Seven Mindsets for the 21st Century Lutheran High School Educator

Seven Mindsets for the 21st Century
Lutheran High School Educator

Bernard Bull, Ed.D.,  Assistant Vice President of Academics and Associate Professor of Education, Concordia University Wisconsin
James Pingel, Ph.D., Director of Graduate Education and Adjunct Professor of History, Concordia University Wisconsin

“What quality of high school faculty is needed to address and instruct students and congregation members in the 21st century?” That was the question that the two of us—both long-time Lutheran high school teaching ministers—were invited to explore in this article. We were excited for the challenge, but we grappled with ways to approach it. We talked about focusing upon theological preparation. We explored starting with a reflection on the ultimate purpose of Lutheran education. We discussed organizing the article around six or seven emerging concerns about new Lutheran teachers. Then we imagined that we were in charge of a new Lutheran school, and we created a list of essential and important traits for the teachers for this school. All of these could have been thought-provoking approaches, but we ultimately opted for an approach that we drew from each of these.

We organized our thoughts around seven mindsets (the Bible uses the number seven to represent completeness) that will serve people well who are called into the 21st century teaching ministry. A mindset is not a simple accumulation of knowledge. It is a collection of beliefs and attitudes that informs how one looks at life. Contemporary scholars use the term “mindset” in several ways, but our approach is similar to what we read in Colossians 3:2 when Paul wrote, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Such passages teach us about a mindset that is informed and “transformed” (Romans 12:2) by God’s Word. Similarly, we contend that the following seven mindsets are of special import in our contemporary Christian education context.

A Mindset of Flexibility and Adaptability

I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22b).

The classroom is an unpredictable place. On any given day, we don’t know what joys, challenges, fears, early morning arguments with parents, curiosities, insecurities, doubts, or other struggles each student will bring to the classroom. Good teachers know that the first step in creating a rich and robust learning community comes from getting to know the students.

Each student is a unique creation, uniquely gifted, with individual current and future vocations. A Lutheran educator, then, is one who honors and teaches individual students, not just groups of students. The modern education system might be built around a factory-esque one-size-fits-all model, but our distinctly Lutheran theology invites us to look at our schools, classrooms, and students differently. It calls for an ability to adapt and adjust in an ongoing manner. It is about being deeply curious about each learner and the learners collectively: observing, asking questions, getting to know the learners, and then adjusting one’s plans based upon what is learned.

This is different from simply planning a great lesson and enacting it. It is more than curating and preparing great content. Indeed, it does involve these, but it is much more. Great football coaches, for example, draw up plays specific and suitable to the individual talents and gifts of their personnel. Aaron Rodgers gets to pass the ball a lot, while Ezekiel Elliott runs the football more frequently. To be equipped as a Lutheran teacher is not about only preparing for a predictable and consistent set of tasks as much is it is preparing someone with the competence, confidence and creativity to step into ministry contexts and adapt to the needs of those contexts. It is a ministry that finds inspiration from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23 where he writes, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” It is an educational ministry that not only learns from Jesus’ teachings in the parables, but also from his use of parables to teach, creating parables and lessons that best meet the needs of the people to whom he was speaking. It is further informed by a careful study and application of how Jesus observed, listened, learned and then responded accordingly to each person.

In doing so, the Lutheran teacher comes to appreciate and embrace the challenge and opportunity of serving and teaching a diverse group of learners. As teachers, we consider and analyze Jesus’ work with the woman at the well; the curious tax collector watching from a tree; the proud student of the Law who asks what he must do to be saved; the group of Pharisees trying to catch you in your words; the desperate woman struggling from a longstanding bleeding condition; the leper; the blind man; the paralyzed man; and those trembling disciples stuck in a boat amid a terrible storm. The Lutheran teacher opens himself or herself up to a mindset of flexibility and adaptability for such students.

A Mindset of Lifelong and Lifewide Learning

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night (Psalm 1:1-2).

MaryAnn was a an experienced teacher with a passion for sharing the love of God with her children, but one night she fell asleep and awoke to a different world. She arrived at school and wondered if she somehow traveled 20 years into the future. Every student was wandering around with a laptop. Students were engaging in projects instead of sitting quietly in desks and rows. She noticed teachers monitoring student learning through intricate digital “dashboards.” Other students were wearing strange, sci-fi looking goggles, and, when she asked them what they were doing, they explained that they were going on a virtual tour of the human heart. The day was filled with a litany of terms and phrases that were largely foreign to her. Colleagues discussed how neuroscience applied to education, machine learning, learning analytics, blended learning, and more. MaryAnn felt out of place and ridden with self-doubt.

