The picture above is one I took last August on my “Last First Day of School”. In Part One of this reflection, I outlined many of the changes that have impacted Christian Higher Education over the last four decades. In Part Two, I want to address the “what now?” questions.
What do all of these structural and missional changes mean for the future of Christian Higher Education? First of all, let me say that claims of scores of Christian colleges closing are mostly alarmist. It is true that costs are increasing and that there is a limit on how fast increases in tuition and fundraising can offset those increases. Yet most institutions have enough elasticity in their operation to offset those challenges for the foreseeable future. The exceptions will be those institutions who have been financially unstable or facing accreditation challenges for a long period of time or who’s mission niche is so narrow that it can’t diversify. In short, it is hard to kill a college in the absence of significant mismanagement.
That said, there will clearly be winners and losers going forward. The winners share some common characteristics while the losers will face ongoing budget challenges and mission drift. They may not close but will be a shadow of their former promise. So who are the likely winners?
The first set of winners will be those Christian institutions of higher education with a national reputation. These are the schools that journalists contact when looking for trends in Christian higher ed. They are the names that get selected in the US News and World Reports reputational survey. While I’m sure I’ll leave some out, it’s clear to me that Wheaton, Calvin, Taylor, Seattle Pacific, Bethel (MN), Azusa Pacific, Gordon, Messiah, Belmont, and Abilene Christian are in this group.
The second set are those school who are located in destination locations. A recent story highlighted the success of three Christian universities in Nashville. It is a booming market in general and is not surprising that students would see it as a vibrant place to study for four years. On the other hand, many Christian universities were founded in areas far away from metropolitan areas. My non-exhaustive list of destination schools would include Wheaton, North Park, Seattle Pacific, George Fox, Point Loma Nazarene, King’s, Colorado Christian, and Bethel (MN).
A third set may not represent destination locations but serve as the major Christian university in their region. Given that students are staying close to home, there is an advantage to those schools that are one of a handful of Christian institution in a two-hour radius. Those schools may not draw large numbers of students from far away but control their local market. Some examples of this group would include Northwest Nazarene, University of Sioux Falls, Colorado Christian, Gordon, Belhaven, and Cedarville.
The fourth set of winning schools are those who, in the face of the gen-Z religious changes discussed earlier, have held most closely to their theologically (and politically) conservative bona fides. They take pride in their non-accommodationist stance and will guarantee to pastors, trustees, donors, and parents that this is not going to change. In fact, many of these schools have taken stances in the last several years to guarantee faculty adherence to traditional positions. Those faculty who don’t align are either not renewed or made to feel unwelcome so that they go elsewhere. Examples of this pattern can be seen at Cedarville, Bryan, Oklahoma Wesleyan, College of the Ozarks, Asbury, and Bethel (IN).
I’ve long argued – it was a major reason for my first book – that there is an alternative to this last group of schools. It would be a Christian university that embraced the changes occurring in a post-Christian economy and found a way to ground those questioning students within a Christian liberal arts tradition, seeing their questioning as the raw materials of education rather than a challenge. Such an institution would likely be in a destination location, would have a diverse non-denominational mission, and would be willing to be on the front lines of the most challenging issues of our day. It would have a clear sense of creedal orthodoxy without requiring narrow alignment of viewpoints.
As I wrote that last paragraph, I suddenly remembered that in 2014 I wrote a case position for something I called “The Center for Cultural Engagement” that would exist at one of our Christian institutions of higher education. I still believe that this is a critical need if Christian Higher Education is to do more than survive in mediocrity but thrive as a center of Christian formation for a post-modern age.
Pictured here is Burke Administration building at Olivet Nazarene University, where I began my career in 1981. My office was between the second and third floor, the top half of the left-hand window above the portico. This May I retire from Spring Arbor University, marking the end of a varied career.
I am happy with what I have done over the past 39 years as teacher and administrator and the small impacts I have had, not least of which was impact on students, hiring some outstanding faculty members, and standing alongside numbers of both groups who needed support.
And yet there are many things that trouble me as I look back over my career in Christian Higher Education. As a Spring Arbor colleague of similar age shared with me recently, he and I may have begun our careers in something of a “golden age” of Christian Higher Education. There was great promise in the early 80s, but much has happened over the intervening years which has dramatically changed the character of the Christian University.
