As BJU President Dr. Stephen Jones prepares to wrap up his nine years as president on May 9, he looks back on his experiences with fondness and looks ahead to his next challenge with anticipation.
Born at Barge Memorial Hospital on campus, Jones can’t imagine life without BJU. As a child, he would roller skate and ride bikes from dawn to dusk with fellow faculty children. “In some ways it’s like the stories you hear of people who grew up in the ’20s, and they could leave their doors unlocked, and their kids roamed,” Jones said.
Jones is thankful for the gift of growing up at BJU, but admits that this wasn’t always the case. During a two-year period extending from his senior year of high school through his freshman year of college, Jones was anxiously awaiting the day he could pop his BJU bubble and create his own. Having lived on the BJU campus his whole life, Jones was weary of being known as his dad’s son or his brother’s brother.
But this opinion changed during the second semester of his sophomore year. As a member of a traveling drama team, Jones performed in 114 different services. Each night the team stayed with a different family, all of whom expressed their deep appreciation for BJU. “Over and over again the people that I’d stay with were young parents or grandparents, and they would say, ‘We’re praying that the University is there for our kids or our grandkids,’” Jones said. “Sometimes I’d be sitting beside this 2-year-old thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a long way off.’”
After hearing these firsthand accounts of people who loved and prayed for BJU, Jones remembers praying, “Well, Lord, if you want me to stay and be a teacher, I’ll do that because the classroom is nice and safe.”
Jones then taught freshmen speech for three years and pulpit speech for two years. “I hated getting out of the classroom,” Jones said. “I loved teaching.” In particular, Jones loved teaching the freshmen because they were open and transparent, allowing him to befriend and minister to them.
After his grandfather passed away, Jones moved up to the position of special assistant for his father, and then to vice president for administration.
He was now in the perfect position to take on the presidency. A year before the transition, his father mentioned that the board was considering him for the position. “It scared me to death — the ‘P’ word,” Jones said.
He compares his situation to Moses arguing with God about leading the Israelites out of Egypt. But, like Moses, Jones had run out of excuses. There were no more baby steps. Jones remembers praying, “As long as You’re with me, and I can be confident in that, then I’ll do whatever.”
In 2005 the deal was sealed. Jones felt “terribly sobered” to be given leadership over BJU.
He realized the gravity of the situation, being given authority over God’s people. He feared that his own weaknesses would interfere with God’s plans.
Jones began to identify with Solomon’s prayer, saying, “I am but a child. I don’t know how to come out or go in. I don’t know the right from the left. How can I rule over this great people?”
Now, nine years later, Jones can confidently say that God has answered this daily plea for wisdom. Through all of the difficult situations that came with running the University, Jones can see that God was right there, giving him strength and providing the right words.
Looking back, four highlights come to mind.
First, introducing the intercollegiate athletics program in 2012. Jones said that the Bruins gave the University an identity that the students and faculty could stand behind. “To see the student body unified behind a single team has been exciting,” Jones said. “And it brought an electricity and a unity that went way beyond anything I anticipated.”
Second, the annual freshman picnic during the opening week of school. Hearing the testimonies from students that God has drawn in from around the world brings joy and awe to Jones and his wife. “To think the Lord has brought us another crop of students and there’s a real heart for Him in the students — that’s always a really neat moment,” Jones said.
Third, the annual senior picnic in the fall. Jones and his wife find equal enjoyment in hearing how God has called each of the seniors to be a light wherever they go.
Fourth, commencement. This one is bittersweet for Jones. “You get to love the students, and then you send them out,” Jones said. “And it’s supposed to go like that, but it’s still hard. I still cry every time. It’s like letting go.”
But this year Jones is letting go of not just one group of students — but the whole student body. When he finds himself discouraged with this prospect, he thinks of David’s words, “I recall your works from the past” (Psalm 143:5).
“As disappointed as I get sometimes that the healing didn’t come, and I’m leaving something that I’ve really loved, I keep thinking, ‘Every move the Lord has made has been better than I expected.’”
Jones doesn’t know what that next move is yet, but for now he is committed to staying around for another year to help the next president transition in smoothly. After that, Jones would be glad to give the rest of his life to BJU, but worries about putting pressure on the next president. “I want to spend my life here, but I don’t want to saddle the next president with having two former presidents around,” Jones said.
Whatever the Lord has in store for him, Jones hopes to spend less time with the phone, paperwork and computer, and more time with the students. “I love the people, I hate the paper,” Jones said with a laugh. “Hopefully they’ll see me more, and I’ll get to see them more.”
But Jones is careful not to get ahead of himself. He still has three more months in office, and he plans to keep busy. Without giving anything away, he says that he has improvements to make and projects to finish that will make the transition as easy as possible for the next president. Like the parable of the faithful servants and their talents (Matt. 25:14-30), Jones wants to turn over the presidency with earned interest.
Part of this interest is the students. BJU strives to turn out its students better than when they came in. To expedite this process, Jones leaves a verse and a piece of advice.
“For this God is our God forever and ever. He will be our guide even unto death” (Psalm 48:14). Jones clenches his fist closed while he says this verse to remind himself that God is his personally into the next chapter, and even unto death.
His advice is simple: cultivate your BJU friendships, because you will probably never be in an environment like this again.
Jones himself was thankful for such friendships last December when he announced his resignation. He chokes up when he remembers the Facebook messages, texts and letters from the BJU community around the world.
Jones remembers one in particular that said, “You haven’t failed anybody.” Jones was thankful to hear that at a time when he felt like a failure because of his inability to keep up physically. “That kind of encouragement is priceless,” Jones said.
A verse, a solid piece of advice and now a thank you: “I just am so grateful to the student body for their love and encouragement,” Jones said. “My wife and I both got several hundred notes probably after the resignation and have read through them with tears. And there’s not another group of students in the world like you guys. And we love you all and are so grateful for the privilege to know you and to have a part in this stage of your life. It really is the most special student body anywhere in the world.”