Names are a central feature of our lives. In a very real sense without names we are unknowable. Names tell us Who and What, sometimes even Where.
Use of a person’s name signals some contact with or knowledge of that person. To “know” a person is to know their name, even if prefaced by “Mr.” or “Miss” or “Mrs.” To know a person well is to use his or her first name. To know a person very well is to use a nickname or some other endearing personal term. Americans name people, places, things, and organizations for deeply philosophic reasons, frivolous purposes, and practical concerns. We sometimes give organizations multi-worded names because the words create a meaningful acronym, e.g., Mothers Against Drunk Driving, MADD. Or we choose a name simply because it’s 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 bestowed names for all these reasons too, with the possible exception of acronyms. But usually people in ancient cultures gave names because the name had some special meaning. Names were more than a label.
Names were often given as a symbol of some significant event or characteristic in the life of the person. Names frequently represented the essential nature of a person and could reveal some aspect of a person’s innermost being. Eve was the “mother of all living.” Names were often changed in Bible times to signify some new beginning. Abram became Abraham, 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 rough fisherman, Peter.
Name changes were part of the history of the college I was privileged to lead for a few years: Grand Rapids Baptist College and Seminary (GRBC&S). In 1941, an evening Bible school was founded with the name Grand Rapids Baptist Bible Institute. With growth in students and the educational program the name was changed in 1959 to Grand Rapids Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary. 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 college’s name was changed again from Grand Rapids Baptist Bible College to Grand Rapids Baptist College. This new name described the expansion of the academic program from a Bible college curriculum (featuring Bible and Music majors) to a Christian liberal arts college curriculum (featuring Bible, Music, History, Biology, English, Business Administration, Education, and several other majors). But the new name still suffered some limitations. For example, it was geographically restricted to one city. The school’s long-standing nickname continued as “Baptist College,” which tended to send the message that non-Baptists need not apply. And the school’s name was still regularly confused with the former name or a derivative, Grand Rapids Bible College, or the more convoluted Grand Rapids Baptist “Church.”
This name confusion was particularly problematic because it tended to perpetuate the earlier mission of the institution as a Bible rather than Christian liberal arts college. So in spring 1992, the Board of Trustees once again authorized a study for the consideration of an institutional name change. Following a preliminary review, the Board of Trustees in the fall 1993, voted to implement a process for determining the best name for Grand Rapids Baptist College. At that time, the Board also voted to maintain the name, Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary.
One of the wisest decisions the Board ever made was to allow me, the president at the time, to announce the Board’s decision immediately, to announce it as a “study” as opposed to a name-change fiat accompli, and to announce it as a study to consider what might be the “best name” for the school. On a political level this meant several things: that constituents heard about a possible name change without being cut out of the process, which gave many of them time to acclimate, and that people who thought the old or current name, GRBC, was the “best name” were not cut out of the process, because it was still possible the Board would ultimately reaffirm that name.
During the next several months, students, personnel, 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 created a local joke in that Calvin College, a quality institution of higher learning, is located just three miles from GRBC&S on the same road. Had the Board selected Hobbes as the new college name, locals would have forever referred to “Calvin and Hobbes” on East Beltline Ave.
In March, 1994, the GRBC&S Board of Trustees reviewed about one hundred and thirty names in four categories: geographic, theological, historical, denominational, reduced the list to three names including GRBC, and finally decided to rename the college, “Cornerstone College.” The name Cornerstone College accomplished the 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 Ephesians, Paul refers to Christians as “members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (2:18-21). Jesus is the “tested stone” who makes “justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line” (Isaiah 28:16-17). Jesus Christ is the “living Stone” and Christians, “like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house…through Jesus Christ…a chosen and precious cornerstone” (1 Peter 2:4-9).
A cornerstone is also the key building stone or block in a foundation by which all other stones or blocks are measured. A cornerstone speaks of the permanency of values like truth, faith, beauty, virtue, righteousness, justice, liberty, peace, and love.
By any objective measure the new Cornerstone name was an unqualified success. It was quickly if not immediately embraced by students, and the area business community and the public responded to it with admirable enthusiasm. Alumni reaction was at first mixed, as is to be expected for any collegiate name change, but in a relatively short time most alumni signed on. The primary value in the new name was its message that a new wind was blowing at the institution, one that looked forward and positioned the school for the future.
In fall 1998, after an internal academic process and interaction with appropriate state authorities, the Board of Trustees voted to change the name of the school again, this time from Cornerstone College to Cornerstone University. In the same meeting the Board and administration agreed to announce the new status in April, 1999, not knowing the school’s basketball team would win the NAIA Division II National Men’s Basketball Championship in March of that year. This unplanned public relations gift created a media platform much larger than would have otherwise been available because a national championship is notable and rightly attracts attention on any level of sports.
The university avoided a backlash from those who might have dismissed the change as a cheap grab for the brass ring, probably because, in the end, it made sense. The university had been growing, the national championship didn’t hurt, and a well-conceived marketing campaign attracted positive attention. The campaign featured billboards around the city showing one small shoot of green springtime corn in a plowed field, the new name, and the phrase “Think Big, Think Bigger.” Simple. People understood it, and they liked it.
Organizational name changes are not to be entertained lightly. Nor should they be avoided at all cost, because the cost may be lost potential or even premature demise of the organization. Name changes offer an un-matched 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 writ large in people’s minds when an organization changes its name.
What’s in a name? Your organization’s future.