The role of faculty has undergone a significant change over the four decades. Even without returning to the long-past visions of the college president as dean of the faculty, there was a sense that we were all working together toward the institutional mission. As business organizations became a default model for colleges, the faculty role was diminished. There was a sense, partially deserved, that faculty stood in the way of innovation because they wanted to protect their own positions and favorite courses. Yet as trustees were increasingly drawn from the public sector (because they could help with donations and reputation), the faculty were increasingly seen as employees who should simply be happy just to have their positions. Especially as institutions came to rely more and more on adjunct faculty, the privilege of having a job at all was something to be appreciated. It’s not that faculty members wanted to run the institution, but they did want to have input regarding the place where they had invested their future. In many cases, they may have had expertise that could have been valuable to the cabinet, but any inputs were seen as interference with those cabinet officers who “got paid the big bucks.”
As college administration went through the business model transition, a sort of “shared misery” developed. When cuts were made at one institution, it was used as the model for many more in the region. The more administrators argued that “everyone is going through the same challenges”, the less they thought about alternative approaches or the impacts those challenges presented to faculty, staff, and students. We were told that the environment for Christian Higher Education had changed dramatically and we needed to accept the adjustments necessary.
Draconian steps to eliminate majors at one institution became a model for the institution down the road. In part, this was a response to an increased focus on efficiencies that examined data on ‘program production” that hadn’t been part of the equation in the past. In my early years, it was easily recognized that academic programs varied in their cost effectiveness (chemistry and instrumental music are expensive, sociology isn’t) but we were all contributing to overall institutional success without seeing our individual programs as competitors in a zero-sum game. Once we focused on program metrics, that shared sense of mission was eroded. It was rare, indeed, to hear administrators brag about the legacy programs that had shaped so many students over generations when they could extol the virtues of the new money-maker.
The rationale for getting a Christian college education shifted in response to the economic challenges of the Great Recession. Parents and grandparents may have once relied on home equity to support a student’s education. With the housing crash, that equity either evaporated or fears of the future inhibited the ability to use it in ways that had worked in the past. Student loans became the way of covering the gap between ability to pay and the increased costs of higher education. Even with tuition discounting, the inflationary pressures of higher education (especially as incorrectly reported by mass media) became ever more challenging. In response to this and other pressures, Christian colleges sought to place a higher value on job preparation. The public perception that a Christian liberal arts education was a luxury, meant that schools responded by emphasizing access to a first job. Employable skills, while never lacking before, became a primary marketing position.
Another impact of the changing economy can be seen in the diversification of program offerings at Christian colleges. Degree completion or graduate programs were added to offset the instability of the undergraduate market. Yet these programs operated in contrary ways. When the economic outlook was great, traditional enrollment benefited and non-traditional enrollment went down. When the economic outlook was challenging, the opposite occurred. But institutions needed to figure out ways of controlling this uncertainty along with predictions on auxiliary enterprises. The risk of revenue shortfalls actually increased with the diversification of program channels.
The never-ending chase for new markets encouraged institutions to focus on the “big winners”. Programs were designed to meet niche markets, often with the assistance of a third-party vendor who could connect potential students to the new program. Those programs assumed a never-ending growth cycle which proved remarkably vulnerable to market fluctuations. While the big-winner markets had the potential to shore up challenging revenue situations, they feel like a ticking time-bomb because the market bubble could pop at any moment. Unfortunately, too many institutions respond to this instability but searching for more big-winner markets.
Increased competition for students and market wariness on behalf of families caused additional pressures. Applicant pools were smaller than in the past and the expectation that applications would lead to enrollment became more uncertain as families deposited at multiple institutions, often waiting to commit until they saw who had the best financial aid package.
Stories about the growth in student loan debt further complicate the market situation. Even though a detailed analysis of the college debt situation shows that the bulk of the increase over the last two decades has been disproportionately impacted by professional degrees, graduate degrees, and for-profit institutions, the general social consciousness became more risk averse. Evangelical financial planners arguing that Christian should avoid debt in all forms only exacerbated an already troubling context.
Relatedly, denominational loyalty to particular schools disappeared. Where once students had grown up planning to go to their denomination’s school, that became an option among many. As increasing shares of the evangelical population became non-denominational or go to churches who don’t advertise denominational connections, the impetus to favor “your school” over others diminished.
The decline in denominational loyalty was offset by an increase in regional focus and a growth in intercollegiate athletics. For the former, data suggests that a post-9/11 world expects students to stay closer to home than was true in the past. A college might be selected for convenience as opposed to institutional mission or denominational orientation. As an aid to enrollment, many Christian colleges diversified their athletic programs and expanded the rosters of existing teams. Athletes are vital members of the college community but their loyalty to their teammates may far exceed their commitment to the institution. It’s where they got to continue playing the sport they love for another four years. Of course, those students come with scholarship and travel expenses which make their contribution to net revenue smaller than the student body in general.
