By Dr. Ben Sells

President, Ouachita Baptist Univeristy

[Perspective] Be learners rather than knowers

By Dr. Ben Sells

President, Ouachita Baptist Univeristy

Editor’s Note: The following is taken from Dr. Ben Sells’ address during Ouachita’s May 2023 Commencement ceremony. See his full, original remarks at 

Based on what our young alumni report, a Ouachita education and experience prepare our students exceedingly well. The investment in them by faculty and staff, support of family and classmates, time and effort they put forward and the grace of God help them go from this place equipped with advantages. 

The more carefully these advantages are stewarded, the more opportunity they’ll provide.  

When preparing for Commencement, I pray that I might leave each graduating class with a word of wisdom. For the Class of 2023, it is this: The most effective people are “learners” rather than “knowers.” 

This insight has proven valuable through the years and applicable at every stage of life. It was passed along to me by Sam James, who hired me in 1997 to help build a leadership development program for the International Mission Board. Sam would give more than 50 years to ministry, often in the world’s most difficult places. 

As an educator, he sought to understand what made for the most effective and long-term cross-cultural workers. He noticed that missionaries started with advantages—often a graduate degree, spiritual maturity and a measure of success achieved in ministry and other vocations. 

Yet their assignment meant moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar. They were called to share good news in hard places—a complex and challenging calling. 

As Sam studied what allowed some to become more effective than others, he noticed one preeminent characteristic: They were learners rather than knowers. 

Knowers, assuming they have arrived, draw only on what they have learned. By contrast, learners never stop learning; they continue to adjust, adapt and add to their advantages. 

While Ouachita graduates leave with advantages, they’re moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar. At some point, we all find ourselves facing similar moments of transition into unexplored territory in our roles, communities and churches. In all of these, I recommend what Sam commended to me: that we be learners rather than knowers. 

In pursuit of that goal, here are three suggestions for consideration. 

First, cultivate humility.  

To reach Commencement Day, our graduates took responsibility for their growth and success, but they didn’t do it alone. Their accomplishments were also made possible by God’s help, caring family, talented Ouachita faculty and staff, supportive classmates and scholarships provided by alumni and Arkansas Baptists.  

Learners know the importance of humility. We cultivate it by prizing God as our first love, looking out for others’ best interests, remembering how much we don’t know and seeking wisdom as if it were hidden treasure. 

Second, foster character. 

Ouachita students develop competence inside and outside the classroom that will continue to broaden and deepen, but learners know that growing competence without growing character will diminish and even derail one’s effectiveness. 

The Bible guides us in forming Christ-like character, which is fostered with the help of the Holy Spirit as we become people increasingly marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

Third, nourish hope.  

We live with an abundance of knowledge, yet hopelessness abounds. Learners understand the importance of hope, which is why Proverbs 13:12 is one of my favorite Scriptures. It reads, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life.” 

Christ-followers have reason to be the most hopeful of people. We nourish hope by believing and living out that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6); that the Lord is our helper, so we need not be afraid (Hebrews 13:6); that when we commit to the Lord whatever we do, He will establish our plans (Proverbs 16:3); and that no plan can succeed against the Lord (Proverbs 21:30). 

When we begin new chapters and are equipped for growth and success, I believe we will more likely flourish and excel in every area of life if we commit to be learners no matter how much we come to know.  

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One Response

  1. I follow OBU, even back to the days of Dr. Grant. So insightful he was. My comment is regarding your point # 1. Rightly so as an attribute. Even Satan can use the “appearance” of same to fool people. God Bless you in your leadership.

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