Cliff Ganus, former Harding president, longtime preacher and globe trekker, dies at 97
His passport looked like a pocket-size New Testament, thick with…
For the first time in a quarter-century, Harding University in Searcy, Ark., will install a new president when Bruce McLarty takes the reins next June.
McLarty, Harding’s vice president of spiritual life, will succeed David Burks, who is retiring after 26 years as president. During Burks’ tenure, Harding recorded 25 straight annual record enrollments.
McLarty’s selection to lead the 6,800-student university, which is associated with Churches of Christ, was announced Nov. 1.
“Dr. McLarty is a leader, not in the mold of a typical CEO or academician, but he is a servant leader with a very bright mind, a keen insight into people and the ability to communicate effectively,” said John O. Simmons, chairman of Harding’s board of trustees. “He brings energy and a clear vision of the mission of Harding to the table, and he will be an effective leader as our fifth president.”
Burks expressed “great confidence” in McLarty: “I believe he will be an outstanding president for Harding University. Dr. McLarty has a very solid grasp of the spiritual mission of Harding and has written about it, helping the faculty in understanding this powerful mission.”
In a wide-ranging interview with The Christian Chronicle, McLarty, 55, tackled questions related to his faith, Christian higher education and Churches of Christ.
Q: Tell me about your faith background. What do you recall about your decision to become a Christian?
A: For many years I have been fond of Garrison Keillor’s line: “I was born among the born-again.” I was blessed from birth to be surrounded by faith. My mother grew up in the Churches of Christ in Jackson County, Tenn., and my dad was baptized at the Pulaski Heights church in Little Rock, Ark., when I was about 5 years old. We were not only one of those “every-time-the-church-doors-were-open” families but also one of those “30-minutes-before-time-to-start” families. Though I am the oldest of the four children in my family, my younger siblings have played a positive role in my faith development, and my parents have been examples of genuine faith that I found very inviting to follow.
In addition to family, I thank God that I grew up in healthy, loving, evangelistic congregations where the Bible was taught and deeply respected. Like many young teens in the Churches of Christ, at the age of 12 I became convicted of my need for forgiveness.
On the Fourth of July weekend in 1969, I walked down the aisle at the Holmes Road congregation in Memphis during the invitation song, confessed my faith in Jesus and pledged my allegiance to follow him for the rest of my life. Jim Bill McInteer had just concluded a meeting there, and our preacher, Leon Sanderson, baptized me into Christ that night.
Equally powerful to the memory of what I thought and felt before my baptism is the memory of the warm embrace of the church following my immersion. I stood in the hallway that night with my back against the cinder-block wall and received a hug from what seemed like every single man and woman in the congregation. I wish everyone could experience the same blessing that I received from my church family that night.
Q: When did you decide that you wanted to be Harding University president, and why did you accept this challenge?
A: For 14 years, I preached for the College Church in Searcy. Few preachers have ever received the love, patience, encouragement, challenge and affirmation that I experienced during those years. I would have been happy to have continued in that role for the rest of my working life.
However, when the position of Vice President for Spiritual Life at Harding was created seven years ago, I applied for the job believing God-given talents, leadership training and life experiences had uniquely prepared me to take on that responsibility. When Dr. Burks began to seriously consider retirement, my resolve became “to be ready if called.” Many friends, colleagues, alumni and other administrators encouraged me to consider entering the selection process, and those same people have continued to be very supportive of my acceptance of this position.
As part of my doctoral work, I studied the tendency of faith-founded colleges to drift away from their founding church, to abandon their core mission, and often, to become enemies of the ideas and principles on which they were started. This solidified my resolve to do all I could do to see that this does not happen to Harding.
I love Harding University dearly and am so thankful for what it means in the life of my wife, my siblings, my daughters and me. In the reflection chapter at the end of my dissertation, I wrote that my research had crystallized within my thinking the following goal: “To prepare Harding University to remain Christian in our core identity until Jesus returns.” With that conviction in my heart, applying to become the next president of Harding seemed to be the natural next step into a leadership role for which God had been training me my whole life.
My entire family realizes that this will be a tremendous challenge in ways that we do not yet understand. However, we have seen that the story of God’s people throughout the centuries includes example after example of how God has used frail and imperfect people who trust in him for their strength. What would otherwise be an overwhelming task for those men and women proved to be an opportunity for God to bless their efforts.
Q: What is the state of Harding?
A: To use a statement made popular by the late Dr. Jimmy Carr, “It’s great to be at Harding!” Enrollment continues to set records each year, the school is financially stable, our academic programs are strong and fully accredited, and morale is high all across campus. Dr. Burks has provided exemplary leadership for us through the past 26 years. He has grown the enrollment, expanded and beautified the campus and, most importantly, kept Harding closely connected to the Churches of Christ and to our founding mission.