Important changes were also happening among the student market as a whole. It is easily demonstrated that the percentage of young people who claim to be evangelicals, long the preferred market for Christian colleges, was shrinking drastically. This increased the competitive spiral as the regionally based Christian schools attempted to go after this smaller share of the overall market. Those that were interested in Christian colleges were far more diverse than was true in prior decades. For every group of students who was pushing envelopes and wanting their institution to engage broader cultural issues like LGBTQ inclusion or criminal justice reform, another group of students saw any movement away from conservative principles as an abandonment of core values. This latter group was known to publish underground newsletters and push for sanctions against “the liberals”. This asymmetry (which is mirrored in our religious and political spheres) creates a set of pressures that encourages the administration to clamp down while simultaneously driving the progressive group away from the institution – if not literally, at least in terms of their long-term commitments. Meanwhile, even careful dialogue on these issues in often seen by the conservatives as abandonment of orthodoxy.
For all these and many other reasons, the next several years will likely prove pivotal for Christian Higher Education. I’ll explore those implications in Part Two.
[Adapted from the talk I gave to the incoming Freshmen at Northwest Nazarene University August 27, 2014]
You are in the midst of the second of four major life transitions. As a sociologist, I think about things like transitions and rights of passage. I’m going to look quickly at four such transitions. Today marks the start of the second transition but I’m going to push your focus to the fourth.
Many of you had the first transition at least 13 years ago right about now. If you went to kindergarten, there was a time when your parents explained that you were about to go to this thing called “school”. School is a place where somebody else controls your time, people evaluate your achievement, and someone not your parents has authority to tell you what to do. If you went to pre-school, you got an early introduction to these lessons. If you were homeschooled, you’re jamming the first two transitions into one big change.
You just came through orientation, so I don’t need to spend a lot of time on the second transition. Still, this is a huge transition. You don’t have parents checking up on you, you get to meet folks you’ve never met before, you become responsible for your learning. There is a tremendous tension between your newfound freedom and the discipline necessary to be successful. Remember, everyone else who started with you is on a steep learning curve. If they seem to have it together, they’re just better at pretending.
The third transition is the other bookend to what you are currently going through. For most of you, in three years and nine months, you’ll put on gowns and celebrate your launch into the world beyond college. It’s not “the real world”. This is all real. But it is a matter of moving from a supportive community where you are known and people have your back to a world where you will make your own way. You’ll find a job (the first of many) and begin to sort out what real adulthood looks like (which may take another 6-8 years).
The fourth transition is one that we don’t talk a lot about because it doesn’t have the same defining markers as the others. There is no special recognition and no ceremony. You won’t put pictures on whatever social media is by then. But it is the point where you have fully grasped your sense of calling and purpose. This may not come until you are between 35 and 50. But it is the point when you’re contribution to the larger world is established. Frederick Buechner calls it “the place where your great gladness meets the world’s deepest need.”
The Christian University Journey is aimed at the fourth transition. This is the heart of Christian liberal arts education. We are concerned with not just what you can do but with who you are when doing it. We want you not just to know how to do a job but how to process what to do when the rules of the game change. We want you not just to tell people you love Jesus but to see your understanding of what it means to be a Disciple to be the plumb line that gives you stability in a changing world.
It is tempting to focus on what needs to happen to meet graduation requirements. We in Higher Education worry far too much about checklists and majors and requirements. If there’s a bad guy in my book, this is it. To blindly follow the checklists, make sure you check the right boxes, but not to take away important lessons from the experiences you have is to waste a lot of time and a bunch of money. If you focus on checking off the boxes, it means that you only need to get C grades and do minimums. If you are really committed to what college offers you and stay in communication with others, you’ll cover the checklists along the way.
Over the last decade in Christian Higher Education, we’ve had many more conversation about jobs. This is something your parents were concerned about. They certainly don’t want you to spend all this money for college and then move home to live in their basement and play video games. Actually, that image of you in the basement is highly offensive and doesn’t do justice to either you or your school. The stories of unemployed college graduates are largely overblown and based on anecdote. It may not be the career job, but people in your generation are willing to be patient while looking for the “right” position. The actual data shows that you not only will find work but that you will make over $800,000 more than someone who didn’t go to college. Some of that is because the economy has tanked for those with only a HS diploma. But it’s also because you develop valuable skills and orientations. The job canard is just like the degree one. Focus your attention on your own growth and learn how to explain that to others and jobs will follow.
