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Essay on interviews with church-related colleges

Interviewing at Church-Related Colleges

December 19, 2012

If you get an interview at the American Historical Association or another meeting with a church-related college, you need to do your homework. What kind of church-related college is it? A good place to start is Robert Benne's Quality With Soul. Benne identifies four different types of church-related colleges. I have charted my own course in this post, but have relied on some of Benne's classifications.

There are many schools that have historic connections with Protestant denominations. This, of course, does not mean that those connections will have any bearing on the hiring process or the AHA interview. For example, Duke University has a historic connection to the United Methodist Church, but this connection will play no factor in the search process. The same might be true of a place like Gettysburg College, a school with connections to the Lutheran Church. If you have an AHA interview with this kind of church-related school, there is no need to treat it any differently than you would an interview at a nonsectarian school or public university. You may not even realize that you are interviewing with a church-related school!

Other church-related schools take their church-relatedness a bit more seriously. Catholic schools, for example, might ask you if you have any problems with the Catholic mission of the university. In most cases, however, this issue will not be raised during the AHA interview. (It might be raised by an administrator during an on-campus visit). The only exception to this rule is the small number of Catholic colleges who only hire Catholic faculty. If these schools interview at the AHA (most will not), the committee will not only ask you if you are Catholic, but will want to know if you are a practicing Catholic. (Yes, a private school can ask such a question).

Some church-related schools are very concerned about having a "critical mass" of faculty who represent the specific religious tradition of the college or the Christian faith more generally. For example, a Lutheran school may try to make sure that at least 50 percent of their faculty members are Lutheran. A Baptist school may want a "critical mass" of Baptist professors. A Methodist school may want a majority of self-identified Christians.

If your religious faith (or lack thereof) does not fit with the denominational affiliation of a "critical mass" college it does not necessarily mean that you have no chance of landing the job. When interviewing at these schools you should consider two things:

First, as mentioned above in the context of Catholic schools, you may be asked to express your willingness to work at a school with a Christian mission. This may or may not come up in the context of an AHA interview. It all depends on the school.

Second, do not automatically assume that the members of the search committee or the members of the department at a "critical mass" school are on board with how the administration defines its Christian mission. I remember an interview with a church-related school that was making a conscious effort to fashion itself as a Christian (broadly defined) research university. When I sat down for the interview with two members of the history department, it became clear rather quickly that one of the interviewers was a strong supporter of this new mission and the other interviewer was quite hostile to it. It is hard to anticipate these things. Sometimes you just need to go with the flow and present yourself as a teacher and scholar.

Finally, you may have an interview with a self-consciously "Christian college." "Christian college" can be defined in many ways, but usually the term is used to describe a college that is affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). The CCCU is made up of colleges that require faculty to sign some kind of statement of Christian faith. This should not surprise you when it comes up in the interview. Most colleges, as part of the preliminary application process, will ask you to sign the institution's statement of faith and, in many cases, ask you to write an essay about how your faith informs your work as an academic.

All CCCU members are teaching colleges. You should thus prepare for the interview as if you are preparing for an interview with any teaching college. But there will also be a part of the interview where the search committee will want to talk about your "fit" with the Christian mission of the college. If you have made it this far, it is likely that you have already articulated some sense of your Christian faith and how it bears on what you do in your teaching and scholarship. The committee, however, will want to probe more deeply. They may ask you to elaborate further on the faith statement you wrote as part of the application. They may ask you to talk about how comfortable you would feel teaching at a school like this. If you attended a CCCU college as an undergraduate (a clear sign to a search committee that you might be a good "fit"), you should have no problem with any of this. You may even welcome this line of questioning.

It is important that you can show a search committee at a CCCU college that you are indeed a Christian and are seriously interested in teaching at a Christian college. This will require more on your part than simply saying "I don't have a problem with anything related to the Christian mission of your school." The committee will want to hear you talk positively about how you might fit. If you can find an opportunity to describe your religious life or spiritual pilgrimage (briefly), or talk about your church involvement, it will definitely help. Have you thought deeply about how to integrate your faith with your discipline? Are you even willing to do this? If not, you have virtually no chance of advancing to the campus visit. (Most CCCU institutions will ask you to write a faith-integration or "Christian scholarship" essay as part of the tenure process.)

CCCU colleges are looking for a good scholar-teacher who really wants to work at a school with a Christian mission. There are many Christian historians who could "fit" at a CCCU campus but would prefer to work at a big university or a nonsectarian institution.

There is a sense in which candidates for a position at a CCCU college must conceive of their academic vocation differently from the way they were trained in graduate school. The best faculty members at Christian colleges are academics who want to invest their lives (or part of their lives) in a Christian intellectual community. They can speak of a sense of "calling" to an academic life. This does not mean that Christian college professors sacrifice their research agenda or pursuit of professional development. Many Christian colleges offer a lot of professional development incentives and opportunities to pursue these kinds of things. (Some do not -- be sure to ask about this!). It does mean, however, that they are willing to think about their academic life as serving a larger purpose grounded in the college's Christian mission. If a candidate is a good scholar, a good teacher (especially), and can articulate this sense of vocation, there is a very good chance he or she will advance to an on-campus interview.

 

Bio

John Fea is chair and associate professor of history at Messiah College.

 

 

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