A support group for Christian profs

This is the ETSU Buccaneer mascot. This is not a professor who is hostile to religion.
This is the East Tennessee State University Buccaneer mascot. This is not a professor who is hostile to religion.

Dr. Andrea Clements teaches psychology at East Tennessee State University. She is also an active member of Heritage Baptist Church, where she and her husband sponsor a group for college students and other young adults.

Sometimes her academic life and her religious life fit together well. Sometimes they don’t.

“When I’m teaching, I know my students have needs or crises, and I also know in my head there’s a better answer for them than the academic one,” she said this week in a phone conversation. “I don’t proselytize, but I want them to know what I think. It’s separating that out that can be challenging.”

For example, she recalls the first day of classes after the Sept. 11 attacks. Facing her students, she realized this was probably the biggest collective crisis they might ever face.

“I’m taking off my professor hat,” she told them. “I’m going to be a person, and I’m going to tell you how I’m dealing with this. Then I’ll put my professor’s hat back on.”

 Clements, who has taught at ETSU for 15 years, is always careful to distinguish between her professional role and her profession of faith in the classroom (“I’m good at being objective”), and she hasn’t encountered any serious criticism “for a lot of years.” A complaint from a colleague early in her career was resolved quickly and peacefully.

“I think everybody here knows what I believe,” she said. “It’s live and let live. I’m sure there are universities that are far worse.”

Andrea Clements
Andrea Clements

Even so, she doubts that professors who are atheists or agnostics feel similar pressure to detach their personal beliefs from their teaching, and students tell her that some faculty members are belittling of Christianity or even “downright hostile.”

“I think (Christians) are a minority on campus,” she said. “It tends to be largely secular. Most professors or staff keep their Christianity to themselves.”

That’s one reason she thinks a kind of support group on campus for Christian faculty members, administrators and staff is a good idea. She helped launch one at ETSU last spring.

Faculty Commons is part of Campus Crusade for Christ International, one of the world’s largest evangelical Christian organizations, and it is designed to help Christians working in higher education to meet and help each other. Faculty Commons groups are located on about 100 campuses around the nation, according to Rich McGee, the national director of development. He estimates about a thousand people are actively involved in the U.S.

Earle Chute, the local director for Faculty Commons, has worked full-time with Campus Crusade for 30 years, supervising the organization’s efforts among ETSU undergraduate students until last year, when he switched to faculty ministry.

“My love for college students hasn’t diminished,” he said, “but I see the strategic role that faculty can play. Students will come and go, but the tenure of faculty is much longer. They could have greater impact on the culture and climate of the campus. That’s why I changed.”

Faculty Commons at ETSU meets monthly at luncheons that usually feature guest speakers, focused discussions or long periods of prayer. (Last month, a psychology professor talked about handling stress.) The luncheons, which are open to any faculty or staff member, are attracting about 20 people each month so far. Smaller groups also meet every week for prayer.

A little history
A little history

As the group gets off the ground, the emphasis is on networking, service and support, but other kinds of work may be waiting. A university, after all, provides a crossroads for ideas, where any topic can be fodder for discussion and debate, including perennial hot-button issues that can divide Christians – sexuality, abortion, the nature of the family, evolution, war, economics – but this won’t be a debate club.

“It’s not that we’re ducking controversial issues,” Chute said. “There may be a good place for that in our lunchtime discussions, but our primary purposes are to strengthen each other and provide opportunities to share the love of Christ with others.”

Clements can imagine the group co-sponsoring events for the university in the future, such as film series or debates, but Faculty Commons has other priorities for now.

“As the Lord leads, we’ll come up with things we’re supposed to do,” she said. “But so far, the direction has been more how we can support Christian faculty and impact students, more of a way to be a Jesus presence on campus.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 24 Oct 2009.

A student prays. Can controversy be far behind?

Yes, that really is the name of the high school mascot.

It’s been a busy three weeks for Greg Ervin as principal of Gate City (Va.) High School. He’s been fielding phone calls almost every day from parents or the press about a church-state storm that unexpectedly boiled up after a student said a simple, heartfelt prayer at a football game.

“Somewhere lost in all this was the fact that a kid died,” Ervin said this week. “No one ever intended to sensationalize this. It was a simple act of kindness and respect.”

The story started on the night of Sept. 11, when the Sullivan South High School football team played at Gate City. Not only was it the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, but the folks from Sullivan were still grieving the death of Jake Logue, one of their players who suddenly collapsed and died during a game in Knoxville on Aug. 21.

Before the game began at Gate City, a brief ceremony remembered the 9/11 victims and Logue, including a moment of silence. A student who was allowed to speak said a prayer, concluding “in Jesus’ name.”

At least one parent in the stands took offense and contacted the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. A few days later, Ervin received a letter from the organization, advising him that a “sectarian prayer delivered over the public address system” before a football game violated a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Such prayers, the letter noted, carry “the impermissible endorsement of the school and coerce participation” in a religious exercise.

The ACLU had been told that Gate City regularly opened its games with prayers – but that is not the case.

Photo: Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News Web site
Photo: Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News Web site

Ervin shared the letter’s contents with teachers and the Scott County school board and then responded to the ACLU, describing what happened and correcting the wrong information.

In its reply to Ervin, the ACLU pronounced itself satisfied: Case closed.

The story could have ended there, if a little more patience and a little less readiness to be angry had ruled the day.

“We don’t go looking around for incidents,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis in a phone interview this week, “but when someone calls and says this is what they witnessed, we respond. We usually resolve these matters quietly. We write a letter, and the official writes back to explain or clarify. That’s OK. That’s our standard procedure.”

