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As a part of the required course, Beginnings, freshmen take the Strengths Finder test which identifies their top five strengths through a series of questions.
Photo by Kayla Landrum

When I was assigned to write this newspaper article about strengths education in Beginnings, a required class for freshmen here at Azusa Pacific, I had my mind set to write a scathing critique.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

About two years ago, I was seated in the third or fourth row of Upper Turner, jostling elbows with my fellow “Alphies.” It was “Strengths Day” in Beginnings.

This class embodied the freshman experience on campus perhaps better than any other. Students here and there slouched in their chairs, tapping their feet as if begging the clock to tick faster. Others, such as I, had quickly made friends within their Alpha groups. We were enjoying the eclectic Jars of Clay/Mumford soundtrack.

My ears really perked up, however, when the strengths rhetoric began. I was learning how my strengths could help me “be maximized as a person, for the kingdom of God.” I looked down at my lap to a list of my top five strengths: Strategic, Connectedness, Individualization, Input, Relator.

“This sounds like a business seminar,” I thought.

I wasn’t too far off-target. The strengths education included a video from Michael Buckingham, a partner of APU. In business circles, he is a preacher of success and maximization. Furthermore, the strengths program is based off careful research from Gallup, a business consulting company famous for its polling research methods.

Immediately on guard about this seemingly secular program, I began to ask myself what might be implied by strengths education. Like many students I have spoken to in my time at APU, I saw it as a worldly desire for success seeping into the Christian environs of my university. Paul, after all, glorified God in his weaknesses.

As I conversed with friends about the program, I found that I was not alone in my distrust. Several of my friends shared my concerns. Most were simply apathetic. Even professors poked fun and mocked the very idea of strengths education. Before long, I had mentally checked out of Beginnings altogether.

This established a pattern, and I watched my strengths start to fray around the edges. Then, last semester, several of my friends embarked on study abroad experiences across the globe and I stayed behind.

As a “relator,” I thrive on deep and meaningful relationships. All at once, it seemed, these had been stripped away. My feelings of confidence and sense of potential faltered. They were replaced by fear and self-loathing.

My attempts at creating new relationships fell flat. My strengths had failed me, I thought. I certainly didn’t feel “maximized.” I decided this whole thing was just another soapy program in a sea of evangelical bubbles.

It was with these feelings that I sat down for an interview with Director Stacie Champine and Assistant Director Phil Brazell of the Office of Orientation and Transitions.

These two are well-acquainted with the ins and outs of strengths education. We spoke at length about the benefits and possible pitfalls of the system.

“Whenever we talk about the strengths philosophy, there’s always the disclaimer that this is not the beginning or the end of who you are,” Brazell said. “This is a tool, an aid in seeking the Lord and hearing your calling.”

As with many tools, the strengths exam taken by students cannot give a perfect and complete image of an individual. We are complex beings constantly being tempted by simplicity. This was something that tempted me to dislike the strengths test. How many times have I heard students comparing strengths as if they suddenly know everything about each other? But Champine shared and voiced my concerns.

“I think there can be some cautionary measures in using strengths as an icebreaker, because when you do that, sometimes that just creates a label on somebody, versus being able to use that as a tool to go deeper,” Champine said.

It makes me wonder if there is room for improvement in the strengths program. I think it starts with the students themselves buying into what is being taught. In the rush of an insanely nourishing freshman year, however, many students never take the time to wrestle and learn from their strengths. Such was my own case.

That was something that Brazell spoke to, referencing the “shadow sides to strengths.” As he talked about them, I began to notice them in myself. For example, as a “relator,” I thrive on deep and meaningful relationships. I also shut down without them. Understanding and seeing these things is what this program is all about.

I can’t help but wonder if I had taken the whole thing more seriously what my most recent semester might have looked like. Acknowledging and seeing my strengths and weaknesses for what they were, I propose, would have made all the difference.

Instead, I thought strengths education was too success-oriented, too secular to merit my attention.

While Director Champine agreed with me, that strengths training is not “overtly Christian,” she followed the thought with a good point: “But that’s just like, you know, algebra.”

I blinked. Perhaps God can use the worldly to form and transform his children. I was made from dust, after all.

I have come to believe that strengths education at Azusa Pacific can be tremendously beneficial and informative. I would say that it deserves more attention from students.

On the other hand, we need to avoid trivializing strengths and allowing them to become icebreaker fodder. We need to take them more seriously than that.

Don’t check out.

We each need to take another look at the areas we can develop and the areas of our lives in which we need each other. Through strengths, some might find that they have found their true calling. Others, like Brazell, might find that they have a whole new calling in store.

Brazell himself entered into this university as a biochemistry major and left with a degree in business administration and a minor in leadership studies.

He believes that strengths are about “responsibility … stewarding who you are” and “seeking God’s calling for your life. That is where it begins and ends.”