I grew up in the church, went to a Bible college, and graduated from seminary. I have a few friends who teach and many others who grade regularly. I write this as a reflection upon the things I have seen and heard over the last 10-years with Christians and their approach to and response to deadlines, particularly within a Christian school context.
I noticed something in Jr. High and it was the “camp/retreat deadline” date. No, I’m not talking about asking that pretty girl to go to church camp with you (which isn’t a date by the way). Here’s what I mean: The announcement would go something like this, “Be sure to sign up for the camp or youth retreat by next Sunday!” Next Sunday would come and go with a slow trickle of names. A few more weeks would pass by and the week or two leading up to the camp/youth retreat, there would be the inevitable announcement, “If you haven’t signed up but would like to go to camp, you need to sign up today!” Everyone knew that first deadline was meaningless! We all smiled and nodded because we knew there was time to make a decision.
Fast forward to Bible college and each student is presented with a crisp (mostly digital) syllabus with a schedule and key dates listed in it. The dates for quizzes, exams, and papers were listed and often in bold to make sure students did not miss them. I can remember the days when countless students entered the classroom and their eyes widened as they gazed at the stapled, 92-brightness paper mountain at the front of the room. Or, I would watch students place one foot in the classroom and bolt out the door as if an alligator just nipped at their toes. They were off to write and print a paper before the class concluded. This was a scene that continued with some variation in seminary. Many of my professors extended “grace” by allowing students to turn in their paper late or readjust the due date for them. Circumstances were rarely discussed (as I was friends with many of these students) and the occasions were often due to lack of planning and execution by the student.
I see three dangerous implications in how many Christians relate to deadlines and grace, particularly when deadlines have little to no meaning. They’re separate but integrally connected with one another.
1. We (teachers/leaders) reduce the authority and accuracy of our words.
A professor would ask, “By show of hands, how many of you still need to turn in the exam/paper?” There were several hands that slowly pointed upward. The professor would calculate the number of hands to determine if he/she was possibly unclear in their previous expectations or to see if the number of students might effect their teacher rating of students passing the class. If the number of hands were 5+, then there was typically a response like, “Okay, students who still need to complete their exam/paper will have until Monday morning to take it” (often this was said on a Friday).
This scene can be replaced countless times in a church or other Christian settings. A leader indicates a date for something (paper, registration, deposit, etc.) is required but they have no intention of holding people to what they said.
Somehow, Christians have excused and overlooked our Jell-O like words lacking substance and sustainability.
If you are a teacher, professor, or Christian leader, let your words (written or spoken) be a reflection of your actual intention. If due dates do not matter to you, then please state so clearly. If deadlines are something you plan to hold students to, then please state so clearly. If a student comes to you and missed a deadline, listen to them, ask questions, express compassion, and let them know you are available to help them with future assignments (again, if that is actually true!). However, they can follow whatever late assignment policy you have stated and remind them that those words are what you are going to do.
2. We (students) approach deadlines as suggestions and excuse our laziness.
As registration approached each year, students often asked one another, “Is this professor easy or hard?” The intent of the question was, “How hard do I need to work to get a good grade?” The answers often involved the professors policy on “late assignments” and their stringency on grading. Students entered the classroom with a set of expectations not outlined from the syllabus but from their fellow students. Any deviation from this expectation by the professor was seen as “unfair” and “unkind” that often resulted in bitterness and frustration from students toward their professor. Because the deadline was viewed as a suggestion not as an actual reality.
I rarely heard students take responsibility for their late assignments due to poor planning or misaligned priorities. Rather, I heard half-hearted pleas for an extension of assignments without a penalty. The strategy was simply to work when and only when necessary.
When deadlines are meaningless and are not anchored to reality, there is no longer the necessary cultivation of qualities like perseverance and discipline in order to complete assignments. Saying “No” to friends or activities in order to do school seems unthinkable. Rather, laziness is normal and any consequences seem unbefitting for Christians to give to other Christians.
When deadlines are not anchored to reality, there is a ripple effect of laziness that permeates the educational environment.
It is time for Christians to view deadlines not as mere suggestions but as actual anchors in reality. We approach deadlines not as objective measuring rods for our success or sources for pride (though both are possible). Rather, we see deadlines as opportunities for us to cultivate disciplines of perseverance and prioritization. Simply, deadlines become an opportunity to increase discipline and responsibility.
There is a third implication related to Christians, deadlines, and grace. It is perhaps the most insidious of all.