Instead, take an active stance toward your learning. Let me give you a hint about laptops and cell phones. Your professors know when you are taking notes and when you aren’t. Classes have a natural rhythm and points are evenly spaced. When you are looking at your screen and clicking away out of rhythm, it’s clear that you’re on the internet. But the more general issue is to bring all of your attention to class. Seriously try to do the reading before class. Even if you didn’t get all of it, familiarize yourself. Ask yourself questions. Make mental connections to other things you’ve read. Talk to your faculty member after class. In short, invest your time in your classes and it will pay dividends. Even classes you aren’t crazy about will be the source of connections you’ll use later in other classes or papers.
When you look at your educational experience as something that’s preparing you for the long term, you take a different approach. You may not keep all of your textbooks (they are expensive, after all). But the ones that were especially meaningful should be part of your ongoing library. You’ll find yourself returning to them in future years. Think about what you learn in each of your classes that you want to hang on to. Connect the dots as if you had strands of yarn that show the significant linkages discovered along the way. If you can practice describing those linkages and what they meant to you, graduation and jobs are a natural byproduct.
You are key to the future of Christian Colleges. The world is changing and your generation is key to what’s going on. So while you are on a journey, so is the rest of Christian Higher Education. If you follow the news and check on the internet, you know that we’ve entered a Post-Christian period. No longer are we in a culture that presumes Christian guideposts as the default position.
David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, has said that your generation is “discontinuously different” from earlier generations. There are many sources in sociology that confirm his data. Your generation is constantly connected, keeps friends from diverse backgrounds, has grown up with values of tolerance, and is frustrated with business as usual. You have remarkably potent hypocrisy detectors.
You look for authenticity and community while struggling with your own personal identity questions. You’ve grown up in a world very different than the one I grew up in. These are hard questions for your grandparents and maybe your parents. But much less hard for you.
In spite of all the challenges of the economy, jobs, government, the church, and culture, your generation is remarkably optimistic. Far more so than earlier generations. You see the culture as improving and opportunities as expanding .
All of that gives you insights into what is going on that your Christian University needs to hear. As I’ve written before, you are the canaries in the coal mine of our culture. You represent modes of thinking that will be dominant over the next twenty years. Christian colleges need to hear from you but recognize that they will change far slower than you might want. Resist the temptation to disengage. Have honest conversations with school leaders recognizing that change can be hard for everyone. It’s critically important.
We are all part of the tapestry of God’s Kingdom. So what does it mean for all of us, students and professors alike, to be pursuing God’s leading in our lives academically, socially, and spiritually? It means that we aren’t alone. We impact each other. That’s why settling for box-checking or job-hunting is so disappointing. It’s not just you that get’s shortchanged. It’s all of us.
Think about the Toy Story movies, for example. Woody and Buzz may look like the stars, but they are all influence by each other. And that influence means that they are all responsible for what happens to each one. That’s the heart of Christian Liberal Arts education. While working on your own stuff, you are bringing others along. You are figuratively holding hands, just like at the end of Toy Story 3.
That means that God’s Kingdom is built by people being obedient to the Holy Spirit’s leading as we engage each other’s stories in order to help them become what God has implanted. Together we are working on God’s behalf, not only to pursue our own goals and dreams, but to advance his Kingdom wherever we find it.
Welcome to the first step in this exciting journey we call Christian Liberal Arts. You’re in for a wonderful ride!
I’m reluctant to even use the concept of “collateral damage” in light of Gaza/Israel, Malaysian flight #17, and Central American minors seeking refuge in the US. Each of those cases has seen suffering by innocents as a byproduct of actions of others seeking some larger political, regional, or economic agenda. We feel so helpless precisely because there is such a vast remove between the broader political issue and the immediate suffering experienced by so many.
And yet it’s the right image. In following the various backs-and-forths since the Hobby Lobby decision was handed down three weeks ago, it’s clear that various parties are pursuing their own opportunity for advantage. But the parties never actually come in contact. Instead, they talk past each other making worst-case-scenario assumptions about intent, goals, and potential outcomes. In the midst of all this argument, real people are often lost both figuratively and literally. Reductionist arguments are made from egregious straw-man (person) examples used without context. Emotions of anger, resentment, fear, threat, are all played out in an attempt to get a particular result in favor of one side or the other.