Of course, this is a fictional story. Such changes do not happen overnight. Most of them grow and develop over years. Yet, the teachers who do not embrace lifelong and lifewide education may well have an experience similar to this. They may find themselves struggling to live out their calling in these ever-changing times in education. This is why it is so important that new educators step into their roles with a mindset that education is not a one-time event.

Graduation from college is not a conclusion of one’s learning and preparation. It is a launch pad into a lifetime of learning, re-learning, and unlearning. The well-equipped Lutheran educator recognizes and embraces this reality, starting with a lifelong study of God’s Word. This means having a love of learning and seeking out formal and informal opportunities to refine one’s craft and expand one’s knowledge and skill in teaching and learning. It might involve ongoing formal study through graduate programs, but also dedicating frequent time to reading scholarly articles, useful online resources, book clubs with colleagues, connecting through online communities, seeking wise mentors, and building a network of people and resources that can help them stay sharp, informed, and equipped.

Time is precious, but this commitment to ongoing learning is not optional. Teachers who thrive today dedicate time for personal growth. They also don’t limit their learning to a formal classroom setting. They understand the power of what many call lifewide learning. We learn in school, church, within our families, in our communities, online, and beyond. Learning becomes more of a mindset than a task that must be marked off on one’s list. If we are going to nurture curiosity and a love of learning in young people, it becomes even more important that they see this embodied by their teachers.

A Missionary Mindset

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15).

In Acts 17 we read about Paul entering Athens. His first reaction to the city was “great distress” over the idolatry. When he started to preach in the marketplace, it is apparent that he took the time to learn about the people. He started one conversation by referencing an “idol to an unknown god,” explaining that he came to tell them about a God who was indeed unknown to them. He could have started by condemning them for the idolatry, but his first comment was about how he could see that they were very religious. As he continued, he even quoted one of their own poets to help teach an important truth.

All of this highlights a distinct missionary mindset of Paul, and Lutheran educators need this same mindset. Paul was devoted to the mission of sharing the Gospel. He was willing (and called) to step outside the familiarity of his own cultural contexts to minister to these people in Athens. He was well equipped theologically for the task. He took the time to learn about the people and their culture. He had the courage to speak when the time was right. All of these are important traits for the Lutheran educator, especially in a time when Lutheran schools serve an increasingly diverse student population.

There are different types of Lutheran schools. Some Lutheran schools focus mainly upon enrolling and teaching Lutheran young people from Lutheran churches and families. Others extend this ministry to young people across Christian denominations. Yet, a growing number of Lutheran schools find themselves as mission outposts, teaching young people and serving families who have little or no connection to a Christian church. The school is the mission field.

This outreach makes it even more valuable for each teacher to embrace the mindset of a missionary, prayerfully seeking those opportunities to be a Christian witness in the classroom and beyond. Like Paul, this involves theological training; a desire to learn about the culture and people to whom one is called, prayerfully seeking ways to teach the unchanging truths of God’s Word in different contexts, and a willingness to join Isaiah in saying, “Here I am Lord, send me!” We have a rich tradition of Lutheran educators, like many missionaries before them, who are willing to go where God leads, even when that is far from the comfort and familiarity of our hometowns.

The missionary mindset blends a persistent study of the contemporary world with ongoing study of God’s Word, and a commitment to building relationships with the people to whom we are called to serve. More than being content with a basic understanding of the Bible and Reformation principles, the missionary persistently analyzes the beliefs, values, and ideologies of the present age in view of God’s Word. In doing so, they have the joy of helping learners discover the significance and relevance of God’s Word in contemporary life.

A Mindset of Conviction and Competency

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth  (Revelation 3:15-16).

One night, after a contentious voters’ meeting on the church and school budget, Pastor Jim came home and told his wife that he was not getting a raise in the new year. The really disappointing part of the whole ordeal was that his best friend, Chuck, had not spoken up in his defense at the meeting. When Pastor Jim asked Chuck why he had not advocated for him and remained silent, Chuck insisted, “Well, Jim, come on. I didn’t want to say anything because everyone knows you’re my friend.” Pastor Jim responded, “Chuck, that’s exactly why you should have spoken up on my behalf. If my friends won’t speak up for me, who will?”

