A Christian University Puts Faith in Its Professors

Whitworth U. seeks personal statements of religious belief

May 02, 2008

Jennifer Stafford Brown thought she was an old pro at applying for jobs. "I've written probably 300 cover letters," she says. "I know how to write a cover letter."

But when Ms. Brown applied for a position at Whitworth University, a Presbyterian institution in Spokane, Wash., she was asked for something more: a personal statement of faith.

"This genre was completely new to me," she says. "When trying to write a cover letter, you gauge what they want. This, I had no idea what they would want. So I just had to say what I really thought."

It is not uncommon for Christian colleges such as Whitworth to require that faculty members be Christians. Some even ask that their professors sign a statement of faith.

Wheaton College, an evangelical institution in Illinois, has a statement that covers belief in the Trinity, the inerrancy of Scripture, and original sin. The document also delves into doctrinal specifics concerning the existence of Satan, how God created Adam and Eve, and the virgin birth.

Faculty members at Whitworth are not required to sign off on a list of specific beliefs. Instead, they must explain in a written personal statement what they believe and how it affects their academic work.

Whitworth officials think this process provides them with a better sense of candidates' faith — and makes clear whether they would be a good fit for the university. The system is part of Whitworth's larger effort to walk what its president, William P. Robinson, calls the "narrow ridge" between institutions that are Christian in name only and those that strictly define what Christianity means.

Leaders at Whitworth say their approach to statements of faith sets the university apart and signals what it stands for. That serves as a recruiting tool and offers educational and even spiritual benefits, they say.

While Christian colleges approach their faculty members' faith in various ways, Whitworth's personal statements are "probably unique," says Nate Mouttet, vice president for communications at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, which has 105 member institutions.

"They have found a way within their education and faith community to foster faculty that may have different doctrinal positions or theological points of view to still be unified within a Christian college environment," he says. "That is a wonderful thing about Whitworth."

A Plus for Recruiting

Whitworth does expect its faculty members to have some core beliefs in common, however. The university's professors are required to indicate that they have read the faculty handbook, which states that Whitworth feels an obligation to provide its students with faculty members "who accept by faith the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, who by his help attempt to live and teach in his spirit." The handbook goes on to state the institution's specific beliefs on other theological points, without going so far as saying its faculty must accept them. Michael T. Ingram, a communications professor and associate dean of academic affairs, says he isn't convinced that all of the faculty members have even read the handbook.

Whitworth's faculty statements are meant to serve several purposes. The statements are often jumping-off points for conversations between the candidate and the search committee about what Christianity means to that person — and to the institution. "I don't know if that happens when you just have people sign a statement of faith that's very doctrinal," Mr. Robinson says.

Michael K. Le Roy, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, agrees. Requiring professors to agree with a set statement "tells you they can sign their name," he says. "We appreciate to have a deep understanding of faith requires a dialogue, not a monologue."

Whitworth sees itself as a place that is both strongly Christian and open to diverse thought and academic inquiry. That position has become a recruiting advantage, says Terry P. McGonigal, dean of the chapel.

In addition to meetings with the search committee, faculty candidates also meet with Mr. McGonigal when they visit the campus. It's a step designed to allow the candidates to raise questions about Whitworth's approach to faith that they might be uncomfortable asking their department search committees.

Lest anyone get the impression that Whitworth is wishy-washy on the faith commitment it requires of faculty members, says Mr. Ingram, the personal faith statement also allows them to weed out the occasional applicant who is "trolling for jobs." The university is looking for candidates to make a clear statement of faith.

"I want people to tell me they love Jesus," says Mr. Ingram, who describes himself as the institution's token Southern Baptist. "I don't get why that's hard."

Classroom and Chapel

Those who encounter Whitworth's approach from either side of the educational spectrum find benefits in it.

Lindy Scott, for instance, a professor of Spanish, came to Whitworth just a couple of years ago from the more conservative Wheaton College, where he had no problem signing on to its statement of faith. But Mr. Scott likes Whitworth's system, which, he says, "helps us assume responsibility for what we believe."

Whitworth also attracts people like Ms. Brown, who has always worked at secular institutions. In Ms. Brown's experience, at secular colleges "there's a suspicion of people who are Christian." And that gave her pause in the classroom. If, for example, she happened to mention to students her plans to go to church that Sunday, she would be sure to toss in an explanation about her "culture" or how she was raised. "You learn to tiptoe around the subject," she says.

Yet Ms. Brown, a scholar of French literature, felt she couldn't teach her field without discussing religion. "You can't understand the literature of the Middle Ages without understanding faith intellectually," she says. "The church governed everything in the Middle Ages. Unless you can see that point of view, you can't understand why someone would go on a crusade or write a poem about their faith." Ms. Brown expects to be more able to integrate discussion of religion into her lectures at Whitworth.

Despite having that perspective, Ms. Brown found the faith statement to be particularly daunting.

The college's various search committees know that writing the statements can be challenging for candidates, says Mr. Le Roy. Many candidates have never had to write such a profession. Evaluating the statements brings its own challenges. Whitworth aims to attract and maintain a faculty with a variety of Christian beliefs and practices. But Christians from different traditions use different language to express their faith, Mr. Le Roy says.

A Catholic applicant, for instance, might describe the importance of the sacraments to his faith. A Baptist candidate might talk about being saved. It's important not to privilege one language over another, says Mr. Le Roy. But honoring and interpreting such distinctions requires close attention.

"It's a lot of work, but we really like the result we come up with," he says.

Whitworth's faculty members come from a variety of denominations, from the liberal and mainline to the conservative and evangelical. "You run the risk of having people with much broader views," Mr. Ingram says, "but the payoff at Whitworth is you have a faculty that really reflects the church."

Diversity, With Limits

This diversity isn't always comfortable, says Mr. Ingram. While he comes from a tradition that expects people to be at ease talking about their faith, Mr. Ingram recognizes that not all Christians share that background. "There are some faculty who see faith as very private," he says.

And the diversity Whitworth strives for does have its limits. Mr. Ingram says a statement saying "I'm just not convinced that Jesus was God" simply wouldn't pass muster. In a few cases, the faith statement has lead to the outright rejection of a candidate. Professor James B. McPherson estimates he has been on a half-dozen search committees at Whitworth. He remembers one search where it was clear some of the applicants were Hindu or Muslim, putting them squarely outside the running.

But at the same time, Whitworth loses some candidates it wants to hire who come from Catholic or more conservative Protestant traditions and think the university's faith stance is too vague, Mr. McGonigal says.

In the end, Ms. Brown completed her statement of faith. It began with a quote from C.S. Lewis and went on to discuss the Anglican/Episcopalian theology of the "three-legged stool" of faith: Scripture, reason, and tradition.

As she moved through the hiring process, Ms. Brown was surprised at how many people had read her statement — the search committee, the French department, the dean, the president — and how often it came up. "It's clearly very important to them," she says.

Those discussions not only helped Whitworth evaluate Ms. Brown, but they also helped her determine whether or not she would fit in there. In particular, Ms. Brown says, she wanted to be sure the institution didn't encourage homophobia or discourage feminism. In the end, she was persuaded on both counts.

While a candidate for the job, Ms. Brown was also asked about an article she had written on Henry de Montherlant, a French writer who was a pedophile. Her response seemed to satisfy the questioner, but the conversation did lead Ms. Brown to ask the dean if the university had any concerns about her research. Absolutely not, she was told.

"That was encouraging to me," says Ms. Brown. She will begin teaching at Whitworth in the fall.

http://chronicle.com Section: The Faculty Volume 54, Issue 34, Page A1