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Introduction to The Pepperdine Voyage

In 2002, the Lilly Endowment awarded $1,999,049 to Pepperdine University to support a five-year participation in the Endowment's "theological exploration of vocation" initiative. In 2006, the Endowment awarded a renewal grant to help sustain the project as the university seeks funding and support to incorporate many components of the project into its existing programs. The Lilly Endowment requires that Pepperdine focus this project on the “theological exploration of vocation.” In keeping with this overall theme, the project is officially entitled, “The Pepperdine Voyage: Nurturing Lives of Purpose, Service, and Leadership.”

The Pepperdine Voyage is student-centered at every conceivable point, and seeks to reach out to the broadest possible cross-section of Pepperdine students while, at the same time, making at least some provision for students in specific majors or specific graduate programs.

The project includes the following five areas of emphasis.

  • A CURRICULAR COMPONENT that challenges undergraduate students in each of their four years at Pepperdine, though in different ways in each of those years.

  • A CO-CURRICULAR COMPONENT that intersects with the academic component in significant ways and that challenges students to commit themselves in three specific areas: service, leadership, and Christian ministry.

  • A FACULTY/STAFF DEVELOPMENT COMPONENT that is grounded in the conviction, strongly affirmed by the Lilly Endowment, that all participants— faculty in particular—must be encouraged to think theologically about the topic of vocation. If we fail to do this, then we can hardly expect students to be able to explore vocation from a theological perspective.

  • A MINISTRY COMPONENT (a) that encourages all students, regardless of their majors or career plans, to think of their future careers in terms of Christian ministry, (b) that encourages more students to consider formal, church-based ministry as a vocation, and (c) that allows those students preparing for a vocation in the context of the church to broaden their vocational horizons through a meaningful internship program.

  • A COMPONENT FOR THE FOUR PROFESSIONAL SCHOOLS that challenges students in those schools to envision their careers as vocation.

Pepperdine University will be widely known as a place where the vocational question is paramount.

The Planning Grant Committee hopes that this project will result in two outcomes, one institutional and one personal. At the institutional level, we hope to transform the Pepperdine culture so that our students no longer ask how they might secure the most lucrative careers. Instead, we hope that as a result of this project, Pepperdine students will ask about their gifts and how they can most effectively use those gifts on behalf of other human beings, regardless of compensation.

Institutional success with this project will mean, for example, that the University will take pains to portray itself—and as a result, this University will be widely known—as a place where the vocational question is paramount.

Success at the personal level will be far less apparent and will require sophisticated assessment tools to discern, for we will ask if those students who have participated in some or many components of the project have become more sensitive to the call of vocation in their lives, if they have developed during their years at this institution a meaningful level of resistance to the sirens of self-indulgence, and if they have genuinely committed themselves to the call of service on behalf of other human beings.


One can hardly imagine a more propitious time than the present for Pepperdine to undertake a project on “the theological exploration of vocation.”

The beauty of the timing is illumined by the recent work of Professors George Marsden and James Burtchaell. In The Soul of the American University (Marsden; Oxford, 1994) and The Dying of the Light (Burtchaell; Eerdmans, 1998), these two scholars document the fact that numerous colleges and universities, once established as church-related institutions, have weakened and even abandoned their original Christian commitments.

By contrast, Pepperdine has taken decisive steps over the past decade to strengthen the Christian mission of the institution. This determination extends to each of the schools that make up Pepperdine University: Seaver College, which is the undergraduate institution, the School of Law, the Graduate School of Education and Psychology, the School of Public Policy, and the Graziadio Business School.

This development is all the more remarkable when one considers Pepperdine’s rapid academic growth, reputation, and maturation. Clearly, Pepperdine is emerging as an important player on the national scene.

The point here is that Pepperdine’s academic maturation continues to progress, even as the institution continues to strengthen its commitment to its Christian mission. To say the very least, for any institution to make substantial and simultaneous progress on both these fronts constitutes a most unusual development in the history of American higher education.

Pepperdine therefore offers a variety of institutional resources in support of the Pepperdine Voyage.