As most people know, Harding has had amazing stability in her leadership, and I think that is reflected in the strength of the university today. During our 89 years, we have had only four presidents and only five chief academic officers. Harding is a wonderful place to work. We currently have 62 faculty members and 43 staff employees who have worked for the university at least 25 years, a powerful indicator of how much people love to work here. I have lost count of the number of funerals I have attended through the years where I have heard Dr. Ganus eulogize a former Harding employee with the words “He/She came and stayed and made a great difference.”
Sometimes it is our guests who best help us to see the intangible strengths of Harding. A guest at our annual Bible Lectureship a couple of years ago told me how much he had enjoyed the week. With a voice of appreciation, he said, “I just love coming to the Harding Lectures; I am so encouraged to find that you still believe in the authority of the Bible and that you aren’t mad at anybody!” Earlier this year, a high school guidance counselor told me, “One thing we always notice when we are here at Harding is how happy the campus is! Just walking around here you breathe in the sense of joy that pervades this university.” Both of these guests helped me to appreciate some of the blessings with which I am surrounded every day at Harding, and I pray that comments like these will continue to characterize our university.
Q: What are the biggest issues or challenges facing Harding? Any specific ideas or plans to address those challenges?
A: The No. 1 issue and the No. 1 challenge facing Harding are the same; will we continue to be Christian in our core identity? My conviction is that the first step away from our Christian identity is the loosening of the bonds between Harding and the church.
Harding University was founded by people who were deeply committed to restoring New Testament Christianity and who were seeking to be undenominational Christians. We will continue with those commitments. I am also convinced that we must be willing to express our convictions clearly and “out loud.”
Harding took a bold step in this direction in 2008 when the Board of Trustees unanimously approved what has come to be known as our expanded mission statement. The complete statement can be viewed at http://www.harding.edu/spiritualPreface.html. The following convictions were made explicit:
Harding has always been deeply connected with the Churches of Christ, and we reaffirm this connection as we move into the future. In keeping with this commitment, we will continue to hire active members of the Churches of Christ as faculty and administrators. Though we live in a time of significant confusion over our brotherhood’s identity, we are determined that Harding University will become captive to neither a rigid legalism on the Right nor a formless liberalism on the Left. “With gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:16, NIV) we continue to affirm such distinctive convictions of the mainstream Churches of Christ as baptism for the remission of sins, a cappella music in worship, and male spiritual leadership in congregations.
While we maintain our close ties with the Churches of Christ, we also make clear that Harding opens her arms to all. Those who do not share all of our convictions are always welcome, and we will work hard to see that they are always treated with kindness, fairness and respect.
I am committed to maintaining these core convictions and Harding’s deep connections with the Churches of Christ. There was a time when we could assume that everyone understood the convictions to which Harding is committed. However, in these confusing times in which we live, nothing can be assumed. I believe that when we are clear about who we are and what we believe, we are in the best possible situation to serve the church and to deliver the very best higher education.
Q: What excites you about Churches of Christ in 2012? Any concerns?
A: Every generation faces serious concerns about the church. The relativism and pluralism of our postmodern era are making it increasingly difficult for people to accept the authority of Scripture and the absolute truth-claims of Jesus. However, confusing times also create fertile soil for the Gospel. The moral and religious chaos of the first century world made Jewish morality and monotheism strongly attractive to many Gentiles, and those God-fearers became the most receptive group for gospel preaching in the early years of the church. It excites me today any time I see Christians waking up to the power that is found in the gospel.
Q: Your selection has generated a series of blog posts by some prominent Church of Christ ministers — Rich Little, Don McLaughlin and Jonathan Storment among them. Have you read these posts, and how would you respond to the concerns raised?
A: Two days after my selection was announced, my wife and I left for the Pan American Lectures in the Dominican Republic. Consequently, I have yet to read what these men have written. None of them have contacted me personally. (Editor’s note: Rich Little says he contacted McLarty’s office last week and has scheduled a December meeting with McLarty to sit down with him, talk and pray.)
Q: What else should Chronicle readers know about you and your plans for Harding?
A: In the past two weeks, the question I have been asked the most is, “What changes do you plan to make?” I’m sure there will be plenty of changes in my time, but I shared with the Board during my interview how I believe that the core mission of the Harding president needs to be the core mission.
Armstrong, Benson, Ganus and Burks – our first four presidents – were all different from one another, and they all have a long list of impressive accomplishments. Yet, the most important accomplishment of each one was that he maintained the Christian mission of Harding University.
My prayer is that at the end of my tenure the same can be said of me. I am deeply committed to the goal that Harding University will continue to offer an outstanding university education that is thoroughly Christian, academically excellent and financially accessible to everyone.
Don R. House,
Church of Christ
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.