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Essay with advice for applying for jobs at religious colleges

Jobs at Religious Colleges
April 17, 2013

My first year of graduate school, I gave the worst advice possible to a peer applying for an assistant professor’s job at a college founded by my religious denomination, the Mennonites. Although my colleague knew nothing about the Mennonites, nor believed himself religious in any way, he thought he could convince the institution’s hiring committee that he was the right candidate for the position.

"No problem," I remember telling him as he contemplated the short essay he needed to write. "Just let them know you honor the Mennonite value of peace and justice. Explain that you grew up in a Christian home. Mention something about your continued appreciation for those who are religious, even if you are agnostic."

I might as well have told him to grow a beard and learn some Pennsylvania Dutch, for all the good my suggestions would have done him. I honestly don’t remember whether he eventually took my advice or applied for the position. If I could recall his name, I would probably contact him to apologize profusely about raising his hopes with shoddy advice for a job that — given his profile — he would have never been offered anyway.

Now a decade and more into life as a faculty member at a Quaker institution, I have a clearer sense of what it means to apply for a job such as mine. Being raised in a religious home does not automatically qualify someone for employment at a college similar to my own, nor does merely "honoring" or "appreciating" the values upon which the religious institution was founded.

Instead, job applicants to religious institutions — especially those who continue to believe religious faith an integral part of their curriculum — need to show they not only understand the university’s mission, but are truly willing to affirm its doctrines and have those doctrines inform their faculty work. Judging from conversations I’ve had at academic conferences and on higher education online discussion forums, I imagine some folks are already calling foul. An institution’s decision to hire only those who affirm its doctrinal statements seems downright discriminatory to some; to others, a university curriculum shaped by religious doctrine appears contrary to the educational enterprise, and to the fundamental nature of academic freedom.

But institutions do indeed have this right legally, and academic freedom has its limitations in every institution, not just those founded on religious principles. Thus, job hopefuls who might argue they would "never apply to a college requiring me to sign a faith statement" — an assertion I’ve heard often — need not read further, because (of course!) you are free to make that choice, just as institutions are free to disregard those candidates who chafe against their doctrinal statements.

For people interested in a job at a religious institution, though, my primary word of advice is similar to that for any job applicant to a faculty position: have a fundamental understanding of the university to which you are applying and its mission, as well as a willingness to shape application material to reflect an ability to fit within that institution’s values.

This seems doubly important when seeking a job at a religious university, where the missions and values are often founded on the institution’s denominational heritage. Learning a little something about that heritage is important, too, especially once you land a phone or on-campus interview. If you are applying to a Friends institution like mine, for example, this probably does not mean knowing about the schisms that split the 19th-century Quaker church, or memorizing church polity, or even recognizing the many diverse conferences to which Quakers belong. You may not even need to know that the Quaker Oatmeal logo has nothing to do with the Society of Friends — though understanding the difference will probably help.

On the other hand, you may want to learn a little about George Fox, our university’s namesake and founder of the Quakers, and be able to articulate a few Quaker distinctives, and be open to discussing some of the ways Quaker thought and practice might shape campus culture. If you disagree in principle about some Quaker ideologies — if, for example, you think women are not called to be church leaders, or that pacifism is a moral value best held by cowards — you might want to explain how you will respect and uphold the institution’s values, despite your differences.

This will obviously take some time investment on the job seeker’s part, but applications tailored to a university’s mission and values will definitely stand out, increasing the chance that a hiring committee will consider your material more closely. When you’ve landed a phone or on-campus interview, understanding the ways an institution’s doctrinal statements shape its educational programs as well as its campus ethos will be even more crucial, as will acknowledging the important distinctions between one religious institution and another.

Because, of course, no two institutions, even within the same general religious tradition, will be the same. Applying to George Fox University will mean something far different than applying to Swarthmore or Bryn Mawr Colleges, even though those institutions also have Quaker roots. Similarly, some universities within the Lutheran or Roman Catholic traditions hold their church doctrines loosely, and don’t require faculty to sign statements of faith pledging fidelity to a particular world view, while others hew closely to the religious beliefs upon which their institutions were founded, and require their faculty members to do the same.

As you negotiate the application process, then, it’s important to acknowledge — and even speak with confidence — about those differences.

When you are applying to a religious institution, you might also want to investigate whether faculty members have to sign a faith statement, and whether you would feel comfortable doing so. Such faith statements differ vastly from institution to institution: some might require faculty members to affirm theological doctrines, like a belief in predestination; some might require professions of fidelity to a church and its polity; some might simply require faculty members to acknowledge, but not necessarily agree with, the faith heritage upon which the college was founded. A job applicant may need to interrogate herself about whether she could sign such a statement with integrity and walk away from those searches where the answer is "no," as painful as that might be in this very tight job market.

Although a university’s faith statement may make it seem as if it seeks a monolithic type of professor, this is emphatically not true for most places. Diversity of belief is still valued in most places, and being able to articulate how your beliefs could enhance a department’s work can make you stand out as a candidate. For example, a few years ago, one of our applicants emerged as the clear choice because she revealed, in her application material and face-to-face interviews, that her understanding of Catholicism fit well within our Quaker ethos, and that her research in Irish and women’s studies showed integration of her belief system with her discipline. These days, she’s successfully integrated Quaker, Irish, and women’s studies into a monograph about Virginia Woolf’s Quaker aunt, and is a prized member in a department full of Protestants who appreciate the ways her world view enhances and shapes their own.

Of course, there are institutions that only hire faculty from their own denominational heritages, or who put strict limitations on requirements for employment. In one dramatic instance, a former faculty member at George Fox terminated an on-campus interview at a famous East Coast evangelical college when the department chair demanded she return to her hotel room and change from slacks to a dress, the appropriate apparel for any female faculty member at the institution.

Unfortunately, such restrictions exist at some universities, and it’s important to comprehend what you’re facing as a job seeker before wading in to the application process too deeply. Knowing something about the campus ethos before you invest time in interviewing — visiting the college website, asking on forums about the university’s reputation, networking with others who are familiar with the institution — can probably save you the grief of showing up for an interview in an apparently unholy pair of slacks, or even of applying for a department whose members not only hold beliefs vastly different than your own, but refuse to see value in accepting those who are different.

As with any faculty position, the application and hiring process in religious institutions comes down to fit, something I address here. A hiring department needs to know its faculty members can fit within its faith tradition and the doctrines driving its mission; but at the same time, applicants need to know themselves whether they will fit comfortably within a department.

After all, when we offer you a job, we are extending a 10- or 20-year, or even careerlong commitment to you, to your work, and to the gifts you can offer our students. More than just appreciating or respecting the university’s values, we need to know that you can live them, and that you can live sympathetically with us — and our values — too.

 

Bio

Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University.

 

 

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