Pepperdine University affirms its Christian identity both publicly and forthrightly. On March 26, 1999, the Board of Regents adopted a new mission statement that reads, “Pepperdine is a Christian university committed to the highest standards of academic excellence and Christian values, where students are strengthened for lives of purpose, service, and leadership.” Our challenge now is to implement the mission statement in meaningful and creative ways. The Lilly Endowment’s “Theological Exploration of Vocation” program offers assistance for that task.

In October of 1999, the University administration announced the creation of the Pepperdine University Center for Faith and Learning, and named Distinguished Professor of Religion Richard Hughes as its founding director. Now directed by Gary Selby, Professor of Communications, the Center seeks to encourage members of the Pepperdine faculty to embrace a meaningful understanding of the potential relationship between Christian faith, on the one hand, and serious scholarship and teaching, on the other, and to allow that understanding to inform their academic work. To that end, the Center regularly sponsors faculty seminars that explore those connections. More than half of the members of the Pepperdine faculty have participated in these seminars since the Center’s inception.

All along, these seminars have focused on the “theological exploration of vocation,” since the leader and the readings regularly invite the participants to consider both the vocation of a Christian university and the vocation of the Christian scholar. Under the auspices of the “Pepperdine Voyage” project, these seminars now include a third dimension: an exploration of what the “theological exploration of vocation” might mean for our students and how we can encourage our students to give serious consideration to this theme. In addition, the Lilly grant has allowed us to expand the number of seminars offered each year in an effort to include more and more faculty in this experience.

In the fall of 2000, Pepperdine inaugurated a new president, Dr. Andrew K. Benton who, in turn, welcomed to this campus a new provost, Dr. Darryl Tippens. Like the previous one, this administration stands unalterably committed to enhancing the University’s commitment to the Christian vision that animated its founding and to implementing the mission statement in meaningful and creative ways.

For example, in his personal vision statement entitled, “Envisioning a Bold Future,” President Benton forthrightly asserted that “our Christian mission is the root of our values. Our tradition of faith should be central to whatever measure of excellence we attain.” And then, in more specific terms, Benton reflected on Pepperdine’s historic relationship with Churches of Christ. “The University’s investment in that relationship is palpable and long-standing,” Benton noted. “The currents flow deep and are powerful.”

In 2001, the University administration announced the creation of the position of University Chaplain— a move that once again reflects the institution’s commitment to its Christian mission. D’Esta Love, former dean of students at Seaver College was the first to occupy that position. David Lemley now currently holds the position. In this capacity, he serves the religious needs and enhances the Christian mission of all five schools that make up the University.

Pepperdine students—especially the under­graduates at Seaver College—are more receptive to theological reflection on the meaning and purpose of their lives than ever before. This development is due in large part to the fact that Seaver College admits students who closely fit the institution’s mission. One feature of that mission is service to other human beings, especially the poor and the dispossessed. The Pepperdine Voyage enables us to give further support to this fundamental institutional value.

Campus Ministry is the student ministry sponsored by the University Church of Christ, the congregation that meets on the Pepperdine campus. For the past several years, Campus Ministry has focused on developing sensitivity to vocational issues among the hundreds of students that participate in Campus Ministry events.

Campus Ministry is therefore well equipped to participate in the Pepperdine Voyage in a variety of ways. Campus Ministry interns, for example, may provide leadership for student-initiated service/learning projects or participate in Student Leadership conference and breakfast colloquium. In any event, Campus Ministry interns are in a position to provide important student leadership for this project.


Pepperdine’s long-standing relationship with the Churches of Christ offers strong resources for the Pepperdine Voyage.

George Pepperdine, founder of the institution, belonged to the Churches of Christ and hoped the school would especially serve students from that constituency. At the same time, he made it perfectly clear that “students entering this school are not required to belong to any church, or to subscribe to any religious doctrine.” But, he told the students, “You are required at least to be in sympathy with our policy of Christian ideals and willing to give some of your time to the study of the Bible.”

This vision, calling for diversity in the context of informal church-relatedness and a strong Christian emphasis, still defines the ethos of Pepperdine University.

Among Pepperdine’s five schools, the highest Church of Christ percentages occur at Seaver College. But Pepperdine students and faculty, both at Seaver College and in the professional schools, reflect a wide array of Christian denominations and other religious traditions.

