On the Tenure Track

Climbing the steps of the academy

Climbing the steps of the academy

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.

As a Christian, my goals are greater and longer-lasting than tenure and worldly success.

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.

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Kate Peterson

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

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  • morningstarsong@sbcglobal.net'
    Mo commented on February 22, 2013 Reply

    “But I, on my part, am somewhat horrified by their response. ”

    That was my reaction when I read 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?”

    You are 100% right. Of course your first priority is Christ, over and above your other commitments. We should work hard and strive for excellence in whatever we do, but at the same time we must recognize our limits and we must remember that this world is not our true home and all our achievements here are temporary ones anyway.

    God will honor that attitude. All the best to you!

  • Heather commented on February 23, 2013 Reply

    Thank you for this.

  • hughe036@gmail.com'
    Joel commented on February 24, 2013 Reply


    Wise post. When Christians claim that they have to be better at their job than non-believers, this is simply hubris. It’s not realistic to be better at something than people who will enslave themselves to the world system in order to succeed. But if we take “seek first the kingdom” seriously, as well as “love not the world…boastful pride of life…” then we have to prioritize. Jesus was not the “best Rabbi that he could be” because he was on a mission–a paradoxical mission that revealed the mystery of God’s wisdom.

    I have tenure, but I know that I’ve always been about a B- member of the faculty. I have often felt that “God had my back” and I joke with friends that “He has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to make them think I am great.” If God is for me, who can be against me? So I prioritize ministry first, and job further down the list. I get sideways glances sometimes for not being “all in” for the University, and I have to fake it sometimes. But I know that if I am upheld by God, I am upheld. I like Daniel/Joseph/Moses as metaphors–those who rose in their organization despite having radically different loyalties than their peers.

  • scorrado@iname.com'
    Kate Peterson commented on February 24, 2013 Reply

    Thank you! I’m glad that others get it. Joel, that’s exactly what I’m struggling with – I have radically different loyalties than do many of my peers. (Of course, Christians aren’t the only ones with different loyalties, and whatever conflicting loyalties any of us may have, they are no excuse for not doing what we’re paid to do.)

    One thing I realized only after writing this is that the Christian pressure to be better than non-believers is not universal. It was part of the Christian tradition I was raised in (evangelical), but it wasn’t the experience of my Catholic friends, for example. I’m going to be thinking about this, and it’ll probably make a future blog post.

  • daniel.ostendorff@gmail.com'
    dostendorff commented on February 25, 2013 Reply

    Thanks so much for this post Kate! I’m a final-year doctoral student struggling with this very same thing – and have been since undergrad. I think oftentimes the Christian emphasis on excellence in academic study is pushed forth in isolation – not taking into account all the other areas God has called us to serve in. During my undergrad years, I asked a professor if it was wrong to settle for a B on a paper you could have had an A on because you prioritized discipleship, church, or something else God was calling him to. He said it was definitely wrong, even calling it a sin. And ever since I have strongly disagreed with him. We are more then our intellectual pursuits – and, in many ways, they are but a fleeting after the wind. At the end of my life, my regrets will not be whether or not a wrote that one article or monograph (or even got tenure), but the lives God was able to touch, shape and disciple through me. This includes my students, my church and, most importantly, my family. Unlike other colleagues, I’m not willing to sacrifice everything for my academic post – neither do I think God has called me to. Certainly he has called me to work hard at all the various things He has called me to – trusting him in all of them – but, ultimately, allowing him control over my life.

    So, all that to say, thanks for the encouragement that comes from hearing someone else, farther down the academic road then me, with similar priorities who has seen God’s faithfulness in seeking a balance between it all, with discipleships at the fore. Thanks!

