Dr. Steve Pettit describes his new job as president of Bob Jones University with two words: unexpected and providential.
He thinks back to March of this year when his wife, after watching him lead the Steve Petitt Evanglism Association for 29 years, said, “I think you need a new challenge.”
Almost immediately, the doors to BJU began opening to the Pettits. “We didn’t seek it,” Pettit said. “We stepped through, and we kept stepping through it if God wanted us to do it, and if God didn’t want us to do so, then we would have been more than happy to not do so.”
Now Pettit is all the way through the doors and is working on welcoming others into the BJU family.
And he isn’t wasting time. The University family was both surprised and delighted to see the new president helping students move in during welcome week.
A traveling evangelist with nearly 30 years of experience working with college students, Pettit easily connects with the student body, and he is making an effort to be as visible and accessible to the student body as possible.
“When Dr. and Mrs. Pettit say they are approachable, they really mean it,” said student body women’s president Carol Anne Matthews. “They really want to get to know the student body better. We are right in the age where their heart is.”
Student body men’s president Matthew Arnold said he can already tell that Pettit is someone the students will easily connect with on a personal level.
“His attitude of service to the student body is absolutely phenomenal,” Arnold said. “I am very excited about his desire just to be with us as a student body and involved in the things we’re interested in.”
Pettit himself testifies that one of the goals of his presidency is to interact with and forge a relationship with the University family. “For me personally, it’s just about people,” he said.
Well, people and the BJU mission. Pettit said that, after receiving the presidency, one of his primary concerns was learning about the original mission of BJU. Pettit said he wanted to understand why Dr. Bob Jones Sr. founded the University, what it has stood for and what it has accomplished since its foundation.
“I had to really capture and embrace the heart of what Bob Jones is about because I have to communicate that,” Pettit said.
While he is the first president outside of the Jones line, Pettit is adamant about continuing in the direction that the Joneses, under God’s leadership, have set for BJU.
“He is fully committed to the founding purposes of the [University],” Dr. Bob III said. “I have not found one thing that he sees differently than what this [university] believes and practices.”
In providing a man with a desire to continue in the purpose of the University’s founder, with the same heart, the same evangelistic zeal, the same commitment to the authority of Scripture and the same burden for sound preaching, Dr. Bob said he has seen God’s hand of protection on the University.
“I grew up with the understanding that it was far better that this place should end up in a heap of rubble than that it should keep its doors open to send young people to hell,” Dr. Bob said.
With Dr. Pettit as its president, the University is far fromsuch a demise.
Dr. Bob sees the seemingly short-cut presidency of his son Dr. Stephen Jones as another important illustration of God’s providence. During what he called a “bridge presidency,” Dr. Bob said, “[Stephen] fulfilled whatever God had for him to do in that time. Without what God used him to accomplish here, I don’t think that the present president would have been able to start where he has started.”
Indeed, last semester, under the direction of Dr. Stephen Jones, the discipleship groups, formerly called prayer groups, were restructured and renamed, preparing the way for Pettit’s emphasis for the year – discipleship – as well as his theme for the year – Walking in the Spirit.
Arnold said Pettit’s burden for discipleship is an outflow of who he is.
“He’s all about discipleship,” Arnold said. “It’s not just something he thought up because he had to have a theme.”
Pettit said his 20-plus years of experience with young people confirmed that this theme would resonate with BJU students. In fact, the actual material for the theme was one of eight different studies on varying themes that he once used with his staff and campers at Northland Camp and Conference Center in Dunbar, Wisconsin.
Pettit has a passion for this theme because he feels responsible for the spiritual direction of the University, which he says manifests itself in two particular areas: chapel and student life.
And Pettit has already made some changes to chapel. Perhaps the most noticeable is the podium. While seemingly insignificant, changing the larger and more intimidating podium into a smaller and more humble podium represents a bigger theme: Pettit is trying to relate to the current college generation.
Pettit remembers coming to BJU as a student and thinking the large podium was “cool,” and the speakers were like “superheroes.” Now, a generation later, students value minimal podiums and relatable speakers. This generation is more about authenticity and genuinenesss, according to Pettit.
“One isn’t better than the other. They’re just different,” Pettit said.
While Pettit is from the generation that appreciates “superhero” speakers, Pettit himself embraced the “relatable” speaker role at this year’s faculty and staff opening meeting.
In preparation for the meeting, Pettit had written a 13-page speech two weeks ahead of time. A few hours before the big speech, which he believed was scheduled for 7 p.m., Pettit decided to work out and shower in an effort to relax. He planned to arrive at approximately 6:30 p.m., providing a 30-minute buffer period.
However, right as he and his wife walked out their front door to head to the meeting, their daughter’s Toy Poodle, which they were dog-sitting, ran out the front door. Pettit ran after the dog and was soon sweating through his suit. When he finally caught up to the dog, he saw his assistant Kyle Wilcox pull up.
“Are you here to pick me up?” Pettit asked.
“Yes. Did you realize it started at 6:30 p.m.?” Wilcox asked.
Pettit looked down at his watch. It was 6:35 p.m. “We’ve got to go right now!” Pettit said.
Pettit walked out onto the stage at 6:40 p.m., a full 10 minutes after the program was scheduled to start.
Rather than pulling out page one of his 13-page speech, Pettit told the crowd about his recent fiasco, and they loved it. “The people started howling laughing,” Pettit said. And everyone immediately felt at ease.
A number of audience members approached him afterward and said, “Your being late was ordained of God because we figured out you’re a real person.”
Petitt knows that his everyday words and actions will create a general atmosphere about him, and he hopes that it will be both genuine and loving.
According to the remainder of his fall schedule, Pettit will have ample time to spread that atmosphere throughout the United States as he recruits more students for the University.
Indeed, BJU friends don’t need to worry about this traveling evangelist becoming restless. In the past week, Pettit was in North Carolina Friday, Tennessee Saturday, Clemson Sunday, Washinton, D.C., Monday and Tuesday, North Carolina Friday and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Augusta, Georgia, Sunday. In addition, Pettit will be out of town preaching every weekend of this semester.
But Pettit remains relaxed and confident, claiming that the role of presidency hasn’t fully sunk in yet. “I just feel like I’m Steve, and I go to work,” Pettit said.
For Pettit, his role as president of BJU is simply the next step in God’s plan for him. It just happens to be in the spotlight. But he will continue with the same practices that guided him throughout his time as a traveling evangelist: prayer and God’s Word.