Since the beginning, the relationship Pepperdine University has enjoyed with Churches of Christ has been informal. Indeed, Mr. Pepperdine stipulated that “this institution…shall be a private enterprise, not connected with any church, and shall not solicit contributions from the churches.”

The informal relationship that Pepperdine has maintained with Churches of Christ has meant that neither side—neither the University nor the church— has been able to take that relationship for granted. As a result, the University has worked hard to win the confidence of the church, and members of the church have responded by placing their confidence in the University. One very visible expression of that relationship is the annual Bible Lectureship that Pepperdine hosts each spring and that draws to this campus between 4,000 and 5,000 members of Churches of Christ from all across the United States and abroad.

Among the most important aspects of Pepperdine’s church relationship is the fact that conversations are now taking place throughout the University in which students and faculty alike are asking questions such as these: “How can the heritage of Churches of Christ contribute in positive ways to the work of this University?” “How can the theological heritage of this tradition help to sustain the life of the mind?” Or again, “How can this heritage sustain the diversity that increasingly characterizes this institution?”

The truth is, the Churches of Christ bring strong supports to all these tasks.

In the first place, the Churches of Christ began in the United States as a radically democratic tradition on the nineteenth-century American frontier. This is why Nathan O. Hatch celebrates this tradition in his path-breaking book, The Democratization of American Christianity.

The words “democratic” and “democratization” are important, since leaders in this tradition insisted that all Christians should be free to search out biblical truths for themselves, regardless of the teachings of bishops, priests, preachers, or creeds. This commitment to independent investigation persists among many Churches of Christ today and provides one of the great supports for the life of the mind at Pepperdine University.

In the second place, this tradition began as an ecumenical movement that sought to provide common ground for Christians of all persuasions. Today, Christian students from a variety of traditions have organized on the Seaver College campus a ministry called “Common Ground” that involves hundreds of students in worship and fellowship activities and that greatly enhances the spiritual climate on campus. Further, the ecumenical heritage that belongs to Churches of Christ offers strong support for the University as it seeks to enhance the significant levels of diversity that thrive on this campus.

While the term “vocation” is one not often used by members of Churches of Christ, these people have nonetheless nurtured a strong commitment to this ideal. True to the biblical orientation of this tradition, most in Churches of Christ have understood vocation in starkly biblical terms. Not surprisingly, they found in that book a powerful call to a life of service, typically defined as a surrender of self on behalf of the poor, the weak, and the dispossessed. This helps explain why so many members of Churches of Christ have understood vocation simply as God’s summons to a life of radical discipleship.

Barton W. Stone, one of the two principal leaders of this tradition in the early nineteenth century, is a remarkable case in point. Hearing a call to the vocation of preaching as a very young man, Stone abandoned plans for a law career and committed himself to a life of poverty in the interest of advancing the kingdom of God. As an itinerant evangelist, Stone could not rely on the support of individual congregations for which he might have preached on a regular basis. Instead, he had to rely on the meager income produced by his small Kentucky farm. He later recalled,

Having now no support from the congregations,
and having emancipated my slaves, I turned my
attention . . . cheerfully, though awkwardly, to labor
on my little farm. . . . I had no money to hire
laborers, and often on my return home [from a
preaching tour], I found the weeds were getting
ahead of my corn. I had often to labor at night
while others were asleep, to redeem my lost time.

Stone combined this cheerful sense of vocational call with a commitment to minister especially to the poor and the dispossessed. He advised his followers “to avoid extravagant attire, to care for widows and orphans, to minister to the poor and the hungry, and to free their slaves.” He summed up his life’s orientation when he affirmed in 1842, “No Christian lives for himself [but] like an obedient servant, he says, Lord what wilt thou have me to do? And when that will is known, he flies to do [it], not regarding how great the sacrifice of wealth, ease, or reputation.”

Two themes are particularly important, then, in Stone’s theology of vocation: (a) an effort to discern the divine will for one’s life and (b) a willingness to abandon self for the sake of others as one attempts to live out that calling.

