to make that quantum leap of faith and place our trust totally in Him. Yes, God can take the most enigmatic situations and turn them into countless, everlasting blessings.

In the spring of 1995, a television commercial advertising Regent University caught my attention. Somehow, I felt the Lord was calling me to investigate this university. Yet, while my heart and soul felt a special calling, the purely rational side of me was contradicting this feeling. After all, I was a committed Roman Catholic, and I believed that the population at Regent University must surely consist of devout Evangelical Christians.

Now, I possessed the utmost respect for Evangelical Christians who most assuredly do share many common beliefs with Catholics. However, it did not appear to be very prudent, at least on a human level, to pursue studies at a university that embraced a theology with certain significant elements that would be in total contradistinction with the teaching I had absorbed and accepted unconditionally after thirteen years of Catholic education.

Still, as a Catholic Christian, I have come to realize more and more that the supernatural virtue of prudence may often contradict and must always supersede what is ostensibly the most practical and pragmatic of decisions on a purely human level of rationality.

Finally, after several weeks, I overcame my skepticism and called the Regent University telephone number that had appeared on the television screen. A friendly voice greeted me. However, before I would allow this affable gentleman to continue any further, I wanted him to immediately know that I was a Roman Catholic. Needless to say, I was most surprised when he told me that he was, too! He convinced me that there was a very ecumenical atmosphere at Regent University.

So, in April of 1996, I decided to attend Preview Weekend at Regent University. The doctoral program in organizational leadership was being initiated, and it truly intrigued me, especially since it was a computer-mediated, long-distance program. I met some wonderful people who truly seemed to care about me. What impressed me most was everyone’s emphasis on allowing the Holy Spirit to help me discern as to whether or not I should apply for this program.

After that weekend of prayer, reflection, and discerning, I decided to apply right away. Within less than a week, I had filled in the application, taken the Miller Analogies, and gathered all the necessary information and documentation. That alone was miraculous! Thus began an inspirational journey, which affected my heart, mind, and soul in a profound manner.

My three years of study in the doctoral program in organizational leadership at Regent University proved to be the most challenging, exhilarating, and inspirational of my life. It was a very intense time in which my entire life was devoted to diligently pursuing God’s truth through my studies. The wonderful aspect of this program is the fact that all of my professors and my fellow learners in Cohort I were deeply committed to the Lord. Also, being a member of Cohort I was a pioneering adventure! After all, we were members of the first cohort of learners to experience a computer-mediated doctoral program in organizational leadership anywhere in the world!

What an awesome privilege to be chosen by the Lord to embark on a new, computer-mediated adventure involving the prayerful sharing of charitable fraternity, ecumenical dialogue, scriptural integration, and inspiring leadership- all based upon the principles of Christian discipleship! Just as all Christians have been commissioned to spread the Good News to all corners of the earth, we were indeed using the miraculous power of the World Wide Web to spread the Gospel literally throughout the entire planet. What mission could be more exciting than this one?

In today’s world, a sort of false ecumenism often prevails. That is, when Catholic Christians gather together with Christian of other denominations, there is a tendency to limit the discussion exclusively to areas of agreement. By the same token, at the other end of the spectrum, individuals may become coercive, manipulative, and self-righteous. Both of these extremes are essentially disingenuous and actually cause more divisiveness by obfuscating the truth.

What was most interesting about my academic experience at a Protestant University such as Regent, was my unique opportunity to address all the topics and issues I studied within the context of the Magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church, without watering down the essential doctrine and dogma of Catholicism. I was comfortable in proclaiming my Catholic beliefs without any equivocation, sensing an unconditional love and thoughtful respect from my professors and fellow learners. In turn, I developed a mutual respect for everyone in the School of Leadership Studies and throughout Regent University. Despite our theological differences, I truly was inspired by my fellow Christians’ love for the Lord, His Word, and His people. Exploring our studies together in the areas of theology, sociology, philosophy, business management, education, communications and many other realms that comprise Regent’s comprehensive program in leadership studies became a cooperative spiritual and academic venture.

