I went through a painful process last year. Necessary, but painful. But it was a good thing. At my institution, we undergo a pre-tenure evaluation before we go up for tenure — a practice run, so to speak — and my pre-tenure review provided a valuable opportunity for me to reconsider my priorities as a Christian faculty member. As I listed committees I served on, classes I taught, lectures I attended, students I mentored — accounted for how I used my time — I could no longer deceive myself into thinking that I was devoting myself equally to teaching and research, or maintaining a healthy balance between “work and life.” It became clear that in fact, I was not. But perhaps the most important question I was forced to ask as I recognized areas in which I lagged behind, was “what am I willing to give up?”
I suspect we all know the rhetoric. As Christian scholars, we are to be the best possible scholars we can be, and in so doing, bring glory to God. As Christian teachers, we are to be the best possible teachers. “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3:17) I have taught at two excellent Christian colleges, both of which demand excellence in teaching and research, showing the world that our faith does not compromise our scholarship. But as Christians, the demands don’t stop there. We are also to love our wives, husbands, children, parents, neighbors and enemies. We are to spend time each morning in Bible reading and prayer. We are to serve in our churches and volunteer in our communities and schools. And of course we are to remain healthy — mentally and physically — since our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Am I the only one who gets overwhelmed with all that’s expected of me?
I was in full time ministry before I began an academic career, and I still view my primary calling as serving Christ and His Kingdom here on earth, not my university or my discipline. That’s the calling of all Christians, whether or not in academia or ministry. I emphasize that to students I mentor. I recall the words of a wise professor I once had: God gives each of us 24 hours in a day, and 24 hours worth of things to fill them with. If we are overly busy, stressed, or fail to achieve, that’s a sign we’re not using the time God has given us for the activities He has called us to do. I truly believe that, and I remind students sometimes that it may be ok if their grades suffer occasionally because they choose to lead a Bible Study rather than cram for an exam.
I’m not sure I agree with the oft-repeated adage in Christian academic circles that our work should be equal to and even better than our secular colleagues. Frankly, I do not expect mine to be. I have things competing for my time that my secular colleagues do not: on top of the normal demands of work and family, I have weekly church attendance, ministry in the community, Bible study and daily prayer. There are people, ministries, and causes that are more important to me than my work. And even within the university setting, my priorities are not the same as my non-Christian peers. At any given time, it may be more important to me to mentor a struggling student than to write an article, or to attend a prayer meeting rather than tweak tomorrow’s lecture. When I could be contemplating my research, I often find my mind occupied by issues of concern to me as a thinking Christian — cultural debates, struggles in my students’ lives, theological questions, problems of war, injustice, and inequality around the world. These become issues of prayer and conversation and impact both what and I how I teach. But they don’t lead to publications (other than perhaps on the ESN blog).
That brings me back to the question of my pre-tenure review. After completing the required report, I recognized that I was underperforming in certain areas. But I’m not sure what I’m willing to give up. I told two Christian colleagues — I’m at a Christian institution — honestly that I felt my vocation was to serve Christ in the university, not to serve the university itself. I was (and am) willing to risk tenure in order to remain true to my priorities as a follower of Christ. I do not expect my Christian commitments to prevent me from meeting the requirements for tenure. The examples of my senior colleagues demonstrate that for most people, they do not. I recognize — all too clearly — that many of my struggles have been due to poor time management on my part, or personal issues that have distracted me from my work. I’m honestly not sure if the hours I have devoted to supporting a friend through health problems were out of obedience to God or procrastination on my research. Frankly, I’m not sure if writing this essay is procrastination or obedience.
But putting those legitimate questions aside, I’m nonetheless troubled by my colleagues’ responses when I explained my priorities. Committed Christians at a Christian institution, they looked rather horrified, insisting I not tell anyone what I had just told them. It might be misunderstood, they said, as a lack of commitment to the institution or as satisfaction with mediocrity. I appreciate their concern. But I, on my part, am somewhat horrified by their response. Are we not called to seek first His kingdom, and His righteousness, and all these other things will be given to us as well? (Matthew 6:33) Is it not this — rather than academic success — that we should seek in our own lives, and want to model for our students?
I would not expect to be granted tenure if I fail to meet the university’s criteria — not at a secular university nor at my Christian institution. But as a Christian, my goals are greater and longer-lasting than tenure and worldly success. I don’t want to use this as an excuse for sloppy work or poor use of time and resources. But the pre-tenure review has forced me to reconsider my priorities.
I do plan to get tenure. I will work hard to catch up in those areas in which I’ve fallen behind, and I’m thankful that the review process brought them to my attention. I will do all I can to use my time efficiently and to uphold the standards of my profession. It has in fact been my experience that seeking first His Kingdom does not preclude worldly success. (I’m a humanities Ph.D. with a job, after all!) But that’s not the purpose of my life, and this review has left me grateful that I have something to live for so much more important than tenure.
(pseudonym), an assistant professor in the humanities at a Christian institution of higher education.