Meet Dr. Bernard Bull, who serves as Assistant Vice-President of Academics and Associate Professor of Education at Concordia University Wisconsin. He’s the editor of The Pedagogy of Faith, a new, one-of-kind collection of essays for Lutheran educators navigating the halls of the twenty-first century.
We caught up with Dr. Bull to discuss what first lit the fire of his love for Lutheran education, his career mentors, the gift of Christian learning communities, and a few questions in between.
When was your passion for Lutheran education first fueled?
I started attending Lutheran schools during a very challenging time in my life. In sixth grade, on the bus to public school, a person put a knife up to my throat, threatening to kill me by the end of the day. I spent the day hiding in the bathroom until the principal heard about the event, brought my parents in, and advised me to change schools for my safety.
My parents sent me to a wonderful Lutheran school (Zion Lutheran in Bethalto, Illinois) where I experienced confirmation class for the first time. Hearing God’s Word and having the opportunity to ask questions about it was an incredible joy for me. Little did I know that my father would pass away only months later, and the messages shared in that confirmation class became an important source of comfort and strength in the upcoming years. I know from personal experience the impact of Lutheran schools in students’ lives, and I’ve considered it an honor to contribute, in at least small ways, to the future of an educational system that was there for me during critical moments in my life.
The Pedagogy of Faith is filled with diverse voices—missionaries, moms, music teachers, and more—who all aim to share pieces of practical wisdom with current and future Lutheran educators in the classroom. Who was a standout mentor for you early in your career, and how did his or her guidance shape you for the better?
There are so many mentors for me in Lutheran education. There was Terry Schmidt at Trinity Lutheran, whose stories about being a missionary in Papua New Guinea stick with me today. They gave me a glimpse into the life of adventure that sometimes accompanies accepting the call to serve as a commissioned minister. There was Brent Royuk, my high school math and physics teacher, who modeled a love for the written word, curiosity, and a love of learning. There was my high school social studies teacher, John Shimkus, who welcomed my relentless questions and even invited me, as a student, behind the scenes to customize courses and learning experiences based on my interests.
There was Dr. Tim Maschke at Concordia University Wisconsin, who introduced me to the joy of studying Lutheran doctrine, showed me the richness of our Lutheran tradition, and spent countless hours outside of class providing me with guidance as I explored future possibilities. Then there was Dr. James Juergensen, who was my adviser in college and was the person to whom I turned whenever I grappled with a new call. He once left me advice on a five-to ten-minute voicemail as he was heading out to door to have heart surgery. I could list a dozen more people like this, each of whom contributed to my growth and formation.
Suppose someone walks up to you and says, “Essays on Lutheran education? I’ve read lots of those before.” In what ways is this book a unique contribution to the existing library of literature about the art of Lutheran teaching?
I’ve read many books on Lutheran education, going back to the Reformation, and I can say with confidence that this is a first of its kind. It includes the perspective of pastor, theologian, DCE, homeschooling parent, classroom teacher, missionary, and school administrator. That alone makes it different. The contributing authors each share from their formal study as well as their direct experience with Lutheran education. Scan the essay topics, and you will see something even more distinct. This is a book that invites people to consider the many aspects of Lutheran education in a contemporary landscape. I don’t expect readers to agree with everything that they read, but they will certainly be challenged to think deeply about the possibilities for Lutheran education in the twenty-first century.
In addition, I definitely don’t see this book as some sort of closed canon. I look forward to the many more essays inspired by people who read this book and want to add additional essays on Lutheran education.
You suggest that educators study this book within a Christian learning community instead of hunkering down by their lonesome. Why is that?
Solitary study has value, but this book is an invitation into deep reflection and conversation about the past, present and future of Lutheran education. When we gather, we have opportunity for iron to sharpen iron. We have opportunity to encourage, challenge, and inspire one another. We learn from one another’s unique experiences and perspectives. Grounding such a community in God’s Word, we also find that this is an opportunity to further develop a shared sense of mission, vision, values, and goals in our Lutheran school or learning community. This book is intended to fuel the fire of such communities and conversations.
What would you say is one of the biggest challenges facing Lutheran educators in 2016?
Every context has its distinct challenges. A Lutheran educator serving a largely unchurched group of students will face different challenges than one serving students from Lutheran families who attend Lutheran churches. The educator serving in a poverty-stricken community may face different challenges than the one in a wealthy suburban Lutheran school. Schools are encountering financial and enrollment challenges, the challenge of learning how to serve an increasingly diverse student population, the competition for students from an ever-growing number of public and charter schools, the growing clash between our Lutheran convictions and dominant cultural values, the challenge of navigating regulations from external agencies, and countless others.
However, when I think about the greatest challenge facing Lutheran educators and schools in 2016, I think that it is being both uncompromising in our convictions and why we exist, while being deeply curious and creative about what it looks like to be a Lutheran school in 2016. We must resist the temptation to just replicate the public schools of the past and present, instead having the courage, creativity, and conviction to produce a Lutheran education system that reaches and serves an increasingly diverse population of students from around the world.
When you’re not researching, writing, or lesson planning, how do you kick back and relax?
I love learning and mixing ideas across disciplines, researching, writing, reading, imagining new possibilities for teaching and learning, designing educational games (a new hobby), and having great conversations about ideas that matter. These are honestly some of the most enjoyable things in my life. I’d even call them relaxing. I also enjoy just hanging out with my wife and two kids; messing around on the guitar, ukulele, djembe, or the latest addition to my collection of folk instruments (I’m far from skilled on any of them); shooting around on the basketball hoop in my driveway (where many of my ideas take form); exploring religious folk art from around the world (again, far from an expert); and relaxing in the back yard
with a good book while my kids play on the nearby rope swing.