Christian colleges and universities have seen themselves in opposition to secularizing forces of the broader society, under threat from an anti-religious public and subject to a perceived overreach by institutional entities. Those outside the Christian college orbit see groups attempting to stand in the way of progress, who desire special privilege in light of the small-d democratic social contract, and who are using religion to hide their pathologies.
These warring factions (although not monolithic and largely unnamed) shape the ways in which issues are addressed. Or more correctly, not addressed. Because the issues that are posed are largely exaggerations of serious questions that would benefit from a fruitful conversation. If the serious questions were addressed, perhaps we’d get somewhere. Instead, there’s too much posturing and positioning.
In pondering the collateral damage done by culture war battles, I found myself thinking back to the board game of Stratego. I don’t remember if I actually had a version or played a friend’s and just always wanted one, but the format stuck with me. It’s a simple version of a strategy game. Two armies set up on a board, like in Battleship. The goal is to protect your flag while gaining the other player’s flag. It’s got a clear military hierarchy: high level leaders are precious, lower level are expendable in pursuit of the cause. It has spies to identify what the other side might be doing. And it has bombs placed at strategic points (hence the name) to protect the flag, the leaders, or to misrepresent where they were.
For those who were homeschooled or are too young to know the games of my youth, here is the Wikipedia description.
Stratego is a strategy board game for two players on a 10×10 square board. Each player controls 40 pieces representing individual officers and soldiers in an army. The objective of the game is to find and capture the opponent’s Flag, or to capture so many enemy pieces that the opponent cannot make any further moves. Players cannot see the ranks of one another’s pieces, so disinformation and discovery are important facets to gameplay.
A quick review of news reports over the past three weeks shows concerns about George Fox gaining a Title IX exemption to deny a transgendered student housing in a campus apartment with friends , Gordon president Michael Lindsey creating something of a firestorm by signing a letter asking the Obama administration to retain the Bush-era exemption to a non-discrimination executive order (which wasn’t in the final order), Wheaton College gaining a temporary injunction from the Supreme Court stating that even filing the form for religious exemption to the contraception mandate, and four members of the Bryan board of trustees resigning because they can’t support the president. There have been articles written about Christian schools not deserving accreditation, about the Bowdoin College non-discrimination policy for student organizations, ongoing issues about faith and science, and an atheist prayer in the New York town council.
The Stratego game has three key elements that are appropriate for understanding our inadequate dialogues over religion and pluralism in a post-Christendom era. First, as the Wikipedia entry explains, disinformation is crucial to the game. The whole point is to hide the flag where the opponent cannot find it and misdirect the opponent’s investigation. Second, spies are expendable pieces designed to expose the positions of the opposing side (even though they are destroyed in the process).Third, the flag is usually protected by bombs. When the opposing player comes across the bomb, he is destroyed (unless he’s a miner).
In my Stratego metaphor, the flag represents the true mission of the institution. Each college has a unique role shaped by its history, its personnel decisions, and its core values. For Christian colleges, this latter piece is often deeply informed by their theological perspective (regardless of the denominational affiliations of their students and faculty). But the core mission is educational, not theological. For example, here is the Gordon College mission statement:
Gordon College strives to graduate men and women distinguished by intellectual maturity and Christian character, committed to lives of service and prepared for leadership worldwide.
By way of contrast, here’s the mission statement from the University of Michigan:
The mission of the University of Michigan is to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.
Since the U of M is a comprehensive research university, it has the preamble about applying knowledge. But its focus on students as leaders and citizens sounds an awful lot like Gordon’s desire for graduates who are intellectually mature, who are faithful Christians, and who will provide leadership and service. We should see each other as complimentary institutions and not sources of suspicion. So why the animosity that showed up in comments like the Conns?
I’d suggest that its because Christian colleges have focused so much of their rhetoric on the Christian character component of their mission. I fully agree that this is one of our reasons for existence but only as an integral part of the rest of the academic preparation of the university. I remember attending a regional CCCU leadership meeting a number of years ago where we were encouraged to “keep the main thing the main thing“. In other words, to make sure Jesus was at the center of what we were doing.
I certainly can’t argue with keeping Christ as our defining characteristic but that often seems to set up an unnecessary antagonism toward other schools where religious faith is not central. In my institution of Spring Arbor, we talk of how our commitment to Jesus Christ is our perspective for learning. There’s a subtle difference here between education being framed within Christian perspective and defense of specific faith positions (the distinction between education and indoctrination).
A perennial conversation in the Christian colleges where I’ve served has been around vision. What does it mean for us to produce leaders who are faithful Christians committed to service? Why would we do A and not B? How does that relate to our academic program, our student life philosophy, or our pedagogy?