This was not only an opportunity to study and analyze Christian leadership with a tremendous rigor, depth, and breadth of perspective, but it also was a God-given opportunity to support one another both academically and most prayerfully on a consistent basis for an extended period of time. Through the miracle of the Internet, this spiritual and academic collaboration occurred in an atmosphere, permeated by a special bond of love, concern, friendship, and cooperation between the fellow learners of Cohort I and all the caring professors with whom we interacted.

In the summer of 1998, I was invited by faculty members to address 150 doctoral students from the School of Leadership Studies. This was a wonderful opportunity to express thoughts and ideas regarding government and politics from a Catholic Christian perspective. While my speech clearly articulated the fact that the doctrine and dogma of Catholic teaching can never be compromised, it also emphasized the importance of Catholics and Christians publicly witnessing together in the name of Jesus Christ while actively defending and promoting the sanctity of human life and family life. Throughout the past several decades, it is apparent that a true respect for the sanctity of the God-given gift of life itself has been manipulated, excoriated, and essentially abandoned by a government that is becoming increasingly totalitarian and hostile toward Christianity and all its principles of discipleship.

Embarking upon the adventure of researching and writing my dissertation was the culminating experience of my program as a student. I always wanted to compose a work that would represent the fullness of truth and eventually evolve into a very meaningful work for both present and future generations. I hoped that this work would be timeless, significant, insightful, and intriguing from all perspectives- historical, philosophical, sociological, psychological, and, theological. Most of all, I prayed that the work would reflect the truths that would be in full accordance with the Magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church, founded by Jesus Christ. As we’ve crossed the threshold of a new millennium in the Church, John Paul II has continued to serve as my most inspiring role model. The Holy Father is not only the Vicar of Christ, but is also a Shepherd who gently but firmly guides His flock with genuine love, concern, loyalty, humility, discipline, and authority. His actions words, and mere presence reflect and manifest true Christ-like virtue in every manner.

In the process of trying to discern a topic that was the quintessential quality contributing to the development of Servant Christian Leadership, I reflected upon the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude), which have been so beautifully explicated by the most esteemed, yet humble philosopher and theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church. The practice of the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude emanate from the theological virtues, which ultimately lead us to our heavenly Father. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are infused into our souls through the sacrament of Baptism and are strengthened through prayers, charitable deeds, and, in a special way, through the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, at which time Jesus Himself comes into our hearts, bodies, minds and souls. The gift of the Holy Spirit, which is infused into our souls as infants through the sacrament of Baptism, is reaffirmed and strengthened when we, as young adults, willingly accept all of the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of Confirmation. Therefore, in light of John Paul’s Call to Holiness and after much prayer and meditation between November of 1998 and January of 1999, I decided upon a definitive topic and title for my dissertation: Catholic Witness: Educating for Virtue.

I was truly blessed to have the opportunity to work with seventh and eighth grade faculty members at St. Patrick’s Word of God School in Providence, Rhode Island. While developing the premise for my dissertation, I was also privileged to develop a curriculum guide for teaching virtue while implementing a series of lessons as an integrative part of the students’ program in religious studies, literature, and history. St. Patrick’s is a school that is totally infused with the Holy Spirit at work in every aspect of its curriculum and community life, reflected in its unequivocal commitment to Catholic teaching.

Approximately one-third of the students are non-Catholic, but everyone is welcome to attend the school. Yet, while Catholic teaching is presented in complete accordance with the Magisterial teaching of the Church, non-Catholics are never coerced to accept these teachings. Some students have converted to Catholicism from their own volition, simply by witnessing the loving concern and teaching example of those in the St. Patrick’s community. A spirit of truly unconditional love permeates the school atmosphere.