Twenty-first century Lutheran educators must speak up, and speak with conviction, on their personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God’s Word. Unfortunately, too many Lutheran educators act or behave as if a student’s faith will grow through osmosis, or that daily attendance at a school which has the name “Lutheran” in it is sufficient for the curation and incubation of faith in each student. The truth is, however, that if Lutheran teachers will not boldly teach the faith and teach their students how to contend for the faith, who will?

Conviction is compelling. A Lutheran educator’s conviction, however, goes beyond pure emotionalism or stridency. A Christian’s conviction is inspired and saturated by the Holy Spirit in the mind as well as the heart. Moreover, the faith-based conviction of a Lutheran educator is seamless and evident throughout all aspects of one’s life and in all of his or her roles and stations of one’s vocation. When students see their teacher regularly and faithfully attend church, serve actively in the church, thumb through their well-worn Bible or easily and frequently access their Lutheran study Bible online in class, continuously teach their content from a biblical worldview, or insist that their students understand the teachings of the Bible no matter the subject area, their teacher manifests faith as truly authentic, genuine, and convincing. President Lyndon B. Johnson once told a story of how a young teacher in Texas was asked, in an interview before a school board, if the world was flat or round. Wanting the job badly, the young applicant replied: “I can teach it both ways.” In a world full of fake information, lies, and false prophets, students in our Lutheran schools need to see and feel that their teachers teach the one true faith from the one true Word of God with genuine confidence and conviction (Ephesians 4:1-6).

To truly teach with conviction, of course, requires competence. Lutheran educators must know their Scripture and Lutheran doctrine, but also their content and pedagogy. Unfortunately, too many Lutheran educators insulate their lack of content expertise or lack of pedagogical skill around the bubble of nicety and their Christian bonafides. While being nice is preferable to being naughty, the St. Nick approach to teaching does not guarantee student learning. The world and job markets are too competitive today and the costs of Christian education too high to get by on a mediocre instruction. Lutheran teachers must possess outstanding skills, dispositions, and experiences to teach in schools where community members not only pay high property taxes for government schooling but tuition for your school as well.

God gave his very best by sending his innocent and perfect son for us. Jesus gave his best when he shed his innocent, pure, and precious blood on the cross for our sins. Excellence, though not attainable because of our sinful nature, is the mental mindset and standard in our teaching.

Conviction and competency go hand-in-hand for the Lutheran educator and mutually reinforce each other. If you do not have one, the other suffers, and the Lutheran educator needs both. There is a saying: one reason you “preach to the choir” is that you want the choir to sing. For the Lutheran educator, when you know the Word and know it well, you will sing with competence and conviction.

A Mindset of Coaching and Mentoring

For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! (Ecclesiastes 4:10).

If you walk into almost any living room in the United States on an autumn Sunday afternoon, you will find plenty of armchair coaches. Everyone, it seems, feels qualified to be a coach. A Lutheran educator, however, is not just any coach, but one who is called to minister in the name of Jesus Christ—our Savior, Master Teacher, and all-time servant leader.

Like a coach in any sport, every 21st century Christian coach or Lutheran educator teaches their students the fundamentals and essentials of the faith. God’s Word and a biblical worldview seamlessly integrate, enhance, and provide real-world meaning and purpose in the curriculum. Scripture provides students with a scouting report of the world so that they are prepared for trials, temptations, and the cosmic battle which already is in play. Growing aware, then, of the big picture and that their salvation is already won thanks to Jesus, students look up to their teacher as a trustworthy and faithful shepherd. Lutheran educators are coaches not just because they know more or have had more experiences than their students, but because they relentlessly keep Christ and God’s Word preeminent in their relationships and instruction with students.