When we hide our flag out of fear of what others will think, or because we’ve held to past traditions and don’t want to start down slippery slopes, we take away our strongest point and we open ourselves up to critique from outside. One of the pieces of collateral damage from Gordon getting caught up in the controversy over the Executive Order letter is that it allowed critics to denounce Gordon College as something that Gordon College has never been: an arch-conservative institution feeding bigotry and backward thinking. If anything, Gordon has a reputation for being one of the more forward thinking institutions in the CCCU.
The second element of my Stratego metaphor deals with the role of the spies. In the game, the spy can be used to expose the other player’s weakness. When a spy comes across another piece, the piece must be exposed as a major, colonel, or whatever. If the other piece is the flag, the game is over. Spies are useful to test assumptions about positions. Christian colleges may pick the most egregious example from someone denouncing Christian higher ed and use that as the example of “what things have come to”. Critics of Christian colleges find an extreme case (I’m often guilty of feeding this by posting something of the latest overreach by a conservative institution) and attacking the entire Christian college enterprise. The example the use is far from the median response. Most colleges aren’t under attack nor are most attempting to purge moderate thinkers.
But the spies’ stories feed a larger narrative. They add ammunition to previously held assumptions or fears. The fact that the Wheaton exemption fell directly on the heels of the Hobby Lobby decision which was followed two days later by the Executive Order letter fed a fear that was often stated as “and so it begins”. Furthermore, the narratives are so conflicted that any hope of mutual understanding is dashed. Yesterday, Inside Higher Ed featured an audio segment on the very issues I’ve been addressing. In addition to two IHE representatives, they had Shapri LoMaglio (government relations specialist with the CCCU) and Shane Windmeyer (of LGBTQ advocacy group Campus Pride). Not only did the two specialists talk past each other (what a surprise!) but IHE made little attempt to find common ground or to correct misinformation (like why colleges aren’t federal contractors or why financial aid goes to students and not institutions).
Thirdly, there are the bombs. So many bombs. We surround our hidden mission with all these other elements. Student behavior covenants (which aren’t bad things), positions on a historical Adam, belief in certain theories of atonement, questions about same sex marriage (or sexuality more generally) attitudes toward the roles of women in leadership, Touch one of those bombs and you’re at great risk. The bomb goes off and people are damaged. Faculty members pursuing academic inquiry. Students with honest questions. Parents who want their students to be those informed Christian citizens the mission calls for. Trustees who are trying to understand how the mission plays out in a changing world.
I’ve written much about the millennial generation and the questions they bring. I’ve suggested that they will not long avoid the bombs we’ve erected to protect our institutions. There is a near consensus in the literature than today’s students are tired of the bombs. They want to engage the broader culture. That’s what we said our mission was all about. To continue down the road we’ve been on is to drive away the very students we want as leaders for the future. We all wind up as collateral damage as a result.
So what do we do to avoid continual Culture War battles? First, don’t play the game. Stratego sets up opponents as zero-sum combatants in 18th century military settings. We are far more agile today. We build alliances across disparate groups, try to find common values even though we have different backgrounds, and try to find ways to embrace a pluralistic culture without losing our identity.
We can do that if we shift our focus from the bombs to the flag. We can talk about why we do what we do and talk less about what we don’t do. We can articulate what motivates us and not what we’re against (and if we’re motivated by what we’re against we should get out of education!).
In short, we need to remove the bombs, stop any misrepresentation of others, and make our mission clear. By way of my analogy, it means starting the Stratego game saying “my flag is right here.”
There is promise in such a strategy even with regard to divisive issues like same-sex marriage. Consider these two posts both written by Christian legal scholars. John Inazu, law professor at Washington University, wrote an insightful analysis for Christianity Today. He concludes:
Advocacy for Christian witness must itself demonstrate Christian witness. In this way, our present circumstances provide new opportunities to embody tolerance, humility, and patience. And, of course, we have at our disposal not only these aspirations but also the virtues that shape our lives: faith, hope, and love.
This morning, Whitworth professor Julia Stronks wrote this piece in Inside Higher Ed. As a legal expert teaching at a Christian College in one of the same-sex marriage states (enacted by popular vote), she has a unique perspective.
