Being a Christian at a Christian University

Kate Peterson —  November 29, 2012 — Leave a comment
Empty classroom

Are you connected with a community of Christian scholars?

Below is the first of a periodic offering of posts by Kate Peterson (pseudonym), an assistant professor in the humanities at a Christian institution of higher education. A special thank-you to Kate for expressing her desire to share with us some of her story, thereby providing a lens for some of the challenges faced by and insights which can be uniquely offered by scholars in the context of a Christian institution of higher education. As an alumnus of two Christian institutions, a student currently enrolled at another, and an InterVarsity staff who has visited a number of Christian institutions (and institutions which were founded to be Christian institutions), I personally find it an important part of the conversation of following Christ in higher education. ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV

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I’m disappointed. In myself, mostly. And struggling a bit. It hit hard when I began my first tenure track position at a Christian university straight out of grad school several years ago. But like my colleagues, I got used to it, so caught up in day-to-day pressures that it stopped bothering me.

But this semester, I’m on leave, conducting research in a country that has very few Christians. And so it struck me again: Why do I feel better supported as a Christian scholar here than at the Christian institution in the United States where I work?

I don’t mean to complain. I love my job. I appreciate the freedom I have to bring up my faith in the classroom. I love it that students raise spiritual questions during office hours. The institution supports spiritual mentoring, and meals with students are not only encouraged, but subsidized! I was excited when an energetic undergrad scheduled lunch with me my first month and asked openly, “So, are you a Christian?” That’s a question I’ve gotten fairly often from students who are genuinely struggling and really want to know. I’ve had conversations with students about being a Christian in my field, the moral implications of issues raised in classes, or how to apply what they learn in ministry. I’ve prayed with them about how to serve Christ in their major and how their studies impact their faith. I love it.

But one thing bothers me. Why do these conversations take place with students but not peers?

It’s ironic that I’m finding more support as a Christian in the academy in a non-Christian country than I do at my Christian institution at home. Within a few weeks of my arrival as a visiting researcher, I met a Christian in a related field and we immediately bonded over our shared interests and how they are shaped by our faith. We began meeting weekly to talk and pray about our teaching and research. Soon another faculty member joined us. We’re from different churches and different cultures, but we share an intellectual curiosity, a desire to serve Christ through our research, and a love for our students and colleagues. We have in common our struggle to find our place as academics in the church. It’s exciting to find people who understand and care. I don’t feel so alone.

At a recent prayer meeting — at state university in a non-Christian country — I happened to meet a Christian grad student in my field, and we immediately spent the next hour discussing the approaches we take as Christians to our research subjects, and how this impacts both our publications and our role in the church. I was encouraged to learn that there are students who meet every morning for prayer in my building. It takes me back to my grad school days, where Christian grad students met weekly for large group meetings, small groups and prayer, along with a host of ministry opportunities and discussion groups. IVCF Grad and Faculty Ministries provided a framework and gave us credibility, but most of these conversations required no formal program. This was simply who we were and what we cared about.

Emerging Scholar Conversation

Do you find fellowship taken for granted or sought after in your current context?

Perhaps I was naïve to assume that this would continue after graduation at a Christian college. I suspect it could, and probably has for some of my colleagues. But it hasn’t in my case. I don’t blame the institution. We have plenty of prayer meetings, Christian speakers, discussion groups and retreats. Participation even counts toward tenure! Nor is it the fault of my colleagues, many of whom are faithful men and women of prayer, leaders in their churches and my role models as Christian academics. But somehow the culture is different, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. While here overseas, at a secular institution — like in grad school — coffee with a Christian colleague leaves me rejuvenated, at my Christian institution at home, it leaves me feeling guilty for spending an hour accomplishing no quantifiable tasks. In three years, I met once with colleagues in my department to pray for our students, and I have yet to talk to any of them about the role of faith in our research. We’re lucky if we can arrange our schedules to attend required meetings and research presentations. Meeting for prayer or spiritual discussion would be luxury. Or just one more meeting.

So it’s not for lack of opportunities that I find myself lacking spiritual support. I’m trying to figure it out myself. Perhaps we’re simply busy. Who has time to meet when there are papers to grade, students to mentor, articles to write and administrative tasks to accomplish? Being in a big city where we live hours apart does not make it easy. If rush hour traffic doesn’t prevent evening engagements, family and church commitments do.

But I suspect it’s more than that. We were busy in grad school. But we made time for Christian fellowship. At my Christian institution, I take that fellowship for granted. When the majority of my colleagues are Christian, it no longer makes my day to run into a Christian scholar in the hall. When every business meeting begins with prayer, an additional prayer meeting loses its appeal. I have a senior colleague, very respected in my field, who has reached out to me each semester to try to schedule lunch. I appreciate that so much. But I have turned him down five times out of six. If I’m not teaching at noon, I’m preparing for a 2 pm class or working at home to avoid the commute.

So I guess my own priorities have changed. Perhaps that’s normal. But it has a price. When a new question arises in my research, I’ll discuss it with students well before an opportunity comes up to run it by my peers. If I want to restructure a syllabus or assign new books for a class, former students will provide helpful insights, but I probably won’t discuss it with colleagues. If I feel convicted to pray about events on campus or in the world, it’s not hard to find students to join me. More often than not, they come to me first. That seldom happens with my peers.

And that leaves me here — writing this while overseas after meeting spontaneously for prayer with a colleague about an issue that happened to arise. It was simple, obvious, that we would stop and pray about it. That’s what we do as the family of God. But that doesn’t happen at home somehow. Here as one of a handful of Christian scholars in the entire city, I have no trouble finding spiritual support. But I’m nervous already about returning home to my Christian college where that’s so much harder to find.

Updated: 1/24/2013, 7:36 pm.

Kate Peterson

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(pseudonym), an assistant professor in the humanities at a Christian institution of higher education.

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