Seeing Students as God Sees Them [Mentoring 9/11 Chaplain Bob]

Audio interview with Chaplain Bob Ossler – Please be advised content includes some graphic description of scenes at Ground Zero and Hurricane Katrina.

Students tend to get lost in the system of formal higher education. Apply. Register. Pay. Go to class. Take a test. Earn credit. Rinse. Repeat. Graduate.

No Bible college or seminary intends to be impersonal. It just happens largely because of the schooling paradigm. Even when faculty members want to be more personal, it often doesn’t occur. As a student who frequently took advantage of meeting with faculty members during their office hours, I often heard them make statements of regret that more students didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.  

Bob Ossler is one such student who almost got lost in the process. I was the dean of the non-traditional programs of a very well-known Bible college. We had a policy of letting students who flunked tests review their tests, retake the tests, and average the scores. Well, Bob was a student who took advantage of the policy. It seemed that he retook almost every test for every correspondence course he took. I thought he might be abusing the policy, so I scheduled an appointment with him in anticipation of having to dismiss him from his degree program. It turned out that he wasn’t the problem, we were. Bob had a Mensa-caliber mind, but also had ADD. When he took our multiple choice exams, his mind went in many directions as he read the options for the answers. By the time he read all the options, he no longer remembered the question. However, when I simply asked him the questions, he could practically recite and interact substantially with the relevant content from the course. He wasn’t cheating the system. The system was cheating him. As dean, I was able to create an alternative path for him to finish his degree that was truly competency-based.  

512QSBLE+9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I’m particularly interested in Bob these days because he just wrote a book called “Triumph Over Terror” that reflects on his experiences as the 9/11 Ground Zero Chaplain fifteen years ago. Once I got to know Bob, I learned that he was a unique and incredibly gifted person. His main job was with the Chicago Fire Department as an Air and Water Rescue Paramedic. He was the guy who went into the frigid Lake Michigan water to save and/or recover drowning victims. Bob was also a licensed mortician, trauma chaplain, and chimney sweep. Can you imagine someone better suited for providing support on the “Pile” after 9/11? Chaplain Bob went to Manhattan five different times. He presided over hundreds of ad hoc memorial services when body parts were found. He provided care to countless workers and visitors. He even provided training to most of the other chaplains who had never had to work in an environment like this.  

Although my experience with Bob was within the context of a traditional Bible college, it vividly illustrates why I joined the BILD team and helped found its Antioch School. First, in church-based theological education, the key leaders know their students. Academics are not housed off-campus somewhere apart from real lives and ministries. Rather, the theological education is integrated into the God-given learning contexts of the students. Second, in competency-based education, there is no single method of assessment. Evidence of competency may be demonstrated in a variety of ways.  

You may not have a 9/11 Ground Zero Chaplain Bob in your church, but you have existing and emerging leaders who are specially gifted by God and placed in your midst. And church-based, competency-based theological education may be the key to helping them be equipped and mobilized for the work that God has for them.