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Changing Your Organization’s Name
Names are central to our lives. In a real sense, we are unknowable without names. The names tell us who and what, sometimes even where.
Using a person’s name indicates contact with or knowledge of that person. To “know” a person is to know their name, even if the preface reads “Mr.” or “Miss” or “Mrs.” To know a person well is to use their first name. To know a person very well is to use a nickname or other endearing personal term. Americans name people, places, things, and organizations for deeply philosophical reasons, frivolous purposes, and practical considerations. Sometimes we give organizations multi-word names because these words form a meaningful acronym, e.g. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, MADD. Or we choose a name simply because it is unique and we like the sound of it, e.g. Google.
For most Americans, names are practical, if not always philosophical.
In ancient times, people gave names for all these reasons except for acronyms. But generally in ancient cultures, people gave names because the name had some special meaning. The names were more than a label.
Names were often given as a symbol of some significant event or characteristic in a person’s life. Names often represented a person’s essential nature and could reveal some aspect of a person’s innermost being. Eva was the “mother of all living things”. Names were often changed in biblical times to mark a new beginning. Ábram became Ábraham, and Sarai became Sarah. Jacob became Israel. A newborn baby was named Ben-oni, “Son of Sorrow,” by a dying mother, Rebekah, but quickly renamed Benjamin, “Son of the Right Hand,” by a loving father, Jacob. Jesus renamed Simon the fisherman Peter.
The name change was part of the history of the college I had the privilege of leading for a few years: Grand Rapids Baptist College and Seminary (GRBC&S). In 1941, an evening Bible school was founded under the name Grand Rapids Baptist Bible Institute. As the student body and educational program grew, the name was changed to Grand Rapids Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary in 1959. Later, the term “theological” was dropped when Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary was established as a separate but related graduate school with the same board of trustees and president.
In 1972, the name of the college changed again from Grand Rapids Baptist Bible College to Grand Rapids Baptist College. This new name marked the expansion of the academic program from a Bible college curriculum (including Bible and Music majors) to a Christian liberal arts college curriculum (Bible, music, history, biology, English, business administration, education, and several other majors). But the new name still suffered from certain limitations. For example, it was geographically limited to one city. The school’s longstanding moniker continued to be “Baptist College,” conveying the message that non-Baptists need not apply. And the school’s name was still regularly confused with the earlier name or its derivative, Grand Rapids Bible College, or the more complicated Grand Rapids Baptist “Church.”
This name confusion was particularly problematic because it perpetuated the institution’s earlier mission rather than the Bible, rather than the Christian liberal arts college. Thus, in the spring of 1992, the board of trustees again authorized the preparation of a study aimed at considering the institutional name change. After preliminary review, the Board of Trustees voted in the fall of 1993 on a process to determine the best name for Grand Rapids Baptist College. At that time, the board also voted to retain the name Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary.
One of the wisest decisions the Board made was to allow me, then President, to immediately announce the Board’s decision to announce it as a “study” rather than a name change. fiat accompli, and should be announced as a study to consider what might be the “best name” for the school. On a political level, this meant several things: that voters heard about a potential name change without being cut out of the process, giving many people time to adjust, and that people who thought the old or current name GRBC is the best name” was not excluded from the process because it was still possible that the Board would ultimately confirm that name.
Over the next few months, students, staff, constituents and the public were invited to submit name ideas or suggestions. Perhaps the most amusing submission was the name “Hobbes” for the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. This became a local joke since Calvin College, a quality institution of higher learning, is located just three miles from GRBC&S on the same road. Had the Board chosen Hobbes as the campus’ new name, locals would have forever referred to “Calvin and Hobbes” on East Beltline Ave.
In March 1994, the GRBC&S Board of Trustees reviewed approximately one hundred and thirty names in four categories: geographic, theological, historical, denominational, narrowed the list to three names including GRBC, and ultimately decided to rename the college Cornerstone College. ” The name Cornerstone College fulfilled a practical need for a name that reduced confusion about the college’s mission. But it was also philosophically anchored in Christian symbolism and biblical meaning.
In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul refers to Christians as “members of the house of God, who are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and Christ Jesus himself is the chief corner stone. In him the whole building is united and rises into a holy temple, Lord” (2:18-21) . Jesus is the “tried stone” who “makes the measuring line of righteousness and the standard of justice” (Isaiah 28:16-17). Jesus Christ is the “living stone”, and Christians “like living stones are built into a spiritual house… through Jesus Christ… chosen and precious corner stone” (1 Peter 2:4-9).
The cornerstone is also the key building stone or block in the foundation against which all other stones or blocks are measured. The cornerstone speaks of the permanence of values such as truth, faith, beauty, virtue, justice, righteousness, freedom, peace and love.
The new Cornerstone name was a resounding success by any objective measure. The students embraced him quickly, if not immediately, and the area’s business community and the public welcomed him with admirable enthusiasm. Alumni reaction was mixed at first, as is to be expected with any university name change, but within a relatively short time most alumni came forward. The primary value of the new name was the message that a new wind was blowing in the institution, which looks ahead and places the school in the future.
In the fall of 1998, following an internal study process and interaction with the appropriate state authorities, the Board of Trustees again voted to change the school’s name, this time from Cornerstone College to Cornerstone University. At the same meeting, the board and administration agreed to announce the new status in April 1999, unaware that the school’s basketball team would win the NAIA Division II state championship. national men’s basketball championship in March of the year. This unplanned PR gift created a much larger media surface than would otherwise have been available, as a national championship is noteworthy and rightly attracts attention at any level of the sport.
The university avoided backlash from those who saw the exchange as a cheap grab for the copper ring, probably because it made sense after all. The university grew, the national championship didn’t hurt either, and a well-developed marketing campaign also attracted attention. The campaign featured billboards across the city showing a small green sprout of spring corn in a plowed field, the new name and the phrase “Think Big, Think Big”. Simple. People understood and liked it.
An organizational name change should not be taken lightly. These should not be avoided at all costs either, because the cost can lead to the loss of potential or even the premature termination of the organization. Name changes offer an unparalleled opportunity to send a message to constituents, clients or the general public. New initiatives, new products, new services, or better yet, a new and worthy vision can be imprinted in people’s minds when an organization changes its name.
What’s in a name? The future of your organization.
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