The Supreme Court says it will not get into deciding what is and is not legitimate religious belief but I think that faith-based institutions that want exemptions from law should at a minimum be required to spell out who they say they are. And they should be required to be consistent. I do not care for behavior covenants at schools, colleges or nonprofits, but I think a democracy can make room for them. However, if an employee is fired for violating a behavioral covenant that excludes homosexuality, employees that violate other parts of the covenant should likewise be fired. Transparency and consistency of treatment are very important.
I am encouraged by these legal analyses. They both suggest that pluralism isn’t an enemy of Christian faith. That we could be clear about who we are and what we are trying to do. By avoiding bomb-throwing, we can participate in encouraging the very leaders we will need to sort through the complexities of religious identity in a society that no longer privileges religious views by default.
This week’s evangelical crisis comes as Leadership Journal, the Christianity Today publication for ministry leaders, put out a first-person story of a youth minister who used his position to exploit a teenaged girl in his care. That’s not the tone of the story. It’s about how he got “trapped in sin” (with references to King David). In fact, it’s a remarkably narcissistic piece with him at the center of all activity (which as Libby Anne observes, is told in passive voice).
I was aware that LJ posted the piece because my twitter feed was full of concern. Much of this was expressed by female bloggers (here’s an excellent example from Susannah Hartzell Paul that includes links to others). It really bothers me that males (with some notable exceptions like Micah Murray) were much too quiet. The fact that we weren’t all outraged is an indictment on the structures of patriarchy and power that lie at the root of the issue.
Today Karen Swallow Prior tweeted a simple question:
How old were you when an adult authority pursued you sexually? #howoldwereyou
The responses are heartbreaking even though Karen effectively uses twitter to show remarkable compassion to people reflecting on years of pain.
So why not me? What kept me from being the subject of someone’s tweet?:
“I was 19 and taking a sociology class at a Christian College“
Early in my career, I had a conversation with a colleague about the potential for sexual entanglement with a student. He had said that he always made sure to keep his door open where the administrative assistant could see him because he never knew when some coed might accuse him of inappropriate behavior.
I realized that being wrongfully accused wasn’t the real challenge. The real challenge was being guilty. Knowing that I could be vulnerable put me on edge. It made me pay attention to the dynamics of day to day relationships.
Over the course of my career, there have been several times where a connection with a student or colleague was different than normal. A student who really liked my classes and enjoyed dropping by the office at odd times. The colleague who seemed overly reliant on my emotional support when dealing with difficult colleagues (“no, you really are good”). The student who was clearly codependent to the point where I’d avoid extended contact. The student who flattered me with attention.
None of these situations ran the risk of developing into what the youth minister described. But I was always aware that they could have.
In nearly all of the cases above, I knew the woman well enough to know something of her family life. There were often issues with father estrangement. Even cases of emotional and potentially sexual abuse. There were usually issues with fractured self-esteem (not uncommon for bright young women in a Christian college).
Perhaps I’ve been gifted with a heightened sense of empathy. Or I overthink everything. Or I ponder consequences. Maybe all of these.
But I really think what protected me from predation was the realization that each of these women had been dealing with issues throughout her life. Serious stuff. And I could only see myself as the potential next guy in the long list of guys that had or would take advantage. I couldn’t be concerned about building people up in the Image of Christ while remaining oblivious to how I’d affect the appropriation of that image.
At the end of the day, I am responsible for my behavior and the impact I have on others. We are all part of each other’s stories. I simply cannot allow myself to be “that guy” that the woman would someday tell her friends, pastor, counselor, or spouse about.
Not because I’m perfect. But because I understand what power imbalances do to people, especially when those in power come to believe that we deserve it.
So I wind up outraged at this youth minister for being so arrogant and ignorant. For a church culture that so enables celebrity that no one would believe in wrongdoing until after the crisis is public. For the complacency of fellow evangelical males who don’t understand what all the fuss is about.
I always knew that there was risk and that I was responsible for dealing with it.
Today, my “office” is really a cubicle. I have no door and the thin walls go up six feet. I can hear every conversation on the floor in every other cubicle. But I still know that if I wanted to be irresponsible, I’d find a way.
It is only the love for the other’s journey that provides inoculation.
For the past three weeks, Christena Cleveland has been running a series she has called “Black to School”. She invited black students to reflect on their experiences interacting with predominantly white classmates.
I’ve found the series fascinating for two critical reasons. First, I’m teaching Race and Ethnic Relations this semester. Second, and much more importantly, the students had all attended Christian colleges.