A Lutheran coach and mentor gives feedback to students—lots of it. Think of the actual basketball coach who constantly “talks up” her player during a shooting drill: “Step into the shot.” “Follow-through.” “Snap the wrist.” “Oh, your elbow is popping out. Keep it in tight.” “Excellent job squaring your feet to the basket.” A master teacher knows that God has blessed human beings with the gift of reflection. Thus, Lutheran educators leverage students’ reflective ability and provide feedback that is affirming, correcting, nurturing, and challenging (2 Timothy 4:1-5). We engage students such that they embrace and respond to that feedback. And if their students struggle or fall down, master teachers are there right beside them to pick them up, encourage them further, and tell them to try it again with new learning, new information, or a different approach.

Of course, a Lutheran educator or coach should never ask his students to do something he is not willing to do. A coach or mentor who demands a strong work ethic, change, or new learning must be willing to do the same. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, healed and fed the most vulnerable and downtrodden, and went where the tough sinners and situations resided. Lutheran teachers embrace coaching and mentoring as an act of service, a calling, an opportunity to respond to God’s love by loving his people.

A Lutheran educator who takes on a coach and mentor mindset sees himself as a tool or instrument of God’s love and grace. The focus is on the students and the desired learning outcomes for these students. Anyone can claim to be a good coach on Sunday, but Lutheran educators must get off the couch to coach and mentor every day. In Christ, the victory is already won for their students, but there still is a lot of time yet to play in the game of life. Lutheran educators know they are on the clock with very few timeouts.

A Mindset of Connection and Collaboration

…so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it (1 Corinthians 12:25-26).

The teaching ministry is not a “Lone Ranger” endeavor. When one accepts the call to the teaching ministry, that person is joining an international community. One person might be called to a small rural Lutheran school in South Dakota, while another is called to a high school in Shanghai, and another to a Lutheran school in the Los Angeles suburbs. The daily tasks of these three people might be different, and the young people whom they teach will likely have distinct backgrounds.

Yet, these teachers share in our common teaching ministry. This is also true for those who teach and serve in the same school. And in the same school, teachers teach different subject areas and grade levels. They use a variety of teaching styles, and their unique personalities are evident. Nonetheless, they are part of a shared ministry.

This might seem obvious, but in practice teachers can easily fall into the lone ranger mindset. We close our classroom doors and do our own thing. We might come together for chapel, devotional times, special events, faculty meetings, and dedicated professional development time. The rest of the time, some teachers just function on their own. They are comfortable living as the remnant in some cave where no one and nothing can bother them.

But we live in a connected age. It has never been easier to connect and collaborate with people thousands of miles away. We have countless communication and collaboration technologies. Yet, Lutheran education is still in its infancy in learning how to leverage these for ministry-focused collaboration.

For the Lutheran educator in a connected age, we are in need of new teachers who not only use these tools to connect with friends and family, but to also set an example for how this global network of Lutheran educators can support, encourage, and mentor one another. They can share resources with each other, and collaborate on lessons and class activities. Instead of wasted time and resources of continually reinventing the wheel, a new generation of Lutheran teachers can harness the power of the global network of Lutheran educators in ways that are difficult for us to imagine. (Editor’s note: one effort to provide some shared resources for the teaching ministry is The Two Kingdoms Network website.)

Of course, collaboration on the school level is just as important. If we are going to help students prepare for a world where collaboration is an increasingly critical life and work skill, then modeling such positive collaboration, informed by a distinctly Christian understanding of community, is an especially valuable opportunity. This is an exciting opportunity for us to celebrate our body-of-Christ understanding of faith and life.

A Mindset of Resilience …  and Resurrection

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” [Jesus] (John 16:33).

Twenty-first century Lutheran educators must pass on and teach the faith—a faith that embraces resiliency and lives in the Resurrection. No one, of course, modeled and lived resiliency better than Jesus Christ—our Savior who relentlessly pursued his mission of love and redemption despite the resistance of the status quo, ridicule, persecution, desertion, and a horrific crucifixion. It was his resurrection that finally persuaded his family members and closest followers that his mission and teachings were truly for their eternal benefit. As the ultimate close to an earthly life filled with best practices and critical life-long learning experiences, the Resurrection completed Jesus’ mission and made his words, by the power of the Holy Spirit, “sticky” (in various ways) for many of his contemporaries and billions more followers to come.

