Renaissance woman takes office in CMU “castle”

Cheryl Pauls, president, Canadian Mennonite University

New-CMU-Presphoto: Tony Schellenberg

Canadian Mennonite University (CMU), Winnipeg, installed Cheryl Pauls, music professor since 1994, as its second president, Nov. 25, 2012. Angeline Schellenberg interviewed Pauls on CMU’s grand north campus (referred to by some as “the castle”) about thinking musically, building bridges, and being on mission.

How did you process the decision to accept the responsibility of leading a university?

Around the time of my first interview with the search committee, I had been given the assignment to present the story of the angel’s visit to Mary for an Advent chapel. Working at that story brought me courage and clarity. I realized God chose Mary, but she had to say yes; God works through someone willing to say yes.

What are the challenges and gifts of being CMU’s first female president?

I feel more the gifts than the challenges. An incredible gift is this unburdening I’ve felt from many women who felt the doors were closed for them. The hardest part of giving up teaching was giving up relationship with particular students; what made that easier was how this fostered their hope and imagination for new possibilities in their own lives.

The challenges? I’ll start with the most practical: I don’t have a stay-at-home spouse. In previous eras, it was typical for men in this role to have wives who could be full-time support. I say that carefully because my husband does far more of the cooking than I do! And with his experitise in technology, he’s unbelievably helpful to me with the presentations I have to do.

I have the permission of people around me to be present with my children as much as I need to be. To shut off my mental processing enough to be present to them is going to be my biggest challenge.

I feel like there’s a bigger deal made of the fact that I came from music than that I’m a woman. It’s a surprise to some people that a musician would embody the theological presence and business administration critical to this role. But there’s some logic to the fit: thinking administratively and calling out greater faithfulness to God are absolutely critical to what music is. The overall response to my appointment has been one of generous enthusiasm, for which I’m grateful.

So what skills and perspectives do you bring from your music background?

Music is highly disciplined and highly creative: that confluence is energizing and helpful. My engagement with music has never been only academic, or emotional, or action-oriented; it’s always been all of those, and my music background helps me see ways forward in places we sometimes get stuck – like between head and heart, theology and practical theology, life and faith.

As a musician who is highly committed to the church, I’ve been fully immersed in the struggle over worship expression. What I’ve learned inspires my imagination, and helps me discover good ways forward in all sorts of places marred by misunderstanding.

How do you maintain that learning attitude?

Things like taking a beginner dance class! Rather than get more training in what I already knew how to do, I realized I’d be a stronger teacher if I put myself in a role where I didn’t have a clue how to ask the first question. Those experiences make us more able to empathize with what’s stuck in the mind of someone else.

But it’s also a way of engaging where the university and church often talk past each other: it’s easy to be critical of the church or the university when they’re talking from what they already know; to put ourselves in a place of discomfort and mutual vulnerability would get us further.

Let’s talk about the relationship between CMU and the church.

I’m passionate about the connection between CMU and the church. CMU [in its beginning days as three separate colleges] was born of an era when the colleges were arms of the church. Now we’re a legally independent entity. But for me that doesn’t change the level of commitment: we exist because of the church.

What can the church and CMU expect of each other?

To be present together in our greatest hope and in the places where we’re all struggling.

The church and university both lead and serve each other. A university can be a good place for the church to be in conversation about things like volunteerism, occupy movements, large-scale systemic poverty, the relation between good science and sound theology. We need to find better ways of letting the disciplines of both university and church nurture each other. Then I think we could be better agents of the hope, healing, and reconciliation we claim in Christ.

How do you partner with the MB church?

There are partnerships with the Manitoba conference and MBBS Canada – tangible ways of working at leadership development for both vocational and lay leaders in the church. We’re in a great place with our connections through the Outtatown program and some of our practica with agencies such as MB Mission.
We have about 90 Mennonite Brethren students, so there are automatic connections with their congregations – from having students imagine new ways of serving the church to being involved with their church leaders and so on.

We do pastoral round tables with a healthy number of MB pastors who come. And we’re just beginning to set up resourcing through the web for churches beyond the ones who can come to local gatherings.

What bridges do you hope to build with MB churches?

In the MB church, there’s a strong impulse toward opening the doors and welcoming change. At the same time, there’s a deep commitment to a particular story, a distinctive role within God’s work in the world. That combination of continually opening and finding new ways to tell the story while remaining faithful to who we are in Christ means the MB church is at an interesting place to intersect with the university. For the university is also about continually doing better work in telling the story of the past and finding inventive ways forward.

There is a strong impulse toward reaching Canada with the good news of Jesus in the MB church. What is CMU’s role in that?

CMU’s role is to nurture a love of the church in its students, some in vocational ministry and others in all sorts of lay positions. I’m convinced that people learn to love the church most when they understand the witness of the church as having something good, beautiful, and life-giving to say within the full range of what matters in our everyday lives.

I get excited when students tell me they’ve found ways to connect who they are in relationship with God to who they are when they do science, sports, or music – and they don’t feel like they’re using a different part of their heart, or brain, or commitment.

How would you respond to the concern some in the church have that their young people will lose their faith at Bible college?

People everywhere are leaving the church, especially in the Western world. That’s a concern for all of us. I just have to leave that to God; it’s bigger than us. But I am convinced that fewer young people leave the church who receive theological education than those who don’t. I’m deeply saddened that the story of some of our grads leaving the church gets told more than the story of the people who are excited about the church and are committed to it.

It’s incredibly important for a Christian university to recognize it’s not automatic that just because the school talks about God students will continue to practise as Christian people. It’s critical we have a strong spiritual life program, small groups, and chapels; that we find ways for students to lead and own that faith expression. For me, it’s a real commitment to find ways that the same things you’re studying in class are being engaged through worship; if those are happening in tandem, there’s far more opportunity for the ongoing head-heart relationship to be healthy and growing at the same rate.

It’s also the responsibility of the university to engage what we think we already understand, including the way we express our faith. We have a strong sense that we start from the place of embracing what we understand and then find ways to use the best of our God-given capacities to engage it. Christ’s work in this world is bigger than our understanding and imaginations.

CMU has taken risks by inviting some speakers from different theological traditions who may be perceived as controversial (such as Brian McLaren, a leading figure in the emerging church movement). What’s the payoff that makes that risk worthwhile?

CMU’s mission statement says that we’re moved and transformed by the life and teachings of Jesus. We’re completely convinced that Jesus put himself in conversations and places outside of what the religious world would have embraced around him.

How does orthodoxy shape that dialogue?

CMU’s four commitments (educating for peace and justice, learning through thinking and doing, generous hospitality…radical dialogue, and modelling invitational community) grow out of the mission of being transformed by Jesus; they’re not values in and of themselves. If we only talk with people with whom we already agree, we become self-serving and self-righteous. It’s critical to be in relationship with other church groups, and with all people created in God’s image. Being in dialogue doesn’t mean you’re immediately looking for a resolution. Through it all, we keep singing our song.

As you consider your own “song,” what did Bible college education do for your faith journey? 

When I was at MB Bible College, Winnipeg, (coming from St. Catharines, Ont.), it felt like winter most of the year. Through those years, the most dominant image was of snow that sparkles. That was representative of what was happening inside of me: who I was as a musician and who I was as a Christian came together and the world became vibrant. Which is a way of saying that the story of hope is always the stronger story.

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