  • madlahron@gmail.com'
    Mad Elaine commented on March 1, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for this post. As a tenured prof in a non Xian uni, I totally agree that being a prof is a tough balancing act — striving for excellence is expected in so many directions, be it research, teaching or special service project X… And yes, if you are a committed Xian, you have so many other meetings, Bible studies and service activities outside work, that it’s sometimes hard to find quiet time with God!!… Whenever I get overwhelmed, I try to remember that we have nothing left of all the tables, chairs, coffins etc. that Jesus made during his tenure as carpenter… and that, ironically he was crucified on a cross, probably the easiest object for a carpenter to make… What we do have however, is the record of Jesus’ relationships with others, especially the seemingly “non-important” people in his society… I personally find that if I am relying too obsessed with a research project or teaching prep — in so doing, relying too much on my own strength — I miss out on many opportunities to be kind to my students or my colleagues. I try to remind myself therefore, that my job is about the interruptions and unexpected opportunities, as it was for Jesus… One of my most recent mottos is “the world does not need more excellence, it needs more kindness.”

  • akellerbee@gmail.com'
    Sella commented on March 14, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for this article and to all who responded. God led me to this network and blog in an unusual way and this article is quite timely for me as I was just thinking about the same thing yesterday. I am faculty in the sciences / engineering at a secular Research 1 University and I was struggling last week because I’m having intense prayer sessions (and have engaged others to agree) about getting good data and the thought occurred to me “why is it that I have to pray about my data while my colleagues do not?” In short, it was a manifestation of concerns of mediocre work (though not by intention, part of me just thinks am I just a mediocre researcher). I have constantly suffered under the burden that I have to be better than my colleagues (while feeling I am not) so as not to shame the God and Christ that I unashamedly proclaim to serve. I read about the wisdom of Daniel and others and think that God can promote, give me great ideas…. I too have been thinking recently about the various ministry commitments I have been praying since January about what God will have me remove… he has only given me peace for one thing and even that I can’t drop until May due to a commitment (“let your yes be yes…”). I meet with and mentor my students and I think – doesn’t that count for anything? I’ve invited my neighbors (unChristian faculty) to church and they have come. In the body of Christ acts of service towards others (or genuine love) are valued most highly above all, yet they have the least value in the university. I believe there is no value system in a worldly institution that will align with Christ’s values and our duties as Christians, but it is hard to reconcile having to be excellent in both, and even harder to watch people who do.

    • Tom Grosh IV commented on March 14, 2013 Reply

      Dear Sella,

      Thank-you for sharing a glimpse of your story, prayers, and wrestlings. As you’ve already guessed, you’re definitely in the right place and I’m excited to have you part of the growing Emerging Scholars Network 🙂 Please drop me a line to let me know ways ESN can more deeply/richly pray, encourage, and support you in your vocation as you take next steps in growing in Christ-likeness, with a yearning for the new heaven and new earth.

      As part of this, don’t hesitate to email particular topics you desire to have guest writers wrestle with on the blog, material you may desire write at some point (no rush), and suggestions as to how ESN can better serve you on campus in partnership with InterVarsity’s family of ministries.

      To God be the glory!

      In Christ, Tom

      “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” — Psalm 91:1-2

  • terry@terryewell.com'
    Terry Ewell commented on November 8, 2013 Reply

    Kate, I just read your comments and portions of the blog today. I am fully sympathetic to your struggles with the demands of the academy, family, and Christian service. I offer this bit of advice. We have seasons in life in which some aspects must come to the fore and others are less emphasized. For instance, this might be a time that your scholarship must be emphasized. It might feel as if in this time that you are serving a worldly idol over better affections. Once tenure is reached, then other priorities may come to the fore. I pray that God can give you the insights needed and order your steps.


  • sbainter@miami.edu'
    Sierra commented on February 15, 2019 Reply

    I am responding to an old post! Thank you for sharing this experience and perspective. I am relatively new on the tenure track at an R1 (secular) university. As I have pondered this issue in my own life, pursuing an academic career as a Christian, as well as a wife and mother of young children, I think I have had the same expectation for myself — I *should* be a successful academic, on par with my colleagues — but I think about it maybe slightly differently. I feel that apart from Christ, the pressure to justify myself through earning tenure and being successful would crush me and actually make me less productive. The finished work of Christ frees me from that weight, frees me from my fears and guilt and shame, fears that I’m not smart enough. And as a result I can be more creative and productive, even in less time, than I would be if I were slaving over my career.

  • hannaheagleson@gmail.com'
    Hannah Eagleson commented on February 16, 2019 Reply

    Thanks for sharing this thoughtful and encouraging reflection, Sierra!

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