Like Sylvester Stallone’s cultural icon, Rocky Balboa, Christian educators today must be conditioned and prepared to take a spiritual and emotional beating in this fallen world while keeping their eye of the tiger confidence and pressing on for the prize. They may be hit hard and knocked to the ground. By God’s grace, however, they must get up and go another round for the sake of their students and the mission. Indeed, many secular challenges, or challengers, can throw knockout punches at Lutheran educators: lower salaries, fewer program resources, dysfunctional families, unchurched students and families, government intrusion and hostility toward religious freedom and liberty, and isolation. And, of course, there is the brutal reality that Satan relentlessly attacks those who proclaim God’s truth and Word. Even within the church, bickering, petty jealousies, false teachers, and poor leadership can certainly undermine a teacher’s training and corrupt Lutheran schools from the inside.

Resiliency is a life skill that must be caught and taught. The very fact that Lutheran educators are frail human beings with a sinful nature actually provides a wonderful teaching and learning opportunity. When they make mistakes, Lutheran teachers confess their sin and rely on God’s Word to guide and strengthen their own spiritual nourishment and well-being. In addition and by God’s grace, they model how to turn setbacks into setups, disappointments into determination, obstacles into opportunities, and tragedies into triumphs. Truly, one of the most impactful moments for Lutheran educators occurs when, for students and colleagues, they confess their sin, allow themselves to be vulnerable, ask for forgiveness, and show how their faith undergirds their onward Christian leader attitude.

In most of the Rocky movies, Rocky is beaten, battered, and down for the count only to (inevitably if not improbably) rise and win the boxing match. Rocky, however, is a fictitious character. There is no comparison between Rocky and the Rock of our Salvation. Jesus, the ultimate comeback King of Kings, rose from the dead on Easter Sunday to complete his mission—the forgiveness of our sins—and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, empower and move his followers to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). Inspired by Jesus’ death and resurrection, masterful Lutheran educators intentionally insert or integrate a resurrection element into their lesson plans and teachable moments—the art of the comeback, the close, the strong finish, the opportunity, the possibility, the life application, the rebirth, the second chance. After all, with Jesus all things are possible (Mark 9:23, 2 Corinthians 2:7-12, Philippians 4:10-13).

Leading and teaching students in the 21st century will not be for the faint of heart. In the post-Christian United States, not only is the Christian or biblical worldview in a precipitous decline of acceptance, but there is growing public hostility toward anything that radiates exclusivity, absolute truth, or clings to a metanarrative. Lutheran educators will not only be tasked with teaching the faith and their content area, but preparing students to defend and contend for the faith in their various vocations. Thank goodness our resilient and resurrected Savior has overcome the world. As John the Baptist, himself a Christian teacher, said with the proper mindset for all teaching ministers: “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” John 3:30.


As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, there are many ways to approach the question of what a faculty needs for service in a 21st century high school teaching ministry. Accompanied by an abiding faith in Jesus Christ and a solid grounding in the Reformation principles that inform what we do and why we do it, we believe the seven mindsets discussed here will further serve us well. Whether you are taking advantages of exciting ministry opportunities or preparing to face the many daunting ministry challenges of the age, our prayer is that you meditate upon God’s Word, reflect upon, and discuss these seven mindsets. May God continue to bless you, good and faithful servant, and may the peace of the Lord be with you always.


Bernard Bull is Chief Innovation Officer, Assistant Vice President of Academics, and Associate Professor of Education at Concordia University Wisconsin. He is editor of Pedagogy of Faith (Concordia Publishing House, 2016) and author of Missional Moonshots: Insight and Inspiration in Educational Innovation, and What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education (Athanatos Publishing Group, 2016). Prior to Concordia, Bernard served for 12 years at Lutheran schools in Rockford, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can reach him by email at, on Twitter (@BernardBull), or on his blog,

James Pingel is the Director of Graduate Education and Adjunct Professor of History at Concordia University Wisconsin. He recently published “It Takes a Lutheran Village to Raise a Hamilton” article in LEA’s Shaping the Future, and articles, “Christian School Leaders and the MIT (Most Important Thing)” and “Tip of the Spear: Turning the Mission On for Off-Campus Employees” in The Pedagogy of Faith: Essays on Lutheran Education (2016). In 2014, he published Confidence and Character: The Religious Life of George Washington. Pingel previously served as Executive Director at Sheboygan Area Lutheran High School (Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2004-2013) and Mayer Lutheran High School (Mayer, Minnesota, 1994-2004). You can reach him by email at, or on Twitter (@DrPingel).

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