The ACLU did not make its first letter public, but apparently someone in Scott County was upset enough to notify the press about it. Reporters soon arrived, and as word about the ACLU’s concern spread, anger flared. People wrote furious letters to local newspapers and posted unfounded accusations on Web sites.

Photo: Ned Jilton II, Kingsport Times-News.
Photo: Ned Jilton II, Kingsport Times-News.

Some Gate City students printed about 1,000 T-shirts to hand out at their Oct. 2 football game, taking a swipe at the ACLU. “I still pray…” the shirt fronts read, and on the back: “In Jesus’ name.” When the Virginia ACLU heard about that protest, it publicly affirmed the students’ rights to distribute the shirts, saying they were only exercising their constitutional right to free speech and religious expression.

While the ACLU has a long record of controversial crusades and debatable pronouncements, Willis insists it is not “anti-religion.” Any list of religion-related cases that the ACLU has handled, he said, will include as many defending the free exercise of religion as those challenging unconstitutional “establishment” of religion.

Last week in Nashville, for example, the ACLU of Tennessee completed a successful negotiation on behalf of Christian students from Belmont, Middle Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech universities who were barred from holding worship services for homeless people in a city park. The Metro Board of Parks and Recreation had “unfairly blocked religious groups’ regular use of park space,” according the ACLU, and helped to revise the policy.

“We’re not the prayer police,” Willis said this week. “The original plan at Gate City (on Sept. 11) was for a moment of silence, and there’s no problem with that. We’re down to a really minor (legal) issue that happened one time. The principal was put on the spot. … This was something spontaneous. What was he supposed to do?”

What Principal Ervin wants to do now is move past the controversy and just “remember the spirit” when two communities shared a moment of sadness and sympathy and “a student reached out and spoke as best she knew how.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 17 Oct 2009.

200 years and counting: ‘Unity is not a luxury,’ but it is a process

250px-Declaration_and_Address_1809There’s an old joke about a man who dies and goes to heaven. As St. Peter escorts the new arrival down a golden street, he tells the man to be especially quiet as they pass a particular mansion.

“Why?” the man asks.

“That’s where (name any exclusive Christian sect) live,” Peter explains. “They think they’re the only ones here, and we don’t want to upset them.”

Thomas Campbell, were he still alive, would get the joke. He might even tell it, which would have scandalized many Christians two centuries ago.

Campbell was a Presbyterian minister who migrated from Ireland to the frontier of western Pennsylvania in the early 1800s. But he was frustrated by the divisions among Christians, some of which were absurdly transplanted from the old country. For example, his denomination might withhold communion from other Presbyterians over an obscure Irish political issue.

In response, he gathered a few dozen like-minded believers into a local nondenominational group, with cooperation on their minds.

To explain their actions and to encourage other Christians to take similar steps, the 46-year-old Campbell wrote a long essay in 1809, “The Declaration and Address.”

This early call to Christian unity was based on a simple but then-radical notion: that “the church of Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.” (Note the present tense: “is.”)

Campbell didn’t offer a blueprint for a united church. Instead, he presented the New Testament as a “constitution” – a notable word, just 20 years after the U.S. Constitution went into effect, laying the groundwork for the nation but requiring ongoing interpretation.

“He knew unity was a process,” said Paul Blowers, professor of church history at Emmanuel School of Religion and a co-editor for The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Eerdmans). “The foundation of unity is identification with Jesus Christ, but what does that entail? How much of a common core do you need? The first-century church didn’t have it perfect. There will always be opinions. Theology is inevitable. The question is how unity works with diversity.”

Thomas Campbell (1763-1854)
Thomas Campbell (1763-1854)

Campbell said Scripture was the final authority for Christians. Beyond that, the creeds and rites were valuable for teaching or expressing a common faith, but not as tests of whether someone was a true Christian.

“Forbearance was one of his favorite words,” said Dennis Helsabeck Jr., associate professor emeritus of history at Milligan College and co-author of Renewal for Mission: A Concise History of Christian Churches and Churches of Christ (Abilene Christian University Press). “He puts a lot of emphasis on patience. There’s a sense of unity in that, not in that we all understand in the same way.”

But unity was not Campbell’s main objective.

“Campbell was interested foremost in the mission of the church,” Helsabeck said. “Reconciliation with God was the ultimate goal. He decries the terrible effects of disunity, which endangers the mission of the church.”

“The Declaration and Address” served as a starting point for what grew into the Stone-Campbell Movement, named for its early leaders: Campbell and his son Alexander, eventually the movement’s best-known voice, and Barton W. Stone, another unity-minded Presbyterian in Kentucky.

This “restoration movement” evolved into three major church bodies: The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, and the Churches of Christ, sometimes called noninstrumental churches since they do not use musical instruments in worship. Together, these groups claim about 3.5 million members in the U.S. (Milligan College and Emmanuel School of Religion, both near Johnson City, Tenn., are affiliated with the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, which is also my church heritage.)

Campbell would find it sadly ironic to know his reform efforts mutated into yet more church groups that would divide and divide again. But he would be heartened to know his spiritual descendants have taken steps to reconcile in recent decades.

One example will occur tomorrow. To mark the bicentennial of “The Declaration and Address,” Christians from all streams of the Stone-Campbell Movement will gather in regional communion services around the world, an event collectively called the Great Communion. One service will be held in Seeger Chapel at Milligan College at 4 p.m., and is open to all Christians.

“We are pushed to deal with people who differ from us,” Blowers said. “That’s part of Christian discipleship. Can I share communion at the table with people who believe differently? Everyone needs to be reminded that Christianity is bigger than us and our congregations. Unity is not a luxury.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 3 Oct 2009.