She started with an unnamed student from a Christian college in the suburban Midwest. The second was from DeLisa who attended George Fox. Rashad was at Geneva. Nikkita from Seattle Pacific. Drew from an unnamed Christian college in Pennsylvania (I could make some good guesses on which one). Joy from Westmont. Finally, there was Jelani who transported from Portland (“the whitest major city in America”) to North Park in Chicago. Their stories are unique to them and yet cut across institutions. Some of their experiences result from the homogeneity of the evangelical populations that feed the colleges. Lack of exposure to difference causes insensitivity (which is why students felt it was okay to touch Joy’s hair).
Other experiences reflect less defensible patterns. To assume that black males must be musical or athletic. To assume that black students are experts at hip hop or dance. To isolate black students in class or make insensitive remarks. To joke about perceived threats from athletic black men.
The stories from these students break my heart. I can’t imagine asking any student to deny a part of identity. The sense of isolation they feel in the midst of Christian community is devastating. How can this be the case when we’re committed to a vision of Church that makes no separations (Galatians 3:28)?
Christian colleges have long recognized the need to become more welcoming to diverse populations. We create diversity task forces and focus on recruiting minorities. We take pride in seeing our percentage non-white increase over the years. These are good things, but the focus on demographics doesn’t address the issues of institutional culture.
The reality is that we’ve set the bar too low. We look at histories in which students of color were discouraged from attending at all or where interracial dating was seen as norm violating.
Pew conducted a recent study on racial progress. In general, they found that whites felt that progress was being made on racial issues because past injustices were past. We take pride in not having separate bathrooms or poll taxes or segregated schools. It lets us think that because we don’t do those things anymore we’re making great progress.
The Black to School stories remind me that the bar is really much higher. But it’s not those students who have to clear the higher bar.
It’s me and folks like me.
At a CCCU Sociology gathering nearly 25 years ago, I heard a remarkable presentation by Ray DeVries, then of St. Olaf and now of University of Michigan medical school. He spoke on Structural Evil, but quickly shifted from large scale issues like poverty or racism to the small-scale issues. The small-scale issues were the patterns of interaction that reinforced advantage for some and disadvantage for others. It’s easy to avoid being seen as racist. It’s hard to be open and welcoming to all we contact.
Here’s where my Race and Ethnic Relations class comes in. I agreed to pick up the class about a month ago, but I’ve taught it several times before. This time, however, the class feels strange to me.
When I lived in San Diego, we went to the Safari Park run by the San Diego Zoo. You got to ride around in little vans and look at animals in their “natural” habitat (if you ignore the fences that kept the lions from the zebras and so on).
And now we come to the hyenas. Here are the giraffes! There’s a herd of gazelle!
Most Race and Ethic books work like the Safari vans. After some introductory theoretical material, we look chapter by chapter at different racial or ethnic groups. Here are the Hispanics. There are the Asians. Here are the Blacks. Over there are the Native Americans!
Each chapter looks at some historic patterns and then shifts to contemporary challenges for each group. But this runs the risk of setting that bar low again.
It’s awful what we did to Native Americans. But we no longer relocate people from their native lands, do we?. We seriously exploited Chinese immigrants when we build the western railroads. Isn’t it great that we don’t do that anymore? Can you imagine what it was like to have segregated schools? Thank God, now all we have are schools characterized by residential isolation (sarcasm font needed).
We then look at the patterns of economic achievement (or lack thereof), prison incarceration (or the avoidance thereof), family patterns, educational prospects, etc. We become aware that there are major gaps between whites and either hispanics or blacks. But we seem unaware of how those impacts play out.
We set the bar too low because we don’t pay enough attention to the stories like those that Christena brought forth. Or this testimony this morning from Osheta Moore. Or this heartbreaking story from Grace Sandra.
I’ve been trying to avoid reading comments on blog posts lately. The insensitivity of those denying someone’s story (maybe you could tell that differently, maybe you’re making too much of that slight) is hard to take. It’s as if these stories of being isolated, misunderstood, abused, or taken for granted don’t count. As it only the big stuff matters.
This is where Ray DeVries’ talk messes with me after a quarter of a century. I know that I can’t ignore those stories without diminishing the experience of real people. What other definition of structural evil can there be?
All this causes me to think deeply about this course I’m teaching this semester. The Race and Ethnic Relations course seems to invite consideration of Racial or Ethnic groups as reified structures. It’s as if we’d call the course RACE and ETHNIC Relations. I’m coming to see that we must, especially in Christian colleges, come to see the course as Race and Ethnic RELATIONS. If it’s the latter, there’s no way I’m off the hook. It would make me responsible, either directly or indirectly, for every one of the stories shared by Christena’s friends.