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.”
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.
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.