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A conversation with Harold Shank

Harold Shank, who grew up in an “unchurched” home in the town of Indiana, Penn., has served as an urban church planter in Milwaukee, a longtime preacher in Memphis, Tenn., and a professor of Old Testament in Oklahoma City.  
Now he has a new role — university president in a region close to his heart.
For 20 years, Shank ministered for the Highland Street Church of Christ in Memphis — the first congregation profiled in The Christian Chronicle’s “Churches That Work” series in 2005. He later moved west to serve as professor at Oklahoma Christian University. He also was the Chronicle’s reviews editor. This year, he became president of Ohio Valley University, a  527-student Christian university in Vienna, W.Va., four hours southwest of his hometown.
Shank also serves as national spokesman for the Christian Child and Family Services Association and has long had a heart for the poor and disenfranchised.
He is respected for his preaching and scholarship and has authored more than 25 scholarly articles and seven books, including his most recent, “Listening to His Heartbeat,” in 2009.
He and his wife, Sally, have been married 37 years and have two sons, Daniel and Nathan. Both sons are engaged to be married and are doctoral students.
Is Christian education relevant today?  
Christian education in its purest form integrates faith and learning. Nothing could be more contemporary.
In many of our nation’s universities, the professors and students look through secular glasses to investigate their surroundings. In Christian universities, the faculty and students look through Christian glasses in order to examine the world.
God created everything. It’s all his.
Hydrogen and oxygen combine at Christian universities to make water just as they do at state schools. The difference is that professors start with the reality that hydrogen and oxygen are made by God. We operate with the Christian worldview while using rigid academic standards to integrate all learning. That’s the core of Christian education.
What interested you in becoming president at OVU?
A significant leader and insightful observer of our fellowship recently told me, “OVU is on the geographic frontier of Churches of Christ. We have to have it. It is the lifeblood of the region.”
That reality draws me to this university. A recent OVU graduate, Scott Johnson, who works with the Clifton Church of Christ in uptown Cincinnati, recently baptized 15 students from two different universities.
New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Cleveland and a dozen other cities are within a few hours’ drive of OVU. The opportunities for mission among the 129 million people in this part of the nation are enormous. We have to have this school.

What do you see as the next great challenge for OVU?   
Staying true to mission is always a challenge. Financial pressure, market demands and cultural influence all can cloud a Christian university’s focus.
My greatest challenge is staying the course, leading OVU in such a way that it will remain true to its mission of “transforming lives in a Christ-centered academic community.”

When you talk to prospective students, what do you tell them about OVU?
I tell them why we are unique. The distinctive education we offer combines four critical factors: A Christian worldview, a nationally ranked Tier One academic education, a community where people know your name and a plan for each student to experience their career while they are still in school. When those four critical factors are wrapped together it is a bit like having a personal trainer at the local gym.
Take the case of Anne-Claire Tans, a 2010 OVU graduate from the Netherlands. Her primary motivation in coming to OVU was to play golf, but she was soon immersed in academically credible classes framed by the Christian worldview. People got to know her so well that she began to see aspects of life and vocation she had never seen before. She changed.  
She won all sorts of championships, but to hear her talk about it, she learned to “walk the course,” her description of what she discovered about herself. In a nurturing Christian environment, well-trained professionals give personal attention to students like Anne-Claire to enable them to fulfill their dreams and successfully experience that life — all in four years.
How does a Christian university deal with moral issues?  
Our curriculum is value-driven and filled with moral teaching. We teach values as a means of moral transformation. Our goal is for students to make decisions like one of our basketball players did this past year. He spoke at a youth banquet this summer in Ohio. He told the teenagers that he wanted to be real. He recalled that, during the school year, a woman he had met in the community asked him to move in with her.
He thought about her invitation and then said, “No, I’m going in a different direction.”
What relationship to Churches of Christ will OVU have under your leadership?
My vision for a Christian university is a school that exists to serve its church constituency. We join with the Churches of Christ in equipping young people for life and service. No matter what their chosen career, we send out graduates who serve their communities, become respected figures in their field, lead churches, teach the Bible and become people of good influence.
I grew up in a totally unchurched family. People like Mildred Stutzman and Ray Beggs from the East Pike Church of Christ in western Pennsylvania reached out to me. We must continually train others to go out and do that again and again.
I was talking to people at one congregation that hired an OVU student as a summer intern. A quiet young man, he was seldom around, and they grew apprehensive that they had made a mistake. Then they learned he had knocked on every door in his apartment complex and that he was engaged in several Bible studies with fellow residents. Stories like that remind us that OVU belongs to Churches of Christ.
What is your dream for OVU?  
I want to spread the news about a hidden treasure I’ve found on this hilltop in the Ohio Valley. I see us linking hands with congregations and people in our region to be the city set on a hill.
I look forward to being intimately involved in thinking informally in the cafeteria and more formally in chapel about how the Christian faith can soar in our postmodern world. For me, there’s no better time to be alive and no better place to be than OVU.

Filed under: Dialogue

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