At Regent, I knew that my mission as, scholar, evangelist, and writer, which I truly felt the Holy Spirit was calling me to fulfill, might be an especially challenging one. Defending such an unequivocally Catholic dissertation in front of an exclusively Protestant dissertation committee would not be an easy task. Yet, the Lord works in mysterious ways. As I mentioned previously, what often does not appear to be very prudent when evaluated from our very myopic and limited perspective as human beings may actually prove to be extremely prudent from the perspective of our omniscient Creator. After all, His vision is limitless and extends into the realm of all eternity. Granted, my professors did not fully share the theological and philosophical beliers that pervaded my dissertation; yet, they did show a profound respect for my work from a purely scholarly perspective. Needless to say, I successfully defended my dissertation. I am grateful to God for the opportunity to share and explain the Catholic teaching on virtue with fellow Catholics, other Christians, and even non-Christians through the publication of my dissertation, Catholic Witness: Educating for Virtue.

Perhaps the greatest ecumenical experience that touched me most deeply at Regent University occurred during my graduation ceremony on May 13, 2000 on the university campus. First of all, this date was personally very significant to me because it commemorated Our Lady of Fatima’s apparition. I strongly believe that the Blessed Virgin’s intercession played a key role in my successful completion of the doctoral program. Our commencement speaker was none other than the prominent Catholic convert, author, philosopher, and ordained priest, Father Richard John Neuhaus. The Reverend Pat Robertson, Founder and Chancellor of Regent University, introduced Father Neuhaus in a very zealous, enthusiastic, and ebullient manner. The mere fact that a Catholic priest would be the main commencement speaker at my graduation truly reaffirmed that I was most assuredly drawn to Regent University through divine intervention. Father’s emphasis on becoming a part of that “great cloud of witnesses” that the Lord calls us to be and his focus on the integration of our faith into every aspect of our daily lives was very inspirational. I was so moved by his commencement speech that I personally sent Father Neuhaus a congratulatory message the very next day. Much to my surprise, in spite of his busy schedule, within one week, Father Neuhaus reciprocated by sending me a personal congratulatory message of encouragement, which I have kept and greatly cherished.

Shortly after graduation, my affiliation with Regent University would continue when I was afforded the thrilling opportunity of becoming an adjunct professor in the master’s program in organizational leadership. Having the unique privilege of teaching a course on team leadership to committed Christian students in such faraway places as South Africa and Hong Kong, as well as Europe and throughout the United States has been an awesome experience, which has enriched me both spiritually and intellectually. Having been on the “other side of the monitor” previously myself, I certainly have been able to empathize with students regarding the various challenges that often accompany asynchronous communication. Yet, with the grace of God, my students and I have always managed to communicate consistently, respectfully, prayerfully, and lovingly in the name of Jesus, Our Lord and Savior. Thanks to the courage and innovation of my professors and fellow learners in Cohort I, I certainly learned how invaluable and significant this type of communication is from my experiences as a student during those initial, pioneering years of the organizational leadership program.

As a daily communicant who is loyal to the teachings of the Catholic Church, I do constantly pray the prayer of Jesus, namely that “all may be one”. My experience, both as student and professor at Regent University, has deepened my faith as a Catholic and my appreciation for the gift of my faith. I can honestly state that I have been forever deeply touched by the kindness and charity of all those whom I have encountered at Regent and the challenging curriculum that afforded me opportunities to truly integrate and infuse my faith into everything I experience in my daily life. Finally, I must acknowledge how blessed I have been to be able to pray, share Scripture, and enjoy fellowship with other Christians who also support pro-life, pro-family values, while desiring to become leaders who serve Christ the King by leading others to Him.

How grateful I am that the Lord led me to study and actively pursue the role of Christian leadership at Regent University. I hope and pray that I may always continue to be a part of the community that I have joyously discovered as a member of Regent University’s Christian family.

For more on the School of Leadership Studies at Regent University, including its futures studies electives, see

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