David Lipscomb, the most influential leader among Churches of Christ in the late nineteenth century, embraced a theology of vocation similar to that of Stone. Lipscomb inherited a substantial means from a moderately wealthy father. In effect, however, he turned his back on what others might call “the good life” and embraced a theology of vocation that focused on the needs of the poor and the disinherited. He viewed the church as “the special legacy of God to the poor of the earth” and, like Stone, he sought to cultivate “a full surrender of the soul, mind, and body up to God,” leading to “the spirit of self-denial, of self-sacrifice, the forbearance [sic] and long suffering, [and] the doing good for evil.”

One finds a particularly notable example of these commitments when a cholera epidemic struck Lipscomb’s hometown of Nashville, Tennessee in 1873. During the month of June alone, almost 500 people died. Blacks were especially hard hit. Many who had the means to flee the city did so.

Lipscomb was not well and had every reason to escape the plague by retiring to his farm at Bell’s Bend, outside the city. Lipscomb believed, however, that his vocation in the kingdom of God required him to go into houses where the plague had struck, to clean and feed the victims, and to do everything in his power to help restore their health.

He urged members of Churches of Christ in Nashville to follow suit. “It is a time that should call out the full courage and energy of the church in looking after the needy,” he wrote. “Every individual, white or black, that dies from neglect and want of proper food and nursing, is a reproach to the professors of the Christian religion in the vicinity of Nashville.”

One finds a similar understanding of vocation in the thought of George Pepperdine, the founder of the Western Auto Stores who also founded George Pepperdine College in South Central Los Angeles in 1937. Indeed, the notion of vocation stood at the heart of Mr. Pepperdine’s aspirations for the college.

In his founding statement, delivered in 1937, he told the students, “I hope every student who attends this college will embrace the philosophy of life which acknowledges our responsibility to God and to our fellow men. A great gift has been made to each and every one of us—the privilege of living in this world for a short span of years and the opportunity of doing our part to help the less fortunate; to improve civilization; to advance knowledge, both scientific knowledge of men and ‘the wisdom which is from above.’ . . . This gift of human life and the opportunity which is ours to serve others for a short time should be regarded as a sacred trust.”

In accordance with these ideals, Mr. Pepperdine chose five words that appear in Matthew 10:8 as the motto for his college: “Freely ye received; freely give.” Still today, that motto serves us well and appears in strategic and highly visible locations around the campus.

On Tuesday, June 5, 2001, the voters of Los Angeles, California elected James K. Hahn, a Pepperdine graduate (B.A., 1972; J.D., 1975) and a life-long member of the Church of Christ, as the city’s mayor. Like Barton Stone, David Lipscomb, and George Pepperdine, Hahn embraces an understanding of vocation that flows directly from his Christian faith and from his heritage in the Churches of Christ.

In a Los Angeles Times interview, Hahn commented that “[service is] an opportunity to live out, I think, the principles of Christianity—caring for your neighbor. This is central to my idea of Christianity, the idea of helping those who are less fortunate.” Of the Church of Christ, he told the Times, “I’ve come to the realization that I do believe what I was taught. It’s my tradition. It’s my culture.”

Barton Stone, David Lipscomb, George Pepperdine, James K. Hahn, and many others in the history of Churches of Christ quite rightly discerned vocation as service to the neighbor that takes priority over service to self.

The Bible often uses the metaphor of death to convey this vision—death to the inflated ego, death to self-promotion, and death to self-indulgence. But the metaphor of death has a positive side as well, namely, that death is not an end in itself, but rather a commitment of the heart that one embraces for the sake of the neighbor. It is precisely this understanding of vocation that we hope to share with our students and that stands as the centerpiece of the Pepperdine Voyage.

This project builds on this very understanding of vocation—an understanding that stands at the heart of the history and heritage of the Churches of Christ. In other words, this project builds on a notion of vocation that asks first about one’s particular gifts, talents, and interests, and then asks how one can use those gifts, talents, and interests precisely as one loses one’s self for the sake of other human beings.

During the planning process, Professor Rick Marrs, chair of Pepperdine’s Religion Division, created a strategic document entitled, “Calling or Career: Toward a Theology of Vocation.” Rooted in the biblical text, this essay demonstrates again that standing at the heart of a biblical vision for vocation are the themes of self-denial, service, and death. This essay serves as the defining vision statement for the Pepperdine Voyage.